She had some life. Nowadays she’s best known as a historian, but Dorothy Macardle (1889–1958) was an extraordinary figure in Irish history during the first half of the twentieth century.
She was a revolutionary, prisoner, political activist, reporter, broadcaster, school teacher, lecturer, feminist, humanitarian and student of the occult. Pause for breath.
She was also a leading campaigner for civil liberties in 1950s Ireland, when it was neither profitable nor popular. AND managed to write plays, short stories and several outstanding Gothic novels. Yet she was an unlikely and unusual republican, to put it mildly.
She grew up in a wealthy Catholic family in Dundalk. Her mother was an English Unionist, and her father was chairman of the Macardle Moore brewery, the oldest in Ireland.
The town used to employ thousands in its rail, shoemaking, tobacco and brewing industries at their peak. All gone now (the Macardle Moore Brewery was eventually gobbled up by the Guinness empire in the late 1960s, and Macardles ale is now brewed by Diageo in St James’s Gate). But I digress.
Dorothy was packed off to Dublin in her teens to Alexandra College – a predominantly Protestant girls school that was then located at Earlsfort Terrace. She went on to the nearby University College Dublin.
In the city she met many prominent nationalists including Maud Gonne (and lived for a time in her house on Stephen’s Green) and George (AE) Russell. She became deeply involved in the republican movement while teaching English back at Alexandra College, while forging a parallel career as a playwright.
She joined Cumann na mBan in 1917 and during the War of Independence worked as a publicist and journalist for Erskine Childers’s newspaper, The Republic. She also founded the Irish White Cross, which worked for the relief of victims of violence.
In the Civil War she took the anti-Treaty side and was working on a paper called Irish Freedom when she was arrested. She served six months in Mountjoy and Kilmainham until she was released on health grounds.
In 1926 she quit Sinn Fein to join Éamon de Valera’s new Fianna Fail party. She was a member of its first national executive and its director of publicity, and a close confidante of Dev – and one of his staunchest supporters for a time.
‘The Irish Republic’
Nowadays she’s best known for The Irish Republic, her monumental study of the struggle for independence from Easter 1916 to the ceasefire of May 1923. It was generally regarded as a semi-official republican account of the turbulent time.
As she recalled in her witness statement from 1950, now online in the military archives:
Some time in 1925 Mr de Valera asked me to undertake the writing of a history. Having lost my post at Alexandra Collage on my arrest, and being unwilling to ask my father to subsidise this work, since he was a supporter of the Cosgrave government, I accepted a small salary – I think it was £2.10 a week – from Sinn Fein, and began the work. I immediately realised the unsatisfactory position of a writer on a controversial issue who is an employee of a party. After three months, coming into control of a private income, I paid back the total sum received and undertook the completion of the book as a private enterprise. As the work proceeded, I was exceedingly thankful to be a free agent.
When Fianna Fail entered the Dail she severed all party connections and threw herself into finishing The Irish Republic. It was first published in 1937.
Stocks of the book were later destroyed in a London warehouse during a Luftwaffe bombing raid, though it went on to be reprinted several times.
(Minor tangent: At least it didn’t suffer the ignominy of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. By the outbreak of the war At Swim had sold scarcely more than 240 copies. When the Luftwaffe bombed Longman’s offices in London in December 1940, almost all the unsold copies were incinerated; it took another two decades before O’Brien’s masterpiece was on the shelves again in significant numbers.)
During the 1930s Macardle also became a strong supporter of the League of Nations, where she worked as a journalist in Geneva. She had strong affinities with the pre-war Czechoslovak Republic and warned of the dangerous rise of fascism in Europe, taking issue with Dev’s flavour of neutrality.
She and Dev were already falling out over Fianna Fail’s reactionary policies on censorship, compulsory Irish in schools and legislation restricting women in employment.
The final nail in the coffin was the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann. It downgraded the status of women (basically saying “a woman’s place is in the home”). In November 1937 she founded the Women’s Social and Political League to oppose the new constitution.
The 1940s and 1950s
When war broke out she moved to London to work with refugees and broadcast with the BBC. In the late 1940s she reached a rapprochement with Dev and Fianna Fail, but continued to speak out against the State’s draconian censorship.
During this time she travelled widely through post-war Europe and became a supporter of the UN’s humanitarian effort with refugee children. She wrote Children of Europe: A Study of the Children of Liberated Countries, now regarded as a landmark in early Holocaust studies.
Her first novel, originally titled Uneasy Freehold, came out in 1941. It was filmed in 1944 as The Uninvited and became a cult movie (83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). She wrote three further novels between then and 1953.
In 1951 she became president of the Irish Association for Civil Liberties, the forerunner of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the human rights watchdog.
When she died of cancer in 1958 she had a state funeral; her coffin was draped in the Irish tricolour with a guard of honour mounted by IRA veterans of the Four Courts garrison. Those in attendance included the President, Taoiseach de Valéra and members of the Oireachtas.
As her biographer Nadia Clare Smith puts it:
Dorothy Macardle was an accomplished and successful writer in twentieth-century Ireland whose engagement with global events and international currents of thought interacted with her Irish republican thinking.
“A sophisticated and liberal nationalist and internationalist, her career challenges the related notions that Irish women disengaged from public life between the 1920s and the 1960s and that Irish republicans in the Free State period were simply xenophobic nationalists unconcerned about world events.
Up to now copies of The Uninvited were like the proverbial gold dust, but next week it is to be republished by Tramp Press. Even if you have an original copy, it’s well worth grabbing the reissue for its introduction by Luke Gibbons.
The book launch in Dublin is on Friday 13 November at 6.30 pm in the Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar. Free admission, all welcome, maybe even free gargle too.