Opinion: Irish women's stories from this tragic era remain underrepresented and a number of tragedies are still hidden

By Asmae OurkiyaMary Immaculate College

It is important to look at environmental tragedies such as famines through a different lens in order to determine the impacts of such calamities on women and marginalised communities. During times of starvation, it is women who suffer the most. Irish women were either abandoned by their husbands and left to care for the children, pushed to prostitution as the only way to survive or shipped to Australia. Yet, their stories during the mid-19th century remain underrepresented and a number of tragedies are still hidden.

Ecofeminism is one lens to use to examine the Great Famine. It's a movement that emerged in the 1970s in several parts of the world where women fought to protect the environment from capitalist environmental degradation and refused to be victims of oppression and exploitation. While some ecofeminists claim that women are biologically closer to nature, I believe this only reinforces the patriarchal ideology of domination and restricts ecofeminism's potency.

From RTÉ Lyric FM's Culture File, Maureen O’Connor on how ecofeminism helps us to understand the work of Tim Robinson

Do we ever wonder why planet earth is feminized by calling it "mother" earth? Do we ever compare different forms of oppression such as colonisation and resource exploitation? Do we ever question the origins of the mastery of nature? Are we aware of the similarities between the commodifiable features attributed to both women and nature such as fertility, passivity, and nurturing? Do we ever question why women are reduced to their wombs and are shamed worldwide if they are deemed infertile? And most importantly, do we ever wonder what happens to women and marginalised families in rural areas when corporations take over lands? 

Movements such as the Chipko Andolan in India or the Green Belt movement in Kenya are strong examples which demonstrate women’s resistance to exploitation. Ecofeminism developed in academia as well and has known several waves and branches. The main concepts of this theory is that the domination of women and the environment are interconnected so the liberation of one depends on the liberation of the other. This calls for an ideology that deconstructs the bodily similarities between females and the natural.

Once the blight destroyed the potato crops during the famine, the typical rural bean a tí faced changes in practices related to food production and consumption. She shifted from a culture revolving around creativity in preparing food, saving supplies and kitchen work to creativity in keeping her children alive. During the Great Hunger, some women kept their children in bed for as long as possible. Others fed their families the potato seeds to survive temporarily knowing that they will starve on the long term. Many defied the stay-at-home boundaries and traveled for miles searching for food. Unfortunately, some women went mad and were pushed to extreme options such as cannibalism by feeding on their loved ones’ dead bodies. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's The History Show, Myles Dungan explores how the Great Famine swept through Ireland and changed the country forever

The need for food in order to survive led young girls and women to opt for tough decisions. Between 1848 and 1850, hundreds of teenage girls were sent by boat from Ireland to Australia under the Earl Grey Scheme.  These girls had to be "imbued with religion and morally pure", meaning virgins and obedient, ready to serve as wives to the men they were about to marry. What seems to be a relief programme from Australia, and what some might consider as a support from the Australian government, was in fact an exploitation of young girls’ bodies to serve a heteronormative society’s reproduction goals. 

The inequality between genders when it comes to work opportunities drove a number of women to prostitution. Despite that, girls were taught sexual abstinence by the Catholic Church and were forced to adopt self-control, the number of "fallen women" seemed to have risen between 1845 and 1850. In 1847, Colonel More’s writings described Newbridge as "infested with prostitutes". This means that Irish women’s only way to escape starvation to death was by selling their bodies. 

From RTÉ Archives, excerpt from 1992 Radharc series When Ireland Starved

Unfortunately, the "fallen women" who were caught were sent to the Magdalene asylums to repent and work on their reformation. If we dig into the details of what used to happen in these places, we can describe the atrocities in two terms: unpaid labour and human trafficking. Women were forced to work in the Magdalene laundries without any indemnifications. The new-born babies of women who were pregnant during their admission were sent for adoption or sold to the highest bidders in America.

The girls that were shipped to Australia were referred to as "breeders". The women who found refuge in prostitution were called "fallen women". Women were left to starve to death and the ones who were kept in institutions or shipped to other countries had to pay a capitalist price: the exploitation of their bodies. This is why it is important to dismantle the natural attributions of women so as not perceive them as potentially commodifiable. 

Asmae Ourkiya is a PhD student in Ecofeminism at Mary Immaculate College

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ