Tag Archives: Irish Constitution

Why G.B. Shaw, feminists denounced 1937 ‘Eire’ constitution

Voters in the Republic of Ireland on March 8 will decide two proposed changes to the State’s 87-year-old Constitution. Both amendments are related to family life. The first will replace the clause describing women’s place as “within the home” with a new government commitment to value the work of all family care givers. The second will broaden the definition of the family to include all households with “durable relationships,” including the roughly one third of couples with children born out of wedlock.[1]See the current and proposed language.

In 1937, Irish leader Éamon de Valera proposed to update the 1922 Constitution that founded the Irish Free State, which he had opposed because it fell short of republican goals. His revised Constitution asserted full sovereignty for the 26 counties, which were renamed Eire, the Irish word for Ireland. As it widened the separation from Britain, Dev’s draft gave deference to the Catholic Church, confirming the longtime “Rome rule” suspicions of many Irish Protestants.

Since then, Ireland has dramatically modernized and secularized, especially in the past quarter century. Several amendments to the Constitution have removed language about the “special” role of the Church and penalties for blasphemy; while others have legalized divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion. And the 1937 language about the role of women has received increased attention.

Shaw in 1936.

This section also drew criticism at the time of its introduction, notably from Anglo-Irish author and playwright George Bernard Shaw. He complained “its attitude toward women is simply going back ages,” adding the passage was “worse than ridiculous.”[2]”G.B.S. Says De Valera Has Fascist Aims In ‘Eire'”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1937. Shaw continued:

De Valera’s new constitution, reactionary in its attitude toward women, is just another example of the world’s despair and revolt against democratic and parliamentary institutions which do nothing but talk, talk and get no action.  … It’s true that the work of women in the home is extremely important, and so, for that matter, is the work of men who maintain the home. But that is not sufficient reason for writing into the constitution that men should never be anything but breadwinners, and women nothing but home-workers. … Although the constitution generally appears to be modeled after that of the United States, it has a dash of Fascism in the provisions relating to women and marriage.

Two weeks after Shaw’s telephone interview with a Universal Service correspondent, Dáil Éireann TD Patrick McGilligan (Fine Gael-Dublin North-West) raised the celebrity’s author’s comments during a debate about the Constitution. This prompted a laugh from de Valera.

“He talks through his hat sometimes,” de Valera (Fianna Fáil-Clare), president of the Dáil’s executive council, said of Shaw.[3]See Dáil Éireann debate, May 13, 1937, Vol. 67, No. 3.

Then 54, de Valera was the New York City-born son of an Irish immigrant mother who relinquished the care of her two-year-old toddler to relatives in Ireland. Shaw, then 80, was born in Dublin but moved to London at age 19 and remained in England for the rest of his life. The two famous Irishmen shared a frequently antagonistic but generally good-humored relationship, as revealed in public spats and private correspondence before and after 1937.[4]Bernard Shaw. “Two Unpublished Letters To Eamon De Valera: With an Introduction by Brad Kent.” Shaw, vol. 30, 2010, pp. 27–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5325/shaw.30.1.0027. In 1945, Shaw famously defended de Valera for offering condolences to the German minister in Dublin upon hearing of Hitler’s death. The playwright, in a letter to The Times, London, described the politician as “a champion of the Christian chivalry we are all pretending to admire. Let us recognize a noble heart even if we must sometimes question its worldly wisdom.’’

Feminist criticism

The Dáil approved de Valera’s draft Constitution in mid-June 1937 by a vote of 62 to 48. De Valera placed it on the ballot of the national elections set for a few weeks later for ratification.

De Valera in 1937.

In addition to Shaw, “a minority of vocal activists” opposed the clause about women in the home.[5]Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation Of Ireland. [New York: The Overlook Press, 2005] 421. They included feminists such as Louie Bennett, Hannah Sheehy-Skiffington, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of 1916 Rising martyr Tom Clarke. Mary Hayden of University College, Dublin, and the Women’s Graduate Association, also protested.[6]Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History. [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010] 450.

Irish journalist R.M. O’Hanrahan, in a pre-plebiscite analysis distributed by the North American Newspaper Alliance, noted these college and university educated women were “up in arms” about the language that referenced their gender. While these women advised a “no” vote on the Constitution, “the effect of this vote cannot be very marked as the time for organizing opposition meetings is rather short,” O’Hanrahan predicted.[7]“Women In Irish Election”, The Boston Globe, June 28, 1937.

He was proven correct. Historian Thomas Bartlett has observed, “in the crucial areas of paternalist control they failed to make any impression. It is clear that many women and mothers agreed with de Valera’s construction of their role” because the Constitution won approval with 56.5 percent in favor to 43.5 percent against. Subsequent protests by feminists in 1938 and 1943 failed to remove the offending language.[8]Bartlett, Ireland, 450.

But the Constitution’s passage was “not very convincing,” de Valera biographer David McCullagh has argued. The leader’s claim that a majority of the Irish people supported his update was “an implicitly partitionist reading,” since nobody in the six counties of Northern Ireland could vote. Observers then and now agree they would have rejected it and changed the outcome. Just over 1.3 million people cast ballots in the referendum, nearly 76 percent of registered voters, but only 38.5 percent of the total electorate voted in favor.[9]David McCullagh, De Valera (Vol. II), Rule, 1932-1975. [Dublin: Gill Books, 2018] 134.

The revised Constitution took effect at the end of 1937. “It is there now and it is better that people should get to like it the more they study it,” de Valera said.[10]Ibid. In fact, the longer the Irish people have lived under the Constitution, the less they have liked it.

References

References
1 See the current and proposed language.
2 ”G.B.S. Says De Valera Has Fascist Aims In ‘Eire'”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1937.
3 See Dáil Éireann debate, May 13, 1937, Vol. 67, No. 3.
4 Bernard Shaw. “Two Unpublished Letters To Eamon De Valera: With an Introduction by Brad Kent.” Shaw, vol. 30, 2010, pp. 27–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5325/shaw.30.1.0027.
5 Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation Of Ireland. [New York: The Overlook Press, 2005] 421.
6 Thomas Bartlett, Ireland: A History. [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010] 450.
7 “Women In Irish Election”, The Boston Globe, June 28, 1937.
8 Bartlett, Ireland, 450.
9 David McCullagh, De Valera (Vol. II), Rule, 1932-1975. [Dublin: Gill Books, 2018] 134.
10 Ibid.