The rabbit holes of Women’s History Month 2023
As is our (nearly) annual tradition, we committed ourselves to creating four new Wikipedia articles for Women’s History Month. Our plan for 2023 was to research and write about:
- Kathleen Goodfellow, Cumann na mBan member and writer
- Pearl Phelan, pioneer of hospice care in Ireland
- Kathleen Curran, 1st female harbourmaster in Ireland
- Martha Craig, explorer and writer
We started with Pearl Phelan, aka Sr Joseph Ignatius, a pioneer of hospice care in Ireland. Pearl had been featured in Clodagh Finn and Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland’s Our Keys to the City but didn’t have a Wikipedia page of her own. Using the book as a starting point, we delved into the Irish Newspaper Archives to find contemporary articles about Pearl, who shared a People of the Year Award in 1987. We also had the valuable assistance of Lee Dillon, a niece of Pearl’s who was able to help with any questions we had along the way. It was a challenge finding an image of Pearl and we had to figure our way around ‘fair use’ (thanks to @RestlessCurator). As an open platform, Wikipedia much prefers to use freely licenced images but in the absence of one we used a very low res version of a scan of a photo in a now defunct newspaper (the Sunday Press).
In fact, it was a challenge finding free images for any of the women we picked this year. Kathleen Goodfellow, Cumann na mBan member, writer and benefactor, was a lifelong friend of artist Estella Solomons. Estella painted her several times, but these images are still subject to copyright, which lasts 70 years after the creator’s death (in her case 1968). We discovered Kathleen through the exhibition of Estella’s work Still Moments at the National Gallery in October. There were portraits of Kathleen, references to her in relation to The Dublin Magazine, which Estella’s husband edited, and a copy of her book Three Tales of the Times (as Michael Scot), written in the revolutionary period. But a quick google revealed little and we decided to investigate further. Kathleen now has her own page, sadly without a photo. There is a plaque commemorating her and Estella at Morehampton Road Wildlife Sanctuary, which Kathleen left to An Taisce, so next time we’re in Dublin we’ll grab a photo of that.
Another Kathleen was next on our list, as we believed Galway’s Kathleen Curran was Ireland’s first female harbour master. She was hailed as such in 1951, when she took on the combined roles of secretary, collector and harbour master of the Port of Galway. No matter how good she may have been at the job(s), the Port Authority made it clear that it was temporary while they looked for a man! We were all set to give Kathleen her flowers, when Sharon Slater, author of 100 Women of Limerick, pointed out that a certain Margaret Moloney had taken on that role in Glin Harbour in 1918! Margaret had also been hailed in her lifetime as Ireland’s/the World’s First/Only/Oldest Female Harbour Master but her harbour was much smaller than Kathleen’s, so we figured they both deserved kudos and started researching their articles.
One of the first things we did was contact the National Maritime Museum of Ireland to check if there was a definitive record kept of the first female harbour master in Ireland, or if there was an agreed definition we could work from. No joy, but the very helpful librarian Brian Ellis was intrigued by the search. And so was his wife Lucille, who did some digging of her own and came up with an even earlier ‘harbour mistress’, Ellen Fitzell, who inherited the role from her husband in 1911 in Saleen Quay, Co Kerry.
Not to be outdone, Sharon managed to turn up a harbour mistress in the 1901 census in Antrim. Thanks to the gap in census records (once again, we are sending slaps back through the year to the geniuses who burned down the Public Records Office), we can’t tell when Mary Corrigan took the job on but she was in charge of the Lower Bann Waterways until her death in 1907, when her sister Elizabeth took up the mantle. Then we turned up another Antrim harbour mistress, Alice Murphy, in the 1960s and 70s. (We possibly could have turned up more Northern Irish harbour mistresses, but the PRONI archive is a shakedown, demanding 50p a view of each record). In 2016, Capt Catriona Dowling was hailed “the first female harbour master on the island of Ireland” when she took on Warrenpoint Harbour, Northern Ireland’s second biggest port.
It began to appear as a fine tradition of female harbour masters on the island of Ireland, rather than a rare event. The reason each woman is hailed as first is that no one has thought it important enough to keep an official record of it. So we’ve added a wee discussion about the ‘first female harbour master’ to both Kathleen’s and Margaret’s articles in the hope that the next time a woman takes on this important job, there is some recognition of those who went before her. There wasn’t enough information on the earlier harbour mistresses to create a page for each of them, but we have named and acknowledged each one on both the Wikipedia articles. How’s that for a bit of writing women back into history? #WeCanEdit
Because of the archival rabbit holes we kept disappearing down while researching our harbour masters, poor Martha Craig didn’t quite get finished by the end of of Women’s History Month. Martha was a radical who believed in land reform in Ireland to “cure the country of ‘landlordism'”, which is sadly topical again. Researching this explorer, scientist and writer from Co Antrim for our fifth article (of four), it turns out there are parts of her life that require a more complex reading than a Wikipedia article would do justice to.
It’s possible that she explored areas of Canada then considered “wild” as they were unceded First Nations territories, with the aide of ‘Indian’ guides. She claimed to have been made Princess Ye-wa-ga-no-nee by the “Labrador Indian chiefs” and toured the US, Canada and Europe in aboriginal garb. She also claimed to be a reincarnated native princess called Meta. Her lectures described her explorations and expounded her off-the-wall scientific theories based on her observations. She claimed Newton’s theory of gravity was wrong because the Aurora Borealis was actually “vortexian currents” springing from the Earth. She’s been retrospectively described as a ‘charlatan’ who engaged in ‘red-face’.
Let’s just say she’s a tad problematic. But should she have a Wikipedia page? We think so. She was certainly notable at the time and her local community recently erected a plaque commemorating her. So we’ve started her article with the information available and we’ve invited Wikipedia editors who may know more than us and who can bring the perspective of the communities she engaged with to contribute to the article.
Before we write a word of a Wikipedia article, we always do a feck-load of research. As academics and educators, we value a properly referenced article and, in fact, Wikipedia only accepts reliable sources. We’re very grateful to all who contributed their time, sources and research to help us create our WHM quota of articles. It takes a village, an archive or ten, and the patience of a saint to navigate them.
Clear, C. (2013). Woman’s Life magazine and women’s lives in Ireland in the 1950s. Saothar, 38, 73–81
My Summer Outings in Labrador, Martha Craig, Cosmopolitan Magazine, July 1905, p325. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x002743352&view=1up&seq=329&q1=craig
Doran, Beatrice (2021). From the Grand Canal to the Dodder Illustrious Lives. Chicago: The History Press.
First lady of the Estuary, Martin Byrnes, Limerick Leader, 28 March 1998
Gilliand, Alison and Finn, Clodagh (2022). Her keys to the city : honouring the women who made Dublin. Dublin: Four Courts Press. pp. 167–169.
Gittins, Estelle (2016-01-08). “Vita brevis, ars longa”. Changed Utterly. Retrieved 2023-03-18.
Huenemann, Karyn (2018-10-27). “Martha Craig: Scientist, Author, Charletan?”. Canada’s Early Women Writers: Authors lists. Retrieved 2023-04-01.
Ireland Loses its Only Woman Harbour Master, Limerick Leader 29 June 1959
Murphy, M. J. 2017. ‘Kathleen B. Curran, 1912-1995: The World’s First Female Harbour Master’. Journal of the Old Tuam Society, 14.
Nevin (2016-08-08). “NALIL – North Antrim Local Interest List: Martha Craig (1866-1950) – a Sesquicentennial Commemoration”. NALIL – North Antrim Local Interest List. Retrieved 2023-04-01.
Nix, Des (29 November 1987). “The miracle worker”. Sunday Press.
Slater, Sharon (2022). 100 Women of Limerick. Ormston House. p206-207.