Finding the bold, brilliant and bad women in Irish History – an Interview with Marian Broderick

This week we had a chat with the brilliant Marian Broderick, author of Wild Irish Women and Bold, Brilliant and Bad.

Photograph by City Headshots Dublin

Could you tell us about your experience researching extraordinary women from Irish history for both Wild Irish Women and Bold, Brilliant and Bad?

Researching history is an absorbing experience – but getting lost in the research is a risk known to every writer. To research Bold, Brilliant and Bad I mined reputable internet resources, walked around graveyards, galleries and museums, lived in libraries and read everything I could. Quite often I would start the day by pursuing a woman’s history – for example the legend of the murderer Darkey Kelly – become lured down a fascinating side road to gruesome executions in the seventeenth century, and spend the whole day reading about that instead!

What surprised and/or impressed you about these women?

My women are all multi-layered individuals. Many of them took their courage in their hands and flouted the conventions of their society one way or another during the course of their lives. This is true of women throughout history, but doubly so for Irishwomen, and trebly so for Irishwomen from less well-off backgrounds, such as Rosie Hackett and Kay McNulty. I was also interested to note just how many of these formidable women had had the disadvantage of losing a parent through death or desertion at an early age. These include Lizzie Le Blond, Dr Emily Winifred Dickson, Dr Dorothy Stopford Price, Sheila Tinney, Nellie Cashman, Carmel Snow and Eileen Gray.

Who are your favourite women in Irish history and why?

I have a particular fondness for the feisty working- and lower-middle-class women, such as Margaret Skinnider, Rosie Hackett, Margaret Hassan, Nellie Cashman, Winifred Carney, Kay Mills and Anne O’Brien. These people overcame obstacles to achieve prominence in their chosen fields.

When you finished Wild Irish Women did you feel that you had just scratched the surface?

History is so often the story of male history – as the fantastic website points out so well. The challenge is that women have often not been recorded and their memory celebrated in as public a way as men. They’ve often not made the newspapers or had ballads or biographies written about them. There are few photographs. Ireland is full of women from history who have been notable in their own times, but whose stories are only known locally by word of mouth, or in folk or family memory. When people who knew them die off, their stories can die off too. Not all of the women in Bold, Brilliant and Bad have suffered this fate, but some are quite close to it. I hope the book encourages everyone to mine their local resources to find and preserve women’s stories.

Did you take a different approach to writing Bold, Brilliant and Bad, compared with your approach to Wild Irish Women?

I had organised more than seventy-five Wild Irish Women into thematic groups, covering anything from political radicals and revolutionaries to nuns, artists and scientists.  In Bold, Brilliant and Bad I have revisited this format, but introduced new sections, such as sportswomen and singers – not to mention notorious Irishwomen who lived on the wrong side of the law.

How does it make you feel to highlight these amazing women?

I feel like I’m bringing them back to life – or rather that they’re always waiting in the wings, but I’m one of those who is shining a light on them and their stories. It’s a privilege to do it. I want these women’s stories to act as starting points for readers’ own interests and research. There are so many corners of Irish history that can be explored.

Bold, Brilliant and Bad covers a wide variety of categories of accomplishments. What was your favourite topic to research and write?

It’s a toss-up between the revolutionaries and the criminals. The devil has all the best tunes, or so they say, and the chaotic lives of the murderers and blackmailers certainly made for compelling reading. It was also hard not to be impressed with Ireland’s revolutionary political and labour activists. I also enjoyed writing about some of the more bonkers women, such as Lillian Bland and Lizzie le Blond.

If you could travel back to any time and place in history where would you go and why?

The answer to this varies, but currently I would love to go back to medieval Ireland, to witness how ordinary people’s lives were in the time of the Brehon laws. I would also have to get dressed up and attend one of Ireland’s great royal assemblies with its races, rituals and music. I suspect this would only work out well for me if I were a high-status woman with plenty of gold and cattle.

Have you uncovered any fascinating facts on Bold/Brilliant/Bad women from your own family history (aside from yourself)?

During my research into emigration to America I found out that my maternal grandmother, who was born in Boston in 1898, very unusually came back with her family to their home place in Clonmany, Co Donegal. She then emigrated to work in America as a teenager, as did her sister and so many others, but then recrossed the Atlantic yet again as a thirty-year-old to elope with her childhood sweetheart, my grandfather.

Marian Broderick , August 2018

Wild Irish Women is available to buy here and in all good bookshops

Bold, Brilliant and Bad is available to pre-order here and will be available to buy in all good bookshops from 10th September 2018.