On the keynote lecture “Revolution in the Rearview Mirror: Irish Autobiographies of the Revolutionary Years”, by Karen Steele

One of the keynote speakers Prof. Karen Steele delivered the Harendralal Basak Memorial
Lecture on “Irish Autobiographies of the Revolutionary Years”. In the light of approaching
centenary of Irish War of Independence there has been an increased focus on the Irish
Revolution, such as the 2016 season ‘Waking the Nation’ at the Abbey theatre in Dublin.
However, Prof. Steele pointed out that there has been a persistent cultural amnesia regarding
women in the revolution. She talked about political activism of Irish revolutionaries through
a critical reading of their autobiographies, especially those of women, as revolutionary life
was deeply gendered. A recurring theme in her lecture was the contrast between the
autobiographies of men and women involved in revolution – while men viewed their own
developments in terms of the nation’s destiny, women’s life stories formed the marginalized,
non-canonical counter-histories of colonial modernity. Solitary exploits were pivotal to men’s
autobiographies, but women’s writings celebrated their sister revolutionaries’ achievements.
For women revolutionaries “I” is transformed into “we” in these relational feminist accounts
of sisterhood.
Prof. Steele emphasised the role of dress and appearance in political trajectories of women
revolutionaries’, delineating them as “veiled rebels” whose ostentatious femininity shrouded

their political agency. Constance Markievicz, a female leader of Easter Rising 1916, dressed
in military clothes and plumed hat to show solidarity to the revolutionaries, and was
described by Ella Young as “resplendent in citizen army uniform.” Margaret Skinnider, who
dressed as a boy during the Rising, used dress as political tool as well as a method of
repudiating gender norms. Maud Gonne, often compared to a “goddess”, was better known
for her beauty than her political thoughts. Prof. Steele explicated how women took advantage
of this perception of dress as indicator of class and feminine passivity to carry messages and
arms, and also to avoid arrest. She claimed that dress had more of a political significance for
women than for men during Revolutionary Years.
In the rather patriarchal environment of Irish Revolution, women were excluded from
organisations like Irish Republican Brotherhood, but they formed other societies – such as
Women’s Council of Irish Volunteers, Irish Women’s Franchise League, etc. – which became
a space for mentoring, emotional support and collective effort. In an attempt to represent their
personal and interiorised narratives women revolutionaries used memory as a creative tool to
counteract official history, and to reassess gender and cultural norms. Aside from
autobiographies in English, Irish language memoirs of women – like that of Peig Sayers –
serve as a transformative aesthetic accomplishment. Prof. Steele’s lecture was an extremely
informative and immensely enjoyable exploration of a multiplicity of experiences, values and
ideologies.
During a tour of the Presidency Museum, Prof. Steele was intrigued by the similarities
between Irish War of Independence and the anti-colonial struggles in Bengal, and expressed
her interest in further investigating this thought-provoking parallel. She was also fascinated
by the excerpts from articles of eminent scholars published in Presidency Magazines over the
last century. She wondered at the bilingual nature of the magazine, and speculated about how
it adapted coloniser’s language while still sustaining the native tongue. Since Prof. Steele’s
engaging lecture was largely about resisting cultural amnesia, her visit to Presidency Museum
was significant as Presidency University is also trying to preserve its heritage and carry its
legacy forward.

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