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Wild Irish Roses: Tales of Brigits, Kathleens, and Warrior Queens
ISBN: 1-57324-952-1
By: Trina Robbins

Review by: Nicolette Westfall

05/07

This small, compact book contains brief overviews of historically important Irish women. From pre-history warrior-goddesses like Morrigan and her sisters to more modern examples like Margaret Sanger and Scarlett O’Hara, the author presents many examples for the reader. A lightweight paper back, the book’s cover illustration, which depicts an Irish woman in gown, sword in hand, stepping on a man holding flowers, lets you know almost immediately that the stories aren’t going to be anywhere as dry as a first year university women’s history course.

The use of contemporary language and idioms does not in any way deflect from the colourful and moving stories told. Instead, they come off with a humorous edge. As mothers, women are pretty intuitive to things base senses can pick up, like life-threatening danger, which their men always ignore (they are, after all, just women). Perfect examples of such tragic male stubbornness are Grania’s Dermot and Deirdre’s Naoise. The battle of the sexes and gender role struggles are presented with an innate understanding of the biological and environmental influences on the women and the contexts they lived in. While the stories illicit chuckles, at the same time, reader nods her head in unspoken acknowledgement.

Not all insights are told with an amusing flavour. One of the more difficult biographies to cover is that of Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a. Mother Jones. The account carefully uses illustration documents and sensitive narration to educate the reader about the industrial poverty and horrendous working conditions Irish women and children faced in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A strong warrior-woman, she brought the fight for decent health and safety working conditions to American president Teddy Roosevelt, who ran with his tail between his legs.

Irish woman not only fought for others and what they believed in, they were also quite often adamant about choosing who or what they centred their lives around. Of particular interest are the women of William Butler Yeats’ era (and not because it’s Yeats being discussed). Women like Maude Gonne and Lady Gregory, who were able to present the respectable front while pursuing their own real love interests, whether it be other men or, in Maude’s case, activism.

Of course, a book about such issues as activism and women is not complete without bringing the discussion round to that oft-spoken topic, Christianity. For quite a problematic and complex subject, Robbins handles it with confidence and ease. From the start, she makes it clear that the pre-history stories of Celtic Irish goddesses and warriors has been recorded by Christian monks, which naturally brings about an added bias, which skewers the remaining stories to a degree. The result of her perspective gives both Celtic and Christian camps sympathy, while the fact that culture and many lives were lost or destroyed with the appearance and maintenance of Christianity in Ireland is not denied.

Wild Irish Roses is a great starter for those readers (like the reviewer) who are clueless about women in Irish history. We who have no previous exposure to Irish history other than to say we know that Ireland was the last place in the area that Christianity converted, there was some guy named St. Patrick, and they had a potato famine at one point— the collection provides us with an enormous amount of educational information. For those that already have a scholarly background on Irish women get a lively recount of a wide range of their favourite (and infamous) Irish women. Either way, the work is well worth the inexpensive purchase price.

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