Imust confess, that until Constance – my dear cousin who was my close friend in our early years – asked me to speak at this weekend School, I had never heard of Dorothy Macardle. But I suspect I am far from alone. This significant figure has, to a considerable extent, faded from view. And because her life was fascinating and creative and an example to us all, it is good that this Society has been formed to honour her memory. And it is absolutely right then it should be based here in her native Dundalk.
As I do not like to talk about issues about which I know little, I have done some homework. I read Dorothy’s book The Irish Republic over Christmas. It is subtitled ‘A documentary chronicle of the Anglo-Irish conflict and the partition of Ireland with a detailed account of the period 1916 – 1923’. It is 932 Whilst in England, Macardle became disillusioned with the hostility to Ireland and Home Rule, and felt that those in power failed to uphold essential ideals of freedom and justice for Ireland. pages long and has a preface by Eamon De Valera – to whom Dorothy was close for most of her life. It is De Valera’s version of those years, but nevertheless a work of considerable scholarship and a worthwhile read. It is an objective and thorough account of the historical period and was published by the Left Book Club when there was no other published work on the republican view of these years. It was widely read in Ireland.
And when it comes to De Valera’s role in the Civil War and its aftermath, I found myself – like Tim Pat Coogan when writing his biography – feeling critical of De Valera, which I think demonstrates that it is not simply a work of propaganda. According to her biographer she spent a decade working on this book.
I next read Nadia Clare Smith’s biography of Dorothy, which Peter Beresford Ellis castigates. I found it useful in outlining the story of her life. The author theorises strongly and repeatedly that Dorothy did not get on with her mother, who was a British nationalist, and suggests that cold, uncaring mothers occur repeatedly in her fiction. Her father was an Irish Home Ruler and they were a wealthy Dundalk family, owners of Macardle’s Brewery– now I understand, owned by Diageo. It is very interesting to follow Dorothy’s development as she went from privileged Dundalk family, to a degree in literature in Dublin in a predominantly Unionist college and then a teacher training qualification. Few women had the opportunity to study at this level in those years and her mother was opposed to her doing so because she believed it would damage her marriage prospects. This was when Dorothy first came in contact with the growing feminist and women’s suffrage movement and became an ardent cultural nationalist. She then spent two years in Stratford on Avon where she worked on Shakespeare projects and as secretary for the teachers conference. Whilst in England, she became disillusioned with its hostility to Ireland and Home Rule, and felt that those in power failed to uphold essential ideals of freedom and justice for Ireland.
She was in England in 1916 but came back to Ireland as the mood turned to support for the Uprising. She became strongly involved in theatrical and nationalist circles in Dublin and wrote a number of plays. She joined Cumann na MBan and became close to a number of prominent women Republicans. She went on to join Sinn Fein and supported the anti-treaty forces in the Civil War She was arrested in 1922 in Sinn Fein Headquarters and participated in a women prisoners hunger strike. In 1926 she supported De Valera in his change of mind on abstentionism and was elected to the executive and became Director of Publicity of the newly established Fianna Fail.
In a different mode and somewhat surprisingly, in the 1920’s she became interested in the spirit world and participated in seances. Such activity became increasingly popular in those years as people who lost relatives in the war tried to try to make contact. Dorothy lost a brother in the First World War. This remained an abiding interest of Dorothy’s which is reflected in her novels.
In September 1935 Dorothy went to Geneva to cover sessions of the League of Nations where De Valera was presiding. She became a fervent supporter of the League of Nations and became a real internationalist, though her writing on the Abyssinian crisis talked of them “waiting for the white man’s civilisation to scatter their darkness” but added “too much was symbolised by those powerful figures facing that small, quiet, dark skinned man”. It was in her support of the League of Nations that she talked of being “an unrepentant propagandist”.
And then during the Second World War, Dorothy worked in London strongly supporting the exiled Czechoslovakian Macardle, as a member of Sinn Fein, supported the anti-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War. She was arrested in 1922 and imprisoned, participating in a women prisoners hunger strike.government. She disliked living in London but wanted to contribute to anti-fascism and humanitarian work. She became involved in work on behalf of central and eastern European refugees who had fled their Nazi occupied countries. In this time she added to her enormously prolific record of journalism, books, novels and plays by doing some talks for the BBC North American service where it was thought her soft Irish burr might be more acceptable than a BBC English accent. She also and did a tour of the US in 1939. Her novel The Uninvited was a best seller and the film version was released by Paramount in the US and Britain in 1944.
Dorothy returned to Ireland in 1945 and began researching and writing her humanitarian book on the children of post-war Europe. She travelled throughout Europe to meet with leaders of child-welfare organisations and also interviewed doctors, teachers and child psychologist. The book provides a comprehensive account of the suffering of the children– and therefore people – of Europe during and after the Second World War. Again, it is a remarkable work of scholarship which recounts the way in which the Nazis worked to shape the views of the children of Germany; and their approach in different countries– Nordics intending to be allies and Poles and others intended for slave labour. She summarises the resistance, the suffering and starvation of people across the continent, including of course worst of all the treatment of Jewish children. She extended her coverage to the suffering of the children of Germany after the war. She focuses on the importance of the work of the UN agencies and also organisations like Save the Children and Girls Guides that helped to bring in supplies which enabled many starving children to survive. She also pays attention to the growing understanding of child psychologists on the best way to care for children traumatised by war and suffering and separation from their families.
Dorothy’s commitment to humanitarian principles and needs, speaks to the suffering of our times. It has been estimated that by May 1945 there were 14.5 million uprooted people in Europe. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees “We are now witnessing the highest level of displacement on record. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under 18”. We should work urgently at the present time to spread support for Dorothy’s values.
Having read both of Dorothy’sDuring the War, Macardle lived in London and became involved in work on behalf of central and eastern European refugees who had fled their Nazi-occupied territories. major non-fiction books, I decided I should read some of her fiction. I felt unsympathetic to her ghost stories but thought I should at least witness the quality of her writing. I therefore obtained a copy of The Uninvited. Much to my surprise I enjoyed the book and found her ghost story credible and gripping.
I am leaving these various books with Constance should anyone wish to read them.
So I come to my conclusion about Dorothy Macardle and what she has to teach us. I’m sure the founding of the Dorothy Macardle Society is not just about hero worship. We surely want to learn from the best she has to teach. And in my view the best of her is an escape from the privilege of a narrow upbringing, and then her friendships and integrity which brought her to feminism and Republicanism. But unlike the wave of nationalism we are experiencing now, she was not satisfied with narrow nationalism and became a committed internationalist. There is an important point here, nationalism can stand for self rule and dignity for all the children of the nation and a belief that all people are equally entitled or it can lead to the kind of nationalism and identity politics that is proliferating now, which sees one’s own nation as superior and has a hostile attitude to non-national. Dorothy’s nationalism is the example that we should emulate and celebrate.
And we should also celebrate her commitment to universal humanitarian principles. Having written for the Irish Press, not just about theatre and cinema but also the situation of mothers and children in the slums of Dublin. One can see the teacher in her here as she records in her great book, the suffering and needs of the children of Europe during and after the Second World War. She reports how frequently teachers were early in the resistance and in the concentration camps. She also records the enormous efforts parents and children went to to maintain their education during the war. Again there were no double standards. Her concern for Irish children was the same as her later work for the children of wartime Europe.
We know little of her personal life. Her younger brother burnt most of her papers after her death. Some suggested she have a unfortunate experience early in her life with a man, others that she was in love with De Valera and yet others that she was attracted to women. We shall never know and that is how it should be. But we can conclude, she was brave Republican, feminist, internationalist and humanitarian and a prolific author of considerable talent and commitment.
Dundalk can be truly proud of her.