Strong smart Irishwomen

Ireland in the 1950s had little use for strong, smart, independent-minded women. The cult of the Irish mammy may have elevated women to quasi-divine status, but it also ensured they were kept out of public life, pure but in purdah, heavily surveilled, intensely controlled.  For those who wanted to retain their independence and use their minds, there were few options. An obscure niche, well out of sight of political, social and religious hierarchies, was one possibility. And the Genealogical Office (aka The Office of the Chief Herald) provided just such a niche.

As the successor to the deeply Anglo-Irish Ulster Office of Arms, the GO remained a stubbornly square peg in a round republican hole.  Although nominally a part of the National Library, it existed as a semi-detached limbo; piece-work employment, unheard of elsewhere in the Irish civil service, was the norm, and provided opportunities to intelligent, well-educated women available nowhere else. As a result, an extraordinary group coalesced around the GO between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Myra Maguire (1928-2015) was a brilliant young watercolourist who became the GO’s first in-house heraldic artist. Her 240 paintings of arms in Edward MacLysaght’s seminal Irish Families: Their Names, Arms, and Origins (Irish Academic Press, 4th ed. 1991) have metastasised world-wide across tea-towels, maps, mugs, key-rings, golf-tees, plaques, place-mats … In later life professor of Calligraphy at NCAD, Myra was amused at her little paintings’ longevity and remained remarkably equable about the lack of any acknowledgment, or payment.

Rosemary ffolliott (1935-2009) revolutionised professional genealogical research in Ireland from the very start of her work as a GO freelance. Her meticulous attention to evidence and passion for accuracy could be intimidating, but we all live in her shadow.

Elish Ellis, née Clune, (1919-2009) was primarily a consummate historian, but never lost her passion for the individual family stories that make up genealogy. She was instrumental in founding the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (now AGI) in 1987, and served as its president for a decade.

Frances-Jane Ffrench (1929-2002) frightened many people, including me. A more unlikely Republican Socialist has never existed. But there was never any doubt about her zeal for correcting the inaccuracies of Anglo-Irish genealogy.

And the last survivor of these women, Eileen O’Byrne died last month at the age of 93. Her keen mind, enduring curiosity and gentle spirit made her a delight to all who knew her. Her death was the spur for this post.

The work they did will live on. So too should their memory, and the memory of their times.

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