top of page

Arguing with Mother Ireland: Gender Performance and Nation

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

By Holly Bond


"Ah Mother Ireland. How could you ever support abortion?"

Ah, Mother Ireland. You have been on many people’s minds recently.

We have been talking about your hard or soft borders, and your growth in GDP. The last few years have seen you mature a lot; legalising gay marriage and most recently, and perhaps more contentiously, when you decided to end the ban on abortion on the 26th May 2018. The result was a win for repealing the Eighth Amendment, the clause that states an unborn life is equal to that of the mother. It only allowed abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormalities. The majority was an overwhelming 66.4%, which begs the question; why did it take so long?

For a Catholic country that has been relatively progressive in the last decade, legalising gay marriage and voting for an openly gay Taoiseach, Ireland has somewhat been a playboy of the western world in abortion terms, going against the grain of his neighbours who legalised it decades before.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Ireland is no playboy at all, but exactly the opposite. Throughout the centuries, the art, politics and literature of Ireland have shown us that Ireland is not an unruly young lad, but a woman: Mother Ireland. How could Mother Ireland ever support abortion?


Ireland has been symbolised as a woman in various ways throughout history. Looking at imperial British cartoons, we see Ireland represented as the ragged young woman Hibernia, next to glowing, torch baring Britannia (it is also worth noting that Hibernia is depicted as dark skinned, against the pale, white Britannia).

Ireland was was shown as a savage uneducated woman, in order to justify oppressive British colonisation. In the late 19th century, during the attempted passing of an Irish Home Rule Bill, progressive political cartoons continued to use the image of Hibernia - this time not next to Britannia - but as a victim to the pillaging British men destroying the Irish land.

The feminine symbol of Ireland stuck around in the next century, and was used by Irish Nationalists in the creation of their Republic. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916, Catholicism and Irish Nationalism became intensely linked - it was the shared belief of the majority of Southern Ireland, and used to increase support by the Nationalists. Deeply rooted in the founding of the Republic is what Irish performance artists EL Putnam names ‘Catholic ideology enshrined in the Irish constitution’.

Despite the number of women reported to have fought in the Easter Rising, the Republic was not made in her image. Eamon De Valera even wrote in his 1937 Constitution; ‘by her life within the home, she gives to the state.’ The Catholic ideal for women was a chaste maiden, who marries and then is fruitful and multiplies. The ideal is the impossible: The Virgin Mary.

De Valera’s used Gaelic Romanticism and Catholic doctrine for political gain, changing the symbolism of Ireland to virtuous young maidens and Mothers. In the famous plays of Yeats and Lady Gregory, an Irish household is visited by a mythical woman, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. An old woman with ‘four green fields’ (four provinces of Ireland….) she demands the eldest son to die for her (for Ireland). Mother Ireland became symbolic of Gaelic history and culture.

The progression of human rights world wide could be helped if we questioned the notion of a ‘Motherland’ completely


The changing symbolic nature of Ireland’s nationhood is an example of how gender is constructed by those in power, and, as Judith Butler tells us, a piece of performance.

The women of Ireland have been continually told to perform the roles of wives and mothers, to live up to the fabricated gender identity of Ireland herself. Not doing so results in shame, life in prison for an illegal abortion, or getting on a plane and having one in the UK. Until 1996, a woman could be sent to a Magdalen Laundry if she had a baby out of wedlock. The female construction of Ireland has been used by men to pursue a political destiny and control women.

So perhaps abortion has taken so long because it is not only going against Catholicism, but a sense of Irish patriotism. Irish women have been subjected to shame for so long, for failing to reach an impossible gender ideal seen as symbolic of what Irishness is.

Judith Butler states that she hopes there will be a future where ‘gender signifies nothing.’ How does this stand with nations? The progression of human rights world wide could be helped if we questioned the notion of a ‘Motherland’ completely, if we looked at how nations merely perform a female gender.

Look at how Brexiteers talk about Britain: as something they want ‘back’, that is being ‘taken over.’ They talk about Britannia like a jealous ex boyfriend. In a world where gender is becoming more fluid, questioning the term Motherland might make borders more fluid too. Feminine terms for nations imply that something needs ‘protecting’ or ‘saving’, yet often those things that need protecting belong in the past, like a ban on abortion.

The heroine, was utterly passive. She was Ireland or Hibernia.

She was stamped, as a rubbed-away mark, on silver or gold;

…... Or she was a nineteenth-century image of girlhood, ……..

She was invoked, addressed, remembered, loved, regretted.

And, most importantly, died for.

She was a mother or a virgin ...

Her identity was as an image.

Or was it a fiction?

- Eavan Boland

bottom of page