Women’s History

The Martin Diary – Memories of Everyday Life
Dr Mary McAuliffe, UCD and Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI)

The history of women is being written as much from their diaries as anything else. And the social history of all people is more detailed than it would otherwise be because of women’s attention to the texture of the everyday.1

The Martin diary is what Steven Kagle refers to as a ‘diary of situation’ 2 where the fact that her son was missing inspired Mrs Martin to begin writing, and like diaries of this sort, it ended when the situation was resolved, unfortunately with confirmation that Charlie Martin had been killed. As well as serving as a poignant reminder of the disastrous effects that the Great War had for a generation of men, it also offers a window on the lives and activities of the Martin household. In particular it allows us an insight into the domestic sphere, a place where most women lived lives rarely recorded in the history books.

In her daily entries Mrs Martin reflects both her concern for her son and the intimacy of daily life. Even as the search for Charlie goes on, the rituals of domesticity and middle class living are continued. The middle class ideals of domesticity governed the lives of most women, particularly middle class women, in the 19th and into the 20th century. The ideal woman was one who devoted her energies to her family, creating a retreat for her husband from the strictures of public life, and a safe and comfortable space for children to be raised and educated. This woman was expected to reflect in her behaviour caring and nurturing, purity, piety, respectability and concern for the emotional, spiritual and physical well being of her family.

Mrs Martin’s diary reflects this respectable domestic life throughout. In her first entry, dated Saturday 1st Jan, 1916, where she explains her reason for beginning the diary, so that Charlie would read it and ‘know what has been happening’, she also mentions going to Mass in Clarendon St., buying a christening robe in Weirs, and that her daughter Beatrice was at the Hippodrome ‘but the entertainment was very poor’ .

St. Teresa's Church, Clarendon Street

St. Teresa’s Church, Clarendon Street
Source: National Library of Ireland

The diary reflects the importance of family, motherhood, religion and social status in the life of Mrs Martin – for instance when daughter Beatrice was at the Gaiety Pantomime on the 11th of January, 1916, she was ‘more entertained’ by watching “Plunkett” eat apples in the dress circle which offended her ‘idea of what is correct in the aristocracy’ . The family participated in many of the leisure pursuits of the middle classes, hunting and shooting, tennis tournaments, going to the races, attending the theatre and the pantomime, visiting the neighbours and take tea.

Until the 24th of April, (Easter Monday) 1916, when Ethel and Violet (sisters of Charlie) are returning from an excursion to the horse racing, we get no sense of any political unrest in Dublin. It is only as the girls returned to the city that day that ‘they discovered to their cost there was a Sinn Fein Rising and Dublin was in a state of siege’. The entries over the week of the Rising reflect the stories heard of the rebels’ activities, the news of battalions of British soldiers coming into through Kingstown to retake the city, the news of the bombardment and destruction of Dublin city centre and the looting of shops by the mob. The immediacy of Mrs Martin’s knowledge of what was happening – she relates that the GPO is taken on the 25th of April and that on 28th of April, (James) Connolly, Countess Markievicz and (Francis) Sheehy-Skeffington were shot – demonstrates the rumours and counter rumours that swirled around the disturbed city and its citizens for that week. Her entries show a level of detailed knowledge on what was actually happening that is surprising; we know that she is reading the Daily Mail and perhaps gets much of her information from this source.

Kingstown Pier

Kingstown Pier
Source: National Library of Ireland

Mrs Martin’s reaction to the Rising also reflects a position which we usually do not reflect on when researching Irishwomen and the Revolutionary period in Ireland. Most histories narrate the experiences of nationalist or revolutionary women like Dr Kathleen Lynn (who was in the City Hall battalion with the Irish Citizen Army rebels) or Countess Markievicz (who was at the College of Surgeons with the Irish Citizen Army). The lives and activities of these activist women are the dominant discourses in most studies of early 20th century Irishwomen, women who were prominent in the public sphere and whose lives do not reflect the experience of the majority.

countess markievicz

Countess Markievicz
Source: National Library of Ireland

Mrs Martin’s diary shows another Dublin and another female view of the Rising. She was upset by the disruption wroth on the daily lives of her family and community by the declaration of martial law and notes that (Edward) Carson and (John) Redmond had both condemned the Rising in Parliament. Her obvious distaste of the mob looting the city is evident as is her inference that the Rising was somehow connected with the events of the 1913 Lockout, when she mentions the destruction of Liberty Hall. As a widow of a businessman Mrs Martin’s sympathies would likely not have been with the striking workers during the Lockout, nor now does it lie with the rebels. Once the rebels had surrendered a group of soldiers from the Leicester Regiment made a barricade near the family home and she writes ‘we gave them lemonade, shaved rhubarb and a big jug of tea’. Her trip into the city centre on the 4th of May, where she shopped on Grafton St., horrified her when she saw the destruction wroth on Sackville St (now O’Connell St.) and the north inner city area.

GPO and Metropole Hotel

GPO and Metropole Hotel
Source: National Library of Ireland

This diary, which ends on the 25th May 1916, reflects the intimate domestic life of a middle class Dublin woman and her family as they face the possibility that son and brother may be lost to them forever. However we also get a glimpse of how the broader social and political events of the period intrude and affect the ordinary, everyday lives of women and their families. A son lost on a foreign battle field, a daughter nursing the wounded in Malta, a city divided by workers strikes, rebellion and war all intrude into the cosy domesticity over this period.

A woman such as Mrs Martin, who was devoted to her family and her home as would be expected of her, shows that she was not without agency or opinion. She was able to call on all her social contacts to seek out news of Charlie and it is evident from her diary that, during and after the Easter Rising, her sympathies lay with the establishment and especially with the ‘boys’ (British soldiers) sent to deal with the rebels.

This diary offers an all too brief view into the lives of a certain section of the urban middle class and the lives of ‘respectable’ women who did not operate outside the domestic sphere. It is important to utilise what the Martin diary offers in order to achieve broader, more nuanced perspectives on women’s lives in early 20th century Ireland, and in particular, during that turbulent period of war and rebellion.

  1. Thomas Mallon, A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1984), 19.
  2. Kagle, Steven E., Early Nineteenth-Century American Diary Literature (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986).