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Women’s Role in Society in Ireland in 1930s

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Women’s Role in Society
In Ireland during the 1930s, women had very few rights and they were considered to be the inferior sex. This affected their everyday lives as often they were treated as second class citizens and their opinions were considered to be invalid. This is reflected by the fact that they were not allowed to vote in general elections. Women were also expected to stay at home, looking after and rearing their children. They were expected to live a rather domestic life and so very few had a career outside the home. This restricted what women could do. Women were usually forced to retire from their jobs when they married, for example, any teacher who qualified after 1933, was obliged to retire on marriage. This had a great impact on the lives of women as they were forced to retire on marriage and so they would receive no more income to support their family. Sympathy was growing for the woman in the home and the difficult conditions under which she had to labour. In rural areas, woman had a very important role. Women were usually responsible for the care of the small livestock, the poultry, pigs and calves. Women would also attend to the vegetable garden as well as cooking, ironing, churning and looking after children and elderly relatives. Such jobs could involve a lot of manual work and so this may have impacted on their health. Women were also expected to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, observing rules of etiquette and decorum. Inappropriate behaviour such as, drinking, wearing make-up and the use of vulgar language was greatly frowned upon and considered to be extremely un-lady like.

High expectations were implemented. This made it hard for women to be themselves as they had to be continuously aware of what people would think of them. At this time, the kitchen was the main room of activity and usually contained an open hearth fire. The main fuel used was turf or wood and would have been collected by the family by hand. Cooking was done on this fire in iron pots and pans. There would have been no running water and lighting was either oil lamps or candles. The level of poverty in many isolated rural areas was outrageous by western standards. In 1930, the total population was just under three million with the majority of people living in rural areas. The American economy had collapsed with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and was succeeded by a worldwide depression. As a result of this, Irish farmers received a poor return for their crop and so they found it difficult to secure a market for it. This would have affected the income of those employed in an agricultural job. The total number of men and women employed in agriculture fell, partly due to emigration. Wages were extremely low for a farm labourer. The rate of emigration remained high, especially for single women and the main destination was England. Sexes were often segregated and this was a remarkable feature of the Irish countryside. Often, young girls and boys did not know how to react or behave around each other and so often mixing with the opposite sex was avoided. Women at this time who had children out of wedlock, shamed and disgraced their families. Children were considered to be for marriage and marriage only.

This again put great pressure on women to conduct themselves as was expected and to be continuously aware of others opinions of them. The Industrial Revolution caught up with Ireland as mechanisation took over what were, hand labour jobs. This put lots of people, especially women, out of work and again unemployment levels rose. Again this lead to a lack of income and support for families.

Friel’s Presentation of the Women
In Dancing at Lughnasa, Friel presents each of the female characters in their own individual way.
Kate is the eldest of the Mundy sisters and behaves as a Mother figure as a result. Michael is the apple of her eye. The appreciation we see her show to him is a reflection of her motherly ways. She is set apart from the rest of the sister as she has more responsibilities than them. She is presented as a kind and warm character and although she is strict about social etiquette and decorum, she is not humourless but mindful of her reputation. Although she has self-composed restraints, she still joins in with the rest of her sisters. At heart, she is a kind person but she has a lot on her plate and so appears to be a little bit less loving. As a schoolteacher, she is the only wage-earner in the house, but her reputation as ‘The Gander’ in the schoolroom is often seen to extend into the household. At this time, school regime was not relaxed. It was a strict environment, almost business like and so this explains her often uptight manner. As she works in the town of Ballybeg, she is presented as a source of information and a point of contact with the outside world for her sisters. She is presented as a fiercely devout Catholic, indicated by her distaste for the pagan practices at Lughnasa and by her Brother Jack’s loss of faith. However, her sensitivity is evident throughout the play and through the narratives provided by Michael, who claims she was “inconsolable” when Father Jack died.

Maggie
In place of a career, Maggie acts as the chief family homemaker. Throughout the play she is revealed as serving a deeper purpose as the “joker” of the family, defusing tensions as they arise. She cheekily challenges Kate’s authority by calling her “Kitty”, and quite often gently mocks her along with her other sisters, whilst being her confidant at the same time.

She is presented by Friel, to be the peacemaker, always smoothing things over. She tactfully changes the subject onto a safer topic on many different occasions.

Like the rest of the Mundy Sisters, she comes across to be very protective of Rose, especially when she feels her sisters safety and well-being is at risk, for example when Rose goes away to meet Danny Bradley.

Maggie is seen to have dreams of her own when she learns of her best friend’s success. Her sudden quiet contemplation in her monologue is deeply contrasted with her usual fun-loving way of speaking. She uses humour and playfulness in an attempt to hide her worries and fears.

Christina
At 26 years old, Chris is the youngest of the Mundy sisters, and like Maggie, has no paid job. She is presented as a harder character with softer edges.

Gerry Evans fathered her son, Michael, seven years ago and is seen as walking in and out of their lives as he chooses. As a result, Chris fluctuates between falling into a deep depression when he leaves, yet being renewed with optimism that his next visit will be a permanent stay. She has been hurt by love and lives in hope of Gerry despite what he has done to her.

Chris also has responsibilities and commitments like Kate. She is not left out but the personalities of the rest of the sisters are better matched and so while she has her sisters, she does it all alone. She is disappointed with life and is often presented to be a listless character. All the sisters feel that they are old before their time. Friel shows us how joyless families can be.

Chris’ love she shows for Marconi and dancing shows us that she wants to get away from the drudgery of her everyday life. Marconi is a distraction for her from all her worries and anxieties.

Chris can also be very self-critical and insecure. She feels like she is letting herself go and so suggests that she should start wearing make-up. This again offers a distraction point for her.

Rose
Rose is 32, but she is presented to behave much younger than her years, due to a developmental disability. This condition makes her particularly vulnerable to an unseen character, Danny Bradley, who Rose believes is in love with her as she has a romantic and naïve attitude to relationships. However, her sisters believe that Danny Bradley is exploiting Rose’s simple nature for his own gain. She is also presented as a gullible and innocent character and it is evident that her sisters seek to protect her. She is particularly close to her older sister, Agnes, with whom she knits gloves to sell in the town as a means of extra money to support the family. We learn through Michael’s narrative that, after leaving home with Agnes, Rose eventually dies in a hospice for the destitute in Southwark, London, in the 1950s.

Agnes
Agnes is quiet and contemplative, knitting gloves with Rose whilst also helping to keep a house. She is able to handle Rose and her difficulties and gently guide her back. She realises that you need to tread carefully and understands how to gently appease Rose to diffuse a situation. She appears to be silently infatuated with Gerry and is quick to leap to his defence especially when Kate criticises him. This reveals that she has feelings for Gerry but that she tries to disguise them because of her sisters history with him. However, Michael’s narratives reveal Agnes’ future to be bleak. Her knitting fails to support her when the knitware factory opens. Due to her sense of parental regard for Rose, she emigrates with her to London, breaking off all contact with the family, and dies in dire circumstances in the 1950s.

How do the Mundy Sisters reflect Women at this time?
At this time, women were expected to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner, observing rules of etiquette and decorum. Inappropriate behaviour such as, drinking, wearing make-up and the use of vulgar language was greatly frowned upon and considered to be extremely un-lady like. High expectations were implemented. This made it hard for women to be themselves as they had to be continuously aware of what people would think of them. This reveals that Ireland was repressed and judgemental during the 1930s. At the beginning of the play, Chris refers to lipstick and gin. The wearing of lipstick was associated with immoral behaviour and drinking was not appropriate for women. Society was patriarchal and misogynistic. This reference to lipstick by Chris shows us that she is rebellious. We see that Chris and her sisters, long for some romance and excitement in their lives. The hopelessness and emptiness of the sisters’ lives is emphasised by the engagement of 15 year old Sophia. On the other hand, Kate is extremely representative of what women were expected to be. The fact that she has self-composed restraints and remains more dignified when the sisters break into dance reflects this very well. She is strict about social etiquette and decorum, just like would have been expected.

Women at this time who had children out of wedlock, shamed and disgraced their families. Children were considered to be for marriage and marriage only. This again put great pressure on women to conduct themselves as was expected and to be continuously aware of others opinions of them. At the end of his short monologue, Michael refers to attitudes to illegitimacy in Ireland during the 1930s. In such a religious, conservative society, it was considered to be unacceptable for children to be born outside of marriage. Michael uses the word ‘shame’ to emphasise that his mother’s pregnancy was considered to be a family disgrace. Again, Chris goes against the way in which women were expected to conduct themselves and does not reflect the typical woman.

The effect of industry on rural Ireland had many negative effects. Home industry was being destroyed and this had a devastating impact on rural females especially, just like the Mundy sisters. Agnes and Rose lost their jobs knitting gloves as mechanisation took over and a new knitting factory opened up. This is representative of the situations many women found themselves in at this time as the industrial revolution caught up with Ballybeg. As a result of job losses, Agnes and Rose, just like other single women in their position, emigrated to England in the hop of a better life. However in Michaels monologue we learn that Agnes’ and Rose’s fates were not all that happy. The blunt and shocking statement of their deaths has great dramatic effect. The calm tone highlights the horror of their deaths however we also see that Agnes and Rose both symbolise the fate of many similar Irish women. Friel shows the awful reality of many immigrant women. The Mundy sisters are representative of women at this time as they all pull their weight in domestic tasks and they all work at home with the exception of Kate. Women were expected to do such domestic tasks and so for this reason the Mundy sisters are representative of women at this time.

Sexes were often segregated and this was a remarkable feature of the Irish countryside. Often, young girls and boys did not know how to react or behave around each other and so often mixing with the opposite sex was avoided. The Mundy sisters represent this idea as none of them are married and they all seek to find happiness and satisfaction with their lives.

The Mundy sisters also represent typical women at this time as apart from Kate they are unemployed. At this time, unemployment rates were incredibly high and so many families found times tough and hard to get by. For these reasons, many people choose to emigrate in hope of a better quality of life but that rarely happened as we learned of in Rose and Agnes’ case. The fact that Kate got fired again represents the sort of situation many women found
themselves in.

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