Cork author pens book about women who shaped and changed Ireland

In Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland, Nicola Depuis sets out to highlight the ignored or forgotten achievements of Irish woman, says LINDA KENNY
Cork author pens book about women who shaped and changed Ireland

Cork author Nicola Depuis.

“I THINK being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”

So says Irish writer Iris Murdoch.

When Nicola Depuis wrote her book, Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland, she set out to highlight the achievements of Irish women who, throughout history, have been “largely ignored or, worse, forgotten”.

“There are many forums and blogs online now devoted to women’s achievements, but I think if you were to ask a member of the general public to name some inspirational Irish people, the majority of their answers would still include solely men… and Mary Robinson,” Nicola says.

“Women have a lot more rights today, thankfully, but Ireland is still enveloped by a culture where men’s needs are given priority.

“A lot of new cultures are also entering Ireland in which women are treated as second class citizens, or as male property, and I find this quite worrying.

“It’s something we need to be realistic about.”

Nicola is keen to bring women’s stories to the forefront.

“I’m a huge advocate of women’s herstory, and have always had a fascination with the women left out of the history books,” she explains.

“So, in my work, I have sought to introduce those phenomenal Irish women to as many readers as possible.”

Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland by Nicola Depuis.
Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland by Nicola Depuis.

From healer of people and animals Biddy Early, who was brought to court in Ennis on charges of witchcraft, to pirate queen Grace O’Malley who held Queen Elizabeth in her thrall, to Bernadette Devlin, Joan Denise Moriarty, Eavan Boland and the aforementioned Mary Robinson, Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland is a fascinating journey through history and a genuinely enjoyable treasure-trove of stories of amazing, trail-blazing women who defied the social constrictions of their time to create a unique space and unique voice for themselves.

“During my school years, I used to listen to story after story about inspirational Irish men, from Cú Chulainn to Charles Stewart Parnell, and I always thought ‘what were the women doing?’” Nicola says.

“My mother Dolores and my grandmothers, Ita and Bridie, were fantastically creative, strong, resourceful women.”

They got her thinking about how many other inspirational Irish women’s stories had she ‘just not heard about?’

“Once I started researching and asking people who would be on their list of inspirational Irish women, I actually ended up with hundreds,” she adds.

A former student of Presentation Sisters schools, Nicola was very familiar with the story of Cork’s Nano Nagle, saying: “I loved her story.”

As she returned from a ball in Paris, Nano had an epiphany moment as she watched the poor queuing up in the early hours outside a church. She ‘felt at once that her life had no purpose’, and went on to dedicate her life to those in need.

“I always found this story very powerful,” Nicola says. 

“A lot of the women came to my attention organically, through research.”

A dozen of the subjects in the book hail from the Rebel County.

Among them, Dr James Barry, a pioneering surgeon who posed as a man to become the first woman in Britain to graduate in medicine, 70 years before women were permitted to study the subject in university, as well as leading suffragist of the 19th century Anna Haslam from Youghal, and the fearless community activist Mother Jones.

“I wanted to include women who were inspirational in different fields like arts, politics, literature, religion, sport, from both north and south of the country,” Nicola says. 

“It was also important to me to include a woman from the travelling community as they are the oldest community in Ireland and need to be represented."

Nan Joyce was a strong inclusion in the book as she was one of the first travellers to publicly campaign for travellers’ rights in Ireland.

“She was also the first female member of the travelling community to win a seat in an Irish election,” Nicola adds.

There are more than 50 incredible stories of Irish women in this 287-page book and none take more than a few minutes to read, so you find yourself dipping in and out of it for a new story.

“I’ve always been a voracious reader,” explains Nicola.

She is also a life-long fan of libraries.

“They have been one of the most important mainstays of my life so I knew of the voracious Queen Medbh, who claimed to take 30 lovers a day, from books about Irish legends.

“In Cork City Library, I came across Lindie Naughton’s fascinating book Lady Icarus, about the Limerick Aviatrix Lady Mary Heath.

“My maternal grandmother was from Limerick so I was intrigued to learn more about this 6ft Irish woman who is said to have crossed the Sahara in her aircraft, armed with a shotgun, a couple of tennis rackets, six tea gowns, a Bible and a fur coat.

“She apparently passed the time by eating chocolate, reading novels and trying to put on tights, mid-flight, in anticipation of her arrival!”

Nicola’s favourite stories would include Peig Sayers.

“She was the bane of our existence in secondary school when we had to read her for Irish class.

“But, having had to research her for the book, I’m in awe of her”, Nicola declares.

“I read an article the other day that described her as the Netflix of her time. Imagine, one of her tales was 36,000 words long. That is half the length of a regular novel. In one hearing, she would memorise a story that would take a week to tell.

“She is up there as a wonderful example of what the human brain is capable of.”

Nicola has an MA in Women’s Studies from UCC and has written for many publications including The Echo, The Irish Examiner, Hot Press and more.

She lives in Cork and is currently writing a book about the witch of Youghal, Florence Newton. You can read an article on her in next Wednesday’s WOW!

Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland is published by Lemon Whippet Books and is available to purchase on Amazon in both e-book (€11.84) and print format €17.78. A Passion & Plight: The Women Who Shaped Ireland calendar (€16) is also available at lulu.com

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