Director: Ciara Hyland
In the 20th century, one’s sexuality was often inextricably connected to one’s politics. To be a gay supporter of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s was virtually an impossibility. Gay and lesbian activists often wore Communist badges as well as pink triangles as they protested against Clause 28. To be gay meant you were left-wing too. Ciara Hyland reveals a similar connection between sexuality and politics in Croíthe Radacacha – Radical Hearts – about the queer women for fought for Irish independence in 1916 and beyond.
Of course, reclaiming queer people from history is a tricky business as records are scarce, even more so when it comes to women. Some letters and diaries remain, although, as revealed in a case study featured in the film, one women’s diaries were burnt by her family soon after her death, perhaps wanting to conceal a queer life. Letters can cause problems too as women often used romantic language in their communications with each other. It was the way that women wrote letters and an overeager historian could easily mistake literary convention for sexual attraction.
Such issues are discussed in the film and it’s clear that the historians who are interviewed are not searching for proof of sexual intimacy between the women as that would be a fruitless task. Instead, they search for queerness elsewhere. They look at domestic arrangements; the way the women became lifelong partners sharing rooms and living spaces, and, in some cases, the way, when one woman died, how the surviving partner would remember her. None of this proves a sexual connection, but it’s evidence of queerness in that these women were resisting heterosexual expectations.
Reinserting these revolutionary women into Irish history demonstrates that Ireland has a longer association with queerness than previously supposed. Indeed, one talking head suggests that queerness is Irishness, implying that homosexuality was not something that the British brought over. The women studied in Croíthe Radacacha opposed the British in 1916 and were part of the Irish Citizen Army. One woman – Margaret Skinnider – was shot by the British in the 1916 Easter Uprising, but in a nice touch of detail, it seems that she was more worried about the damage done to her uniform than to her own body. Another woman was sent out in a hail of bullets to seek a surrender deal with the enemy.
When Skinnider was shot, she received medical treatment from another woman Madeleine ffrench-Mullen who was in a relationship with a doctor called Kathleen Lynn. frrench-Mullen and Lynn were lifelong partners. All these connections – and Hyland’s film presents plenty more – demonstrate how influential these queer women were to the fight for Ireland’s independence. After the uprising, many of these women were arrested. But after their release, the women continued to fight for a republic and then later for women’s and trade union rights.
These fascinating stories are mainly related in Irish by the historians but the snippets of re-enactments are, on the whole, unnecessary. Most of them, from women lounging affectionately together on couches to soldiers dying at the hands of the British, are too romantically filmed. A presenter wandering around the key sites in Dublin would have made for a more engaging study, but perhaps that approach was logistically too difficult or expensive. Although being shown in cinemas for the Irish Film Festival London, Croíthe Radacacha is more suited to the small screen where its reach will be wider.
Croíthe Radacacha is screening at the Irish Film Festival, London 2023.