Herstory around the Irish Sea

Like Leap-year-2020, my IWD post took one day longer: I am in Maryport. Port of Mary. Not Mother Mary but Mary Fleming. She is one of the women I want to talk about today,

on the 8th March, International Women’s Day. Maryport is a little known coastal town on the Cumbrian coast along the Irish Sea. I will take that sea as my orientation and talk about Women’s History around it – thereby centering the sea, not the land, though the two go hand in hand. There is plenty of women’s history here, especially in the middle of the sea – to which I will come later.
It’s been a vision of mine to establish an ‘Irish Sea Circle’, to communicate across the boundaries of the lands that lie next to it. It’s good for a change to disregard the established borders (and hard border) and go swimming. We could use the sea as a roundtable, it’s not even as big as, say, the North Sea (my erstwhile ‘home sea’ which I have crossed to get here), or the Baltic Sea. So let’s get to know each other a little bit more.
So I will start with the country that the sea is named after, Ireland. Here I think of Mary Robinson, and the impact she made when she became Ireland’s first female president, back in 1990, 30 years ago from now! She was so successful in her job that her successor was a woman as well! Mary McAleese. After pioneering in her job, she became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and presided over the courageously organised UN Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia, in Durban in 2001. The conference was much forgotten about as it was followed by the September 11 attacks. Listen to Day 1 of the conference here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03m0j1z

Next in the Irish Sea line I am going to Wales – to Ynis Llandwyn, a small island off the coast of Ynis Mon (Anglesey). This is where the setting of the short film ‘Red Sea – spring tides and menstrual cycles at the full and new moon’, from 1982 by Judith Noble –Higginbottom, member of the London Film-makers Co-op.  This film inspired my artwork on ‘Blood Tides’, where I was looking at the state of the tide when my period

starts, and found that it seems to start around high tide. So the film inspired me 38 years later. I had already written about ‘tides in the body’ before, coinciding, https://advantagesofage.com/exclusives/tides-body-menopausal-musings/ , unknowingly then, with her ‘Body Tides’, but what her film did in addition, is to inspire me to look at the time of the tide in relation to my blood tide. Back then, two years after the film was made, in 1984, Sue Butterworth from nearby Llandudno, co-founded the Silvermoon Feminist Bookshop in London, now folded and dearly missed.

The creative distance from Ireland to Wales, and its impact for literary writers, has been highlighted by the conference ‘66 Nautical Miles’, written about by Lleucu Siencyn in ‘Seeing Literature through Irish Eyes can teach the Welsh’ – about the Celtic nations’ commonalities in the literary world: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/arts-culture-news/ireland-wales-literature-celtic-rugby-8789998
So here’s the idea as well about the round-the Irish-Sea forum that I, too, am envisaging. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘Celtic nations’, perhaps because I am a foreigner, but I think that everyone who lives around here, is, or should be part of this forum – if you feel the pull and the connecting energy of the sea. My erstwhile ‘home-sea’ was the North Sea, but I am holding them up both, as they too, are connected, and I, on this island, am surrounded by them both! What seas have you been surrounded with? Let’s connect our seas up, like a liquid League of sea-sided Nations.

Our forum comes alive when we respond to our environment. One of Lubaina Himid’s works, first black woman Turner Prize Winner, is ‘Swallow Hard – The Lancaster Dinner Service’ (2007), an installation to respond to Lancaster slavery past, makinghistoriesvisible.com/portfolio/swallow-hard/.
Very close to Lancaster is Sunderland Point, which was once a slave trading port too, and close to it is a grave to a ‘dark-skinned cabin-boy or slave’ called Sambo – who has been buried alone as he wasn’t admitted into the Christian cemetary. ‘Brit born Bajan’ London poet Dorothea Smartt wrote a moving booklet of poems about him, which I had bought but now cannot find – when I do, I will put a photo of it here, as it seems to be a largely forgotten book, about forgotten history. So we are getting into‘twice forgotten’ territory, so I am mentioning it here to try and redress this.

Lancaster and Sunderland Point are all at the southern end of Morecambe Bay. On its northern end, opposite Morecambe itself, is Barrow-in-Furness, with its own Walney Island. Its on that island where women’s history was made in 1975, when the island’s lighthouse got a female lighthouse keeper, Peggy Braithwaite. She was one of only a handful women lighthouse keepers, and the only one during her service, until 1993.

Moving out of the bay and going much further north to Scotland (skipping West Cumbria to which I will return), discovered a feminist feeling statue on my latest trip to Dumfiries.

It was of Jean Armour, wife of Robbie Burns. She was the inspiration behind many of his poems, was known in as the ‘Belle of Mauchline’ and had 9 children with Robbie Burns, of whom 6 survived – how hard times were then.

Now let’s go back down the Irish Sea a little bit again, to the border, go down around 25 miles (25 milefortlets down from Hadrian’s Wall, see previous post), and arrive in Maryport, where we started. Mary is who this town was named after! And I am just thinking that now that we need a statue for that! It’s Mary Fleming, wife of Humphrey Senhouse, who built this town as a new town in 1749 – it seems old now but it has that typical very straight and square grid pattern that new towns have. No wonky roads, no curves, so that’s a bit dull – though the houses are pretty! Humphrey Senhouse was pretty emancipated too, to dedicate this town to his wife, but sadly, his pretty-ness stops there. Coming back to the harrowing topic of empire, he was a major player in it, and owned plantations in Barbados, where he was born, because his father was already in the business! So here’s an early example of a kind of intersectional (feminist) problem: its not gender and ‘race’ here as such but gender and racism – where we might have been able to celebrate him as an early feminist, his record on the side of (and in the service of) empire was so dismal that he isn’t useful as a feminist hero at all. Sad case really. Mary seems to have been complicit in all that, as she did not speak out against her husband’s involvement with the empire. So a bit of unsettling women’s history then. I still think we need a statue of her in town. The most feminist marker we have is a café with the intriguing name of ‘Her Citi’ – you can buy clothes and things here as well.

It’s here, in Maryport, that I did my art work for International Women’s Day: I’ve cut out our women’s sign from a mushroom box (so as to creatively reuse material that would otherwise be discarded), and placed a whelk in the middle.

On this day, too, I found out about a new old feminist: Sal Madge. She was a well known character in Victorian Whitehaven, (two towns down the coast from here), and she acted very much like a man, and thus carved out an approach towards emancipation in a context of poverty and gendered expectations, also wrestling with men: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-19828177

From here I go to the spectacular centre of the Irish Sea, where a world record has been achieved. That’s on the Isle of Man. Here women got the vote in 1881! I wrote a poem that mentions this (100 – 10), which was published in the E-List, Walthamstow’s amazing culture and art mag. (in E17, London, where I lived then), when we on the mainland celebrated a 100 years of women’s vote at most! It amazes me how this has not made more headines – even here on the west Cumbrian coast, where the Isle of Man is within eyesight, the news of the women’s vote has not spread. So from now on, let’s remember the best kept secret at the centre of this sea!


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