Today’s visit brought a detour to Dublin’s General Post Office, a site of much historical activity. For example, you can still see bullet holes left behind after the Easter Rising of 1916 within the pillars of the Georgian facade. The interior is beautiful and includes a historical area where one can learn more about the legacy of the building aside from its still functioning postal service. (We mailed some post-cards home from the counter.)
Seeing the building up close got me thinking upon the history of feminist action in Ireland. In 1912, just four years before the Easter Rising, the GPO and surrounding buildings were subject to a rebellion of a different sort. On June 12th, women from Irish Women’s Franchise League smashed in windows of the Custom House, GPO, and Dublin Castle to protest their being left out politically of the latest Irish Home Rule Bill. They were arrested on the 13th for this destruction of property and served short prison times of various lengths, ranging from 2-6 months. As I learned from my trusty copy of Dublin: A Cultural History, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, one of the eight arrested, noted how the experience became a catalyst for many of the middle and upper-class women in their activism: “‘When prison followed, and later hunger strike, a deeper note was struck; many hitherto protected comfortable women got glimpses of the lives of those less fortunate, and became social rebels'” (Kilfeather 176).
This reminded me of a scene from the film Iron Jawed Angels, which showcases a hunger strike amongst female suffragette inmates after their imprisonment.
Though the film details the plight of American, not Irish, women’s voting rights, it still illustrates the perils women have gone through in pursuit of progress and equitable treatment. Interestingly, hunger has become a staple of the Irish cultural mainstream; for many, Ireland’s numerous famines are common knowledge which first comes to mind. This legacy of starvation marks a blight upon the country’s history, yet here, the hunger was instigated intentionally as an act of rebellion and self-assertion, rather than a revoke of autonomy on the part of those Irish who could not survive at the hands of British oppressive legislation. In enacting a refusal of food, these well-off women identified with the ancestral history of Irish people going hungry as a result of oppression and used it as a tool in order to express their own reduction at the hands of prejudice.
The Irish Home Rule Bill that commenced the women’s acts of protest, as well as the later Easter Rising, both stemmed from Ireland’s desire to exist once more as a free country rather than remain subject to the British Empire and their governmental rule. The late 19th century and early 20th century were pivotal decades in Irish rights and desire for self-government. A reflection of these sentiments was the Irish Literary Movement and the Celtic Revival period described by Kilfeather in her book. Published in 1897, about two decades prior, Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to reflect these tensions as well. Though the novel is set in London, and the infamous Count hails from Transylvania, the author himself was a Dublin native. The fears surrounding the Count’s intrusion into English society are often thought to represent xenophobic fears of Southern and Eastern European migrants coming into established and superior Western societies like that of the British Empire. However, I think the Count can also be seen as symbolic of an English intrusion into Irish society. While the rest of the novel features humorous anecdotes of various types of “low-brow” accents or dialects of the language, which almost seem to always be viewed with a critical air by someone with a more refined manner of speaking, we rarely if at all experience a similar treatment with the Count. Rather than stumbling dialogues of broken English, the Count speaks fluently and eloquently in the manner of any upper-class or aristocratic English gentleman, and indeed his manners and mannerisms seem to mirror that of someone high up in English society. As Harker observes when the Count asks for English lessons, “‘But Count,’ I said, ‘you know and speak English thoroughly!'” to which the Count replies, “‘I thank you, my friend, for your all too flattering estimate, but yet I fear that I am but a little way on the road I would travel,'” ironically in flawless and educated speech (Stoker 22).
To me, the Anglicization of the Count contrasted with the character of Harker, a sort of middle-class, down to earth, Everyman, projects not only the period-typical fear of cultural intrusion within the British Empire by foreigners who mask themselves like “true Englishmen,” or the story’s fear of that by monsters who masquerade as human beings. It also could represent the invasion of the Irish nation, its customs, and its homelands and people, at the hands of the English elite, a struggle which has forever, and quite literally, scarred some of the vestiges of Dublin.