Guest Post: Archive Fever by Thomas Conway

Ciara is having to put up with more than any woman has a right to be asked in recent weeks. She’s had, for instance, to suffer being woken in the middle of the night to hear about my latest findings in the archive.

—Can you believe it, Ciara, in addition to her roman à clef, Day wrote a factual account of the hospital victory!

—That’s great.

The Amazing Philanthropists is even closer to the truth than I had realised.

—What did I tell you!

—She also published a response to a study of prostitution in New York just weeks before staging Toilers. This response must reflect the same views on prostitution that she dramatized in the play.

—Tell me all about it in the morning. Now go to sleep.

Such was my excitement on finding a theatre review of A. P. Wilson’s The Slough, Ciara was, the following evening, having to take a stronger hand with me.

—When will dinner be ready, or should we get a take away?

Even when I show her the review’s allusion to Toilers—“Miss Day’s little propaganda play”—Ciara is outwardly unmoved.

—But he more or less describes Toilers as the first Irish play set in a tenement.

—Of course he does.

—But, you don’t understand. Amazing as this find is, I can’t do anything with it.

Only then does Ciara look concernedly at me, checking if my pupils are dilated, observing my breathing, taking my pulse.

—You’ve caught archive fever, alright. You have all the symptoms.


When people ask me what’s the title of the play I’m working on, I first bring them round to its subject.

—We’re going to stage a lost play. We’ll try to build up an idea of the play from everything else that survives from the writer.

—So what’s it called?

Susanne R. Day’s Toilers, Her Lost Play, as Reconstructed by Painted Bird.

You couldn’t just have called it Toilers?

—But that would be lying. It would be setting up an expectation we cannot meet.

—So you’re going all clever and postmodern with it.

—Something like that.

All the same, for a postmodern play we’ve been spending an unconscionable amount of time with archival materials. We’ve researched all manner of feminist histories into the bargain: the suffrage movement, female volunteers in France, women in the grubby, clientelist politics of pre-revolutionary Ireland. We’ve been altogether old-fashioned in the faith we’ve kept with Susanne Rouviere Day. Hers is the central story, tracking her career the guiding principle, of everything we’ve done in preparing for the production.

We are especially fortunate in Dr. Sandra McAvoy’s introducing us to Day in the first place, in advising us on Day’s many activities and achievements and in giving us access to her research and to those of Day’s articles and other writings she had gathered during the course of her research.

The cast of Toilers Picture: John Allen

The Cast of Toilers (L-R): Seana O’Hanlon; Leah Moore; Julie Maguire, .

We can be forgiven for believing that we’ve discovered in Day one of the most committed, effective, prolific and implacable suffrage activists of her time. The Cork United Trades and Labour Council, for one, paid Day the generous tribute on the occasion of her getting a new hospital funded: “This is another instance of the absolute necessity of having lady representatives on our Public Boards.” But we can find no photo definitively of Day. The most promising shows an impish woman in an oriental costume; this woman has been cast in the Cork Amateur Opera Company’s Mikado; if she is Day, she is ten years younger than when we first meet her as a suffragist.

(You can appreciate my fever pitch at discovering reference to Day in a group photo taken during Suffrage Week in December 1913, only to discover the photo of too poor a quality—on the microfilm—to make her out, even remotely. But, then, another symptom of archive fever is persistence…)

Such is the force of intelligence and imagination of Day’s activism, we have yet to find a limit to the enterprising ways in which she promoted women’s suffrage. So galvanized was Day by the question (when, in 1910, she heard Emmeline Pankhurst speak on it in Cork) she co-founded the Munster Women’s Franchise League and acted as its Honorary Secretary for its four earliest and most productive years. Such was her commitment to a constitutional approach, she stepped up to the political process, succeeding to the position of Poor Law Guardian in the Cork City Union. Such was her keen sense of the defects of a politics without women, she shamed her fellow Guardians to fund a new hospital for women and children, playing her male colleagues at their committee and media games and beating them handsomely. Such was her belief that war intimately concerned women as much as men, she volunteered to aid the refugees, mostly women, fleeing the German advance in the early years of the Great War. Such was her wariness of patriarchal institutions, she co-wrote with her closest ally, Geraldine Cummins, several plays that warned women off the institution of marriage—and gained widespread respect when two of these plays were staged at the Abbey Theatre. (I still can’t credit that Ciara encountered these plays before she agreed to marry me.)

In preparing this script, however, we’re solely concerned with surfaces and shy away from subtext. We’re weaving a pattern from the traces Day has left in the public domain and we ignore the psychology behind them. And for all that we find ourselves awed by the scale and range of her achievements, for all that we’re taken by her arguments and take our bearings from her commitments, for all that we are emboldened to pursue our own feminist activism by her example, we cannot claim to know her. Not really. Perhaps not at all. For, while attending to her traces, we have to stop short just where she takes up her personal life. We note Day’s falling away from direct activism around July-August, 1914, but observe her pass wordlessly over the concurrent deaths of her parents within a month of each other. We follow Day and Cummins on the campaign trail week in week out, debating with laboring men and women the link between wages and suffrage at open-air meetings (one such meeting was held on a pier in the estuary of the Owenabue River, within sight of where I grew up) or in hired halls, fostering a grassroots suffrage movement throughout Munster, but we must leave them to their privacies once they step down from the platform.

Attending to these surfaces, we are never less than impressed with the eloquence, cogency and erudition of Day’s interventions, with her openness and sensitivity to others, with her ear for dialogue, her never failing mischievousness and presence of mind. And we hear Day’s sentiments chime with the best in our own times. When Day claims that few women choose prostitution by comparison with those forced into it, and argues for penalizing men, not women, we recognize Ivana Bacik’s advocacy of the Scandinavian model. When Day decries the institutionalizing of pauper children through their education in workhouses, we feel what good company she’d have kept with Mary Raftery when the latter exposed the crimes of industrial schools. When Day acts as whistleblower, outing to the press a Guardian who never visits the workhouse that he has been appointed to oversee, we see the makings of a Mary Lou McDonald baiting the career politicians on the front benches opposite. When Day comes to the defense of a young female workhouse resident who is being expelled for becoming pregnant, possibly through rape or exploitation, we see the social conscience of a Mary Robinson snap into action.

For all my admiration, however, I decline to see Day as exemplary. I see her rather as metonym for suffragists of all colours who have been eclipsed by the patriarchal bias in history. I’m at a loss to know why we commemorate the deaths of nationalist martyrs and fail to mark those of the militant suffragists who, if anything, showed the way. Indeed, I can’t help reflect on Pearse as imitator of such militants as Marjorie Hasler who chose the G.P.O. for her form of protest in 1912, whose health was broken by the punishment she received at the hands of British, then Irish, authorities and who died in her mid-twenties from contracting “trifling” measles (as the Irish Citizen described it in its pained, bereft notice of her death in 1913). With Hasler, as with Day, we might still find ourselves arrested by the incongruity of their gentleness of demeanour (Sheehy-Skeffington would describe her friend, Hasler, as “singularly beautiful, her face clear-cut as a cameo, with flashing brown eyes, framed in short brown curls, her bearing proud and queenly”) and their force of passion and singularity of purpose.

The photo we do have: Marjorie Hasler

Not the least of the achievements of the suffragists collectively is the force of imagination they harnessed to define terms of political protest that reach into our own times. In nothing so much as powerful acts of the imagination might we take their lead, as we prepare our own “little propaganda play.” And we might do no worse than impress on our audiences the daring of the young actors, three women in their early twenties, who place themselves, body and soul, into the struggles of a former era and seek to define their own feminist struggles by their measure. In these encounters, there is no knowing which way the chips will fall. And because Ciara went one better than to order food—she cooked dinner for us both that evening—I’ll be proud to accompany her at its première on 16th June.

Susanne R. Day’s Toilers, Her Lost Play, as Reconstructed by Painted Bird performs at the Stack Theatre, CIT School of Music, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, 15th-18th June and 23rd-25th June, 2017.





3 comments on “Guest Post: Archive Fever by Thomas Conway

  1. I continue to be amazed at what I learn from you both. Thomas – you are a worthy guest blogger in this space! Sadly, I will be in Canada for the second half of June so won’t be able to make it to the play. 🙁

    • Thank you, Finola. We must meet in Cork, when you’re back, for tea and a catch up? Hope you have a lovely time in Canada x

  2. That is so exciting.To learn more about this remarkable woman or indeed to know anything of her at all is a rare privilege.Inspiring people that light life .Oh ,would love to see it and maybe that will happen .Love Niall xx

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