Electrification & the Modern Wife

The electrification of rural Ireland began in 1946. There has been a lot of coverage of this process in the last few days. RTÉ Archives shared this link about the ‘Quiet Revolution’, while TheJournal.ie posted this piece about how the social history of Ireland began to change as a result of rural electrification. And then yesterday, RTÉ Radio 1: Documentary on One broadcast ‘Then there was light‘. In the blurb for the doc, it was noted: Continue reading “Electrification & the Modern Wife”

Modern Wife, Modern Life one year on.

Four Exhibition Locations

(L to R): National Print Museum, dlr LexIcon, Wexford Town Library, Westport Library. 

Just over one year ago, Modern Wife, Modern Life: an Exhibition of Women’s Magazines from 1960s Ireland opened at the National Print Museum in Dublin (1 July – 30 August 2015). Since then, it has gone on to visit dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Wexford Town Library, and Westport Library in Mayo. Leaving Ireland this summer, the exhibition travels next to the UK. Keep an eye on this website for details of venues and dates.

While the exhibition was on display at the various locations, I organised a series of related events. I gave curator’s tours at the National Print Museum and, in conjunction with the excellent Press Cafe, we held a 1960s cake afternoon. At dlr LexIcon, I was joined by author Lorna Sixsmith and we discussed expectations of marriage in 1960s Ireland; you can find the podcast here. And I spoke on International Women’s Day at Wexford Town Library about feminist themes in the magazines.

The exhibition, which looks at expectations of women as seen through the lens of magazines from 1960s Ireland, has proved popular, attracting individual visitors, women’s groups, and school / university groups from around Ireland and beyond.

How times have changed! Not sure I’ll be taking any of the advice – loved the quizzes though, learnt a thing or two!

~ Victoria from London

A wonderfully engaging exhibit. A unique insight into an earlier Ireland.

~ Sharon from Dublin

Very funny! Enjoyed it.

~ Myra from Sligo

Brilliant exhibition. Definitely belongs in a museum though!

~ Ian from Wicklow

 Very interesting exhibition!

~ Paola from Italy

So glad this time has passed!

~ Dianne from Richmond, USA


The exhibition also received a lot of media coverage, including pieces in the Irish TimesIrish ExaminerIrish IndependentThe Farmers’ Journal and TheJournal.ie.

A special word of thanks is due to all at the National Print Museum – especially Carla Marrinan – for giving me the opportunity to display the exhibition, for their advice and guidance, and for financially supporting the endeavour. Thanks are also due to those people who supported a crowd-funding campaign and to my employer, the University of Hertfordshire, for further funding that helped make the exhibition possible. I extend my appreciation to the National Library of Ireland and Aine Toner at Woman’s Way for permission to reproduce images from the women’s magazines on display. The original exhibition of magazines at the Print Museum was supplemented with everyday objects crowd-sourced from members of the public – to everyone who loaned me items, thank you! A particular word of thanks is due to David Kenny who kept the project ticking over in my absence while I was busy during teaching term in the UK.


Marian Keyes, Senior Executive Librarian at dlr LexIcon, introducing Ciara Meehan and Lorna Sixsmith

Podcast: Ciara Meehan & Lorna Sixsmith on 1960s Marriage

Marian Keyes, Senior Executive Librarian at dlr LexIcon, introducing Ciara Meehan and Lorna Sixsmith. Credit: Michael Liffey / Real Smart Media.

dlr LexIcon hosted a special event in association with the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition on 31 October 2015.

Ciara Meehan, historian and Modern Wife, Modern Life curator, and Lorna Sixsmith, author of the recently published How to Be a Perfect Farm Wife, discussed expectations of marriage in 1960s Ireland.

You can now listen back to a podcast of that conversation.

This podcast was recorded by Real Smart Media, and was generously funded by the History Group, School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire.

Modern Wife, Modern Life: an Exhibition of Women’s Magazines is on display on the 5th floor (wheelchair accessible) of dlr LexIcon until 15 January 2016.

Buy a copy of Lorna Sixsmith’s Would You Marry a Farmer? or How to be a Perfect Farm Wife here.

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Review: Lorna Sixsmith’s How to be a Perfect Farm Wife

As an historian and the curator of the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition, my research focusses on women’s magazines (Woman’s Way, Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View) published in 1960s Ireland. I’ve read them for what they reveal about expectations of women – particularly housewives – during a decade of transformation. The message for the housewife is clear: in addition to being a dutiful wife, caring mother, parsimonious with the household budget and well turned out in her appearance, the good wife was also expected to have all the latest mod cons.  These included a fridge, electric cooker, washing machine –– even a dishwasher! Essentially, ideal wife and modern wife became blended into the one ideal.

But on closer inspection, how representative or accurate was this image of the real 1960s housewife? What about the women living in those parts of rural Ireland that the electrification project had yet to reach? For these women, the absence of piped water or electricity meant that mod cons could be nothing more than aspirational items. Rural Ireland and farm wives rarely appeared in the magazines, with the notable exception of the praise that was heaped on them for the entrepreneurial spirit they showed in earning ‘pin money’ by selling eggs.

As I’m interested in getting a broader sense of how everyday life was experienced by women of different generations and of all backgrounds, I was really keen to read Lorna Sixsmith’s latest book, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife. I was delighted when Lorna invited me to make my blog one of the stops on her book tour.

I met Lorna earlier this year when I took my 1960s women road show to Portlaoise where she shared some really interesting insights into life on a farm, and we recently reflected on 1960s marriage during an ‘in conversation’ event at dlr LexIcon. Her book builds on the wonderful stories I’ve heard her share, and as I read it on a long train journey a few weekends ago, I found myself laughing out loud, getting a little teary eyed – the story about the Aberdeen Angus bull calf nearly broke me! – and reflecting on the position of women in rural society.

How to be a Perfect Farm Wife does not claim to be a rigorous historical analysis of Irish farmers’ wives, but Lorna clearly has a strong sense of the lines of continuity and change across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Drawing on her own experiences, she writes with authority. Her observations are given further legitimacy by the use of newspaper extracts – mostly personal advertisements – which are scattered throughout the book. They offer revealing glimpses into a system of values that often guided the forging of a relationship.

As I read the book I couldn’t help but think of the magazines I research and their urban outlook. If they were to be believed, farmwives did all the same things as urban housewives but also collected eggs from their hens. Lorna’s book reveals the truth and shows just how demanding the average working day was for the farmwife. I was particularly struck by a remark from one of her interviewees: ‘we didn’t have time to think about morning sickness; we just got on with it’ (p. 25). All of the challenges facing women in their daily lives were further complicated by the necessity of keeping the farm running.

One element of the book that really caused me to pause for reflection actually has very little to do with the farm wife herself. The writing of women’s history in Ireland has tended to focus largely on revolutionary or political women. More recent scholarship has begun to examine the experience of everyday life, but the spinster has been largely neglected. By offering guidance on negotiating the relationship not just with the mother-in-law but also spinster sisters, Lorna sheds light on these overlooked women who existed in a greater quantity than women’s magazines would have us believe. (Magazines were filled with advice on attracting a husband and being a good wife, and left little space to address the lifestyle of those who could not or would not marry). Lorna’s book, though not tackling the subject of spinsterhood in depth, thus makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the position of women in society.

'The Young Wife' (1938) marriage manual
The Young Wife marriage manual (3rd edition, 1938).

Filled with such tips as ‘how to prepare a chicken for the table’ and ‘how to use traditional cleaning materials’, as well as a wonderful collection of classic recipes, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife reminded me a lot of the marriage manuals that newlyweds either bought for themselves or received as presents in the first half of the twentieth-century. They fell out of fashion by the middle of the century, but a cursory glance at Amazon suggests that more humorous takes on the traditional manual are making a come-back. I would suggest, however, that Lorna Sixsmith’s book has an advantage over many of its rivals. How to be a Perfect Farm Wife is not simply a delightful page-turner, nor is it only for those from a farming background. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title and chapter headings that suggest a light-hearted read, the book is eminently informative and revealing about the position of women in Irish society. As such, it should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history.

~ Ciara Meehan



For details of earlier stops on the How to be a Perfect Farm Wife blog tour and for details of upcoming reviews, visit Lorna’s website here. The next review will be posted on 19 November by Catherina Cunnane of That’s Farming.

Female Editors, Advice Columns and Downton Abbey

As the final series of Downton Abbey draws to a close, I’ve found myself following one of the minor storylines with great interest. The office of Lady Edith’s magazine – inherited from her deceased love interest, Michael Gregson – has increasingly provided a space this season for the Crawley’s middle daughter to develop more substantially as a leading character. The appointment of a female editor and the addition of an agony aunt to the staff have reminded me of questions I am commonly asked about my own research into women’s magazines. The conversation about the identity of the agony aunt, in particular, has been very familiar to me.

Women at the Helm

With the ‘passage of time’ being the (sometimes over-laboured) theme interwoven through this season’s episodes, it is hardly surprising that Edith’s office has become a key location in which the shift into a ‘new world’ can be identified. When her tumultuous working relationship with Mr Skinner, the magazine’s chief editor, comes to an abrupt end in episode three, viewers are subsequently privy to Edith’s search for his replacement, which comes in the form of Laura Edmunds. We’re reminded again of the socio-cultural shift that is occurring when Edmunds’ reflection that 1892 – her year of birth – is ‘another time, another age’, prompts Edith to suggest a piece on ‘Victorian babies grown into modern women’ (episode 5).

While this season of Downton is set in the 1920s, I am regularly asked about the gender of those who produced and wrote for the 1960s magazines that feature in the Modern Wife exhibition. While Woman’s Way began life with a male editor, it wasn’t long before a woman was at the helm, while women also penned the majority of the content. The same was true of Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View. Monica Sheridan, Maura Laverty, Angela Macnamara, Eithne Brady and Philomena Groake would have been household names. Visitors who came on my guided tours of the exhibition when it was at the National Print Museum were often surprised to learn this, having assumed that men would have held at least the key positions.

Fabricating Letters

In episode seven of Downton, Miss Cassandra Jones offers her services as an advice columnist to the magazine. It is suggested by Edmunds,

We’ll invent some problems. She’ll write the answers, and we’ll see how the public likes it.

In the following episode, Miss Jones is revealed to be Spratt, the Dowager Countess’ male butler. The plotline across these two episodes points to the quasi-fictitious nature of agony aunts in magazines and newspapers.

Screenshot of Spratt being revealed as Miss Jones. Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 8.
ScreenScreengrabgrab of Spratt being revealed as Miss Jones. Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 8.

If we cannot be sure of the true identity of advice columnists or of the authenticity of the letters, are these elements of women’s magazines therefore useless to the researcher? Some of the replies clearly indicate that the published letter had first been condensed (usually due to constraints on space). People don’t typically write conveniently short letters that fit comfortably side-by-side with that week’s chosen bunch. Are we thus missing out on vital information, or even details that seem incidental at the time but later would help a researcher build a profile of the readership? And the problem is almost invariably well expressed – one might even say eloquently so, at times. Given the consistently well-structured style of writing, should we assume that the letters are also heavily edited? Therefore, are we really getting an insight into the everyday lives of the magazine’s readers and the problems that they face?

Despite all of these legitimate concerns, I’ve chosen to include advice from both Angela Macnamara (Woman’s Way) and Sheila Collins (Woman’s Choice) in the Modern Wife exhibition, and not just because their columns were regular features in their respective magazines. I believe that both the letters and the answers reveal much about societal norms and values. We know from Macnamara’s memoir Yours Sincerely that she received bags of correspondence on a weekly basis, so people were definitely writing to her. But if the published letters are fabricated or an amalgamation of dozens that raised similar issues, they are still useful, even if we can’t separate the real from the fictitious. That the magazine has chosen to create letters on a certain topic – perhaps on the issue of contraception or domestic violence – implies an importance attached to that topic. Perhaps the magazine is attempting to raise a controversial topic under the guise of an innocent reader’s query. And if the letter that actually appears in the magazine is actually an amalgam of multiple letters, that only points to the frequency with which certain issues were experienced. Like most primary sources used by historians, the advice columns are not without their problems. But to ignore them would be to cast aside useful documents of social history.