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Locating women within the Irish Department of External Affairs: a case study of Irish women at the League of Nations and United Nations, 1923–76

  • Ann Marie O'Brien (a1)


By using the League of Nations and United Nations as case studies, this article identifies the women working at the diplomatic level in the Irish Department of External Affairs (D.E.A.) in the period 1923–76. Drawing on gender analysis, the article assesses where men and women were positioned in Irish diplomacy and asks if the role of women in the D.E.A. was shaped by a gendered viewpoint. It argues that there were more opportunities for women within the United Nations than the League of Nations and it questions if these increased diplomatic opportunities were reflective of women's changing status within the D.E.A. in the period under investigation. Overall, the article offers a new perspective on the conduct of Irish foreign policy between 1923 and 1976.


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*Department of History, University of Limerick,


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1 For more on the International Council of Women, see Gubin, Eliane and van Molle, Leen (eds), Women changing the world: a history of the International Women's Council, 1888–1988 (Brussels, 2005). For a history of the international women's movement, see Rupp, Leila J., Worlds of women: the making of an international women's movement (New Jersey, 1997).

2 Bussey, Gertrude and Tims, Margaret, Pioneers for peace: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1965 (Oxford, 1980), p. 17.

3 Pietilä, Hilka, The unfinished story of women and the United Nations (New York, 2007), pp 23.

4 Galey, Margaret E., ‘Forerunners in women's quest for partnership’ in Winslow, Anne (ed.), Women, politics and the United Nations (London, 1995), p. 2.

5 Pietilä, The unfinished story , p. 2.

6 Cullen, Mary, ‘Women, emancipation and politics, 1860–1984’ in Hill, J. R. (ed.), A new history of Ireland, vii: Ireland, 1921–84 (Oxford, 2003), p. 857.

7 Keown, Gerard, First of the small nations: the beginnings of Irish foreign policy in the interwar years, 1919–1932 (Oxford, 2016), p. 34.

8 Ibid.

9 Calkin, Homer L., Women in the Department of State: their role in American foreign affairs (Washington D.C., 1978); Crapol, Edward P., Women and American foreign policy: lobbyists, critics and insiders (Wilmington, 1992).

10 McCarthy, Helen, Women of the world: the rise of the female diplomat (London, 2014); Stienstra, Deborah, ‘Can the silence be broken? Gender and Canadian foreign policy’ in International Journal, l, no. 1 (1994/1995), pp 103–27; Weiers, Margaret K., Envoys extraordinary: women of the Canadian foreign service (Toronto, 1995).

11 Hughes, Vivien, ‘Women, gender and Canadian foreign policy, 1909–2009’ in British Journal of Canadian Studies, xxiii, no. 2 (Sept. 2010), pp 159–60.

12 McCarthy, Women of the world.

13 Wood, Molly M., ‘Diplomatic wives: the politics of domesticity and the “Social Game” in the US foreign service, 1905–1941’ in Journal of Women's History, xvii, no. 2 (Summer 2005), p. 143.

14 Costigliola, Frank, ‘Pamela Churchill, wartime London, and the making of the special relationship’ in Diplomatic History, xxxvi, no. 4 (Sept. 2012), p. 754.

15 Kennedy, Michael, ‘“It is a disadvantage to be represented by a woman”: the experiences of women in the Irish diplomatic service’ in Irish Studies in International Affairs, xiii (2002), pp 215–35.

16 O'Brien, Máire Cruise, The same age as the state (Dublin, 2004).

17 Kennedy, ‘“It is a disadvantage to be represented by a woman”’, p. 216.

18 Ann Marie O'Brien, ‘“The special combination of qualities and experiences desirable in diplomacy is less frequently found in women than in men”: a study of the entry into and experiences of female diplomats in the Irish Department of External Affairs/Foreign Affairs, 1919–86’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Limerick, 2016), pp 38–43, 52–60.

19 Ibid., p. 81.

20 Keogh, Dermot, ‘Profile of Joseph Walshe, secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, 1922–46’ in Irish Studies in International Affairs, iii, no. 2 (1990), p. 75.

21 Memorandum from Ministry of Finance to ministries and departments, 9 May 1924 (N.A.I., DFA E109/2/33).

22 Civil Service (Amendment) Act (1926/41 (22 Sept. 1926)).

23 For example, see the Juries Act (1927/23 (26 May 1927)), the Conditions of Employment Act (1936/2 (14 Feb. 1936)), and article 41.2 in the Constitution of Ireland ( (5 Jan. 2019).

24 Report of the committee on the admission of women to the diplomatic and consular services [C. 5166], H.C. 1934 (7 Nov. 1934), p. 3.

25 Neumann, Iver B., ‘The body of the diplomat’ in European Journal of International Relations, xiv, no. 4 (Dec. 2008), p. 676.

26 The next appointment after Atcherson occurred in 1926. Calkin, Women in the Department of State (Washington D.C., 1978), p. 72.

27 Herren, Madeleine, ‘Gender and international relations through the lens of the League of Nations (1919–1945)’ in Sluga, Glenda and James, Carolyn (eds), Women, diplomacy and international politics since 1500 (Oxford, 2016), p. 183.

28 The Covenant of the League of Nations, 1924, available at the Avalon Project, Yale Law School ( (17 Aug. 2018).

29 Galey, ‘Forerunners in women's quest for partnership’, p. 5.

30 List of Saorstát citizens on the staff of the League of Nations, 5 Apr. 1928, (N.A.I., DFA 2/26/8).

31 League of Nations, general organisation of the secretariat, Aug. 1929 (N.A.I., DFA 2/26/8).

32 Herren, ‘Gender and international relations’, p. 182.

33 Helen McCarthy, ‘Gendering diplomatic history: women in the British diplomatic service, circa 1919–1972’ in Sluga & James (eds), Women, diplomacy and international politics, p. 180.

34 ‘Swanwick [née Sickert], Helena Maria Lucy (1864–1939)’ in Oxford D.N.B.

35 Carol Miller, ‘Lobbying the league: women's international organizations and the League of Nations’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1992), p. 102.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 International Council of Women to W. T. Cosgrave, 27 Sept. 1926 (N.A.I., TSCH/S8177).

39 My thanks to Maureen Sweeney, archivist, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for providing me with Rosita Austin's curriculum vitae.

40 J. P. Walshe, Department of External Affairs memorandum, Dec. 1926 (N.A.I., TSCH/S5337).

41 McCarthy, Women of the world, p. 120.

42 Crowdy, Rachel E., ‘The humanitarian activities of the League of Nations’ in Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, vi, no. 3 (1927), p. 153.

43 Michael Kennedy, ‘Murphy, Sheila Geraldine Mary (1898–1983)’ in D.I.B.

44 O'Brien, Conor Cruise, Memoir: my life and themes (Dublin, 1999), pp 133–4.

45 For example, see Boland to Murphy, 26 Oct. 1939 (N.A.I., DFA 227/23).

46 Kennedy, “‘It is a disadvantage to be represented by a woman’”, p. 229.

47 ‘Memorandum for the Government: appointment of Irish minister to the Netherlands’, 2 Aug. 1949 (N.A.I., TSCH/S14366A/1).

48 Pietilä, The unfinished story of women and the United Nations, pp 9–10.

49 Article eight, Charter of the United Nations, 1945, available at United Nations ( (17 Aug. 2018).

50 Report by Frederick Boland, permanent representative to the U.N., submitted to government, 8 Apr. 1957 (N.A.I., TSCH/S16051A); Joseph Morrison Skelly, Irish diplomacy at the United Nations, 1945–1965: national interests and the international order (Dublin, 1997), p. 296.

51 Kennedy, ‘Murphy, Sheila Geraldine Mary (1898–1983)’ in D.I.B.

52 Kennedy, ‘“It is a disadvantage to be represented by a woman”’, p. 220.

53 Frederick Boland to Sheila Murphy, 28 Jan. 1952 (telegram) (N.A.I., DFA 417/33, part 4); memorandum by Sheila Murphy, ‘Obligations arising out of membership of the United Nations’, 28 Jan. 1952 (ibid.); Political Section memorandum, ‘Ireland's application for membership of the United Nations Organisation’, 22 Sept. 1954 (N.A.I., DFA 417/22, part 6).

54 Bryson, Anna, No coward soul: a biography of Thekla Beere (Dublin, 2009), p. 78.

55 Ibid., p. 65.

56 de Paor, Neans, ‘Women in the civil service’ in Administration, iii, nos 2–3 (1955), p. 144.

57 Bryson, No coward soul, p. 81.

58 Eleanor Roosevelt, On my own (London, 1959), p. 59.

59 U.N. General Assembly, 11th session agenda, 1956 (N.A.I., DFA Permanent Mission to the United Nations (hereafter P.M.U.N.) no. 253).

60 U.N. General Assembly, 9th session, Third Committee, 6 Dec. 1956 (N.A.I., DFA 417/166, part 1A).

61 Constitution of Ireland ( (5 Jan. 2019). See also Myrtle Hill, Women in Ireland: a century of change (Belfast, 2003).

62 Department memorandum for the government, ‘U.N. Convention on the Nationality of Married Women’, 20 Feb. 1957 (N.A.I., DFA 417/166, part 1A).

63 Report from Frederick Boland submitted to the Irish Government, 8 Apr. 1957 (N.A.I., TSCH/S16051A).

64 Cruise O'Brien, The same age as the state, p. 185.

65 Thom's directory of Ireland (Dublin, 1958), p. 140.

66 Ibid., p. 219.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid., p. 141.

69 Ibid., p. 221.

70 Speeches at the U.N., 1957 (N.A.I., DFA P.M.U.N. no. 196).

71 Cruise O'Brien, The same age as the state, p. 221.

72 Ibid., p. 222.

73 Irish intervention on the agenda of the Third Committee, 2 Oct. 1958 (N.A.I., DFA 313/36/1).

74 Speeches at the U.N., 1957 (N.A.I., DFA P.M.U.N. no. 196).

75 Minutes of the final delegation meeting for the 12th session of the U.N. General Assembly, 17 Dec. 1957 (N.A.I., DFA P.M.U.N. no. 269).

76 Skelly, Irish diplomacy at the United Nations, pp 296–7.

77 Interview with Marie Cross (25 Sept. 2013).

78 Patrick Keatinge, The formulation of Irish foreign policy (Dublin, 1973), pp 297–8.

79 Marie Cross, third secretary; Mary Tinney, counsellor; M. Lee, third secretary; Eilis MacCurtain, third secretary; Mary Lorrigan, third secretary; Helen Gavigan, vice-consul in Chicago; and Carmel O'Leary, vice-consul in Boston (see Thom's directory of Ireland (Dublin), for the years 1971–80).

80 Garret FitzGerald to Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the U.N., 15 Sept. 1975 (N.A.I., DFA 2006/72/27).

81 Delegation meeting reports, 31st session of the U.N., 1976 (N.A.I., DFA 2006/72/12).

82 Cullen, ‘Women, emancipation, and politics, 1860–1984’, p. 880.

83 Martin Gruberg, ‘Official commissions on the status of women: a worldwide movement’ in International Review of Education, xix (1973), p. 140.

84 Commission on the Status of Women, report to the minister for finance (Dublin, 1972), p. 12.

85 Civil Service (Employment of Married Women) Act (1973/17 (31 July 1973)); Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act (1974/15 (1 July 1974)).

86 The Department of External Affairs changed its name to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1973.

87 My thanks to the former Irish diplomats who agreed to be interviewed as part of my research.

88 Interview with Kathleen White (13 Aug. 2013).

89 Ibid.

90 O'Brien, ‘“The special combination”’, p. 249.

91 Ibid., pp 239–40.

92 Gender equality audit, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 16 December 2013, available at Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website ( (9 Aug. 2018). This article draws on my Ph.D. thesis: “The special combination”. I am grateful to the Irish Research Council for supporting this research.

Locating women within the Irish Department of External Affairs: a case study of Irish women at the League of Nations and United Nations, 1923–76

  • Ann Marie O'Brien (a1)


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