Two stories on the ‘crime of being a woman’

MD O’Sullivan, professional women have ‘to overcome a world of prejudice’.

MD O’Sullivan, professional women have ‘to overcome a world of prejudice’.

Week III

Access to university education for women was the important influence in the early years of the last century. Women played vital roles in Galway society, as elsewhere, and were visibly, and successfully, running convents and schools, involved in nursing and teaching, even contesting local government elections, and taking up positions as public officials. The fact that until 1918 women had not the vote did not stop their public activism and achievement. But depriving women of the vote, and barring women from various professional associations because of their sex, branded them as second class citizens despite, in some cases, their university education.

Aleen Isabel Cust (1868 - 1937 ) was born at Cordangan Manor, Co Tipperary, into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. She was educated at home, and enjoyed all the privileges of her titled and army family, particularly her love of horses. She was a spirited and independent minded girl. When she announced that she wanted to be a nurse her family accepted her choice. But when she said that she was switching to study veterinary medicine, her family totally opposed her decision. They warned her that she would be cut off without a penny if she persisted. A vet was no job for a girl.

In 1896, having a small independent income, Aleen was admitted to study veterinary science at the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh, founded by Professor William Wlliams. To keep her secret from her family she changed her name to A I Custance. She completed her studies at the top of her class. But because she was a woman she was not allowed to take her Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS ) examination, essential if she was to practice animal medicine.

Professor Williams, however, was so impressed by her abilities, that he persuaded a practising vet in Roscommon, William Byrne, to take her on as an assistant. William was ‘An engaging personality, handsome, witty and popular locally.The arrival of Miss Cust caused consternation and scandalised the priesthood. But her competence and poise won her respect. Although she never married, there is reason to believe they lived as man and wife, and had two daughters.

After Byrne died she took over the practice making visits to farms riding side-saddle on her Arab stallion, or driving one of her several horses in a gig.’*

Galway County Council

Her reputation was such that she was appointed veterinary inspector by Galway County Council, despite objections from men that she had not received RCVS recognition. Nevertheless the county council stuck to its guns.

At the outbreak of World War I Aleen took leave to join the Army Auxiliary Corps where in France she cared for horses, thousands of which were used on and off the battlefield. She became seriously ill, convalesced in England, and returned to Ireland, picking up the threads of her practice. Following the Sex Disqualification (Removal ) Act 1919 she was granted membership of the RCVS. The first women vet to be recognised in Britain and Ireland.**

Professor M D O’Sullivan

And finally one of Galway’s great historians, from a university that has produced an impressive line of outstanding authorities on Galway and Ireland’s story, is Mary Donovan O’Sullivan (1887 - 1966 ).

Born in Fairhill, the only girl among 10 boys, to William and Bridget Donovan from Cork, Mary thrived at the Dominican convent, Taylor’s Hill, which had a mission to encourage young girls to succeed, and go to university. At Queens College Galway she graduated with an honours BA in modern languages, spent some time teaching in Germany before returning to Galway to further her academic career.

In 1914 she was appointed professor of history, the first woman professor in the college. Thereafter came a succession of appointments to historical, military, antiquarian, and manuscript societies. She was a pioneer in advocating new methods of teaching history in schools. She focused on the economic and social development of Galway, culminating in her enduring classic Old Galway - the History of a Norman Colony in Ireland, published in 1943. It must have been galling that her major life’s work was criticised by the renowned medievalist H G Richardson for her ‘paucity of medieval sources’.***

In her early adult years MD O’Sullivan was active in the suffrage movement in Galway, and writing in The Galway Express in the summer of 1913, five local women outlined the reasons for their support for women’s suffrage. M D O’Sullivan’s contribution suggests her personal struggle against prejudice and discrimination, and half pay ’for the crime of being a woman’.****

Next Week: Teachers struggle for equal pay .

NOTES: * Oxford Dictionary of Biography.

** Ireland had changed since before the war. Aleen was not comfortable with the changes. Her house was raided by the IRA. In 1924 she moved to the New Forest, Hampshire. Aleen was never reconciled with her family.

*** Marie Coleman, Dictionary of Irish Biography.

***** MD O’Sullivan’s father had served in the Royal Navy. During Wold War I she served as president of the Galway ladies recruiting committee. She married Maj Jeremiah O’Sullivan, who served in the British Army, Royal Engineers, and later was employed by the Irish Land Commission. She was attacked for being anti-Irish by Stephen Quinn in the Catholic Bulletin. She and her husband lived at ‘Lisgorm’, Rockbarton, Salthill. Sources this week include The Galway Express, and Mary Clancy’s Campaigning for the vote in early 20th century Galway.

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