Concannon, Helena (1878–1952)

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Concannon, Helena (1878–1952)

Irish scholar of works on Irish religious and women's history. Born Helena Walsh in Maghera, County Derry, Ireland, on October 28, 1878; died on February 27, 1952; educated at Loreto College, Dublin, the Royal University of Ireland, the Sorbonne, and the University of Berlin; married Thomas Concannon, in 1906.

Published first book (1915); member of Dail Eireann (1933–37) and of Seanad Eireann (1937–52).

Selected writings:

Life of St. Columban (1915); The Defence of Gaelic Civilisation (1919); Women of '98 (1919); Daughters of Banba (1922); Defenders of the Ford (1925); A Garden of Girls (1928); The Poor Clares in Ireland (1929); White Horsemen (1930); Irish Nuns in Penal Days (1931); At the Court of the Eucharistic King (1931); St. Patrick: His Life and Mission (1932); Blessed Oliver Plunket (1935); The Queen of Ireland (1938); The Cure of La Courneuve (1944); Poems (1953). With Thomas Concannon: Eamhain Macha (undated), Fianna Eireann (undated), Inis Fail (undated), Seoda na Sean (1924).

Born in Maghera, County Derry, on October 28, 1878, Helena Walsh was one of seven children of a close-knit and deeply religious family. The standards inculcated in her home would guide her throughout her days: according to her friend, Mary Macken , her life "was an amalgam of the human and the divine, embracing fatherland and family, husband and home, the Creator and his Creation as they stood revealed in the faith and practices of the Catholic Church."

The young Helena showed an outstanding intelligence and was fortunate in being one of the first generation of university-educated women. Having received her early education at the local national school, she went on to Loreto College in Dublin, and in 1897 won a Royal University scholarship in Modern Languages. In 1900, she took a BA with first-class honors, and her MA two years later. In 1929, her book, The Poor Clares in Ireland, won her a D.Litt from the National University of Ireland.

In 1900, Helena met Thomas Concannon, whom she married in 1906. The Concannons lived for a time in County Monaghan, and later moved to Galway, where Thomas was a civil servant. Among the many interests that they shared was the restoration of the Irish language. Thomas was a prominent figure in the Gaelic League, and Helena made extensive use of Irish-language sources in her historical works; she published a number of works in Irish in collaboration with her husband.

A fervent nationalist, Concannon supported Eamon de Valera in his opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. In 1933, she was elected to the Dail as representative for the National University of Ireland, and in 1937 to the Senate, in which she served until her death in 1952. As a public representative, she took pride in her regular attendance in the House, but Mary Clancy , in her assessment of the part played by female members in debates in the Dail and Senate during this period, takes a critical view of her contributions, which she describes as "regular though by no means impressive." As a member of de Valera's Fianna Fail party, Concannon committed herself to unwavering support for its policies "in a back-bench way." In her response to legislation relating to women, she subscribed to the conservative consensus that regarded the female role as primarily maternal and domestic. Thus, in 1936, she stated in the House: "Everybody has his or her own way of solving Ireland's ills. My method would be to make these rural domestic economy schools general … and make a course of six months compulsory on all Irish girls before they would be allowed to marry." In the following year, de Valera introduced a draft Constitution, which incorporated elements unacceptable to feminists, notably in its insistence on the primacy of women's domestic role. Although the Women Graduates' Association, of which she was a member, spearheaded the campaign against the new Constitution, Concannon herself fully approved the measure and spoke in its favor in the House.

Over these years, Concannon produced a steady stream of books and articles on religious and women's history. Her first work, Life of St. Columban (1915), was a scholarly biography that utilized her expertise as a linguist and historian, and was awarded a prize of $1,000 by the Catholic University of America. Two of her books, Daughters of Banba (1922) and St. Patrick (1932), received the Tailteann Medal for Literature, and The Poor Clares in Ireland (1929) won the National University Prize for Historical Research.

Concannon's historical writings reflected her belief that women had a distinctive, albeit circumscribed, role to play in the achievement of independence and in the shaping of independent Ireland. She dedicated her Daughters of Banba "to the memory of the unknown women, faithful and unnumbered, who in every age of Ireland's age-long struggle, have died of hunger and hardship, but ere they were gathered into their forgotten graves passed on still-living the unconquerable spirit of the Irish race." In this collection of biographies of distinguished Irishwomen, she remarked that "it is usually around the men of a country that its history is written; when it comes to pass that but half of its history is written, and that half, perhaps, not the more important." Her consciousness of this disparity set her apart from her contemporaries and has earned her the gratitude of her successors in this field. Though conservative in other aspects of her life, Concannon was a pioneering figure in the recovery of women's history in Ireland.


Brady, Anne M., and Brian Cleeve. A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers. Mullingar: Lilliput Press, 1985.

Clancy, Mary, "Aspects of women's contribution to the Oireachtas debate in the Irish Free State, 1922–37," in M. Luddy and C. Murphy, eds. Women Surviving: Studies in Irish Women's History in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1990, pp. 206–232.

Hoehn, Matthew, ed. Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches, 1930–1947. Newark, NJ: St Mary's Abbey, 1948.

Macken, Mary M. "Musings and memories: Helena Concannon," in Studies. Vol. XLII, March 1953, pp. 90–97.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland