Nannie Power O’Donoghue was one of the first real doyennes of Irish journalism, and over a life so long that it stretched from the Famine to World War Two she wrote books, articles, opinion columns and worked as an editor. Born Ann Stewart Lyster Lambert, but always known as Nannie, she was the daughter of a minor (but wealthy) sprig of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Her family’s primary estate was Castle Ellen in Co. Galway, and Edward Carson was her cousin. She grew up there and in Dublin, part of the elite world of Castle social events in the city and the hunting, shooting and fishing life of the countryside.
Her youthful interests focused on horse-riding and writing, two skills which would she would soon combine to form the basis of her career. Immediately before her marriage at the age of 26 to the composer William Power O’Donoghue (who was from a wealthy Cork business family) she published her first novel, entitled The Knave of Clubs. It appears to have been an entirely predictable mid-Victorian romance novel, and was followed in later years by a book of poetry, also of a generally sentimental variety. It was not until her late thirties however that she achieved any recognition for her writing, and that was for a very different kind of work. In 1881 she published a series of articles in the English magazine Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News offering advice on riding technique and etiquette for women. These were immensely popular and republished in book form as Ladies on Horseback, followed a few years later by another book entitled Riding for Ladies (1887). This was a best-seller, being translated into several languages and reprinted many times, and it established Power O’Donoghue as a writer and an authority on female equestrianism who is still cited today, even if her views on the requirement for ladies to ride side-saddle have disappeared. She continued to write novels (one of which, A Beggar on Horseback, had a Fenian theme), but also began to produce journalism for a variety of newspapers and periodicals.
Clearly Power O’Donoghue had been a committed writer since her youth, but by this time she also had other reasons to write commercially. She and her husband lost a substantial amount of their money in the crash of the Munster Bank in 1885, and it seems clear that from then on, her income from journalism and publishing became important to the family finances. By the 1890s she was a member of the Dublin branch of the Institute for Journalists, and was apparently one of the few women members at that time. It was around the same time that she began working for Irish Society, which described itself as having the ‘guaranteed Largest Circulation in Ireland of any Society paper published in the United Kingdom, and three times that of any Irish weekly journal or periodical.’ They published accounts of high society parties, Castle levées, upper-class ‘at homes’, engagement and wedding announcements and reviews of fashionable concerts, charity events, theatre performances and other activities of the small but wealthy social group which lived between their Dublin townhouses and country estates. This was the world which Power O’Donoghue had been born into, and she wrote for it with obvious ease and authority. Irish Society was owned and published by Ernest Manico from his extremely successful D’Olier Street offices, as discussed in a previous post here. But by 1900 (if not before) Power O’Donoghue was its de facto editor, and was the clear ‘voice’ of the paper each week via her editorial column. Entitled, with very Victorian long-windedness, ‘De Die In Diem. Or, Casual Jottings. By Candid Jane (Mrs Power O’Donoghue)’ it was a weekly catalogue of her views on topical issues for its readership, ranging from the management of charity bazaars to the ‘woman question’.
Power O’Donoghue’s editorial voice echoed very clearly from these columns, with strong (and occasionally controversial) views given with great confidence in her own authority. And the views which emerge were – for the most part – entirely in keeping with her class and background. She was deeply conservative in most matters, including the pressing political issues of the day when they arose. She was opposed to the promotion of the Irish language, for example, dismissing it (and the ‘so-called Gaelic League’) as just ‘gas’. She was also condemnatory of the 1913 Lockout, and of the ever-growing suffragette campaign. On social matters she had obvious sympathies with the social purity movement, expressing support for teetotalism and the condemnation of ‘racy’ novels. She also reported approvingly of the 1914 meeting of the Catholic Truth Society and their campaign against ‘immoral’ reading matter. In this respect – if perhaps no other – her views resembled the Gladstonian Liberalism of the Lord Lieutenant Lord Aberdeen, and his indefatigable wife Lady Aberdeen. Like them, she supported the generally Catholic and nationalist social purity movement despite being a member of the Protestant upper-classes, although unlike them all of her other politics appear to have been Tory and Unionist.
Disapproval was one of the most common tones of her editorials, and it is striking how often this was directed at other (and younger) women. Her coverage of high society (in both London and Dublin) was peppered with censorious remarks about young women’s dress, deportment, behaviour and expectations. Some of these cast a frankly surprising light on high society fashions from the years immediately before World War One, as she castigates women for wearing skirts split to the thigh, bare legs, wigs dyed in primary colours such as blue, green or scarlet, and even body paint. In early 1914 she described the presence of a ‘society lady, having a swallow painted on one cheek and a bee on the other and wearing a rose-coloured wig and skirt split to the waist’ at a recent London party. She also disapproved of a high-society fashion for exotic and eccentric pets, claiming to have met a woman at the famous Hydropathic Hotel in Blarney who kept a giant mulberry-eating caterpillar, which walked along her arms and shoulders as she sat in public. If these aspects of high society life on the very eve of war seem surprisingly modern to us (especially the tattoos and brightly-coloured hair), to Power O’Donoghue they seemed annoyingly so, and she called women who adopted such fashions ‘devoid of sense’. A couple of years earlier she had complained that ‘A few years ago young women were content with womanly occupations and recreations; now such things nauseate and pall. To act like men, dress like them, go in for their amusements, and do just as they do, without any sense of risk or fitness is the seeming aim of the inconsequent girls of today’, and she would go on to criticise suffragettes as well, approvingly citing a sentencing judge who referred to them as ‘demented creatures’.
In this respect, Power O’Donoghue was caught in the trap of other prominent conservative (and especially anti-suffrage) women of the era in that while she was uneasy at best and horrified at worst by ‘modern’ women’s assertiveness and increasing presence in the public sphere, she was herself both assertive and living very prominently in that very same public sphere. The most famous example of this contradiction was the British writer Eliza Lynn Linton, author of the influential 1868 essay ‘The Girl of the Period’, which condemned the modern girl in much the same tone as Power O’Donoghue would a generation later. Linton also condemned women’s suffrage campaigners and any women wishing to enter politics or pursue renown of any kind. And yet she herself was extremely well-known, had supported herself through her journalism and other writing since separating from her husband after only a few years of marriage, and was therefore hardly an example of the modest and retiring ‘angel of the house’ she advocated for other women. She also strongly supported some of the new rights women acquired during the nineteenth century, especially the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, presumably, one is forced to conclude, because as a separated woman it benefited her personally.
The limits of Power O’Donoghue’s own conservatism about women’s behaviour and lifestyles appear similarly self-serving, in the form of her vocal and enthusiastic support for women’s paid work. As a major contributor to her own family’s income after the loss of their money in the Munster Bank crash, this was an aspect of women’s emancipation which touched her personally, and she expressed typically strong views on the subject. She sometimes wrote approvingly of ‘bachelor girls’ who earned their own living and even lived independently, once referring to one who ‘has exactly a hundred a year’ but lived ‘as a lady…even though she does her own housework.’ The theme became more pronounced during World War One however, when more and more young women began replacing men in jobs they’d never been allowed to take before. Writing from London in August 1916, Power O’Donoghue commented that ‘The female carters, letter-carriers, ticket-checkers, and lift controllers, are a pleasure to look at and are nicely mannered to the public and to one another’, and the following month she asked Irish Society readers ‘I wonder whether you love, as I do, seeing women do something for themselves instead of being always dependent upon men, or on other members of their family’. As a woman of increasing independence after the first success of her books in the 1880s, she showed considerable sympathy and even quite boisterous support for other women of all classes who sought a similar life, going so far during World War One as to suggest mass conscription of men so as to ‘leave the field to women who are rapidly proving themselves fit and worthy workers’. If she ever saw the contradiction between her approval of women’s move into the world of work and her disapproval of their fight for the vote, she never showed it. In this respect she was a classic example of the privileged, instinctively conservative nineteenth-century women who were often best-placed to pioneer female access to the public sphere because of their social status and personal contacts, but who did not sympathise with the broader campaign for women’s rights, and indeed were sometimes among the harshest critics of the ‘new woman’.
Still working as Irish Society’s editor in 1916 (at the age of 73), Power O’Donoghue lived through the Easter Rising in the most literal fashion, as by then she was living in the Gresham Hotel and spent the week there, trapped inside the barricades and in considerable danger at times. She wrote about her experiences in an editorial shortly after the end of the Rising, including the occasions when she had tended to dying soldiers in her capacity as a Red Cross volunteer. She never tempered her imperialist Unionism however, condemning expressions of sympathy for the ‘brave boys’ among the rebels even during the week of their executions, sternly commenting that such feelings were ‘very creditable from a sentimental point of view, perhaps, but rather feeble from a logical and moral standpoint’.
Irish Society, with its emphasis upon the social and cultural world of the Castle, the Court and the aristocracy, did not last long after Irish Independence. But Power O’Donoghue did last, and she did so in Ireland, rather than departing for England as many of her class and political views did in the years after 1922. She lived in Dublin throughout the 1920s and 1930s, still pursuing her interests in animal welfare by serving on the committee of the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals when she was into her 90s, and she eventually died in the city in January 1940. Over her long career as a writer, she produced best-selling books, articles and columns for the Daily Express, the Evening Herald, Lady’s Pictorial and the Irish Times, as well as editing Irish Society for more than 20 years, making her one of the most visible women journalists in Ireland for several decades.
Dictionary of Irish Biography (Nannie Power O’Donoghue) dib.cambridge.org
Olga E Lockley, Nannie Lambert Power O’Donoghue: a biography (Preston: Bee Press, 2001)
Nannie Power O’Donoghue, A Beggar on Horseback (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1884)
Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Riding for Ladies: with hints on the stable (London: Thacker & Co, 1887).