‘A Little Irish Cailín in an Ould Plaid Shawl’: The “Colleen” Archetype and the Construction of Irishness

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2023
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Haverford College. Department of History
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Thesis
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Award
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eng
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Tri-College users only until 2028-01-01, afterwards Open Access
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Abstract
In 1922, 26 counties of Ireland established the Irish Free State and ended their formal connection to the United Kingdom. They aimed to remake themselves into the true Irish country they had been before English colonization. But in such an Ireland that ostensibly rejected the colonizer, the “colleen” archetype, always a portrait of a young Irish woman, had already embedded colonial gender and class structures into Irishness. In the hands of nineteenth-century tourists, philanthropists, and nationalists, the Irish colleen was unfailingly traditional. Connected to nature and the land, “lithe as a mountain deer,” the colleen exemplified an earthy femininity, grounded by her bare feet, and adorned by her cloak or shawl. This thesis argues that, by deploying the colleen as a symbol of Irish femininity, Irish national culture reappropriated a colonial power structure. It took on the characteristics externally ascribed to it while proclaiming that it had moved past its colonization. This work traces the colleen’s path through travel books, visual and aural media, “Irish villages” at international exhibitions including the 1893 World Colombian Exposition in Chicago, and nationalist organizations like the Cumann na gClocaí. This thesis’ final section explores how actual Irish women’s desire to wear modern clothing changed the colleen in the post-Independence Free State. No longer a clear archetype, she became a vaguer model of chastity and modesty. Her cloak and shawl then disappeared into the archive, to be made into historical icons of the nation.
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