The Most Powerful Women in Irish History

The Most Powerful Women in Irish History

Most of Ireland’s known figures and historical greats are men. While deserving of accolades and reverence, Ireland has no dearth of women who are just as illustrious, resilient, and brave.

Each of these women in our list has made a lasting mark on Ireland, if not the entire world. Their stories continue to inspire us here at Celtic Knot.

Here are the greatest women in the history of Ireland you need to know.

Dr. james barry


How could a man have landed on this list? And be the first on it, no less!? (Read on…) Well, Dr. James led a colorful life. He was a respected military surgeon who rose in rank to become the inspector general of hospitals – one of the highest army medical posts during his time. He was as famous as he was short-tempered. Duels and arguments with fellow officers and doctors weren’t few. But Dr. Barry was revered as a human doctor and a zealous public health reformer. He was also peculiar – a vegetarian who shunned alcohol and traveled with a menagerie of small animals.

However, all these peculiarities pale in comparison to what they found out after his death in 1865.

He was, in fact, a woman!

Dr. James Barry was really Margaret Ann Bulkley, an Irishwoman who had lived as a man during the Victorian era. Margaret had taken on a different identity to be admitted as a university student.

Margaret was born in 1795 in Cork and lived at a time when women were neither allowed a formal education nor allowed to practice most professions. Of course, Margaret would have none of it. Because she had dared to dream, Margaret graduated from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1812 as James Barry and became a renowned doctor of medicine in London.


Mary Robinson is one of Ireland’s modern-day heroines. Hailing from Ballina, County Mayo, she rose to become the first female President of Ireland.

Before being elected president in 1990, Robinson had already sealed her reputation as a respected academic, barrister, and Senator. Some of the more important issues she advocated for include the rights to the legal availability of contraception, the rights for women to sit on juries, and the removal of the law requiring married women to resign from civil service.

She became Ireland’s most popular President by passing two important bills into law – the decriminalization of homosexuality and the legalization of contraception. She resigned late into her first term to take up an equally significant role – the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

She held this role until 2002 but still continues to work with top leaders on issues involving political, humanitarian, and environmental concerns.

mary robinson picture
constance markievicz


Constance Markievicz was the first female member of parliament (MP) elected to the House of Commons. She assumed the role in 1918, two years after dissenting against the British in 1916 Rising in Dublin. Markievicz was also known as Countess Markievicz. In addition to being an astute Irish politician, she was also recognized as a nationalist, suffragist, and socialist.

As a founding member of Fianna Éireann (an Irish nationalist youth organization), Cumann na mBan (The Irish Women’s Council), and the Irish Citizen Army, she took an active role in the 1916 Easter Rising, the period when Irish Republicans struggled to end British rule. She was sentenced to death but was given a reduced sentence on account of her gender.


The very first immigrant to the United States was… you guessed it. An Irish!

Annie Moore hailed from Cork, Ireland, and arrived on the shores of Ellis Island in New York harbor aboard the steamship Nevada in 1892. As the very first person to be processed and allowed entry, she was given an American 10 dollar gold piece by an American official.

She traveled and looked after her two brothers, Phillip (aged 7) and Anthony (aged 11), and went on to have 11 children of her own with Joseph Augustus Schayer, a German Catholic salesman.

Annie Moore died in 1924. Her unmarked grave was later identified in 2006. An Irish Blue Limestone Celtic Cross was unveiled at her final resting place.

annie moore
 ettie steinberg


Her name won’t ring a bell for most. But her story is worth more than the tolling of a single chime.

Ettie Steinberg was Ireland’s only Holocaust victim. She was born in what was then known as Czechoslovakia, but her family had moved to Dublin in the 1920s. She was a gifted seamstress. In 1937, she married Vogtjeck Gluck, a Belgian. The couple settled in Antwerp and had a son, Leon. But because they were Jewish, they had to move often for safety.

As they were waiting for their Irish passports in Toulouse, France, they were arrested and taken to Auschwitz. Their passports arrived the morning after their arrest.

Ettie managed to write a coded Hebrew message to her family in Ireland. She threw the postcard out the window of the train she was on. A kind-hearted stranger picked it up and sent it. Her family desperately tried to save her, but it was too late.


Veronica Guerin was a respected and revered journalist who exposed Ireland’s drug criminals. She started in the public relations industry but had transitioned to journalism in 1990 by writing for the Sunday Tribune and the Sunday Business Post.

She was a determined crime reporter who would pursue a story regardless of the risks involved. Quickly earning respect from both the police force, as well as high ranking criminal leaders, she would receive frequent death threats. Two shots were fired into her home in 1994 as a warning. She was granted 24-hour police escort and faithfully carried on with her work.

In 1996, two men who allegedly worked for convicted criminal John Gilligan followed her on a motorbike, pulled up beside her car, and shot her. Her death caused a public outrage, which ultimately led to the founding of the Criminal Asset Bureau and a massive crackdown on organized crime in the country.

 Veronica guerin

Cuir beannacht ar na mná is mó in Éirinn

(Salute to these greatest women of Ireland!)


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