Trinity College Professor Discuses 1840s Power Dynamics

Love, Power, Consent

Love, power, and consent in relationships is timeless, even among the love affairs of 1840s Ireland.

On Tuesday evening, Ciaran O’Neill, a professor from Trinity College Dublin, sparked a conversation surrounding an unpublished diary of a young Irish man. The night addressed topics surrounding consent, class, and moral conduct. O’Neill explained the distinction between men and women is not solely based on apparent differences, but on the gender differences of power and powerlessness. Power, as explained by O’Neill, is fundamental, even in an intimate relationship.

O’Neill opened his discussion with references to recent popular press stories including those of Harvey Weinstein, a former film producer who was accused by dozens of women of sexual assault and misconduct, and Brett Kavanaugh, the U.S. Supreme Court justice who was questioned for allegations of sexual misconduct in high school. He stated that “consent is an issue of the moment and not frozen in time.” Listeners were engaged in the intimate setting of Burns Library as O’Neill shifted to the workings of the diary.  

The diary, only 20 percent transcribed, contains detailed entries of its author, James Christopher Fitzgerald Kenney, as well as letters from his love interest, Mary Louis McMahon. Kenney’s diary follows his scandalous love affair during pre-famine Ireland, including meticulous notes and illustrations.

Kenney, a compulsive genealogist, is easy to understand through his diary—his counterpart McMahon, however, is difficult to trace. Born into a lower social class, she was vulnerable in society, yet she maintained connections to prosperous families. McMahon first met Kenney when she was hired by his grandmother.

From the beginning, Kenney was obsessed with knowing McMahon’s whereabouts. The relationship was secret, due to class differences, generally protecting him and leaving McMahon in a vulnerable, powerless role. His odd tendencies included refusing to sign his letters as a precaution to avoid any lawsuits. He also required McMahon to prove her “virtue” even after explaining he could never marry her. The love affair was unconventional and at times questionable in regard to consent.

O’Neill delved further into the power dynamics of the courtship after revealing Kenney was proactive, while McMahon remained reactive. The diary describes an attempted kiss where McMahon turned away. O’Neill elaborated on various examples, demonstrating the questionable consent or lack thereof.

To close, he left the audience pondering the conversation historians debate: Who is seducing whom? According to O’Neill, McMahon is vulnerable with her social class, yet some may argue she was in a position of power due to her age and prior romantic experiences. O’Neill promoted support of McMahon as she had more to lose in comparison to Kenney. The night ended with the audience seeking parallels between the love affair and those found in modern day. O’Neill explained power and consent in 1840s Ireland, but left the audience wanting to understand the meaning in comparison to the definitions of power and consent today.

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