Margaret Keogh: The only woman to die for the Irish Republic in the War of Independence

Margaret Keogh: The only woman to die for the Irish Republic in the War of Independence
Margaret Keogh’s grave in Glasnevin with the original headstone erected by her father in the foreground.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc unearths the details surrounding the death of a patriot which have been kept secret for a century.

For decades the stories of theRepublican women who fought for freedom during the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence were overshadowed by the deeds of their male comrades. The centenary of the 1916 Rising brought a renewed focus on the role of women in the Irish Revolution. Today, Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn, Sheila Humphries and the other republican women who fought for freedom are all relatively well known, but only one woman died for the Irish Republic during the War of Independence: Margaret Keogh.

For a century the circumstances of her death were kept secret and are only now being revealed by Keogh family members for the first time. Margaret Keogh was born in Dublin in 1900, she was the second eldest of 10 children born to Margaret and Michael Keogh who lived at Number 20, Stella Gardens, Irishtown, Dublin.

At the time of her death in 1921 Margaret was just 19 and worked as a printer’sassistant with Healy & Co Printworks of Dame Street, Dublin. During the War of Independence Keogh enlisted in Cumann na mBan, the IRA’s female counterpart, and served the organisation’s Ranelagh unit throughout the conflict. If there was one woman who embodied the various political strands entwined in the Irish Revolution it was Margaret Keogh. As well as being a leading member of Cumann na mBan, Keogh was also captain of the Croke Ladies Hurling Club and an ardent trade-unionist who served as an organiser in the Irish Clerical Workers Union. She spoke Irish fluently and was a member of the Irish language organisation Conradh Na Gaeilge.

Shortly before her death Keogh was questioned bythe British forces whilefundraising for Conradh Na Gaeilge and they arrested her when she replied to their questions in Irish refusing to speak English. On July 8 1921, after two-and-a-half years of conflict, the British Army and the IRA agreed a ceasefire that would end the War of Independence.

A press cutting on the alleged assassination of Margaret Keogh.
A press cutting on the alleged assassination of Margaret Keogh.

This ceasefire was due to take effect at 12pm on the morning of July 11. On the eve of the Truce, the Black and Tans launched 11th hour raids on suspected IRA safe-houses in Irishtown. During these raids Margaret Keogh was fatally wounded by a gunshot wound in mysterious circumstances. She was immediately taken to Patrick Dunn’s Hospital for emergency medical treatment,but this failed and she died within 48 hours.

Before her death Margaret was questioned by Dublin Metropolitan Policedetectives. According to press reports she told police she had been downstairs with her younger brother Thomas when they heard a knock at the door about 11.15pm. Margaret was reported to have gone to answer the door and opened it to find there was no one there. As she closed the door she heard a single shot and felt a sting in her side and fell back in the hall. It was stated that Margaret’s brother immediately rushed to her aid and that neither of them could identify her murderer.

In the conflict, republican activists like Margaret Keogh were in constant danger of assassination from a number of death squads in British forces. The activities of these British ‘murder gangs’ were an open secret at the time and one British Army officer, Major Douglas Wimberley, recalled: ‘The Black and Tans seemed to make a habit of breaking out of their barracks at night,illicitly, and killing men they thought were suspect rebels, and the habit spread to a few army officers and soldiers’.

Between September 1920 and June 1921 at least eight republicans were abducted and killed by British ‘murder gangs’ in Dublin city.

The British Army werethe sole body charged with holding inquests into these killings and such inquiries were usually a ‘whitewash’ designed to exonerate members of the RIC, Black and Tans and Britishsoldiers responsible for such murders. The press was refused admission to the military inquest into Margret Keogh’s killing, which was held in private. Consequently many people were convinced that Keogh was the final victim of the British ‘murder gang’ that had been operating in Dublin..

Margaret Keogh died on July 12, 1921, the morning after the Truce. Two days later she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery with full military honors. Her coffin was draped with the republican tricolour and carried by uniformed members of Cumann na mBan. More than 2,000 mourners followed her coffin on its journey from her home to the cemetery.

The following week, the National Executive of Cumann na mBan organised a commemorative mass for her at the Star of the Sea church in Sandymount. On the first anniversary of her death when republicans should have been marking Margaret Keogh’s sacrifice Dublin City was engulfed by the Civil War and her memory was soon eclipsed. Her father later erected a small headstone, just a foot tall, marking her grave with the epitaph reading in bold letters: MARGRET KEOGH - DIED FOR IRELAND.

Unlike the other republican martyrs Keogh was not remembered with an annual commemoration. No GAA club was named in her honour and no ballads or books were written about her. By the centenary of the 1916 Rising she had been completely forgotten and her name was not to be found in any of the numerous books written about Cumann na mBan or the War of Independence in Dublin.

The story of Keogh’s suspected assassination by the British forces was rediscovered and brought to modern public attention when it was published in the book Truce — Murder, Myth and the last days of the War of Independence published by Mercier Press in 2016.

Following the publication of this book the ‘Margaret Keogh Memorial Committee’ was formed in Ringsend by history enthusiast Mathew Ward. Mr Ward contacted Anthony O’Reardon, Keogh’s grandnephew, and together the pair began investigating the circumstances of her death.

Their inquiries soon uncovered the truth about Margaret’s death. Oral history within the Keogh family, preserved by Margaret’s older sister, Anne Marie Keogh, and passed on to her grand-daughters maintained that Margaret Keogh had not been assassinated by the British forces.

The truth, hidden for almost a century, was that Keogh had been hiding the contents of an IRA arms dump at her family home and fearing its discovery during the Black and Tan raids on the eve of the Truce she attempted to remove the hidden guns and ammunition to a safe location. During the panicked removal of the IRA arms cache a bullet fell into the fire and exploded fatally wounding Margaret Keogh. The tale that Keogh had been assassinated by a mystery assailant had been fabricated to conceal the true circumstances of her death.

Last month, the National Graves Association with the assistance of the Margaret Keogh Memorial Committee and the Keogh family erected a new headstone marking her grave in Glasnevin. The work that Margaret Keogh and her comrades did inCumann na mBan in hiding and transporting arms, scouting, intelligence duties, providing medical assistance and running safe houses was invaluable to the IRA’s military campaign during the War of Independence.

Her grand nephew Anthony O’Reardon and the local committee are even more determined now that the full circumstances of her death have been revealed to ensure she receives a fitting public memorial in Ringsend before the centenary of her death in 2021.

“The fact that Margaret Keogh was not assassinated like Tomás McCurtain, did not die with a gun in her hand fighting the British forces like Seán Treacy,or was not executed after capture like Kevin Barry, did not make her loss any less significant to her family, her friends and her comrades in the republican movement,” he says.

Though half a dozen other members of Cumann na mBan were killed during the later Civil War, Margaret Keogh remains the only known member of Cumann na mBan killed on activeservice fighting against the British Forces for Irish freedom during the War of Independence.

Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc is the author of severalbooks about the War ofIndependence period.
Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc is the author of severalbooks about the War ofIndependence period.

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