Sinead McCoole


Adding women’s substantive role to narrative of the Rising

Pension details released by the military archives shows women played a wider role in the Rising than previously thought, says Sinead McCoole

Adding women’s substantive role to narrative of the Rising

AT most, we are five generations away from the women activists of 1916.

Yet many of them expressed opinions that make them seem more modern than women who lived 100 years ago. Indeed, some of them were more progressive in their outlook than some of the women in public life in the years that followed the founding of the Irish Free State.

These women lived at a time when it was both ‘unladylike’ and ‘disreputable’ for them to take part in politics but, undaunted, they played their part.

They came from all walks of life, from all parts of the country. They were shop assistants, dressmakers, teachers, and clerks, working alongside ladies who were artists, actresses and even a doctor.

The Military Archives material released over the past decade has completely changed what we know of women’s involvement in the Rising and the revolutionary years that followed. Over a decade ago, the release to researchers of witness statements, taken by the Bureau of Military History in the 1940s and 1950s, gave us the voice of the participants.

But it is the letters of verification, written for women to receive pensions, that give us verified accounts, in more recent years, of many women that had hitherto been elusive. The files of those with reckonable service who gained the pensions are available for free on the Military Archives website and make for interesting reading for descendants and scholars alike.

They came from the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan (with its own ‘Daughters of Ireland’ branch, known by its name in Irish, Inghinidhe na hÉireann), and the Hibernian Rifles (to which the Clan na Gael girl scouts were attached). To understand how these women became involved in the Rising, it is necessary to look at events some years before.

In 1900, women had been excluded from nationalist organisations for two decades after the disbanding of the Ladies’ Land League. In that year, Maud Gonne founded her own nationalist organisation — Inghinidhe na hÉireann — the female members of which would be prominent in Irish politics for decades that followed.

Maud Gonne was not of Irish birth or lineage, but claimed that the Gonnes had their roots in Mayo. Elizabeth Coxhead described her as “a miracle that happens once a generation or perhaps once a hundred years”. She, along with Constance Markievicz (born Constance Gore Booth), did lead a generation of women into active politics.

One of the first events that captured the imagination of many was in 1900, when Queen Victoria visited and a treat was organised for patriotic children at the Vice-Regal Lodge in Dublin. Nationalist women decided to host their own event, the Patriotic Children’s Treat held on July 1 in Clonturk Park. It was said that there were 20,000 children in attendance. It was the largest peaceful demonstration ever held in the city.

Leslie Price, who became better known as Leslie Bean de Barra, wife of Cork IRA guerilla fighter Tom Barry, attended this event and would later take part in the 1916 Rising and remain politicised for the rest of her life.

By 1902, there were four branches of this organisation in Ireland. In Cork, Margaret Goulding, later Margaret Buckley, was branch president of the branch and would later be a Sinn Féin president.

The Daly sisters, nieces of veteran Fenian John Daly, formed the Limerick branch. There were also branches in Mayo, Liverpool, and Brooklyn.

The players of Inghinidhe na hÉireann first took part in tableaux vivants created by WB Yeats. Maud herself took to the stage for Alice Milligan’s The Last Feast of the Fianna, as well as Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen. It was this play to which Yeats referred when he wrote: ‘Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?’

Members of the Inghinidhe took part in the 1916 Rising as a branch of Cumann na mBan that had been formed in 1914. One of those was Helena Molony, who became editor of the organisation’s newspaper, Bean na hÉireann: “A women’s paper, advocating militancy, separatism and feminism.”

She joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was an army of workers who gave women equal involvement in their organisation. It was headed by James Connolly who was a committed feminist, which appealed to Helena Molony as she explained in an interview for RTÉ on April 16, 1963, when she was asked what the women did in the Rising.

She said she always replied to such questions: “I feel they might as well ask me what did the tall fair-haired men do in wars and what did small men do. My answer in both cases is the same, they did what came to their hands to do — day to day, whatever they were capable of by aptitude or training.”

Helena Molony was described as “a clever and attractive girl with a tremendous power for making friends”, who brought both Kathleen Lynn and Constance Markievicz into the movement. Markievicz joined a number of organisations as well as Inghinidhe na hÉireann, contributing to Bean na hÉireann.

Together with Bulmer Hobson and others, she founded a youth organisation for boys, Fianna Éireann. She rented a hall in Camden St and a cottage in Sandyford, Co Dublin, as places where the boys could train, and she wrote a manual for them.

Helena Molony described Markievicz as “working, as a man might have worked for the freedom of Ireland”.

At the time of the lockout of 1913, Dr Lynn became active in the relief efforts for workers and their families. According to her biographer, Maria Mulholland, she was “an unlikely candidate for revolutionary politics and even less so as an espouser of a united Irish Socialist Republic”.

Clann na Gael girl scouts had been formed by the Kelly sisters in 1910. Some of the members were too young to take part in the Rising and parents came to St Stephen’s Green to bring their teenagers home.

There were also those not attached to any organisation who volunteered during Easter 1916. They were dispatch carriers, or ‘basket girls’ bringing food, who evaded arrest and whose involvement is recorded only in the stories they told to their children and grandchildren.

Members of the Irish Citizen Army produced the highest-ranking female officers in the Rising; Markievicz (the only woman sentenced to death); Dr Lynn; and the only woman wounded on active service, Margaret Skinnider.

Dr Lynn, when she was arrested, described herself as “a Red Cross doctor and a belligerent”. When she told the arresting officer she was a doctor, but also belonged to the Irish Citizen Army, it surprised him very much.

It was members of the Citizen Army who were held for the longest period of the Rising — Constance Markievicz, Winnie Carney, Helena Molony, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Mary Perolz, Nellie Gifford, and Brigid Foley were all members of the ICA.

Sinead McCoole is a historian and curator, and is author of No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923, a revised edition published by O’Brien Press in 2015. Her other books include: Easter Widows and Guns & Chiffon.

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