Seven women who played a key part in 1916 and beyond, impacting on society

Sinead McCoole takes a look at seven women who helped shape the events of 1916 and who would go on to make a dramatic impact on Irish society.

Úna Brennan

Úna Brennan was one of the women who hoisted the Tricolour over the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy at Easter 1916.

She was born Anastasia Bolger on a farm at Coolnaboy, outside the village of Olyegate in Wexford, on November 11, 1888. Anastasia was sent as a boarder to the Loreto convent in nearby Enniscorthy.

After leaving school she worked on the farm, but expanded her circle by joining clubs and societies, including the Wexford branch of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) founded by Maud Gonne in 1900. She became the county secretary.

A supporter of the revival of the Irish language, Anastasia changed her name firstly to an Irish form — Anatás — and after 1909, to Úna, the name she used for the rest of her life. As Úna Bolger, she is credited by Helena Molony as having played a big part in starting Inghinidhe’s magazine, Bean na hÉireann.

Úna married Robert Brennan on July 6, 1909, in Enniscorthy, when she was 20. Robert (Bob) was a member of the Gaelic League and Sinn Féin. He taught Irish at the Gaelic League branches in Wexford, Tagoat, and Castlebridge.

Bob joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood just before he married. He said he did not wish to keep any secrets from his future wife, and after some opposition, he had Úna sworn in to the IRB as well.

He claimed his wife was one of only two women ever sworn into the IRB, and it was his belief that the other was Maud Gonne.

In 1915, Úna joined Cumann na mBan in Wexford, and she was the first secretary of the Sinn Féin executive in Wexford.

Despite the fact that she was the mother of six-year-old Emer, Úna joined her husband in the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy during Easter Week 1916.

They had agreed in advance that she would stay with him during the fight. She was posted to Enniscorthy under the command of Mary White.

She was described by a garrison member as a ‘very forceful personality’. The garrison was there for four days, surrendering on May 1.

Úna was brought first to Waterford and then to Mountjoy Jail, charged with ‘armed rebellion’, but was released after a few days. Her daughter Maeve became well-known as a writer with Harper’s Bazaar and later The New Yorker.

Máire Nic Shiúbhlaigh

Mary Elizabeth Walker is best known by her stage name, Máire Nic Shiúbhlaigh, and the stunning portrait of her painted by John Butler Yeats in 1904 that hangs in the Abbey Theatre.

She was born on May 8, 1883, at 37 Charlemont St, Dublin, the third child of Matthew and Mary Anne Walker, née Doherty.

Her parents would go on to have eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Matthew Walker was a compositor and printer. He printed nationalist material including the Gaelic Press.

When the family moved to High St, they took in lodgers. One of those who came to live with them was William Fay, the actor and producer.

Mary and her siblings would take part in plays in the burgeoning Irish theatre in the early 1900s. She also joined Frank Fahy’s elocution class in the Coffee Palace Hall in Townsend St.

In 1900, Máire joined Conradh na Gaeilge and was one of the 29 women who attended the inaugural meeting of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She first appeared on the stage in a tableau presented by the Inghinidhe.

On April 2, 1902, she took part in the first performance given by the Irish National Theatre Company in St Teresa’s Hall, Clarendon St. Her brother and sisters were involved in the Abbey Theatre in the early years.

Around this time, Mary became better known by her stage name, Máire Nic Shiúbhlaigh. She acted in Lady Gregory’s play, Kincora; its first production for the Abbey stage in March 1905.

Máire also played in the first production of AE’s Deirdre. The drama critic of the London Times wrote that she had “a strange, wan, disquieting beauty”. She toured with the Abbey to England and the US.

Máire was an active member of Cumann na mBan, attached to Central Branch. She was in Jacob’s Garrison during the 1916 Rising, stationed at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and also nearby Peter St.

She was the officer in charge of the six women in the garrison involved in cooking and administering first aid. Her father and brother printed copies of the Irish War News and other bulletins during Easter week.

In June 1927, in her mid-40s, Máire married Bob Price, eight years her junior. Bob was a vice-commander in the 2nd Battalion and was also in Jacob’s factory during Easter Week. With the assistance of her nephew Edward Kenny, she published her autobiography The Splendid Years in 1955.

May Gibney

May Gibney: Joined Rising on Easter Monday by volunteering

Mary Bridget Gibney was known as May and also as Maura. She was not from a nationalist background and was the only one of her family to take part in political activities.

She was the eldest child of Thomas Gibney of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who was stationed in Tralee when he married Mary O’Reilly in November 1892.

The following October, May was born. She was 10 years old when her father died. Her widowed mother, Mary, was 33;

May’s younger sisters, Ann Josephine and Catherine, were eight and six. May went to live with her aunt Annie, a dressmaker who lived in a large Georgian house on Temple St in Dublin.

Aged 23, May joined the Rising on Easter Monday 1916 by volunteering her services at the GPO garrison. During the fight, she was involved in cooking and general services.

She brought messages from the GPO, including one to Michael Mallin at the Royal College of Surgeons. She was told to leave the GPO by Patrick Pearse.

She and Bríd Connolly made their way home via Dorset St, where they were arrested and spent a short period at Broadstone Station. The military failed to gain any information from May and did not detain her for long.

After the Rising, she brought messages from activists to their relatives and sheltered a member of the Jacob’s garrison, Victor Murphy, who had evaded arrest. When Cumann na mBan was reorganised in September 1916, she joined Central Branch.

She met and became engaged to Dick McKee, who was Commandant of the Irish Volunteers/IRA Dublin Brigade from 1918 until 1920. He was shot dead in Dublin Castle on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, at the height of the War of Independence.

May was an active member of Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence. One of her jobs was finding accommodation for ‘wanted men’. She was also involved in electioneering and acted as a liaison between Dublin command and units in rural areas.

During one of her visits to the country, she met Laurence (Lar) O’Neill, Commander of the Carlow Brigade of the IRA, and nine years later she married him.

Sorcha MacMahon

Sorcha MacMahon in Cumann na mBan uniform.

It was said of Sorcha by her contemporaries that there was no ‘woman of that period whose efficiency, selflessness and enthusiasm was greater’.

She was born Sarah Teresa MacMahon at Coas, Co Monaghan. Sorcha was the third of James and Sarah MacMahon’s seven children, four boys and three girls. Born in 1888, she was called after her mother; as well as using her given name, she also used the Irish form, Sorcha.

Her family spoke Irish as their first language. Following her education at Laggan NS, she was sent to St Louis School in Monaghan. Afterwards, she went to Dublin to take a commercial course.

She began working at Taggart’s Garage as a bookkeeper. In 1914, at the formation of Cumann na mBan, Sorcha became secretary of Central Branch. (She “was Central Branch”, according to the other members of the organisation.)

She trained the women in first aid, home nursing, and branch duties. She was a member of the Cumann na mBan executive from the convention in 1915 to 1919. She was also on the O’Donovan Rossa Funeral Committee, which organised a mass demonstration when the body of the exiled Fenian was returned from America to Ireland for burial in 1915.

Sorcha, as she was known by then, was selected by Kathleen Clarke to compile a list of reliable girls in the days leading up to the 1916 Rising. These girls would travel around the country with the messages. Sorcha went to Dundalk and Monaghan.

When the Rising went ahead on Easter Monday, Sorcha delivered mobilisation orders to all the Cumann na mBan section leaders attached to Central Branch. She had guns and messages hidden in her bicycle basket. Throughout Easter Week, she continued to distribute messages from the GPO.

Moving between the outposts at great risk to her life, she went to the Four Courts and elsewhere; she recorded that she left the GPO 50 or 60 times. As she described in her military pension record, she brought messages to the families of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

Following the Rising, Sorcha gave up her job and lived off her own means. She postponed her wedding to assist Kathleen Clarke, who had set up the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependants’ Fund. While Kathleen Clarke recovered from a miscarriage, Sorcha was the only one in Dublin who she trusted to continue the work.

Later, Sorcha worked directly for Michael Collins, when Kathleen appointed him to administer the relief funds following his release from Frongoch. Sorcha continued to work directly for Collins throughout the War of Independence, and she stayed with him on the pro-Treaty side after the split.

She had resigned her role in Cumann na mBan some years previously on his instructions — Cumann na mBan voted to reject the Articles of Agreement that laid down the terms for the formation of the Irish Free State. Sorcha left politics after the Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921.

Catherine Rooney, née Byrne (1897–1971)

News clipping of Catherine Rooney.

The press called her the ‘petticoat heroine’ for her actions in the first hour of the Rising.

Catherine was the second eldest child, and first girl, born to Peter, a coach trimmer, and Catherine Byrne. The couple would go on to have a large family of 12 surviving children.

The Byrnes lived at 17 North Richmond St, Dublin. Catherine left school at 14 to work as a shop assistant.

Her older brother Paddy joined the Irish Volunteers and she joined the Central Branch of Cumann na mBan in 1915. She took part in drills and rifle practice and got a first-aid certificate.

On Easter Monday 1916, according to her own account, she saw the men marching, and she later recalled that her mother told her to go get her equipment and follow them. Her brother Paddy was already out in the fight.

Catherine went directly to headquarters at the General Post Office. When she got there, she asked a man to lift her up to a side window — she kicked the glass in. She used her petticoat for a bandage for the first of the wounded. Later, she was in the kitchen preparing food.

Catherine was sent to the Hibernian Bank with Leslie Price and others; they made their way to their new outpost under fire. When she was later sent back to the GPO to request rations, she decided to stay there.

She was then sent to the Four Courts. Unable to return to the GPO, she went to Capel St, where she was given lodgings for the night.

Then she made her way to Father Mathew Hall, and later, while in a house on the corner of Church St, she was almost shot dead. On Sunday, she was in the area that was the last to surrender.

She escaped through Bolton St and evaded arrest. Her younger brothers Peter, 15, Jack, 14, and Frank, 12, all took part in the Rising, and her father was a courier between outposts. Peter was arrested along with Paddy, and was sent to Kilmainham and later deported to Frongoch in Wales.

Catherine attended the 1966 events to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rising with her surviving siblings. Catherine died in March 1971.

Rosie Hackett

Rosie Hackett: Joined the Irish Citizen Army, in which the women were trained as equals with the men

There is now a bridge in Dublin named after Rosie Hackett, who was born in the inner city at No 14 Prebend St, Constitution Hill, on July 25, 1893.

Called after her mother Rosanna, she was always known as Rosie. She was the eldest child of Joseph Hackett and his wife Rosanna, whose maiden name was Dunne.

In September 1895, Joseph Hackett died, leaving her mother to fend for Rosie and her younger sister, baby Christina.

Rosanna went back to live with her unmarried brothers and sister in Bolton St. Despite the small space for four adults and two children, they took in a lodger.

When Rosie was 10, her mother remarried and had Thomas, Patrick, Denis, and James, born between 1904 and 1910. The family lived together firstly in Henrietta St and later near the Abbey Theatre. Rosie’s uncle James also lived with them.

Rosie joined the workforce in her early teens; she was one of 2,085 female workers in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. Her job was as a packer in the paper stores.

On August 22, 1910, she was one of the strikers in Jacob’s who sought better pay and conditions. Rosie was described as someone who always spoke up for herself and her colleagues. Rosie was singled out by biographer James Curry as a “disruptive element who would have to be taught a lesson”.

She was one of the first members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, formed in August 1911. When it was launched in September, the Jacob’s women were its most significant force.

In 1913 there was a second strike at Jacob’s, and Rosie was among the women who took part. She was not re-employed after the strike, but she was given work in the Irish Women Workers’ Union co-operative.

She was often assigned to the workroom, where she and the other girls were under the supervision of Helena Molony. She also worked in the shop. She also trained as a printer and worked on the newspaper The Irish Worker.

She joined the Irish Citizen Army, in which the women were trained as equals with the men.

In the Rising, she was posted to the St Stephen’s Green garrison under the command of Michael Mallin. Rosie worked in the first-aid station set up in the small lodge in the south-west corner of the Green.

This outpost remained under fire from troops in the Shelbourne Hotel until the garrison moved to the nearby College of Surgeons. Rosie remained there throughout the days of fighting and narrowly missed being killed.

Some people managed to evade arrest, but Rosie surrendered with the garrison and spent a period of 10 days in prison following the Rising.

Rose MacNamara

Rosanna, known as Rose, was the youngest of three children born to Benjamin MacNamara and Johanna Mangan.

Her father died when Rose was 15. In 1904, her brother Matthew married Delia Perolz. Matthew’s sister-in-law Mary introduced Rose to Maud Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann.

Shortly after Rose’s introduction to politics, she became completely immersed in the ‘Irish Ireland’ movement. She joined Harcourt Street Sinn Féin, which had been founded by Arthur Griffith some years earlier and advocated for a separate parliament for Ireland.

In 1914, she joined the Inghinidhe branch of Cumann na mBan. She assisted at the general headquarters of the Irish Volunteers, and was given instructions and trusted with the purchase of materials for field dressings. She became vice-commander of the Inghinidhe branch of Cumann na mBan from 1915 to 1918.

In 1916, she was posted to the Distillery Marrowbone Lane with 22 other women. She was arrested and imprisoned until May 8.

As she described in her witness statement to the Bureau of Military History: “A long period of depression followed. It was not until 1917 after the return of the prisoners that our spirits began to revive.”


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