Women of the Rising: Activists, fighters & widows
By Sinéad McCoole
What we know of women’s participation in the Rising has been transformed by the material released from the Military Archives over the past decade. The witness statements housed by the Bureau of Military History give us the voices of the participants but it is the applications for military pensions that give us verified accounts by their contemporaries confirming and outlining their actions. Now a fuller version of events of what happened during Easter week 1916 is available – and rather than minimise the role of women it has served to enhance it.
‘Out in 16’: The Women of Easter Week
As the 20th Century dawned, large numbers of Irish women were beginning to take part in active politics. Although from diverse backgrounds they united around such causes as the promotion of workers’ rights and they came together in the course of such cultural activities as the revival of the Irish language and music. Across the decades that followed, which saw a War of Independence and a Civil War, the majority of the women ‘Out in 16’ would suffer poverty, imprisonment, ill-heath and, in some cases, premature death as a result of their politicisation.
So how many women are we talking about? Approximately 300 took part in the events across Easter week. This figure is drawn from recently released material held by the Military Archives and adds almost 100 names to a list of participants previously compiled by this author. Prior to the release of the Military Archive's records, lists of female combatants and others were assembled from a variety of sources: from the published accounts of the Rising by participants; through the identification of individuals who stood for a group photograph in the grounds of Ely O’Connor’s House in the summer of 1916; and from the signatures of those who contributed to an Easter Week Roll of Honour which was compiled in 1936 and in a ceremony in front of government buildings on Merrion Street.
And then there are the names identified within private collections and published works. For instance, a list of Irish Citizen Army (ICA) participants forms part of the Hanratty Collection in Kilmainham Gaol’s Collection. R.M. Fox also recorded the names of women and their garrisons in his history of the ICA, which was published in 1943; later that same decade he also contributed an article ‘How the women helped’ to a book entitled Dublin’s Fighting Story Told by the Men Who Made It.
Beyond the names and the numbers, newspapers offer a more immediate insight into the roles played by women in 1916. One press report stated that the women were ‘serving in the dining room of the Post Office dressed in their finest clothes, and wore knifes and pistols in their belts … wearing green and white and oranges sashes’; another report, based upon an account by a Red Cross nurse and published under the headline ‘Fearless under Fire’, expresses admiration for ‘…these Irishwomen, who did their work with a cool and reckless courage, unsurpassed by any man from the first to the last day of the Rebellion’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the contribution of women attracted international attention and in the wake of the rebellion representatives of the American press came to interview the women who had taken part who were still in prison. Kathleen Lynn, who had served as Chief Medical Officer in the Irish Citizen Army, later reflected: ‘We were not up to the mark and as snappy as they would have liked us to be. They got the impression that we were a poor lot.’
Trade unions and the politicisation of Irish women
For the decades following the Rising, women participants were frequently asked as to the role they played and what it was they actually did – sometimes to their palpable frustration. In April 1963, Helena Molony (1884-1967) a member of the Irish Citizen Army garrisoned at City Hall during the Rising, told an RTÉ interviewer:
‘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 highly capable. Described by the aforementioned Dr Kathleen Lynn as a ’clever and attractive girl with a tremendous power for making friends’ she had been responsible for bringing both Lynn and Countess Markievicz, the London-born daughter of a wealthy Irish landowner, into what was sometimes referred to as the ‘movement’. Molony joined Maud Gonne’s Daughters of Ireland (Inghinidhe na hÉireann), a group of women activists which had been formed in 1900 as they were prohibited from joining male nationalist organisations. Molony was also both the instigator and editor of Bean na hÉireann, a women’s paper, advocating ‘militancy, separatism and feminism’. She also wrote the labour notes.
Molony joined the Irish Women Workers’ Union, which had been established in Dublin, with Jim Larkin as President and his sister Delia as Secretary. This all female union had members from a wide range of occupations such as confectionary makers, waitresses, laundry workers and flower sellers. Led by Jim Larkin and James Connolly, trade unionism gathered momentum in the years prior to the Rising and in 1913 women workers played an active part in a large-scale industrial dispute in Dublin that became known as the lockout. The lockout radicalised labour politics. Not only did it lead directly to the establishment, in November 1913, of a workers’ milita - the Irish Citizen Army - to protect workers; it also brought more women into contact with the labour movement. Madeleine Ffrench Mullen, Fiona Plunkett and Muriel Gifford were amongst a group of educated women who were motivated by humanitarian instincts to assist those most affected by the strike. They assisted in the soup kitchen and took part in food distribution. A recently discovered image shows Markievicz, (who before her marriage was Constance Gore Booth of Sligo) at work, watching over a huge soup pot. An artist and an actress, she joined the national movement in her forties, firstly motivated by issues of social injustice and the plight of poor and labouring classes. In 1909 she wrote: ‘…the old idea that a woman can only serve her nation through her home is gone; so now in time; on you the responsibility rests.’
Countess Markievicz joined a number of organisations such as the Daughters of Ireland (Inghinidhe na hÉireann) and contributed to its paper Bean na hÉireann. Moreover, together with Bulmer Hobson and others, she founded a youth organisation for boys, Fianna Éireann, renting both a hall in Camden Street and a cottage in Sandyford, County Dublin, as places where the boys could train.
Towards rebellion - Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army
In April 1914 Cumann na mBan was established as a separate organisation for women, designed to complement the Irish Volunteer Force which had been founded the previous November ‘to secure and maintain the common rights and liberties of Irishmen’. The members of Cumann na mBan – translated into English as the ‘League of Women’ – were trained in drills and first aid and in some branches in the use of weapons. They had their own constitution and uniform and a distinctive rifle brooch with the initials of the organisation.
By 1914 the Irish Citizen Army, by then under the leadership of James Connolly, admitted women to its ranks and afforded them equal status. Connolly was committed to equality as a right, stating ‘that no movement was assured of success that had not women in it’. It is said when some of the men complained that the women’s section would be an encumbrance in the event of an uprising that James Connolly responded that if none of the men turned out, the fight would go on with the women.
At the time of the lockout of 1913, Kathleen Lynn too became active in the relief efforts for workers and their families who had taken part in the strike and had been locked out by their employers. According to her biographer Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, Lynn’s ‘political philanthropy’ pushed her ‘further along the road to Revolution’. Writing in the 1950s about Lynn’s involvement with the Irish Citizen Army, Nora Connolly described how her father thought that she was the most remarkable of its women members – he also considered it remarkable that she should find her ‘niche’ in the Citizen Army. Indeed, it was to Dr Lynn, rather than to Markievicz, that James Connolly presented a gold brooch on Holy Thursday 1916 in recognition for her contribution to the ICA.
1916: Fighting Women
The planning of the Easter Rising was ostensibly the work of a small, secretive and self-appointed body of men who comprised the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. And yet, in the early months of 1916 the basement of Liberty Hall was turned into a munitions works with scores of women and girls working. The Rising itself was planned for Easter Sunday when a routine march was organised to include members of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and the Hibernian rifles along with the Clann na Gael, Girl Scouts. The march was cancelled when the leader of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, learned that it was to be used as a cover for a Rising. MacNeill’s countermanding order was published in the Sunday Independent on Easter Sunday morning and later that day, when the plotters of the Rising decided to press ahead with their plans on the following day, Easter Monday, a group of women were sent as couriers all over the country to ‘countermand the countermand’.
One result of all the confusion surrounding the planning of the Rising was to limit the number of its actual participants. In the case of Cumann na mBan, those who took part on Easter Monday came mainly from Central Branch and Fairview. However, women were also to be found at various rebel positions across Dublin, including the GPO and O’Connell Street area, the Four Courts and Church Street areas, Jameson’s Distillery on Marrowbone Lane, Jacob's Factory, St Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons. Outside Dublin women were active in Enniscorthy and Ferns, in Athenry and they were later recorded in places such as Moyode Castle and Limepark. There were also women from the Fingal Branch in Ashbourne.
Although the main body of women came from the ranks of Cumann na mBan, the highest-ranking female officers were drawn from the Irish Citizen Army - Countess Markievicz (the only woman sentenced to death); Margaret Skinnider (the only woman wounded on active service); and Dr Kathleen Lynn.
Margaret Skinnider was based in Glasgow and only arrived in Ireland on Holy Thursday, 1916, after learning of plans for the Rising. Countess Markievicz had a uniform made for her. Skinnider joined the Irish Citizen Army and served as a scout for the St Stephen’s Green garrison. She was mentioned three times for bravery in the dispatches sent to the GPO. On the Wednesday she was wounded so badly she required hospitalisation for seven weeks. Her initial bad fortune eventually turned to her advantage, however: the doctors decided she was too ill to be imprisoned and she evaded arrest on her release from hospital. Skinnider even managed to obtain a special permit to leave Dublin and returned to Glasgow. In 1917 she went to the US where she lectured on the Rising. She also wrote her story published in New York in 1917 as Doing my bit for Ireland.
Dr. Kathleen Lynn
When arrested, Kathleen Lynn described herself as ‘a red cross doctor and a belligerent’. When telling the arresting officer that she was a doctor, but also belonged to the Irish Citizen Army, it surprised him very much. Members of the Citizen Army were held imprisoned longest in the wake of the Rising, among them numerous women like Markievicz, Helena Molony, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Mary Perolz, Nellie Gifford and Brigid Foley. One of this group, Helena Molony, was imprisoned for seven months. She told the authorities that the Irish Citizen Army had organised the Rising and would do so again. She was released from prison on Christmas Eve, 1916.
The plan was for Markievicz to travel around the various outposts in Dr Lynn’s car, but when she got to St Stephen’s Green, she stayed there with Michael Mallin. Her rank was Staff Lieutenant. Mallin appointed her Second-in-Command in the garrison. As one of the leaders of the Rising, Markievicz was subsequently sentenced to death, though this was commuted to penal servitude for life because she was a woman. She remained imprisoned until June 1917.
Above all the women involved in the Rising, Markievicz is perhaps the best known, yet the fact that many of those who fought alongside her are now receiving greater attention leads to a fuller understanding of why it was a Rising that demonstrated an equality that was not experienced in the same way by Irishwomen in the period that followed economically, socially or politically.
Easter Widows: Women in Post-Rising Ireland
The work of women in the aftermath of the Rising had a major effect on shaping the revolutionary years that followed. The widows of the leaders headed by Kathleen Clarke, using money provided by the military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, started a relief fund for the widows and dependants of those killed or interned. The women in this distribution of funds created a network of contacts that was to prove crucial. In the weeks following the Rising, Kathleen Clarke addressed Cumann na mBan saying: 'Let us know the enemy what the women can do.'
Clarke employed Michael Collins in 1917 when he was released from internment to work in the office of the National Aid and Volunteers' Dependent Fund's, an ideal headquarters to reorganise the IRB for what would be later known as the War of Independence. When Dáil Éireann was established as a Parliament for a revolutionary Republic in 1919 and Collins was appointed Minister of Finance he raised money with Dáíl Bonds and those who were filmed buying these bonds included Agnes Mallin, widow of Michael Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army, executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, Áine Ceannt (widow of Éamonn Ceannt who had been leader of the garrison at the South Dublin Union, who had signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which was issued by the provisional government of the Irish Republic on Easter Monday 1916). Other widows who took part in this film were Grace Gifford Plunkett (who married Joseph Plunkett in the hours before his execution). Kathleen Clarke also took part.
The politicisation of Kathleen Clarke, Grace Gifford and Áine Ceannt took many forms throughout the 1916-23 period: they took part in propaganda; they sheltered republicans on the run; and they participated in organisations such as Cumann na dTeachtaire, Cumann na mBan and the fund-raising organisation, the White Cross. When Maud Gonne MacBride, the estranged wife of Major John MacBride who had also been shot by firing squad for his part in the Rising, returned to Ireland from France she too became an activist. She founded the Women's Prisoners' Defence League to highlight the conditions of prisoners - this group known as 'the mothers' was active in the years of warfare that followed.
The widows of the 1916 Rising leaders all opposed the Treaty of December 1921 that ended the Anglo-Irish war. Why? Because the Irish Free State was not the Republic promised in the Proclamation. Maud Gonne and Grace Gifford were imprisoned during the subsequent Civil War as Republicans who opposed the state, with the former continuing to the publicise the rights of prisoners until her death in the 1953. For her part, Áine Ceannt organised the distribution of aid of the White Cross for those affected by the years of warfare until the funds were all distributed in the 1940s. Only Kathleen Clarke lived to witness the 50th commemoration of the Rising in 1966. She died in 1972.
Sinéad McCoole is a historian and member of the Expert Advisory Group on the Decade of Centenaries. Her books include Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Rising (2014) and No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923 (2003)