Through the underground government's propaganda news-sheet the Irish Bulletin, she helped inform sympathetic outsiders about the War of Independence. In this entry from the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography,  Patrick Maume tells the story of Kathleen McKenna. 

McKenna, Kathleen Napoli (1897–1988), republican and administrator, was born Kathleen Maria Kenna in Oldcastle, Co. Meath, on 9 September 1897, eldest of seven children (four daughters and three sons) of William Kenna (1862–1939), draper and hardware merchant, and his wife Mary, née Hanley.

Kathleen and her siblings added the 'Mac' to their names as teenagers; her parents continued to call themselves 'Kenna'. She was deeply influenced by her maternal grandfather, an old Fenian, miller and land agitator.

Agnes O'Farrelly was an aunt of William Kenna and hired an Irish-speaking nurse in Spiddal, Co. Galway, for the Kenna children; a maternal granduncle of Kathleen, Fr Frank Murphy, smuggled a suit of civilian clothes into Tullamore jail for William O'Brien (who was refusing to wear prison dress during his imprisonment in 1888).

A well-educated young woman

Kathleen received her primary and secondary education in the girls' branch of Oldcastle Endowed School; assisted by the tuition of the headmistress, Mary Hanley MA, she secured her Intermediate Certificate and passed the NUI matriculation examination. She spent a brief period at UCD but family circumstances did not allow her to complete the course. Her recollections reveal her as a confident and well-educated young woman.

William Kenna had been active in the Land League and was a member of the Meath Labour Union. Both parents were Gaelic Leaguers and 'learned from their parents of the hardships of the famine, the plague and the many sufferings wrought by British misrule in Ireland'.

Arthur Griffith was a regular visitor to the Kenna family home

William Kenna belonged to a circle of local Irish Irelanders who in 1902 founded a short-lived local paper called Sinn Féin – Oldcastle Monthly Review. Regular visitors to the house included Arthur Griffith and Brian O'Higgins, who 'coached my brother and myself to sing at the Navan feis, one of his own compositions in which our love of our native land and hatred of Britain were expressed'.

This Irish Ireland circle was denounced by the parish priest of Oldcastle, Fr Robert Barry, and the dispute led to a decline in William Kenna's business. In August 1915 the family left Oldcastle for Dundalk, and in March 1916 they moved to the industrial centre of Rugby, Warwickshire, where William taught shorthand and typing while Mary worked in an ammunition factory and Kathleen did secretarial work in an engineering firm.

From 1919 to 1922 family members returned to Ireland, and William was again living in Oldcastle at the time of his death.

'Dáil girl'

Kathleen took periodic holidays in Ireland, and while visiting Dublin in summer 1919 presented herself at the Sinn Féin offices in Harcourt Street with a letter of introduction from her father to Griffith, emphasising her desire to assist in the national struggle.

She was set to work in the Sinn Féin press bureau for the duration of her holidays as one of the first 'Dáil girls' employed by the underground government, and told that if a projected news bulletin came to fruition she would be summoned to Dublin.

Desmond FitzGerald, Minister of Propaganda, for whom Kathleen worked. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The summons came in October 1919, and after a brief typing test on 11 November 1919 she joined the Irish Bulletin under the direction of Desmond FitzGerald as minister for propaganda and Robert Brennan as director of publicity.

'I felt elated and, with emotion, realised that now, I, too, had my place in the serried ranks of Ireland's soldiers'.

She also joined the Dublin-based Parnell branch of the Gaelic League.

The Irish Bulletin

The Irish Bulletin, published from the clandestine offices of the Dáil propaganda department, was a news-sheet circulated five times weekly by post to sympathetic opinion formers (mostly journalists and opposition politicians in Britain), often drawing on government communications captured by the IRA and sworn affidavits by victims of crown forces.

Partly because of its intended audience, it was more inclined to publicise governmental misdeeds than to celebrate IRA activities in the manner of An t-Óglach (another underground publication, produced by the Dáil Ministry of Defence).

A weekly summary of 'acts of aggression' committed by the British forces in Ireland was compiled from newspaper reports by Anna Fitzsimons (latterly, Anna Kelly) in the same office, and edited and mimeographed by McKenna, sometimes at her lodgings in Belvedere Road on the north side of the city. Most of the actual writing was done by Frank Gallagher subject to the editorial correction of FitzGerald (later replaced by Erskine Childers).

A 1921 issue of the Irish Bulletin describing how the British forces produced a fake version of the publication (see below)

McKenna is sometimes described as editor of the Irish Bulletin, but might more accurately be called an editorial assistant. FitzGerald called her his 'right hand' and in 1947 R.M. Smyllie recalled that her role in the propaganda department brought her into regular contact with the media.

Making the Bulletin

Her principal task was to type out each issue on a wax stencil inserted in a typewriter (this required particular skill since mistakes could not be corrected and meant discarding the stencil; silk stencils were substituted for a period).

The stencil was used to print off mimeographed copies on a duplicator, after which the copies were posted by secretaries and boy messengers under McKenna's supervision in small batches around the city to forwarding addresses in England.

At first the mailing list had only about thirty names, the core group being London journalists cultivated by FitzGerald through his London literary contacts; by October 1920 there were some 600 recipients, and over 1,200 at the truce in July 1921.

McKenna also kept the accounts of the Irish Bulletin and took dictation on important statements (such as policy declarations by Griffith and accounts of ill treatment in prison by such figures as Ernie O'Malley), and sometimes worked up articles from notes supplied by FitzGerald and other superiors.

Michael Collins
McKenna was a confidential messenger between Dáil departments and IRA leaders including Michael Collins

McKenna acted as a confidential messenger between dáil departments and for IRA leaders (including Michael Collins). This work brought her into contact with the nationalist hostess Moya Llewellyn Davies (1881–1942), whose sophistication she admired.

'The girl wearing a green tam'

The Irish Bulletin emphasised accuracy and authenticated source material, with Gallagher's imaginative propensities kept on a tight editorial rein, and was widely cited by British journalistic and political opponents of the Lloyd George government's policy in Ireland and by Dáil representatives abroad, while the British government denounced it as the propaganda of a murder gang.

As the guerrilla war and government reprisals intensified, the Bulletin became a particular target for the security forces, while its continued appearance symbolised the survival of the underground administration.

McKenna's reminiscences record its constant moves from one Dublin hideout to another, her increasing awareness of the ruthlessness with which the war was fought on both sides, and her fear that if captured she might break under the sort of tortures recorded in the Bulletin. (After the arrest of FitzGerald, McKenna was told that he had been asked about 'the girl wearing a green tam' (tam-o'-shanter hat) and promptly changed her headgear.)

'I was frank and ingenuous, guided solely by an instinct of self-preservation and a resolution not to fail those who had faith in me. Arthur Griffith had praised me to Mr FitzGerald saying I was the most reliable person he had ever known, and that was an opinion I had to continue to merit. Besides my all-absorbing work gave me all the satisfaction for which my heart had ever yearned'.

The Irish Bulletin moved from location to location around Dublin, as seen in this map from the Atlas of the Irish

Although several staff members were captured at one time or another, and the Bulletin's office equipment and files (then located in an office on Molesworth Street, chosen for its general loyalist atmosphere) were captured in 26 March 1921 and used for some time to produce a rival Bulletin as a form of black propaganda, the paper appeared until the truce without missing an issue.

A family affair

McKenna's younger sister Winifred also did secretarial work for the underground dáil government during this period. Her eldest brother Tadhg (Timothy) (1899–1931) was active in Sinn Féin and trade union affairs in Greenore, Co. Louth; in March 1921 he was detained, beaten up, and interned. He later became an Irish Labour Party activist.

Another brother, William, acted as a messenger for the underground government and served in the Free State army during the Civil War.

At the truce, McKenna was reassigned to the secretarial staff of the Dáil cabinet at the Mansion House, while continuing to work for the publicity department. In October 1921 she accompanied the Irish delegation to the treaty negotiations as Griffith's private secretary (one of four secretarial assistants).

Ellie Lyons, Alice Lyons, Arthur Griffith and Kathleen McKenna aboard the Curraghmore mailboat in 1921. Photo by Topical Press Agency. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland 

McKenna's personal admiration for Griffith (whom she regarded almost as a father figure, noting that his long experience of privation for the cause made him seem older than he actually was) and Collins (whom she compared in retrospect to Richard Wagner's Siegfried as an image of heroic, doomed youth) underlay her support for the Anglo-Irish treaty.

McKenna worked as Griffith's secretary until shortly before his death; she also briefly did secretarial work for Collins during the Treaty debates and saw the hate-mail he received, but was never his secretary or adviser as is sometimes stated. 

Friends divided

One of McKenna's sisters opposed the Treaty, and in later writings McKenna recalled with sadness her own political alienation from former friends; at one point she shared a railway carriage with Anna Kelly during a long journey, neither daring to speak for fear of a rebuff.

While McKenna believed Childers's actions during the civil war inflicted considerable harm on Ireland, she thought he acted from sincere though misguided patriotism and Griffith's hatred for him was irrational; she believed that if Griffith and Collins had lived the executions of republican prisoners (including Childers) in the later stages of the civil war would not have taken place.

On the establishment of the Free State government, McKenna became private secretary to successive ministers for external affairs, including FitzGerald, with whose family she formed a lifelong friendship, Kevin O'Higgins and W. T. Cosgrave  when he was acting minister after the death of O'Higgins.

She was a private secretary to the boundary commission in 1924, one of two secretaries to the Irish delegation to the imperial conference in London in 1924, and secretary (1927-31) to James Dolan, parliamentary secretary to the minister for industry and commerce. She wrote articles for the Freeman's Journal at some time prior to its closure in 1924.

The Italian years

In 1931 McKenna married Vittorio Napoli, a captain (later a general) in the Italian royal grenadier guards, whom she first met while holidaying in Italy in 1927. She spent the first five years of her marriage in the port of Derna in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya, then an Italian colony) where her husband was stationed, and where her two children (a son and a daughter) were born.

The Napolis briefly lived in Albania (September 1939–June 1940), before Kathleen and the children moved to Viterbo on Italy's entry to the second world war while Vittorio served in the Italian forces in Greece.

Piazza San Lorenzo square. Old Town. Courtyard of the Palazzo dei Papi palace. Fountain. Viterbo. Lazio. Italy. Europe. (Photo by: Mauro Flamini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Piazza San Lorenzo in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Papi palace in Viterbo, Italy, where Kathleen moved with her family in 1940 (Photo by: Mauro Flamini/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

After the September 1943 Italian withdrawal from the Axis, Vittorio was among the Italian military personnel taken prisoner in Greece by the Germans; he subsequently spent two years under harsh conditions in detention camps in Germany and Poland, only returning home in September 1945.

Viterbo was heavily bombed because it contained military facilities; after the arrival of Allied troops Kathleen helped to support her family by acting as a translator and giving English lessons. Vittorio continued to serve in the Italian army after the war; the family lived in Viterbo until 1956, when they moved to Rome.

In the postwar period Kathleen regularly wrote articles, mainly for the Irish Independent, but also for Irish, American and New Zealand publications such as the Irish Press, Irish Travel, the Standard, the Word, and Writer's Digest.

She wrote under the pen name 'Kayn (or Kayen) MacKay' and sometimes under her own name. (Her family hold a list of these articles.) Her journalistic earnings were reserved for travel and other recreational activities, since by social convention the wives of Italian officers were not supposed to hold paid employment.

In 1947 her journalism financed her first visit to Ireland since 1932, to see her family. In retirement the Napolis regularly visited Ireland, travelled widely in Italy, were regular opera-goers, and pursued their lifelong mutual interest in stamp collecting.

Setting the record straight

In 1950–51 and 1970 McKenna applied for an Irish military pension, and received supportive references from Gallagher despite their political differences. McKenna's pension applications were rejected because she had not served in a military organisation (she had been forbidden to join Cumann na mBan because this might compromise the security of the Bulletin) but in 1972 she was awarded free travel (later extended to her husband) as a war of independence veteran.

As she grew older, McKenna grew increasingly concerned to place her experiences on record to educate future Irish generations about the independence struggle and to counter myths. She denounced allegations that on the night the Treaty was signed Collins refused to agree until almost the last minute and Griffith was visibly plunged in despair over his decision.

In 1951 she gave two talks on Radio Éireann about her experiences on the Irish Bulletin (copies were deposited with the Bureau of Military History). Extracts from a longer memoir, drafted and redrafted between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, were published in the Capuchin Annual and the Irish Times during her lifetime; although McKenna never published a definitive version, her account was edited by her daughter and niece and published as A Dáil Girl's Revolutionary Recollections (2014).

Kathleen Napoli McKenna died in Rome on 22 March 1988 and was buried with an Irish flag which she had retained all her life. A large body of her papers, much of it concerned with her secretarial work during the treaty negotiations, is in the National Library of Ireland.

Some of her memorabilia were sold at auction in Dublin in 2010 (without the family's knowledge) and 2011. Researchers should note that an alleged account of a conversation with McKenna in the [Irish] Times Pictorial, 30 August 1947, reproduces what appear to be the journalist's own favourable views of Mussolini in a form which misleadingly allows them to be attributed to McKenna, and that it considerably exaggerates the Napoli family's pre-war economic circumstances.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography is Ireland's national biographical dictionary. Devised, researched, written and edited under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, its online edition covers nearly 11,000 lives. Read more about Dictionary of Irish Biography

Sources: Cathleen Napoli McKenna [sic], witness statement, BMH (WS 643); Meath Chronicle, 24 Nov. 1906; 21 Mar. 1908; 2 Dec. 1939 (references supplied by Brian S. Murphy); Ir. Times, 4 Nov. 1932; 23 Aug. 1947; 24, 25–7 Dec. 1979; 21 Apr. 1989; 13, 21 Apr. 2010; 19 Apr. 2011; Times Pictorial, 30 Aug. 1947; Ir. Independent, 30 Oct. 1955; 20 July 1967; 16 Mar. 1968; 13 Aug. 1970; 20 Jan. 1975; 3 Dec. 1991; Sunday Independent, 6 Sept. 1964; Kathleen McKenna, 'The Irish Bulletin', Capuchin Annual (1970), 503–27, with biographical note, 641; Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: a biography (1990); Michael Foy, Michael Collins's intelligence war: the struggle between the British and the IRA, 1919-1921 (2006); Jack Lane and Brendan Clifford (ed.), Irish Bulletin; a full reprint of the official newspaper of Dail Eireann giving news and war reports, i: 12th June 1919 to 1st May 1920 (2012); Charles Townshend, The republic: the fight for Irish independence, 1918-1923 (2013); Kathleen McKenna [sic], A dáil girl's revolutionary recollections (2014); information from Teresa Napoli (daughter)