Witnessing the 1916 Rising led to her political awakening and she remained true to her beliefs for the rest of her life. In this entry from the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography, Frances Clarke tells the story of Máire Comerford.
Máire Comerford (Mary Eva) (1893–1982), republican and journalist, was born 29 June 1893, in Ardavon, Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow, the eldest daughter of James Charles Comerford, a mill owner, and Eva May Comerford, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Esmonde of Co.Wexford.
She was born into the Catholic gentry; her father was friendly with the Parnells. Maire was educated privately at home, and afterwards at a convent; the family's finances had for some time been in serious decline, and when her father died she was sent to England to train as a secretary and earn her living.
It was there that she first became conscious of the political situation in Ireland, and she began to study Irish history and politics in her spare time.
On her return to Ireland Comerford settled in Wexford, where her mother had returned; she became involved in both the local co-operative movement and the United Irishwomen, and on the outbreak of the first world war in providing assistance for Belgian refugees.
Her plans to work with her mother in running a school at Courtown, Co. Wexford, were disrupted by the Easter rising. She was in Dublin visiting relatives during the conflict, and what she witnessed had a profound effect on her. She joined the Wexford branch of Sinn Féin in 1916 and Cumann na mBan the following year.
In 1918 she moved to Dublin, where she worked for Cumann na mBan, and where she was employed as secretary to the historian Alice Stopford Green, in whose home she met many leading nationalists. Green for a time assigned her to work for the White Cross.
Their working relationship eventually broke down owing to political differences, and Comerford was employed for a time as secretary to Áine Ceannt.
During the 1918 general election she campaigned for Sinn Féin, after which she travelled the country, organising Cumann na mBan branches, carrying dispatches for the IRA's Fourth Northern Division, and reporting Black and Tan atrocities.
Against the Treaty
Comerford attended the treaty debates and opposed the treaty on the grounds that she wanted no change from the republic established by the 1916 proclamation. During the bombardment of the Four Courts in Dublin in June 1922 she carried dispatches between the anti-treaty forces in the Four Courts and the IRA's Dublin brigade, and later acted as courier to republican units in various parts of the country.
Her involvement in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap W. T. Cosgrave in January 1923 resulted in her arrest and imprisonment in Mountjoy jail. As a prisoner she maintained her opposition to the Free State; she staged protests about overcrowding, which resulted in her removal to the criminal section of the prison and a sentence of three months' hard labour. In response she went on hunger strike.
During her imprisonment she was shot in the leg by a Free State soldier because she had been waving to fellow prisoners, after which she was transferred to the North Dublin Union, from where she escaped on 9 May 1923.
Following her re-arrest on 1 June she again resorted to the tactic of a hunger strike, and after three weeks she was released from Kilmainham jail on a stretcher. She recovered from the ordeal in a Dublin nursing home run by Josephine O'Donel, sister-in-law of the republican Peadar O'Donnell.
By August 1923 she had recovered sufficiently to campaign for Sinn Féin during the general election in Cork. She was arrested in Fermoy while collecting deposits for candidates and imprisoned in Cork jail, but was released soon afterwards. She was then sent by Éamon de Valera to the USA on a nine-month fund-raising mission, which proved disappointing.
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Maire Comerford remembers Countess Markievicz in this archive interview
From poultry farming to journalism
On her return to Ireland, Comerford settled in Wexford, where she ran a poultry farm, which provided her with enough money to eke out a very meagre living. With few opportunities to travel to Dublin, she became isolated from her political associates there. She managed to attend the 1926 Sinn Féin ard fheis, representing Leinster, and for the first time found herself on the executive.
In that year she received a nine-month jail sentence for her attempt to influence juries in republican trials. In 1935 she began her long association with the Irish Press, and her editorship of the 'Woman's Page'; in the years that followed she paid off the extensive debts she had accumulated while farming in Wexford.
Although she wrote for the IRA's journal War News during the 1930s, she is said to have disagreed with much of the content. She severed her formal links with the republican movement in 1941 in response to the controversy surrounding the IRA court martial of Stephen Hayes, as she had maintained his innocence.
In subsequent years she remained politically active through her involvement with the Anti-Partition League and the Mansion House committee.
She retired as a full-time journalist in 1964 to concentrate on compiling information on the republican movement, and in 1969 published The First Dáil. She was again before the courts in 1976 for her attendance at a banned Sinn Féin rally in Dublin.
Convicted and fined £10, she offered to serve a prison sentence. She died 15 December 1982 at her home in Sandyford, Dublin, and was buried beside her friend Dom John Francis Sweetman at Mount St Benedict, near Gorey, Co. Wexford. Her unpublished memoirs and other papers are held in UCD archives.
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: GRO; Burke, Peerage (1912); Maire Comerford, The first dáil (1969); Uinseann MacEoin, Survivors: the story of Ireland's struggle (1980); Irish Press, 16 Dec. 1982; Ir. Times, 16 Dec. 1982; obituary, An Phoblacht, 21 Dec. 1982; Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (1983); Uinseann MacEoin, The IRA in the twilight years, 1923–1948 (1997)