Richmond Barracks 1916 : ‘We Were There’
77 Women of the Easter Rising
Edited by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis
Dublin City Council Decade of Commemorations Publications Series
Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2016
Paperback. 276 p. ISBN 978-1846825927. €24.95
Reviewed by Caitriona Clear
National University of Ireland, Galway
This book is the first on the subject to reveal that quite a large proportion – perhaps the majority – of women who took part in the Easter Rising of 1916, came from Dublin’s working class. Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis focus on the 77 women arrested after the Rising who were brought to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore before being dispatched to other jails in the city. This approach, focused as it is on a particular place as a local history initiative of Dublin City Council, actually understates the level of working-class female involvement in the Rising because it leaves out the women factory workers in Jacobs’ Mills who were ordered by garrison commander Thomas MacDonagh to leave before the surrender, and thus managed to evade arrest. However, the authors’ intensive research into the captured women in a variety of archives (including the indispensable Bureau of Military History at Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin) uncovers many women who have never been heard of before, even in the detailed and thorough histories of Irish women’s political activism by Margaret Ward, Rosemary Cullen Owens, Cliona Murphy, Mary Jones, Ann Matthews, Louise Ryan, Cal McCarthy, Senia Paseta and Roy Foster. This book’s ‘unique selling point’ is its provision of detailed and comprehensive mini-biographies of as many of those 77 women as possible.
Women took part in the Easter Rising as members of either the Irish Citizen Army or Cumann na mBan. The Irish Citizen Army, founded as a defence militia for striking workers in 1913, was a Dublin-based force which accepted women as equal combatants. Most Citizen Army women, however, took part in dispatch-riding, signals and cooking, like their counterparts in Cumann na mBan. Cumann na mBan (literally, the Women’s Organisation), an auxiliary organisation to the Irish Volunteers founded in 1914, was a much larger force, organised on a country-wide basis. It incorporated elements of the older Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) founded by Maud Gonne in 1900, a nationalist political and cultural organisation. Nationalist women were also active since 1893 as members of the Gaelic League and they were on an equal footing with men in Arthur Griffith’s non-parliamentary political organisation, Sinn Fein, founded in 1900 – it was Mary Butler, a close associate of Griffith’s, who came up with the name Sinn Fein (literally Our Selves).(1) The membership of Cumann na mBan, around 2,000 at the time of the Rising, swelled to 20,000 by 1918 as women continued to play a dominant role in nationalist activism, for example in the Women’s Day June 9 1918 (Lá na mBan), a countrywide demonstration against conscription. Membership of female trade unions also trebled during this period and women were active right up to the Truce and Treaty in 1921-22, and throughout the bitter Civil War which succeeded it. Having already been granted a limited franchise under the Representation of the People Act 1918 while still under British rule, Irish women were granted fully equal citizenship by the Irish Free State, the twenty-six-county State established after the Treaty in 1922.
There are several reasons, too complex to go into here, why women’s emancipation did not flourish in Ireland after independence, but too much historical hindsight can distort our view of what women in the revolutionary period actually did and why they did it. Women took part in the revolution because they wanted to play their part in freeing Ireland, alongside the men they thought of as comrades and equals. The signatories to the 1916 Proclamation –all male, but all feminists – explicitly supported gender equality when they addressed themselves to Irish men and Irish women and promised that both sexes would have equal voting rights in the new Republic. Looking back from 1963, Helena Molony, actress, journalist and lifelong trade union official, scorned the notion that the women in the Rising were motivated in any way differently from the men: 'When people question me about the part the women played in Ireland’s last fight for freedom I feel they might as well ask me what did the tall fairhaired men do in the wars and what did the small dark men do?' .
Molony’s life story is one of the many which are fascinatingly and painstakingly reconstructed in the mini-biographies mentioned earlier. There is abundant information here to enable us to reflect not only on politics, but on work and social class in early twentieth-century Ireland. Artisan and white-collar social categories were fluid and permeable in those years; a clerk’s daughter (Sheila O’Hanlon) was a dressmaker, a carpenter’s daughter (Carrie Mitchell) was a commercial clerk, a publican’s daughter (Pauline Morkan) was a draper’s assistant whose political activity cost her her job in the exclusive city centre department store, Brown Thomas. Annie Higgins, whose father was a cooper, went on to have a distinguished career as a composer and music teacher. Mary O’Sullivan, daughter of a tea-mixer, was a stationer; her younger sister Louisa was a seamstress. Margaret ‘Loo’ Kennedy’s three sisters were a milliner, a clerk and a drapery sales assistant. Tenement-dwelling labourers’ daughters, as well as those from better-doing tradesmen’s families, operated with a confidence and agency we might not expect from people who lived in the worst urban slums in Europe. May Gahan, born in 1898, who lived with her parents and five siblings in one room of a tenement house, was a member of Inghinidhe na hEireann by the age of 15, taking part in several Abbey plays and other cultural productions. Bessie Lynch, a shirt-maker and founder member of the Irish Women Workers Union who was involved in the Howth gun-running, lived with her mother and sister, both laundresses, in one room in a house they shared with six other families. The dwelling of Josie O’Keeffe, a Liberties silk weaver and daughter of a labourer, was probably not much better, when one considers that dressmaker / furrier Julia Grenan’s father, a widowed joiner, could only afford a two-room dwelling in Dublin’s inner city for himself and his adult children.
Grenan and her lifelong companion, Elizabeth O’Farrell, a hospital midwife, were both in their thirties at the time of the Rising; Constance Markievicz, at 48, was the oldest of the active participants who were imprisoned. (The oldest woman actually imprisoned was Countess Plunkett at 58, mother of Joseph, one of the executed leaders; she had played no part whatsoever in the Rising.) But most of the female participants in the Rising were younger than this, and it is only now, in 2016, when I relate their years of birth to those of my own daughters (1993 and 1997), that I realise how very young they were – some were born as late as 1899 and 1900. Another striking feature noticed by the authors is the number of sisters who were involved. Already well-known are the five Giffords (two of whom were married to 1916 leaders), the three Plunketts (whose brother Joseph was a signatory of the Proclamation), and the four or five(2) Wexford Ryans, two of whom were among the 77 held in Richmond Barracks, but this book brings to light the O’Sullivans (mentioned above), the Martins (about whom little is known), the Cooneys and Listons who were the daughters of engine drivers, the O’Keeffes and the Quigleys whose fathers were labourers. Annie and Emily Norgrove, two of the youngest women (girls, really, aged 19 and 17) came from a large Protestant working-class family off Dublin’s North Strand.
One wonders what the Norgroves and other Protestants – who made up a small but by no means negligible proportion of the insurgents – made of the overwhelmingly Catholic atmosphere in the various garrisons during the week. ‘Rosary after rosary was recited during the last twenty-four hours as the British military were closing in on the area’, recalled Eilís Ní Riain, who was in an outpost of the Four Courts . Dying combatants had the Act of Contrition whispered in their ears. Collective Absolution was given to the combatants in the General Post Office. After the surrender, the women in Kilmainham Jail wept when they saw Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert and Sean Heuston receiving Communion at an evening Mass – in those days of infrequent Eucharistic participation, they knew this meant the men were going to be executed the following day. The popular beatification of the dead leaders was led by the female prisoners; by the end of May some of them were actually praying to Patrick Pearse. On a lighter note, Kathleen Browne, a tough Wexford rebel sent from Richmond Barracks to Mountjoy jail and one of the older women to be imprisoned, wrote to her worried mother that it was not so bad, ‘like being in a convent on a retreat’ .
At the moment quite a lot of historical works are appearing on the Rising, the Irish revolution and the First World War. This book’s value will extend far beyond the decade of commemorations (1913-1923) in Ireland, and its wider significance for the history of women in political activism will ensure its permanence on bookshelves and reading lists. Its level of detail about individual life stories makes it a reference book on a par with Medb MacNamara & Paschal Mooney’s indispensable Women in Parliament : Ireland 1918-2000 (Dublin: Wolfhound 2000). And if, in comparing the two books, one is struck by how few of those idealistic and energetic 77 women went on to become law-makers in independent Ireland, it must be remembered that none of them seem to have ever regretted their actions. Factory worker and Citizen Army member Rosie Hackett said in 1970 that ‘if only Mr [James] Connolly were living, women would not be in the backward position we are in today’ , but she was proud of the part she had played, and defended the rebel leaders vigorously and vociferously to her dying day. This book is a fitting testament to her and to women like her.
(1) M. Ní Chinnéide, Máire de Buitléar : Bean athbheochana (Baile Atha Cliath: Coiscéim, 1993) : 8.
(2) Four or five because it is by no means clear whether one should include Johanna Ryan, aka Sr Stanislaus IBVM, a Loreto nun in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, along with her sisters Phyllis, Nell, Mary Kate and Min. Does praying for one’s family and giving them moral support qualify as revolutionary involvement? Roy Foster, Vivid Faces : The revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 (London: Penguin, 2014 : 65, 321), suggests that it might]. For information on the Plunketts: Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, All in the Blood : A Memoir of the Plunkett Family, the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence (Dublin, 2006); and the Giffords: Sydney Gifford Czira, The Years flew by : The Recollections of Madame Sydney Czira (Dublin: Gifford & Craven, 1974; Galway: Arlen House, 2000, with a new introduction by Alan Hayes).
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