Fifteen days before Christmas 1988, "Aunt" Bridie Halpin died. At 85, she had lived a good life, but it was still sad for the Halpin family for their Bridie was the beloved matriarch of the clan in America. The first to come over, she had emigrated to New York in 1946. In turn, she brought out her niece and nephews – all children of her younger brother who remained in Dublin. The Halpin family took root and prospered in America, thanks to Bridie, and now they were together to bid her farewell. As they fondly recalled anecdotes and personal memories, they realized how little of her past they knew. She was a past officer of the Dublin Society in America, but what of Bridie as a young woman? No one knew, and there was no one to ask for she had outlived her peers. Bridie was the typical spinster aunt of many an Irish family in America.
After the funeral, came the sorrowful task of clearing out the little New York apartment that Bridie had called home. As her nephew Christy examined each item, he saw a suitcase under the bed, lifted it onto the table, and opened it. Inside were photos, newspaper clippings and papers brown with age. He unfolded each document and like the pieces of a puzzle, they began to form a picture of a woman named Bridie Halpin, who was totally different than the Aunt Bridie he had known. Now why, he wondered, would aunt Bridie have a copy of the Constitution of Cumann na mBan (Ladies Auxiliary to the National Volunteers) with her name on it? And why had she saved newspaper clippings of the troubled twenties in Ireland, of Black and Tan raids and Civil War strife? He read a letter full of nationalist sentiment and his curiosity turned to amazement when he saw that it had been signed, "Your good friend, Maude Gonne MacBride." There were other letters from Madame MacBride and her daughter-in-law Catalina, wife of the late Nobel Peace Prize winner whom Bridie referred to as "Mrs. Sean." There were also several personal Christmas cards from Eamon deValera, all hand-written to Bridie Halpin. There were letters from people whose names he didn’t recognize, but who were important to the cause of Irish freedom because he could tell that just from the content of the letters and there were so many of them. The next item stunned Christy – it was a detention order dated 8 August 1923, declaring Bridie Halpin a dangerous person and ordering her imprisonment. The signature was that of Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Defense of the Irish Free State. My God! Aunt Bridie had been in jail! He called me and asked if I would provide some background on the items in the suitcase. I went to Christy’s home where he had gathered his siblings and we opened the case; my jaw hit the table.
Each piece of paper contributed to a biographical portrait of a person that, until now, the Halpins thought they knew intimately. I explained how when the Treaty of 1921 was offered to end the War of Independence, many of the women in Cumann na mBan didn’t want to settle for only the 26-counties offered and fought with the anti-treaty forces for a full 32-county Ireland. The letters were from leading Republican men and women who fought, like Bridie, for an independent Ireland. Then we found it, a frail collection of 6-inch by 4-inch papers from different sources, hand-sewn together at the center with needle and thread to form a 3-inch by 4-inch makeshift booklet. We carefully opened it to find that each leaf held a hand-written verse or message from a fellow prisoner at Kilmainham Gaol! Like a school graduation autograph book, it was Bridie's jail journal! As we carefully read each leaf, we came to one that read:
Far better the grave of a rebel
without cross, without stone, without name
than a treaty with treacherous England
that can only bring sorrow and shame.
- Bridie Halpin, Kilmainham Gaol
This was definitely not the Aunt Bridie they had known. We found a letter from the North Dublin Union Internment Camp, dated 1923 addressed to Bridie Halpin in Kilmainham Gaol. The letter read, in part, "My jail experience is written in letters of fire across my brain." It told of refusing to cooperate with authorities who had ordered female prisoners to clean the prison. "We're not going to demean ourselves and Ireland by cleaning English dirt," the author wrote. "We gave them hell and they gave us hell back - some of my hair went early in the fray, but I think the mark of my boot is somewhere in a Tommies shinbone yet!" As we read on, a story unfolded of the courage and suffering of Irish women who endured as gallantly as their men for Roisin Dubh. Another letter read:
My poor mother must be in a queer plight - never hearing from me for 11 weeks. My God, the hunger is dreadful. I'd give a lot to have one of mother's cakes now, Bridie. But are we downhearted - no, no, we'll win yet, PG!
It was signed, "Polly Cosgrove, prisoner number 3234."
Win what? Until now, the family wasn’t sure they understood. They had come to America as children with no interest in politics; they were American now. Sure, they were proud of their native land, but they were unsure of its history. But, regardless of the politics of the situation, the spirit and determination of these women was incredible! They were heroines, and Bridie was one of them. There was a green arm band with a note attached. Christy vaguely recalled an old family story about how Bridie's brother, Chris, was chosen by James Connolly to play his bugle for a 1916 ceremony at Liberty Hall – a bugle now in the Kilmainham Gaol museum. Until now, it was just a story and he wished he’d paid more attention the last time it was told; for here in his hand was the green band with the gold harp that Bridie proudly wore on that day. She had kept it all those years in her little suitcase.
In that old suitcase, the Halpin family found a new impression of the loving old woman they knew as Aunt Bridie. She had taken on an aura of fame; she was a courageous lady who had suffered for a free and independent Ireland. They felt a pride swell inside; if only they could talk to her once more about a time long ago that never seemed important until now. I told them that from now on, Aunt Bridie was really Bridie Halpin, Irish patriot. Nephew Tony said, "What a shame that nobody knew about this, why didn't she ever say anything? There are so many things that she could have told us." It was a rhetorical question, but his brother Noel broke the silence. "Maybe thats the sign of the true patriot," he offered. "They do what has to be done, and never look for credit." They all nodded in agreement. I made copies of the entire collection for each of them (and one for me) and explained that the originals didn’t really belong to them, they belonged to the Irish people to show that Aunt Bridie represented a courageous group of Republican Women who deserve to be remembered. The Halpin family donated the papers to Kilmainham Gaol Museum, where they inspired a full exhibit on the Republican Women of Ireland. It was called GUNS AND CHIFFON and (then President) Mary McAleese who opened the exhibit remarked, "It’s about time!" They are still periodically placed on display, through the courtesy of the Halpin family - the proud Halpin family!
Top image: Cumann na mBan in 1916