Helena Molony: Forgotten Hero of the Easter Rising and Trade Unionist

Helena Molony was born in 1883- 1967 she was born at No 8, Coles Lane  just off Henry Street  in the centre of Dublin. Her father was Michael Molony, and her mother Catherine McGrath. They owned and operated a grocery store. Not born with a ‘silver spoon in her mouth, nor did she enjoy a luxury lifestyle - they lived a comfortable if not wealthy lifestyles which the grocery shop provided.  Her mother died a young woman leaving her bereft. When her father married again, it was well known fact that she did not get on with her stepmother; so she had a very unhappy childhood.

Always interested in the history and dreaming of a united Ireland – she was able to identify that moment of political awakening.  It was in 1903, outside the Customs House - she became transfixed by a beautiful young woman who was giving a pro –nationalist speech about conditions in Ireland for all working class people and what needed to be done to revive the cultural. The language and the way she related the awful living conditions of the poverty stricken in Ireland gave Helena that awakening. "The way she spoke about Ireland and what needed to be done “electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit." Molony was already into reading Douglas Hyde, his history and legends; so she gathered up all this material and any other books that she considered worthy of reading about  Irish history .

 When Molony found out that Gonne had founded Inghinidhe na hÉirean; [daughters of Ireland ] Molony  joined up  immediately. This was one of the few organisations that facilitated the political engagement by women; who were denied the vote in this ere, and were excluded from most cultural and political organisations. This was the beginning of lifelong commitment to the republican cause. By 1908, her intelligence, hard work and commitment to the cause for Irish freedom from British rule earned her the editorship of Bean na hÉireann the organisation’s monthly newspaper. This  newspaper brought together a nationalist group of people who would be her peers and companions throughout her life – including ,Countess Markievicz, who designed the title page and wrote a gardening column, Countess Markievicz sister, Eve- Goore Booth,  Susan Mitchell, Kathleen Tynan, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Roger Casement, Arthur Griffith, and James Stephens all wrote for the paper. Sydney Gifford also wrote under the nome-de-plume name of John Brennan; he was also on the production team.

Not least of these companions was Bulmer Hobson. Some sources would argue that Molony was his muse, like Gonne was W.B Yeast muse; although the Molony / Hobson affair ended bitterly. This was thought to be due, in part, to his admiration and loyally to Eoin MacNeill – and Molony had long thought that Eoin MacNeills was not nor radical enough to deliver on a rebellion against British rule in Ireland. Some sources say that she then became friends with Séan Connelly and the pair were romantically linked.

In the newspaper Bean na hÉireannhad articles about fashion from Irish materials only and Irish handmade cloths were promoted; along with all the politics of the day- themes that would be on discussion. It also included a Labour column / fiction and poetry. While she too, was a part time career actress; she was also a member of the Abbey Theatre, her primary commitment was too her political work.

She was credited with being a strong political influence within the nationalist movement. Dr Kathleen Lynn often spoke about how clever, talented and  attractive she was, and the long talk’s she had with Molony eventually converted her to the nationalist cause and committed her to Markievicz. In fact  so close was her friendship with Markievicz that she allowed Fianna Éireann, the cadet body the Irish Volunteers, to be founded in her own home Dublin  at Coles Lane by Markienicz. Other  sources would argue that Na Fianna Éireann was founded and planned in Sherrard Street the home of Molony’s brother Frank.

By 1911 her activism had shifted from propaganda to agitation and rebellion. She protested against George V's visit to Ireland; along with Countess Markievicz and all the group they were with. They managed to burn the British Flag and threw stones at the portraits of the King and Queen smashing an illuminated portrait of George V. Molony and  Markievicz was arrested on this occasion. [see essay on Countess Markievicz - The Wild Geese]  Markievicz spent time in prison. Molony’s bail was paid by Aine [Anna] Parnell, sister of the Charles Stewart  Parnell. Embarrassed and appalled by her detention in a Police cell [as only rowdy’s were imprisoned or taken to a Police station], she was equally embarrassed when ‘she was put out of her cell with no explanation other than ‘your bail has been paid. It was only later she found out who had paid her bail. While she had been detained, a demonstration to release her had been formed. So on her release she spoke to the crowd, denouncing the visit of George V as a scoundrel. She said of this occasion  "that  was marvellous. I was rearrested and I felt myself in the company of one of our great heroes such as Wolfe Tone." [Theobald; 1798 Rebel].

Molony played a pivotal role in organizing the school meals with Maud Gonne MacBride,  Marhievicz, Marie Perolz and others. She organised the supply of daily school meals to children in impoverished areas, particularly during the 1913 Dublin lockout, and pressurised Dublin Corporation and other bodies to provide proper meals [meat and vegetables, and on Fridays rice and milk] to the starving children of Dublin City. Meat for the poor in this era was a luxury, and the children had to be encouraged to taste it, as it  was not in their daily diet. Suffice it to say that Molony spent a lot of time with these children in assisting them and encouraging them to acquire a taste for meat. Calling on her expertise in the Abbey Theatre as an actress, it was Molony who smuggled Jim Larkin dressed as a Priest’, white collar and all, into the Imperial Hotel on that infamous occasions 1913 when he addressed the cheering crowds from the said balcony, barricading the door so that the proprietor and staff would not be able to evict him, before he had finished his speech.

Being a Labour activist, she was good friends with James Connolly and Countess Markievicz and she was secretary to them both for a short time. She also managed the Union in the shirt factory in Liberty Hall. The Union had been founded to give employment to the strikers put out of work and that had been blacklisted after the strike 1913. In her statements to Bureau of Military History she wrote “not one of them is a penny the better off for what they do to earn a crust of bread; and this is testimony to the manner in which -the real aristocracy of the country is born, by privilege, class, and wealth, while the downtrodden poor, exist on the pittance they receive in wages” .

Her friends included Thomas MacDonagh and his wife Muriel, Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, and Bulmer Hobson. These friendships were formed during and after work hours at Liberty Hall as they were all like minded people, on a great journey which culminated in the Easter Rising 1916. She and Patrick Pearse were God parents to the MacDonaghs daughter Barbra. Molony went on to say that all the men who visited James Connelly were intimate friend of both she and Connelly [James], and so it was quite natural for her to encourage these friends to buy Irish goods made in Liberty Hall.

In the same account of her testimony to the Bureau of military History, Molony describes leafleting on O'Connell Street [Sackville Street] – then, on the GPO side, only frequented by British soldiers and their mots:[girlfriends]  "Elizabeth O’Farrell  and Sighle Grennan and myself were spotted by police. We took to our heels, and were chased through Henry Street, Mary Street and right up to the Markets in Capel Street. We got away clear, as we were young and swift, and the police were hampered by long heavy overcoats. On the whole, we feared more the soldiers with their canes."

(Below: Outside LIberty Hall )

Immersing herself in all things Nationalistic; she became a prominent member of Cumann na Mban [Women’s League]. This was a republican women’s paramilitary organization formed in 1914, as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteer. All Cumann na mBan members were trained alongside the men of the Irish Volunteers – in preparation for an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland. During this time- her commitment to all of the nationalistic cause, were to drain her energy and her spirit, and she had a ‘complete meltdown’ and became mentally and physically ill.  So much so; that her friend Maud Gonne encouraged her to travel with her to France where Gonne had a house. Molony remained in France for the rest of 1914; being rehabilitated and cosseted by Gomes’s staff and revelling in the antics of Gomes’ two children, embracing the whole children and family scenario. She returned to Ireland refreshed and as committed as ever to Ireland's cause and became more involved with Connelly and his endeavours with the Trade Union. She became heavily involved with Connolly’s movement and succeeded Delia Larkin, James Larkin’s sister, as general Secretary of the now beleaguered Women Workers Union and became proprietor of Connolly’s Workers Republic. She regarded The Citizens Army as more radical than the Irish Volunteers.  Connelly, who knew Molony’s intelligence /diligence / hard work and dedication to the cause, would bring about much needed diplomacy in a time of great stress

 During this period of a relative quite 1915/1916 in the Irish Republicans Army / Citizens Army plan of action, Connolly had often hinted, that there would be a resurrection. Knowing him as she did, she instinctively knew that he did not hint at or say things without them having some foundation in truth. Not wanting to miss out on anything in terms of the rebellion, she had started to sleep at Liberty Hall on a pile of men’s coats at the back of the shop. Some sources say that her testimony to the Bureau of Military History was undoubtedly a very clear and abiding memory, as she spoke of the atmosphere being like a simmering pot waiting to erupt, charged as it was with all of the energy of Trade Unions, and not least the revolutionary principles of which were a daily discussion between Connolly, Pearse, and Clarke et al,  with other sources arguing that she was intimately involved in all the preparations with the Military Council for a revolution.

At this time, due to the many differing fractions of rebellion movements being widely known, although some of them were meant to be secret movements, the people of Dublin knew most of everything that was going on. So these movements  were not really a secret. Liberty Hall remained under armed guard. Molony considered the Irish Citizens Army as more radical than the Irish Volunteers because of Eoin MacNeills reluctance to commit to a Rebellion against the British Establishment in Ireland, and dismissed these Fenians’ as ‘old maid’s and equally critical of of Cumaan Nna mBan‘. An intimate friend and colleague of James Connolly, she always kept to hand a revolver, which was kept out of sight under a pillow. 

In the early part of 1916, she was sent to London to transport rifles and guns to Dublin. Connolly had every faith in her ability to deliver on this task. He was not disappointed. When she was travelling back to Ireland, a very nice British Army Recruit offered to carry her heavy case. She, of course, with her talented acting ability, allowed him do this. That British recruit inadvertently carried some of the guns for the 1916 Easter Rising all the way to Euston Station

Just before the Easter Rising 1916, Christopher Brady [Printer] recorded how he had watched with anticipation as Molony helped to prevent a police raid on the Co-Op shop that belied the existence of what was really being organized at the back of the shop. She was calmly trying to exert  her authority on the police by asking quietly for the papers that the police had taken into their hand to be put down, when James Connolly came quietly down the stairs with a gun drawn and just as quietly said to the police "drop those papers or I will drop you." By this time Molony had her gun drawn as well. [The papers were documents of military importance] The police beat a hasty retreat  

For her own part, she freely admitted that she had been involved in the printing and distribution of leaflets by the Irish Citizens Army and the Irish Republican Army. Not least being the printing of the Proclamation – which was delivered to her while she lay sleeping at the back of the shop at Liberty Hall.

When the Rebellion was first suppressed by Eoin MacNeill for the Easter Sunday morning, and was then reinstated for the Easter Monday Morning by Patrick Pearse, et.al, Molony felt her opinion of Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeil had been vindicated; and she was jubilant. On that fateful Easter Monday morning she set out with Séan Connelly leading the second command of the Citizens Army with nine women [Cumann na mBan]; one being Molony, they set off to take Dublin Castle at whatever cost. In her own statement she recalled the moments in "euphoric terms," emphasizing the restraint that Séan Connelly exercised as they walked into Dublin Castle and demanded that the Police surrender. She wrote.” Séan Connelly had insisted and warned him [the policeman] of the consequences if he did not surrender, but this blind tool of imperialism could not believe that the Irish people were demanding the own rights. When Séan Connelly then tried to pass him [ policeman] put out his arm to stop him Connolly, and Séan Connolly shot him dead “.   The police did not think that the Citizens Army were serious up until that point. 

These short lived ‘euphoric ‘ moments  were indeed short lived, as Molony was captured in City Hall Dublin and taken first to Ship Street barracks ; she was put into a filthy room. After the Rising she was moved to Kimainham Goal where she was housed in equally squalid conditions.  Awakened by the volley of the Firing Squad every morning, she was badly shaken by the deaths of Pearce and Plunkett while she was in Kilmainham ; and re-living the nightmare of James Connelly tortuous and brutal death ; she wrote ‘after that life seemed to come to an end for me “.  However; this did not stop her trying to burrow her way of Kilmainham Gaol  with a spoon. She was moved to Mountjoy Gaol – then the authorities decided that she was too spirited and her high rank within the Citizens Army; made it even more difficult to hold her in a Dublin Prison -   and as a consequence they  transferred her to Aylesbury Prison; yet another Victorian squalid grim jail. Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Suffrage Federation became her allies ‘and spread the word about the appalling conditions that she and the other women were housed in.. She was one of only five women out of 2,500 captured Irish male rebels; to be interred in England. During the general amnesty in December 1916 she was released. Travelling back to Ireland she knew in her heart that the republicanism that she so believed in, would never be the same. .

 She was not surprised when she returned to Liberty Hall in 1917 to find that there had been a huge sift away from Insurrectionary republicanism.. Liberty Hall and the Union were in the hands of Larkin's more passive section. She was to say of this period ‘we knew we had unsympathetic members in the back and enemy’s in the front’.. She then returned to the weakened ranks of the Citizens Army- using her skills and knowledge within the Trade Union [which had become an increasingly moderate body], to support the now sporadic affords of workers to voice their discount within a framework of communications, with the Employers and not least her efforts with the Prisoners Campaign .. This of course set her on a path of conflict with the Authorities and rendered her to being frequently raided and arrested by the British Authorities and later on; by the Free State authorities  

Throughout the rest of Molony’s life her she worked tirelessly for the Trade Union. She was elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1937, she was only the second woman to hold this office, She became known as the Patron Saint of lost cause’s; due to her diligence and unequivocal belief that the people of Ireland deserved a better place to live in, and a better chance of earning a fair wage for their hard toil.

The vision of Ireland that Molony et.al struggled for – Irish republicanism, may well not have triumphed after 1916. The vision she fought hard for, was one that would encompass Political liberty for all; social justice and  economic reform    However, the conservative Irish Free Sate that emerged after the Sinn Féin’s revolution fell short of that vision.

Her criticism of the Vatican in that era , her continued support for the Irish Republican Army in that era ; and her defence of the Soviet Union ; which she had visited several times- her alcoholism and depression had also contributed to her lifestyle  of being “just one of those awkward  women” and this did not bode well for her in the corridors of power- but kept her in the public eye and that of the Government’s   By this time; Molony had earned a reputation as an “awkward woman”; she became marginalized by class; gender and had long been excluded by history in the narrative of  the struggle for Irish Independence.

Her relationship  with the psychiatrist Evelyn O’Brien was well known amongst her peers and she did not hide it- and  l  with whom she lived until her death in 1967, did little to dispel the long standing rumour and claims that she was an influential member of a network of lesbians, prominent in feminist socialist, trade union and republican circles. Speculation abounded; and such speculation in this era ; only highlighted the gap between gender- sexuality and the very troubling status of being an unmarried woman in a society that only valued women as housewives and  mother’s rather than people ;and followed her, well into a post –revolutionary Ireland.  

In her retirement she lived in relative poverty; living with Evelyn O’Brien and supported by friends; she made no demands on the Government; knowing only too well that she had been dispensed with- her services no longer required.

Given the Political context in which Ireland now stands in the world of econimics, and has  claimed its place in Irish and world history ,with a landslide victory of a  ‘Yes’  vote to gay and lesbian marriage; in the words of Fearghal McGarry  Queen’s University, Belfast.he notes “ there could be worse ways of commemorating Ireland’s revolution than restoring these forgotten women, and the lost ideals that inspired them, to prominence”. Amen to that .


Views: 1803

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on July 24, 2015 at 10:56am


This is a great article and contains a lot of information hitherto unknown, by me at least. Write on. Looking forward to more from you.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on July 26, 2015 at 1:17pm

John Anthony Brennan ; you are so kind ; thank you 


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