When President Michael D. Higgins gave the keynote address on International Women’s Day in Ireland this year, he spoke of the “diverse and often boundary breaking roles played by women in the Uprising of 1916, as well as the impact of the role of women in the post 1916 period in Ireland’s fledging Republic. Higgins continued, “As we come together to honor the women of 1916, it is appropriate that we recall the part they played in laying the foundation of the Ireland in which we live today.” The Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Heather Humphries, emphasized the “roles played by women in bringing about our independence was often deliberately diluted... their stories overlooked and diminished by time..” These statements beg the questions: who were these “forgotten” women, what parts did they play in the Rebellion and why were their roles “overlooked and diminished?”
The exact number of women who actually took part in the Rebellion is unclear. One will find different statistics based on a variety of sources. It is believed that over 200 women took actual roles during that week, while many others, not engaged in the fighting, made major contributions. The reason for the confusion is that many of the women were not arrested. We do know that as many as 77 women were held for a time in Kilmainham jail. More than 60 of these were members of Cumann na mBann, the women’s paramilitary organization formed in 1913. Many were also members of the Irish Citizen Army which played a vital role in the failed attack on Dublin Castle, the “most potent symbol of British occupation and oppression” from the rebels’ point of view.”
These women were invaluable in gathering intelligence, transporting arms, nursing the wounded and joining the fighting in all of the rebel strongholds throughout Dublin. About 15 young women, some not more than 16 years of age, worked tirelessly in the General Post Office (the GPO) and in other places throughout the city. After Patrick Pearse called “surrender,” these women were thrown into cells in Kilmainham. Many of them were the last to leave the GPO. Rose McNamara (right), who lead the contingent away explained, “We were not going to leave the men we were with all week to their fate; we decided to go along and be with them to the end, whatever our fate might be.” In the jail there were no matrons, no one in charge of them but British soldiers, some of whom were Irish. They took every opportunity to insult the women, not allow them to leave their cells for any reason and forced them to sleep over the yard while the men were executed below.
One of the bravest women participating in the Rising was Nurse Elizabeth O’ Farrell. She carried the “surrender” documents” to the various outposts in Dublin on Saturday, April 29 and Sunday, the 30th. At 12:45 P.M. on Saturday, she left 15 Moore Street (the house the rebels retreat to when the GPO was set on fire). Her friends and comrades watched her walk through the bullet ridden streets, fearing that she would be shot. At first, the British thought she might be a spy since the Red Cross had been cut from her apron and sleeve. (The nurses on the Irish side were not “official” members of the Red Cross; they had to be affiliated with the “standing army,” which in this case was the British army).
“This was a very difficult job as I had to take my own life in my hands... Crossing the Canal Bridge the fighting was terrific... a man crossing the bridge about a half a yard behind me was shot dead.”
By dusk Sunday evening, Elizabeth had completed her task without injury. Even dealing with Eamon DeValera and Thomas McDonagh who, at first, refused to obey the orders because they did not recognize James Connolly as the leader of the rebellion.
Elizabeth O’Farrell (left) has become an iconic figure in Irish history. In a photograph of the surrender taken of Patrick Pearse and the two (2) British soldiers, only Ms. O’Farrell’s shoes were visible. Supposedly, she later stated that she deliberately stepped out of sight. Whatever the truth, the photograph has come to symbolize the air brushing or the “Eire brushing,” as some have said, of women out of Irish history. Along with her friends Winifred Carney and Julia Grennan, she remained in the GPO until the end of the Uprising and cared for the wounded, including James Connolly.
Elizabeth died in Fatima House in Bray, Co. wicklow on June 25, 1957. She remained active in Republican politics until her death and she is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, alongside Julia Grennan. A nursing award and medal is given each year in her honor.
Winifred Carney (1887-1943) was born in Bangor, Co. Down into a Catholic Nationalist family. She joined the Gaelic League and was active in the suffragette movement. Her involvement in the Uprising was due primarily through her friendship with James Connolly, being the person who was most acquainted with his beliefs, ideals and plans. She was with Connolly in the GPO “armed with a typewriter and a Webley revolver.” While not an active combatant, she was given the rank of “adjutant” and was responsible for writing Connolly’s dispatches.
After Connolly was shot, she refused to leave his side, despite orders from Pearse and Connolly himself to leave the building. She left with the rest of the rebels after the “surrender,” was arrested and held in Kilmainham, Mountjoy and Aylsbury prisons until Christmas of 1916. After her release, Winifred took part in the Cumma na mBan convention of 1917, but her “radical socialism” alienated her from many of its members. Promoting a “Women’s Republic” she stood unsuccessfully in the 1918 election as a Sinn Fein candidate. After the Civil War, she became disillusioned with politics and was very critical of DeValera and his new government.
In 1928, Winifred married George McBride, a fellow Socialist and a Protestant. Her marriage to a Unionist and former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force led to her being shunned by family and friends. A variety of health problems limited her political activities in the 1930’s. She died in Belfast and is buried in Miltown Cemetery. Because she married a Protestant, she was not allowed to have McBride’s name on her gravestone.
Margaret Skinnider (right) was a 23 year old teacher from Scotland. During her trips to Ireland, she came under the influence of Countess Markiewicz and was active in smuggling in detonators and bomb equipment into Dublin hidden in her hat. She joined the struggle on the basis that it promised “equal status for women.” “We had the same right to risk our lives as the men...that is the Constitution of the Irish Republic...for the first time in history, a constitution incorporated the principal of equal suffrage.”
During the Rebellion she joined, often dressed as a boy, the snipers on the roof of the College of Surgeons. In her memoir, “Doing My Bit for Ireland” she explained: “It was dark there, full of smoke and the din of firing, but it was good to be in action.” She was shot in three (3) places, but her only regret was that she was disabled so early in the fight. She spent several weeks in the hospital before escaping, while waiting for medical treatment, and returned to Scotland. Eventually she went to America where she collected funds for the Republican cause and lectured with other women who had fought in the Rebellion. Later, she returned to Dublin where she took up teaching. She became president of the National Teachers Organization and represented Ireland at the World Conference of Working Professionals in Manila in 1949. She is responsible for gaining salary increases for women and single men.
Margaret Skinnider died on October 10, 1971 and is buried next to Countess Markiewicz in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Helena Molony (1883-1967 - left) was born at Coles Lane, off Henry Street in Dublin Center. She was inspired by the pro-nationalist speeches of Maud Gonne and joined Inghaidhe na hEireann (“Daughters of Ireland”), a women’s revolutionary group founded by Gonne. This began her lifelong commitment to the Republican cause and she edited their monthly newsletter. Helena was a strong influence on many people including Countess Markiewicz and Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who said of her, “We used to have long talks and she converted me to the Nationalist movement. She is a very clever and attractive girl with a tremendous power for making friends.”
As a labour activist, Molony was a close colleague of James Connolly who appointed her secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers Union, which had been formed during the strike at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory as part of the 1913 Dublin lockout lead by Jim Larkin. Before the Rebellion started, she, Elizabeth O’Farrell and Singhe Grennan leafletted O’Connell Street which was frequented by British soldiers and their dates. During Easter week she was stationed at City Hall “equipped with her own revolver and ammunition” and “dressed in an Irish tweed outfit and a Sam Browne belt.” “Part of our duty,” she stated, “was to knit and darn, march and shoot and to obey orders with our brothers in arms.” She was involved in the attack on Dublin Castle, where her commanding officer, Sean Connolly, was killed and she was imprisoned until Christmas of 1916.
After the Civil War, Helena became the second female president of the Irish Trade Union Congress. She continued to be involved in Republican causes in the 1930’s , particularly the Women’s Prisoners Defense League and the People’s Rights Association. She retired from public life in 1946 but continued to work for women’s labout rights. She died in Dublin in 1967.
Maud Gonne (right) was born in Surrey, England in December of 1866. Her father, Thomas Gonne, a captain of the Seventh Lancers, was posted to Ireland after the Fenian Uprising of 1867. It was there that Maud had her first memories of Ireland. In her early twenties, she became active in Irish affairs, lending her support to many causes, especially the plight of the evicted peoples in the Land Wars of the late 1800’s.
Maud published a newspaper in French, “L.Irlande LIbre” (“Free Ireland”) and lectured on Irish affairs in Europe and America. Excluded from joining the existing Nationalist groups, she founded Inghaidhe na hEireann in 1900. The group became the catalyst for Irish women activists, setting out to change women’s exclusion from public and political life. Asked to address the all male Celtic Literary Society, she posed the question: “Is Mother Ireland strong enough to go into battle with one hand tied behind her back? our aim is the complete independence of Ireland.”
Inghaidhe was the first Irish revolutionary to work openly in defiance of the British government, and its occupation of Ireland, by holding public meetings. They organized Irish language and history classes, provided dinners for the children of poverty stricken families, accosted British recruiters trying to sign up men for the British army and discouraged Irish women from dating English soldiers. When the Rebellion came, she said, “I have always hated war, and am by nature a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy.”
In 1903, Gonne married Major John McBride, a forceful figure in the Boer War. They had a son Sean, but the marriage was not successful. She spent most of her married life in France. When her husband was executed for his part in the Rebellion, she returned to Ireland and again became politically active doing mostly humanitarian work. During the Civil War she founded the Women’s Prisoners Defense League to secure the rights of Republican prisoners. At one point she was imprisoned in Kilmainham jail. She went on hunger strike and secured her release in twenty (20) days.
Maud Gonne’s son, Sean, was active in irish politics and the work of the United Nations. He was a founding member of Amnesty International and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. Maud died at the age of 86 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Possibly the least known but in many ways the most remarkable of the women of 1916 was Cesca Chenevix Trench. An Irish Nationalist she wrote an account of the Easter Rellion. Details of these writings were found in her family’s archives in their home in Co. wicklow. Cesca was born into a prominent Anglo-Irish Protestant family and raised in Kent, England. She spent many of her summers at the family villa in Co. Offaly and was intrigued by the land where her mother spent most of her time in the 1860’s. In her teenage years she began to challenge the “constraints of class and gender” and developed strong feelings against the British oppression of the Irish people.
Cesca’s cousin, Dermot Chenevix Trench was a crucial influence on her developing Nationalism. Like Cesca, a rebel against the family’s indifference to the Irish struggle, he assisted the poet George Russell (AE) edit “The Irish Homestead,” a weekly publication of the Irish Agricultural Organization and campaigned for The Gaelic League, which emphasized that “spoken Irish would bring a renewed spirit in Irish industry.” Under Dermot’s direction, Cesca opened an account at Gleason’s department store in Dublin, which sold Irish goods only. She and her sister Margot, also an avid Nationalist, pledged themselves to “abstain from whiskey, beer and tobacco, “unless manufactured in Ireland.” They collected signatures in 1912 during the revived Home Rule agitation, “for all Irish taxes to be lodged in an Irish Treasury.
In June of 1914 Cesca was on the quay of Howth as the Asgard arrived with a delivery of 900 Mauser riffles.As a member of Cumann na mBan, she took first aid training and passionately urged her fellow trainees to take seriously their responsibilities as Irish women: “God made you Irish because he has work for our country... You would not like it if our boys were shot or cut in the leg and you could do nothing!” When the Rebellion took place, Cesca took her ammunition, bandages and left her home in Terenure without her mother knowing where she was going. When she arrived at the GPO, the tricolour was flying and Pearse had just read the Proclamation. She spent almost an hour inside the building “where nothing was organized and felt it to be a period of mental distraction.”
As one who questioned the “timing” of the Rebellion,” she said to Pearse, “You don’t seriously think you’ll succeed, do you?”
“We would have,” he responded, “if it had been on Sunday.”
Cesca made bandages from various underclothes and “used her needles, iodine, lint, cotton wool and oilsilk” to help the wounded in any way possible. When she left the GPO, she took a note from Pearse for his mother and sister in which he commented, “Our idea was to win Irish freedom.” Cesca noted that there was “joy in his voice.” Cesca and Diarmuid cycled to Dun Laoghire on Wednesday finding it swarming with British soldiers brought into put down the Rebellion. It became clearer to her what the result of this “criminal lunacy” must be. England would become Ireland’s permanent jailer.
When news of the “surrender” came, it pained Cesca to hear stories of people “walking about in hundreds with smiling faces saying it was over and talking with the British soldiers.” She stated, “Sympathy does not seem to have increased for those who risked everything for Ireland’s freedom.”
In March of 1917, Cesca married Diarmuid and that summer she was back working at her art and the Irish language at Carrigaholt school in Co. Clare. Her brother Reggie, serving in the British army was killed during the German offensive on the Western Front in 1918. Unfortunately, Cesca herself died in October of the same year, a victim of the
Spanish Flu (a pandemic of deadly influenza that infected 500 million people across the world and killed 50-100 million). Letters of condolences came to Diarmuid and her family emphasizing the great loss her death was for Ireland. The Headmistress at her school remembered her as “ an ardent and radiant spirit who was the very incarnation of youth, strength and vitality.”
The “Eire” brushing of Irish women’s roles during and after the Rebellion came about as a result of the leadership’s, and society’s, conservative attitude towards women and their place in society. It was an obstacle to women’s progress and ensured during Easter week, the Civil War and the Treaty settlement that “women’s large scale involvement in national public life was no longer wanted.” DeValera did not allow women in his garrison emphasizing that their place was in the home. This attitude found its counterpart in the “Irish establishment” referring to the women who took part in the Rebellion as “Judases” and “Brutuses” of their race committing “treason’ and “treachery.” Countess Markievicz was castigated for her “eccentricities” and that she had a room for “spiritual exercises which contained skulls.” Ironically, if it were not for these women, the Rebellion and its aftermath could not have gone forward. Most of the rebels were executed or were in jail, so the women became the “spearhead of militant Nationalism in Ireland.”
Cumma na mBan stepped into the breach, had masses said for the dead rebels, held secret meetings and fundraisers (public meetings were banned), organized the Irish Volunteers Dependents Fund and took messages abroad. So many women were involved leading to the inception and growth of the new Irish Republic that it would require many more essays to describe their contributions. Fortunately, the 100th anniversary has brought forth many literary works about these “forgotten women.” Kathleen Clarke (Thomas Clarke’s wife) worked ceaselessly, even after her husband’s execution; May Gibney, member of the GPO garrison; Julia Grennan, message carrier throughout the country; Nellie Gifford, in charge of the kitchen in the College of Surgeons; Rose MacNamara and Marciella Cosgrove, lead women’s headquarters at the South Dublin Union (now St. James Hospital) and so many more.
Simply stated, the Irish Rebellion of 1916 and the new Irish Republic would not have succeeded had it not been for these courageous women!!!