During a 1986 interview with 1916 patriot Sam O’Reilly for the Irish Echo newspaper, Sam excused himself to retrieve some notes.  At that point, his wife Mary whispered, "Mike, would you ever tell our story?"  I said, "Sure, you mean you and Sam?"  She replied, "No, I mean the women of Ireland."  Then, to illustrate her point, she told me how her mother sent her late at night, as a girl of 12 years, up to the local cemetery with a growler of hot tea for her brothers who were on the run during ‘the troubles.’  Defying a curfew terrified her for she knew what the British soldiers did with girls they found out after curfew, but she went anyway.  Before she could finish her story, Sam returned and we continued our interview, but I was hooked.  I returned again and again to the O’Reilly home to speak to Sam, but on each visit I made time for a chat with Mary.  Since then, I have written many stories on women in Irish history, especially the lesser known or unknown ones.

In recent years, a few books have been written on women in Irish history but, like any other subject, the most notable are covered first.  We certainly admire women like Constance Markievicz and the many others who displayed remarkable bravery in the military cause of a united Ireland.  However, the ones rarely mentioned are those I remember most – women like Mary O’Reilly, Katty Clarke, Bridie Halpin and Mary Osgood.  There were also women whose courage was displayed in the non-military field; women like Nellie Cashman, Mother Jones and Margaret Haughery. They exhibited the same dedication to a cause; they were all the power behind the apron.

From the earliest days of England’s assault on Irish society, men were jailed or executed while their widows and children were enslaved.  Cromwell sent thousands to English colonies in the Carribean like Montserrat and Barbados where they were sold at public auctions to plantation owners, landlords, perverts and pedophiles alike.  They were put to work as servants, field hands, or in houses of prostitution in Bridgetown.  Since the fair-skinned Irish burned in the hot sun, young girls – as young as 12 to 14 – were sent to breeding sheds where they were mated with Mandingo slaves in an attempt to breed a better quality worker.  Many of these poor children didn’t even speak English and the terror they experienced upon seeing a black man for the first time under such circumstances can only be imagined.

After each attempt at freedom, the widows and orphans of the fighting patriots not only suffered the loss of a loved one, but in their sorrow they were mistreated in a life of servitude for not all of their so-called masters were morally ethical.  It is no myth that landlords had the right to deflower a tenant’s daughter before her intended marriage.  Even when the situation was not one of rebellion, our ladies were a class apart.  During the Great Hunger, many a woman watched helplessly as her husband broke himself in an attempt to provide for them as their children starved before their eyes.  Many,  whose  men  succumbed  to  hunger and disease, ended up in government workhouses separated from their children.  While the boys were put to servile labor, the girls and young women were again subjected to a different treatment, thanks to Lord Earl Grey.

In 1848, Lord Grey, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, decided to simultaneously solve the problems of overcrowding in the workhouses, the shortage of labor and the imbalance of the sexes in Australia, which the Crown was trying to colonize.  By 1848, Australia was a colony of about 303,000, most of whom were men.  At the start of Grey’s program, 12 girls were sent to see if they would be welcomed by colonial authorities.  Five of them were enticed by a promise of wages to act as servants for the Captain and his officers during the 4-month voyage.  Once in the officers’ cabins, they were plied with drink and shamefully assaulted.  A scandal erupted in Australia when the girls complained.  The ship’s officers blamed the loose character of Irish girls.  This tainted the reputation of all Irish girls who followed in Lord Grey’s scheme.  Anti-Catholic elements in the colony branded the arriving Irish girls as ‘cargoes of juvenile prostitutes’ sent to ‘Romanize the colonies.’  Between 1848 and 1850, more than 4,000 girls arrived in Australia from Irish workhouses where they had been driven by hunger, poverty and disease.  In the workhouse they were offered a chance to escape to a ‘prosperous land in need of serving girls’ where high wages and food were plentiful.  Slandered in the press as women of abandoned character, they found themselves shunned accordingly.  They soon realized the error of their choice to accept Lord Grey’s invitation to emigrate.  Some of the saddest correspondence that one can ever read are the letters sent back to the Irish workhouses in later years by mothers seeking news of their children.

Yet, in spite of their lot in life, Irish women never ceased to raise their children in the ‘outlawed’ religion with a strong sense of their proud heritage even though they knew the consequences.  Consider the emotions of the mothers of patriots when their son’s lives were taken by a foreigner because they stood for the values she had instilled in them.  Padraic Pearse understood that sorrow when, on the eve of his and his brother’s execution for their part in the Easter Rising,  he wrote the poem, "The Mother" about a woman lamenting the loss of her two sons.  That poem hung over the bed of Rose Kennedy until the day she died.  When historians speak of the heroics of men, these are the women we should think of, and pray for.

As for the women who were prominent in Irish history, there were many.  The first major settlement of Ireland was made by the Tuatha de Danann, the children of the goddess Dana whose three queens Banba, Fodla and Erin were sought out by the next settlers – the Milesians – for permission to share the lovely island.  The Milesians were led by their queen, Scota, whose name still exists on Scotland where a later colony of the Milesian Celts settled.  The Irish continued to recognize the equality of women in the royal court as well as the battlefield.  Grannia ni mhail (Grace O’Malley) ruled the west as a warrior queen in the 1600s and even went to meet with Queen Elizabeth to stop English encroachment onto her land.  Queen Maeve of Connaught was another warrior Queen who defeated King Conor MacNassa and the Red Branch Knights of Ulster.

In art and learning there was St. Brigid, the Mary of the Gael who built a monastery for women and is held in as high esteem as Saint Patrick.

For courage we can point to Anne Devlin, a compatriot of Robert Emmet, who suffered torture and deprivation for the cause of the United Irishmen.  Courage was also evident in the lives of Katty Daly Clarke, Maude Gonne MacBride, Countess Markievicz and all the ladies of 1916 who fought for a free independent 32-county Ireland.

To the present day, that never ending fight always had women in the lead whether it was Bernadette Devlin or the Price sisters marching on picket lines or Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese –  Presidents of the Republic of Ireland – at the negotiating table.  This verse was written to honor them all and the millions of un-named heroines who gave their sons, husbands or themselves for the cause of freedom for Mother Ireland.

This is a song for the Ladies of Ireland

the women who cherished its fate in their hearts

and gave all their might for the good of their sireland

in the fields of freedom and wisdom and arts.


From the good goddess Dana, whose children all came

with Banba and Fodla to guard its song;

to Erin who gave the country its name

and Scota whose people soon followed along.


So sing me a song of the women of Erin

the mothers and lovers who suffered the pain

and showed their devotion thru courage and daring

and suffered their losses for Ireland’s gain.


We’ll sing of Grannia, the warrior Queen

and Maeve who beat the men of King Conor;

And all of the mothers who lived in between

and brought up their sons to defend Erin’s honor.


Here’s to Saint Brigid, the Mary of the Gael

 and all of the sisters who followed her lead;

to Anne Devlin, the girl who languished in jail

for defending Bold Emmet when he was in need;


to Kathleen Clarke and Maude Gonne MacBride

and all of the ladies of Nineteen Sixteen

who followed the Countess and fought and died

beneath the banner of emerald green;


to the ladies we looked to in modern days too

like Bernadette Devlin and the sisters Price,

and the Marys, Robinson and McAleese too

who led us as Presidents with careful advice


So sing me a song of the women of Erin

the mothers and lovers who suffered the pain

and showed their devotion thru courage and daring

and answered the call for Ireland’s gain.

Views: 1876

Tags: An Gorta Mor, Famine, Great Hunger, History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle, Living History, Women


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