Unspoken Tales of the Women In Ireland's Freedom Struggle

Irish Civil War: The Four Courts burning during the Battle of Dublin.

By Felicity Hayes-McCoy

When I was a child in Dublin in the 1950s and 60s, I grew up among people who'd lived through the struggle for Ireland's freedom, in 1916 and the War of Independence, and through the period of disillusionment and bitterness that followed it. But at that time the memory of the Civil War in Ireland was still raw. People just didn't talk about it.

My father was a historian, and I shared his fascination with history as a discipline. In 1966, during the commemorations of the 1916 Rising, I read about the garrisons in the General Post Office and in Dublin's factories and public buildings, saw the flags and weapons the insurgents had prepared in secret, and imagined what it must have been like to step away from ordinary lives in offices, shops and schools and become a militant revolutionary.

At the time it didn't occur to me that I could have asked a member of my own family to tell me about it. And, looking back now, it still seems impossible that the stout, grey-haired woman we met on visits to my grandmother's had been a member of the last garrison in Ireland to surrender in 1916. But she was. Her name was Marion Stokes. She was my mother's cousin. And I didn't know her story until she was dead.

                      Enniscorthy plaque.

Marion Stokes was one of a small group of men and women who, obeying orders carried from Dublin by a teenage courier called Eily O'Hanrahan, seized the Athenaeum in the town centre of Enniscorthy in Easter Week 1916. Enniscorthy's a market town in Wexford with a long history of revolution. In 1798, it was the centre of insurgent activity, which culminated in defeat at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. In the years leading up to 1916, it was a hub of republican activity, with Cumann na mBan ('The Women's Association,' set up in 1914 'to advance the cause of Irish liberty,' ) in the thick of it. And on Thursday, April 27, 1916, members of Cumann na mBan, commanded by Mary White and including Úna Brennan, Eileen O'Hegarty, Gretta Comerford and Marion Stokes, occupied and barricaded the Athenaeum, determined to hold out with their male comrades until further orders from Dublin. Marion and her friends Úna and Gretta raised the tricolor on the roof.

'I think she wanted to forget it'


During my years at school, and at university in the 1970s, the role played by revolutionary Irishwomen between 1900 and 1923 hardly appeared in our textbooks. My mother told me the little she knew of Marion's story in the 1980s. When I asked why I hadn't heard it before, she said Marion herself "never spoke about it." I knew Marion in her old age. For most of her adult life, she worked as a nurse in England. Before she retired, she'd become matron of a large hospital. Back in Enniscorthy in her retirement years, she became a tireless fundraiser for the museum she helped to set up in the town's Norman castle. I remember going to its opening; I don't remember any display about the Rising. I know that in her lifetime there was no plaque or monument in Enniscorthy commemorating the Athenaeum's part in the history of Easter Week. The Irish writer Colm Tóibín is an Enniscorthy native. He remembers that in 1966 Marion used to visit his family home to watch a series of programs about 1916, broadcast as part of the 50th year commemoration by the Irish national television station. At the time he knew nothing about her past, and he says that family members of his own who were involved in the Rising hardly spoke of their experiences either.

National Library of Ireland
Enniscorthy town about a decade before the Rising. Click on image for a larger view.

It was the same in so many Irish households. Like hundreds of other Irishwomen who'd joined the struggle for independence, Marion remained silent about her days and nights spent under siege, the despair of surrender and the time she must have spent in prison afterwards. When I pressed my mother for more information she just shook her head and said "I think she wanted to forget it." I don't know when Marion left for England. It may have been in the aftermath of the Rising. It may have been during or after the 1920s, when comrades who'd stood shoulder to shoulder against the British turned on each other in a bloody civil war that left families and communities scarred for generations. It was a time when many of the women who'd shared in the vision of a new nation left Ireland forever in disillusionment.

In 1997 a temporary exhibition called "Guns and Chiffon" was held in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, chronicling the female political prisoners who'd been held there. It arose from an award-winning permanent exhibition, opened in 1996, on the history of the gaol itself. When the permanent exhibition was being planned, historian Sinéad McCoole had begun to gather material for a section on women activists who'd been prisoners in Kilmainham. She wrote to the press and made appeals on national radio for information. Over and over again the responses she received told the same story. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers had all kept silent. The horror of the civil war had made memories of the past too much to bear. McCoole wrote later, in her 2003 book "No Ordinary Women," describing her experience of collecting exhibition material, "The bitterness of those years and their experiences at the hands of fellow countrymen meant that it was an episode best concealed." What their families knew about their stories had almost always been discovered after the women themselves were dead.

'In every way it was all too, too cruel'
Members of the Cumann na mBan on parade. Click on image for a larger view.

In many cases women who were imprisoned by the British in Kilmainham and other Irish prisons after the Rising, and during the War of Independence, were confined in the same prisons by the Free State government during the Civil War. Often their jailors and medical attendants were old comrades with whom they'd shared the same cells. As a medical student, Bridget Lyons Thornton served with the 1916 garrison in the Four Courts, tending the wounded and dying and risking her own life as a dispatch courier.

After the Rising, in her cell in Kilmainham, Bridget heard the shots that killed the executed 1916 leaders. Only five years later, as an active supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty during the Civil War, she was given responsibility for the welfare of the female political prisoners in Kilmainham Gaol. In 1987, shortly before she died, Dr. Lyons Thornton described her experience to John Cowell, a retired colleague in the Irish Health service. She told him she'd hated the assignment because many of the prisoners she was responsible for had been her cellmates during her own time in Kilmainham, Dr. Thornton said, "which made it sadder still for me, and often extremely embarrassing. Grace Plunkett, Joseph Plunkett's widow, was brought in. … Then Annie MacSwiney, sister of Terence MacSwiney, went on hunger strike and nearly broke my heart. … But the crowning tragedy came one night when I was called to see a new prisoner. Of all people, it was Mrs. Tom Clarke."

Felicity Hayes-McCoy's soon-to-be-published book. Click on the cover to order it.

Tom Clarke was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence whose execution in the prison yard Bridget had heard herself as a prisoner. Mrs. Clarke and Bridget knew each other well. "She was hurt to meet me there, and I was hurt to meet her. In every way it was all too, too cruel," Bridget recalled. "We meet in strange places" was all Mrs. Clarke had said to her. Even in old age Bridget was tormented by those bleak words spoken in "those awful dungeons." She told John Cowell she would "never forget the misery" she felt that night.

I don't know what experiences Marion had after the surrender of Enniscorthy's Athenaeum in 1916. The insurgents had held on till one of their number returned from Dublin under safe conduct with orders from Patrick Pearse himself. Marion was young at the time and perhaps she just moved on. Her training in Cumann na mBan had included first aid and was presumably the basis of her subsequent work in England as a nurse. The courage and determination that were part of her character must have been valuable as she carved out a career in a profession in which women were still seen as usurpers on men's territory.

My brother, who's older than I am, used to visit Marion in his teens. He remembers an acerbic, stimulating intelligence and a determined set to her jaw. As I child, I just knew her as a formidable, elderly relative, square and stern in her tweed coats and skirts, neat shirt-blouses, and sensible, lace-up shoes. I remember a large black leather handbag, which always contained a large, white cotton handkerchief. I remember the fearsome bottle of Mercurochrome she used as an all-purpose antiseptic to treat childhood cuts and scrapes. And, inconsequentially, I can still recall her instructions for using beaten-up egg yolks as a hair conditioner; you massaged them into wet hair and made sure your rinsing water was lukewarm. (The point being that if the water were any hotter it might scramble the eggs.) I remember her neat, spiky handwriting on cards and letters sent to my mother. And I have a book of pages, hand-stitched together and bound in a brown paper cover, in which Marion carefully wrote out my grandmother's family tree. Each page lists names and relationships, along with snippets of family stories, the fields they farmed, the marriages they made and the graveyards they were buried in.

But as far as I know that's all that survives. She was a living part of history but she never told her own story. WG

Photo by Wilf Judd
Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Felicity Hayes-McCoy is a professional writer working in print, broadcast and digital media. She lives and works in a stone cottage in Corca Dhuibhne, Ireland's Dingle peninsula, and in an inner-city, former factory building in London, England, and blogs about life in both places at www.felicityhayesmccoy.co.uk. Felicity's memoir "The House on an Irish Hillside" will be published by Hodder & Stoughton UK, and Hachette Ireland in June 2012.


Copyright © 2012 by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Cumman na mBan, Dublin, Easter Rising, Enniscorthy, Felicity Hayes-McCoy, History of Ireland, Irish Freedom Struggle, Irish civil war, Kilmainham gaol, Tom Clarke, More…Women


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