Marie Winifred Carney was born into a large family of seven children to Alfred / Sarah Cassidy Carney ; in Bangor, County Down – her parents were estranged for many years. Leo [missing child – a record of birth but no record of life or death and still remains a mystery] Alfred, Ernest, Louis [grandfather- to Joan Austin USA ] Maud and Mabel .When she was a very young child, they family moved to the Falls Road in Belfast [meaning “district of the hedges”] . This is the main road through West Belfast – and its name is synonymous with the Irish republican community in the city.
Her mum Sarah Cassidy–Carney owned and ran a small confectionary store, which catered for all the people of this area ; the Cassidy family having a long history of owing and running sweet shops; so Sarah followed in her family tradition to earn a living to keep a roof over their heads . Never wealthy, they were none the less classified as ‘comfortable’ and the children were all well-educated, well-dressed and well-fed. Interestingly, her two sisters Maud and Mabel became Nuns – one served in Philadelphia USA ; the other in Liverpool.
Growing up on the Falls Road with a tradition of rioting, as far back as the 18th century, and way beyond then really, ensured that the children living in this area were immersed into the same traditions as their forefathers. One such riot was in June 1886, following the defeat of the Government Act, when a crowd of around 2,000 local people clashed with the Royal Irish Constabulary. Suffice to say, the police had to barricade themselves in Bowers Hill Barracks.
A long siege followed, in which many locals and officers were hurt and wounded. The residents who live in the many streets that branch off the main artery [Falls Road] -- one being the loyalist enclave centered on the Shankill Road -- form the five wards of the Court District Electoral Area. Interestingly, some of the streets in the Shanklill area, such as Cambria Street, Brussels Street, and Leopold Street are places that were named after people connected with Belgium or Flanders, where the flax for the linen was grown and transported to Belfast to be woven into linen. It was a thriving industry in this era, with Irish linen being a much sought after commodity all over the world, though in later years it declined. It was against this background of republicanism that Carney grew up.
She was educated at the Christian Brothers in Donegal Street, Belfast. An able and intelligent student, she thrived at her studies. So much so that she then was admitted into Hughes Commercial Academy and qualified as a secretary and shorthand typist – one of the first women in Ireland to do so in this era. She then went back to teach at the Christian Brothers School for a short time. She became a clerk. As her diligence to her work and her aptitude for learning and organization skills became known, she found herself much sought after by employers.
Carney became involved in the Gáelic Leagues and joined the suffragists and other socialist activities. By 1912, she had met James Connolly (pictured), who was then based in Belfast. He offered her the post of secretary of the Textile Workers Union. [Officially part of the Irish Women Workers Union -- it was in practice the women’s section of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union Belfast.] She then joined the Citizens Army and thereby cemented her place in the 1916 Easter Rising. Privy to all of Connolly’s thoughts and communication, she was, some sources say, James Connolly personified into a woman.
Carney's whole life was centred around Connolly and the trade union. She became a part of his family, and became friends with his daughter Nora. Whichever historical records one researches, it becomes clear that Carney was invaluable to James Connolly, supporting his work with other revolutionary movements and his meetings with fellow republicans, and employers in his role as the union representative. Nora Connolly had always been beside her father in all his daily work and communications [she provided that much needed support to her father during the Easter Rising -- in the General Post Office and Moore Street -- with some sources saying that he gave Nora his documents in his final days. Still, Connolly's life became an open book to Carney -- it was she who typed all of his publications, including meeting minutes, and she was privy to all this sometimes well into the night, and thus became his confidante.
In their circle of friends, she became known as the typist with the Webley.
By the beginning of April, Connolly was heavily involved in and had been having discussions with the Irish Republican Brotherhood about the planned rising, so he summoned Carney to Dublin by telegram . She arrived all set and ready for whatever Connolly wanted her to do. In Liberty Hall, she found herself typing dispatches and mobilisation orders. On that fateful Easter Monday morning, Carney was the first woman to arrive before dawn, with her typewriter and her Webley. In their circle of friends, she became known as the typist with the Webley. In the General Post Office, she continued in her role as Connolly’s secretary, writing dispatches and mobilisations orders. When Connolly was wounded, she remained by his side until he was arrested, through all the gunfire and the bombs that set the General Post Office on fire, and his transfer to Gorman’s shop on Moore Street. Gravely wounded, Connolly dictated to Carney his final orders.
Carney and her other colleagues in Cumann mBan were later arrested and taken to Kilmainham Gaol, including Helena Melony and Nell Ryan. They were then transferred to Aylesbury Prison, England. These women tried to revoke their internee status with the privileges it brought so that they could be held as normal prisoners with Countess Markievicz. Their request was denied. They were finally released in December 1916.
After her release, Carney stood as a Sinn Fein candidate, but she lost the election. She continued to work for the Transport and General Workers Union. After the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Carney sided with the anti-treaty forces and was arrested on numerous occasions for her role in the wide-ranging challenges to the newly formed Free State government.
By 1924 Carney had joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and was a committed and dedicated member. In 1928, she met and fell in love with a man named George McBride, who was a Protestant [an Orangeman, and a former UVF officer] – they then got married. It is ironic that it was the formation of the Ulster Volunteers that prompted the formation of the Irish Volunteers, which Carney had joined. Their relationship, however, was based on a common focus -- ‘socialism’. The lived together quite happily in Carlisle Circus, Belfast, despite the fact that their marriage alienated a lot of people. Such was the bigotry and sectarianism held by both Catholic and Protestant ['Orangeman' and 'Papist'] that in marrying each other they were ostracized from social circles.
She fell in love with a man named George McBride, who was a Protestant [an Orangeman and a former UVF officer] – they then got married.
By 1930 Carney had joined the Belfast Socialist party, where she found like-minded people, comrades who accepted her and her husband. Carney continued to lead an active political life until ill heath overcame her -- it was this more than anything else that limited her future political activities.
Historical records note that she was appointed as an adjutant to Connolly [adjutant defined as a staff officer who assists the commanding officer in issuing orders] -- this alone should have warranted her place in history books. She was, however, a woman, like the rest of Cumann na mBan,, so her place in history has been overshadowed by the men of this period, who instead have been given iconic status.
Carney -- “the typist with the Webley,” “the silent rebel “ -- died in 1943 and is buried in Milltown Cemetery. Some sources suggest that her grave remains unmarked, others advise that her headstone was erected by the National Graves Association, Belfast.
Once again, I endorse 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!
My thanks to Joan Austin USA ; who has provided invaluable information with regard to Winfred family