Sunday, 14 February 2016

Women of the 1916 Dublin Rising

On 14th February 2016, I gave a short overview of the Easter Rising and the role of women in it at a community event in Melbourne - Brigidfest. Brigidfest is an annual celebration of Irish and Irish Australian women and has had some great talks over the past 12 years. This year the main speaker was Maeve O'Leary whose grandparents, Lucy Smyth and Tom Byrne both served in the GPO in Dublin during the Rising. There are several moving videos of Maeve and her family's search for Lucy and Tom's revolutionary experiences. Irish Times interview with Sheila O'Leary about her parents; Sheila's search for her parents' records and Sheila seeing her parents' medals for the first time.

Lucy Agnes Smyth

One of the most interesting aspects of researching for this introductory talk, and for a series of conference papers on Irish revolutionary women and Australia I am writing, has been both the neglect of these women in public and academic historiography and the very recent interest in the topic. The RTÉ series Rebellion is a good example. This 5 part series follows 6 fictionalised characters through their involvement in the fighting. Significantly three of them are women.

There are also books, websites, and social media devoted to the women of the rising. This has not always been the case.  One of the stories a Dublin friend told me when we first met was about her grandparents and what they had done during the rising and the revolution. She said that her grandfather was in the history books, but trying to find out what her grandmother had done was much harder.   I was in Dublin at the time researching medieval women, so I didn’t then know much about the women of 1916. My friend told me about her granny, who worked at Prescott’s dry cleaners and how she had hidden ammunition and guns under the counter to be collected.

In many ways this sums up much of what we know of the women of 1916 – they were ordinary women, who did extraordinary things.  Like their fathers, brothers and sweethearts, they followed through on their convictions and desire for a better future and were just as brave, scared, exhausted, hungry and extraordinary.

There were many women involved in the Rising, mostly through two organisations. The Irish Citizen Army led byJames Connolly, who explicitly included women as a point of politics. Connolly said “that no movement was assured of success that had not women in it”..Well known women who were in the ICA included Countess Constance Markeviez, Helena Moloney, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen. The other organisation was Cumann na mBan which formed at the same time as the Irish Volunteers and was founded by women like, Kathleen Clarke, Louise Gavan Duffy, with Constance Markeviez and Maude Gonne involved as well. 


Members of Cumann na mBan combined two powerful ideological traditions, feminism and nationalism. Their stated aims in their constitution was:

To Advance the cause of Irish liberty
- To organise Irish women in the furtherance of that objective
- To assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland
- To form a fund for these purposes to be called the ‘Defence of Ireland Fund’.

The organisation included women of all classes, though the most well known names are those from the elite or the professional classes.

Cumann na mBan were always militaristic in that many learnt to fire guns, signalling, and first aid and moving guns. They wore a military style uniform and their badge included a rifle and had a clear idea of what they were doing and why.  Mary Colum said "We would collect money or arms, we would learn ambulance work, … we would practise the use of the rifle, we would make speeches, we would do everything that came in our way—for we are not the auxiliaries or the handmaidens or the camp followers of the Volunteers—we are their allies."


Rose McNamara in her Cumann na mBan uniform

They were mobilised on Easter Monday at the same time as the Volunteers. It is difficult to know how many women were involved, from Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army and others, historians estimate there were probably between 180 and 300.

Some carried and used guns. Constance Markieviz was second in command at Stephens Green and the Royal College of Surgeons and was condemned to death with the other leaders for her role. She was spared because she was a woman. Rose McNamara was in charge of Cumann na mBan at the Marrowbow lane garrison. Many like Dr Kathleen Lynn, Brigid Lyons Thornton, and Linda Kearns ran first aid stations and gave essential medical care. Some nurses worked to protect their patients, such as Margaret Kehoe who was killed early during the Rising while on duty at South Dublin Union. 

Nurse Margaret Kehoe

Maeve O'Leary, Lucy Smyth's granddaughter and Rosie Kennedy, Margaret Kehoe's grand niece at Brigidfest
Others ran the kitchens and organised supplies. Louise Gavan Duffy, a founding member of Cumann na mBan, did not support the insurrection going ahead and marched up to Pearse in the GPO and told him so. She then agreed to work in the kitchens and did so for the remainder of the fighting. Many women did the dangerous work of communications, the telephone lines went down very quickly so hand delivered messages was the only way to communicate between the different barracks/garrisons. Much of this work was done by women who could move around the occupied city easier than men. It was however still very dangerous and many came under fire. May Gahan O’Carroll served at St Stephens Green and was one of those sent with dispatches to the GPO and then Clery’s during that week. She was later arrested and sent to Richmond Barracks. One important message was that of the surrender by Pearse. This was delivered by Elizabeth O’Farrell first to the British and then to the other garrisons. Elizabeth was present at the surrender. 

Elizabeth O'Farrell

After the rising was put down 77 women were arrested and were held first in Richmond Barracks and then in Kilmainham. Most were released fairly quickly but some were among those sent to jails in England. Many of the members of Cumann na mBan who were involved in the 1916 rising, went on to work tirelessly for Irish independence over the following years. Which is a whole other story that we will have to leave to a future Brigidfest.

The way that these women have been remembered, or rather mostly forgotten, is also an important part of their story. For many reasons they have been largely written out of the story of the Rising, and the best example of this is the photograph of the surrender, which originally showed Elizabeth O’Farrell and was then altered to remove her. 

Why? In the aftermath of the founding of the Free state, many men seemed to have felt that the actions of the militant woman were unfeminine, that they were shrill, harpies, unmanageable. Many of these women, including the widows of the executed leaders, opposed the Treaty meaning that after the end of the Civil War their connections to the Rising was often awkward and unwelcome.

Women were also denied pensions because it had been initially decided that soldiers were men, so only men could get military pensions. This incensed the many women who had fought, been wounded, lost their jobs etc, it was not reversed until 1934 when women were allowed to claim for smaller pensions. It is also thought that many women were disillusioned that the high ideals for equality of women were not realised in the Free State, so they disengaged from public life. Others seem to have felt that they did what they had to do, and they then went on to work, raise families and not to talk about their experiences. There are many stories of children, nieces and nephews who only discovered their mother or aunt’s involvement after their death, in clearing out their effects.  So now these women, like Lucy Smyth, Margaret Kehoe and many other grannies and great aunties are being remembered. 

Senia Paseta, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918, Cambridge University Press, 2013. 
Sinead McCoole, No ordinary women : Irish female activists in the revolutionary years, 1900-1923, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. 
Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries : women and Irish nationalism, Pluto Press, 1983. 
Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh, Kathleen Lynn : Irishwoman, patriot, doctor, Irish Academic Press, 2006.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


I am writing up a paper that I will give at the Labour History conference in Melbourne in a few weeks. The conference is on "Fighting against war: Peace activism in the twentieth century" and there is a great line up of papers.  Labour history and twentieth century history are a bit outside my comfort zone and so I have been pushing myself rather on this one. I have done some thinking and researching on how ideas about how Irishness was thought about, defined and acted upon in late colonial Australia and it is a natural enough extension to go into the first few decades of the twentieth century. Which of course means thinking about World War I and the way that Irish Catholics in Australia were associated with anti-conscription and general anti-war activism.

What is has evolved into so far is an exploration of the propaganda that washed over the electorate in 1916 and 1917 through two plebiscites on conscription and a general election. There has been a huge literature on the topic to come to grips with and that has occupied me for several weeks since returning from Christmas holiday. What I am finding fascinating is the way that old cartoons from London Punch were recycled by a newspaper proprietor and fierce anti-Catholic. Critchley Parker used his newspaper The Australia Statesman and Mining Standard to attack everything that he saw as hampering Britain's war effort, including publishing pamphlets and leaflets which he distributed widely. The reuse of racialised images of Irishness in this context is interesting and worth exploring in more detail.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A new year

Well this blog has been very quiet, no action for 2014. This is not to say there was no action in 2014, more of course that there was a lot! So this is a post to start again by recapping my research and writing in 2014.

2014 was the first full year of funding for a project (funded by the Australian Research Council) on the Irish in colonial Australia that I am conducting with a colleague from the University of Melbourne, Elizabeth Malcolm. 

The title of the project is "The Irish in Colonial Australia: Race, Representation and Repression"  and its main aims are: 
 1.    to analyse the racialisation of the Irish in Australia between 1788 and 1914, charting their movement from an excluded group to part of the founding ‘white’ race;
 2.   to evaluate how such racialised perceptions impacted the lives of Irish immigrants who were institutionalised in colonial Australia;
             3. to analyse how the Irish interacted with other racialised groups

 So far we have had some very good research assistants work with us to collect data on Irish-born patients of Mental asylums in Sydney and Melbourne and we will be starting to collect similar sorts of data on prisoners in the NSW and Victorian colonies in the latter half of the nineteenth century. 
We have also worked on representations of the Irish visually through cartoons published in some of the major periodicals of the late ninteenth century in Australia - The Bulletin and Melbourne Punch. We published an article "Now him white man: Images of the Irish in Colonial Australia" on this analysis in History Australia in late 2014. I will post more about the cartoons another day, they really are lots of fun. 

So that is one project that has been occupying me over 2014. The other major one is the Gender and Violence project, which Elizabeth Malcolm and I have been working on for some time now. Although life - by way of changing jobs, new jobs, families expanding etc - have meant this has taken longer than we had hoped. The length of time we have spent on writing the monograph, thinking, talking and writing about our ideas has meant that the results are much better than they would have been otherwise. 

So far I have committed to writing three articles on aspects of this project in 2015 as well as continuing with the remaining chapters of the monograph. I have been able to secure support for some of this by way of fellowships, including one as Associate Investigator with the Centre for the History of Emotions, for research on the ways that violence associated with children was written about and incorporated into emotional responses to violence in 17th century Ireland. I will post more about that over the coming months as well. 

So all in all there has been much to occupy me over 2014. Now for 2015, with my full writing program.


Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Her "apron was all blood"

I am writing about gender and violence in early modern Ireland at the moment for the larger book project. Although my co-writer and I are not concentrating only on violence against women, that has of course been a significant part of the research. So I have been thinking about how women and men spoke about violence when it occurred between members of the same household, usually husband and wife. I want to explore a little of one of the cases I am writing about here. I spoke about this household at the ANZAMEMS (Australian and New Zealand Medieval and Early Modern Society) conference in Melbourne February 2013.

In 1666 Dublin woman, Ann Brogh, supported by her brother-in-law, Walter,  wrote a desperate petition to the king asking for mercy for her husband who had been convicted of murdering his landlord, William Wells. The presiding judges had found that John Brogh, and the landlord’s wife Sarah, were guilty of murder. This case is particularly interesting to me because it is about a non-elite household and gives glimpses of the crowds of people who watched, heard and interpreted violence as it happened.

John Brough, a surgeon, had been a lodger in the household of William Wells, who lived with his wife Sarah, 8 year old son and at least one servant. Apparently John had been out at night alone with Sarah and when they returned together, William had been ‘very angry’ with her. Neighbours, heard not only the angry words, and the subsequent cries of ‘Murder’ but also saw and felt the blood seeping through the floorboards into the cellar from the Wells’ rooms. A crowd of neighbours tried to find out what was happening, but could not get through the locked door until it was forced. When they entered the room they saw the dying Wells, dressed in his night shirt, while his wife Sarah with ‘an apron all blood”, a servant and another woman Ellinor, surrounded him. John Brough stood apart in the next room with a bloodied knife in his hand, saying he had killed William. Both Sarah and John tried to convince their neighbours and then the authorities that William had started the fight by hitting John with a chamber pot during an argument but suspicions were aroused because William had been in the bed with his son at the time, while John and Sarah had been out at night alone together.

This is a crowded and bloody scene – the married couple, the child, at least one servant, and another woman all seemed to have lived in the rooms. Then a soldier, Dilkes, who was in the adjoining house belonging to Nichola Harrison and heard clearly what was happening. Nichola's hapless servant was in the cellar under the Wells’ rooms when the blood dripped down onto her. Then the neighbours gathered to help Dilkes to force the door.  While Sarah tried to deflect attention by explaining that her husband had caused the fight, her neighbours read her words as evidence of her guilt and gave full testimony against her.

What can we make of this chaotic scene? The neighbours seemed certain of what they had seen, heard  and felt. John and his relatives put a very different interpretation on the violence, while Sarah's voice is silent except for the defiant statements her neighbours heard when the door burst open. How she was covered in blood is never explained - was she struggling with William when he was struck? Did she kill her husband and John try to shield her? Where was the child through all this? 

As is usual,  there is a frustrating lack of closure for the modern reader here. John’s relatives petitioned to the highest level for his release, arguing that William was quarrelsome, implying the violence was directed at Sarah and that John was an innocent bystander. When Sarah tried to ‘plead her belly’ to avoid execution, a midwife assured the justices that she as not pregnant. Their executions were stayed for a while, but we don’t know what was their ultimate fate. [The reference is Calendar of Ormond papers, HMC vol X, app. 5. pp. 16-8.]

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Change and continuity in research

As I live in Australia and research medieval and early modern Irish history, the Research Trip always looms large in the way I think about researching and writing.

I have just returned from a month in Dublin, a precious month away from domestic and teaching responsibilities where I could read and write to my own timetable as well as catch up with friends and colleagues. In the three years since my last Research Trip a lot has changed. I have changed jobs and am now lecturing in European History at Victoria University, Melbourne, which I love. It also means I have the security (and travel funds) to plan my research more than I had been able in the previous few years. So for the past year I have been compiling long lists under the title “To check in Dublin”, working out flights, accommodation, conferences and seminars to attend.

Dublin, and Ireland, has also changed. When I was last in Dublin the crash of the Celtic Tiger was starting to be felt. This time the effects are even more evident. Reduced staff at libraries, shops with less stock, gloomy news about taxes as well as ghost estates and unfinished buildings, were all very visible.

The process of researching in the project that took me to Dublin – “Gender and violence in medieval and early modern Ireland” – is also changing through the availability of digital resources. The digital publication of the 1641 depositions (, the Circle project (, Irish Scripts Online (, google books, JStor Ireland, and State Papers Online as well as others mean that so much of what I used to do on research trips I can now do from my desk in Melbourne. This is of course wonderful and I want to write more about this in a later blog. However for me there is also the joy of being able to write in a library where I can follow footnotes and ideas to hard copy published and unpublished sources immediately, as there is still a huge proportion of what I want to examine that has not been digitalised, or is difficult to read online (not all the book digitalisations are in easy to access formats). While I can access a large amount of this material in Melbourne, there are still items that are not easily available here or that need inter-library loans or travel to other university libraries. So I enjoy the luxury of having what I need under one roof – thanks National Library of Ireland! I also continue to revel in the tactile and sensory nature of the artefact of the book or manuscript. For me this is a big part of how I research and gather the energy and inspiration needed to analyse and write.

Networking too is changing, ‘meeting’ people working on related topics through twitter and is wonderful and incredibly productive, but still, for me at least, does not totally replace meeting face to face.  Going to conferences remains important– this time I went to the Irish Conference of Historians at UCD, a really good conference – and meeting researchers working on related and unrelated topics is another pleasure, as well as necessity for researching topics at a distance.

So now I am back in wintery Melbourne with all my files and notes, ready to start the final write up for this project and begin another (on concepts of race and Irishness in nineteenth-century Australia). As well as the familiar continuities of working through research notes and writing, I will also change a little of the way I work and start this blog to share findings and insights I find through the process of finishing, starting and continuing.