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.

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