Focusing on the political influences of the time, and the impact these women had on the political movements they were part of, Mary Smith looks back at the women of Ireland’s Easter Rising, seeking to add to the long neglected ‘herstory’ of the period.
Mollie O’Reilly was sent for by Connolly the week before the Rising. He asked her to hoist the green and gold flag over Liberty Hall, which she did with great pride. Mollie was from Gardiner Street. When she was 9, she went to Liberty Hall to learn Irish dancing, where she first heard Connolly speak. She was enthralled. During the Dublin Lockout of 1913 (she was then aged 11) she ran messages between Connolly and the strikers, collected money and helped run the soup kitchens for strikers’ dependents.
By the time she was 14 she was a member of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) and the Irish Women’s Workers Union (IWWU). When the Rising was called, a week after she raised the flag, Mollie marched with the ICA to take the Castle, then, falling back to City Hall, she operated as a dispatch-carrier until City Hall was taken.
Estimates are that 90 women out of around 3000 overall participated in the Rising. The evidence for the women’s involvement is the records of the 77 female arrests after their surrender, applications for the Military Service Pension, and other military archives. But these sources may miss out on women and men whose stories are not captured in this way. How many veterans of 1916 refused to have anything to do with a State that sold them out and murdered their comrades? How many refused to seek or accept a pension from ‘Free-Staters’ on principle, or indeed failed to get through an unsympathetic bureaucracy? How many Mollie O’Reillys were there, that we rarely heard of?
The historian Margaret Ward remarks on how unique it was, not only the role played by women in the Rising itself, but also the commitment to equality in the Proclamation of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens“. She suggests it would likely not have been that way were it not for the struggle of women in the years preceding the revolution when Irish feminists fought for the rights of women to be recognised and where radical nationalist women engaged in debate with their colleagues on these issues.
The fact that the proclamation was addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”, refutes the claim that the Rebels ignored women’s rights; and while not explicitly a socialist document, it claimed “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”, and contained a guarantee of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. Connolly had insisted on that pledge, and told Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington (Ireland’s most famous feminist) shortly before the Rising that the rest of the signatories had agreed to its inclusion.
The influence of nationalism, of the suffragist movement, of emerging trades unionism, and of radical socialism, in relation to those women of the Rising, are all important considerations.
Irish Nationalism and Cumann na mBan
National liberation from British rule had been the political goal of Irish radicals going back centuries. In the early 1900’s ‘moderate’ Irish nationalism was expressed as the movement for ‘Home Rule’, championed by Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), for whom voteless women were an irrelevance – they couldn’t join it, couldn’t even attend meetings, for fear they would raise the issue of women’s suffrage. But with the advent of WWI, the IPP were eclipsed by the Irish Volunteers, an umbrella organisation which formed in response to threats posed by the Ulster Volunteers, who were vehemently opposed to breaking with ‘mother England’.
Most nationalist women would have been in Cumann na mBan – the women’s wing of the Volunteers – founded at a meeting of 100 women in Wynn’s hotel in 1914. According to historian Senia Paseta, the meeting had the all debates and elements that were abroad in Irish politics at the time “swirling round” in it: what would happen in the event of the Irish Volunteers splitting? What would the relationship of Cumann na mBan be to constitutional nationalism or indeed to revolutionary nationalism? What was its priorities regarding votes for women?
There was criticism about the conduct of the inaugural meeting itself, including the fact that because it was during the day it excluded many working-class women. Certainly, its founders and most prominent members were middle class (some were renegade upper-class women), though by the time of the Rising came about, its ranks included many working-class women, and its role in the movement was much more defined and militant than it had been at its inception.
It is interesting that although their agenda was a nationalist one, all but one of members of their first executive were active suffragists. The debate at the time often saw suffragists question an independent Ireland that did not recognise the right of women to vote; whereas revolutionary nationalists argued that fighting for the right to vote in a parliament they wanted to bring down, was a distraction if not an irrelevance.
Indeed, the months leading up to the rising saw increasing debate and contact between the most revolutionary nationalists, and the suffrage movement, and a discourse on gender equality began to become commonplace. But what it seems that Cumann na mBan did was not set aside their feminism for nationalism – they did both.
Women’s suffrage in Ireland had been taken up as early as 1866 and by 1911 there were some 24 women’s suffragist groups agitating with varying degrees of militancy for the vote.
Though early suffrage groups of women and men employed methods of campaigning that were relatively conservative – petitioning, lobbying etc., the Irish suffragettes would go on to fight with great courage and commitment to further their aims. They campaigned and demonstrated, broke windows and attacked right-wing politicians, endured harassment and abuse, imprisonment, hunger-strikes and force-feeding. Between 1912 and 1914 there were 35 convictions of women for suffrage activities.
Their militancy was denounced and every opportunity was taken to denigrate the women’s cause, along with their actions. In fact, James Connolly took to organising the Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU) to protect their meetings from harassment, saying there was no action of theirs that he would not support.
Trades unionism and the Irish Women Workers Union
In the years leading up to the rebellion, organisers like Larkin and Connolly had hard-won but considerable success in getting Irish workers, particularly unorganised unskilled workers, into the unions – the ITGWU and also the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU). Among the ranks of the unskilled were young women workers in shops, factories, laundries and offices.
Connolly, in particular, argued forcefully in support of women’s rights, urging the labour movement to actively take up the demand for equality. He gave clear class reasons for supporting the call for votes for women.
Writing in the suffragists’ newspaper, The Citizen, he said:
It was because women workers had no vote, they had not the safeguards even of the laws passed for their protection because they were ignored. They had women working for wages on which a man could not keep a dog. Men’s conditions, bad as they were, had been improved because of the vote”.
Raising the key question of women as workers in this way championed both the oppressed – women – and of those suffering capitalist exploitation – the workers.
The insurrectionary movement drew in the best and most militant women fighters from across the spectrum; nationalists, workers, and women’s rights advocates.
The best radicals were drawn to the Irish Citizen Army and they self-identified as socialists. Founded by Connolly and Larkin, and Jack White, the ICA involved women and men at all levels – in the ranks and the leadership. As the time for armed insurrection approached, Constance Markievicz was appointed a member of the seven-person Army Council, Dr Kathleen Lynn held the rank of lieutenant and was in charge of the medical section, and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen was a sergeant.
It is notable that none of these were working class women – whereas the men were entirely working class. The ICA was the only organisation that drew together the strands of revolutionary nationalism, anti-imperialism, women’s emancipation and militant trades unionism and united them in struggle.
The Rising itself began with great confusion due to the havoc caused by countermanding orders for its commencement. But there was the added complication that seemed, as Margaret Ward argues, to typify the attitude to women, particularly in the ranks of the Volunteers – they forgot to tell the Cumann na mBan! Hurried dispatches were sent all over the country with new orders for the Volunteers, but nobody mobilised the women who were ‘left in a state of total bewilderment’:
…[I]t’s an indication of the women’s determination to fight, that so many did eventually take part. For them in particular, the first day was a day of chaos, of searching for outposts, asking to be allowed to join and, occasionally, of being turned away.”
Around 60 of the women ‘out’ in 1916 were members of Cumann na mBan. None of these women took an active part in the fighting, their role being confined to nursing, cooking and dispatch carrying, all of which, especially the latter, was dangerous and courageous work, done as it was, under fire. Communications with the leaders in the GPO and other garrisons were maintained largely through the efforts of these women. Not only did they carry messages, but they supplied ammunition hidden in their clothing, and food – including by holding up vans and commandeering the contents.
The women of the Irish Citizen Army had a different experience to their sisters in Cumann na mBan. They were 30 in all, and assembled, along with the men, on Easter Monday and were told by Connolly they were all now members of the Irish Republican Army. Their roles were allotted in advance, and they were armed on the day. A group of nine women and ten men marched off to take Dublin Castle; they failed and resorted to taking City Hall instead. Dr Lynn later went to City Hall, to attend Sean Connolly, hit by a sniper’s bullet and badly wounded.
It would take a much lengthier piece than this to do justice to the magnificent group of women – those we know of – during the Rising itself. But what a bunch!
Women like Margaret Skinnider, a 23 year old Glasgow school teacher and friend of Markievicz through suffragist circles. She arrived by bicycle and managed to join the garrison at the Royal College of Surgeons. She was shot and wounded seriously, later to be imprisoned and sentenced to death by the military authorities. She went on hunger strike and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Winnie Carney, and 40 other women entered the GPO with their male counterparts, though not all these women were to remain. Winnie did. She had been sent for by Connolly as his right-hand woman. Winnie had remained North, working as a TGWU organiser till she received the call, and down she came with her typewriter and a Webley pistol. She remained at Connolly’s side till the end, typing up Connolly’s dispatches and dictating his final orders. She had refused to leave him despite being ordered to evacuate the building with the injured.
The rebel garrison at City Hall was surrendered to British forces by Dr. Kathleen Lynn, the only officer present. At first, the British refused to take the surrender from a woman; they just didn’t know what to do; nothing in their handbook covered it! This happened at various garrisons throughout the city. Initially, the British military authorities simply asked the women to ‘go home’. They refused and were arrested and taken to Kilmainham with the rest.
And, of course, there was Countess Constance Markievicz, a brave and flamboyant rebel, a traitor to her upper-class background and uncompromising revolutionary for most of her life. Her famous advice to women considering getting involved:
“Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
Though the ICA made up, at most, 10% of the forces that Easter week, their role and Connolly’s revolutionary Marxist perspective is difficult to overstate in their support of women and men who held a vision for a new Ireland in 1916. The combination of socialist theory and practice brought together in struggle the most radical elements, male and female, in the fight for liberation. Had they been more, their legacy would have been harder to suppress and ignore, and there is a lesson in that for us today.
Mary Smith wrote a longer piece about the women of Ireland’s Rising for the Irish Marxist Review at the time of the centenary, upon which this article is based. That piece can be read HERE.