In 1861 Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, née Albinia Broderick, was born a member of the British aristocracy. Yet by the time of Ireland’s anti-colonial struggles in the early 20th century, she was deeply committed to the republican cause. Kieran McNulty examines the legacy of a revolutionary who always connected Irish independence with wider social issues.
In first decades of the 20th century Ireland was in the throes of revolutionary upheavals. Many of the people involved are familiar figures in Irish history, while many more again are only half-known to us – if at all. It is no coincidence, nor is it surprising, that it is women who have most often been ‘forgotten’ in the official retelling.
As we approach the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty next year, and the civil war and continuing social struggles which ensued, it is important to shine a light on some of the lesser-known rebels which contributed to Ireland’s revolutionary years.
Cumann na mBan in Kerry
On 26 March 1915, the Tralee branch of Cumann na mBan was established with a membership of 60. By September 1921 there were 12 branches and 351 members in Kerry, and the intention was that the organisation in Kerry would have a strictly defined role as an auxiliary support wing to the male Volunteers and would not carry arms.
For many women attempting to become active in political and social struggles these restrictions to become even more apparent after the Easter Rising, as Lisa Weihman has commented, “with their best advocates within the nationalist and labour organizations dead and the Rising a military failure, women found their participation downgraded from comrade-in-arms to second-class help mates”. Aideen Sheehan argues the organization essentially perceived itself, “as a body constituted to assist men in the attainment of the republic”.
For Margret Ward there was another dimension to the “struggles that were waged by women on their own behalf, both by [those] within the nationalist movement and those critical feminist who remained on the outside”.
In Kerry a minority of women did make limited progress in advancing their political profile. In the 1920 local elections, two women were elected councillors. Maggie Ashe, a general domestic servant, won a seat on Listowel Urban District Council (UDC) for the Labour Party and Cait Breen won a seat for Sinn Féin on Killarney UDC.
Gobnait Ní Bhruadair
There were other signs of a new political philosophy developing amongst this minority of women in Kerry. An outstanding example was the radical activist, the Honourable Lady Albinia Lucy Broderick, who changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair after becoming fluent in Irish.
She was born in Belgrave, London, in 1861, eventually setting up home in Caherdaniel, Kerry in 1904. Broderick was untypical of the majority of republicans. She was born into an English aristocratic unionist family, the absentee landlords of Midleton in County Cork, and was also a member of the Church of Ireland.
In addition to the family’s country estate in Surrey in England, the Brodericks also owned 6,000 acres of land in County Cork. Although sister to the leader of the southern Unionists – the Earl of Midleton, who incidentally referred to her as having ‘always been very unbalanced in her views’ – soon after the Easter Rising, Broderick joined Cumann na mBan.
According to Bertie Scully of the Glencar company of the IRA, she ‘had several of the 1916 men recuperating’ at the Irish college in Caherdaniel. In the 1920 local elections, Ní Bhruadair won a seat for Sinn Féin on Kerry County Council. She was the first woman to be elected to the council and would later be selected as its chair.
She also became a member of the Irish White Cross Society which was designed, in the words of Brian P. Murphy, (OSB), to ‘alleviate the distress in Ireland caused by the actions of British Crown Forces’. Other Protestant women active in the Society included Molly Childers, Dorothy Macardle, Alice Stoppard Green and Charlotte Despard.
In her statement to the Bureau of Military History, Anna Hurley-O’Mahony, a prominent member of Cumann na mBan in Bandon, County Cork, underlines the remarkable single-minded determination of Ní Bhruadair to the republican cause even after her first cousin, the Earl of Bandon, “was captured at Castle Bernard some time before the truce and was [held] prisoner”.
Campaigner for radical health reform
However, as with James Connolly, Gobnait Ní Bhruadair’s considerable social activism has been ignored by traditional histories in favour of presenting her as a nationalist hero – that is, of course, when any notice is taken of her at all.
According Ward, while Ní Bhruadair was, “the most orthodox and unyielding of nationalists”, she was also a leading advocate for health reform, which brought her “into conflict with the edicts of Dáil”. At one stage, Ní Bhruadair, a qualified nurse and midwife, briefly resigned from the County Council in protest over the Dáil’s decision to drastically reduce the number of workhouses.
Previously she had established Kilcrohane agricultural cooperative in an attempt to combat rural poverty and reverse emigration, but her attempt to raise funds to build a hospital near Caherdaniel were ultimately blocked when the Catholic Church gained control of the health service in the new Free State.
When later attempting to raise financial support for a hospital for Tralee she wrote to the British Journal of Nursing insisting that such a hospital was necessary in Kerry to care for “the children haunted by tuberculosis, the women tortured in childbirth, the men struck low before their time” and asked “has your wife bled to death in childbirth for want of help?” She also campaigned for a public program of health education on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and their treatment, delivering a paper entitled ‘Morality in Relation to Public Health’.
Ní Bhruadair showed tremendous courage in attempting to lift the blanket of silence which surrounded this issue, and chaired the National Council of Nurses Committee on the subject. She was active in the cause of reform of the Killarney Mental Hospital, where she pioneered new policies including opposing the use of the term ‘lunatic asylum’ and training nurses in the needs of the mentally ill. On all those health issues, Ní Bhruadair’s thinking was considerably ahead of most contemporary health professionals.
She also advocated for trade union representation for the nursing profession. In 1907, Ní Bhruadair joined the Society for State Registration of Trained Nurses who campaigned for parity with doctors, demanding “the title ‘nurse’ be used only by certified nurses from identified training schools duly registered as such”. She was the only nurse leader at this time in Ireland to advocate unionisation of the profession, declaring “it is full time that we nurses should awake out of sleep and take our rightful place amongst the workers of the world in fraternal organisation”.
Despite fierce opposition from the Catholic and Protestant churches who ran all most all of Ireland’s hospitals, eventually the union was established as a subsection of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union. It could be argued that Ní Bhruadair led the way for other union activists in the emerging Irish public sector, including the schoolteacher, Margaret Skinnider. Ward has noted that until recent years, the contribution of women such as Ní Bhruadair in influencing political events in Ireland during this period “remained hidden within historical records … [and] has at times been deliberately played down and not just simply undervalued”.
Civil War and the Counter-Revolution
Gobanit Ní Bhruadair was fiercely opposed to the Treaty.
She was sitting in the Dáil public gallery during the Treaty debate when Fionán Lynch, her local (pro-Treaty) T.D, declared that he spoke for all his constituents, provoking her to shout back, “You lie”. Later, during the Civil War, on publication of the enquiry into the massacre of seventeen republican prisoners at Ballyseedy and elsewhere in Kerry by the National Army in March 1923, Cumann na mBan attempted to expose the report as a cover up by the Free State.
In April of the same year, Ní Bhruadair was taken prisoner after having been shot in the legs by Free State forces while resisting arrest. She was imprisoned in the North Dublin Union, where, after two weeks on hunger strike she was released.
Despite the considerable contribution of Cumann na mBan to the revolutionary struggle and the efforts of remarkable women such as Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, the organisation’s failure to significantly influence events was due essentially to its inability to address the issues of women’s oppression or the class nature of Irish society. The republican movement in general had no clear worked out theory of equality, and as Ward has argued, Cumann na mBan‘s,
“emotional and ideological identification with nationalism, which always overrode all other considerations … preventing them from ever developing a strategy which could have encompassed a broader definition of liberation – one that would have released them from the constraints that ultimately dissipated their radical potential.”
On the nature of the political objectives of the pro-Treatyites, Allen has again observed that they
“… claimed that they were merely restoring law and order, but it was an order where the poor knew their place and where there would be no more talk of land redistribution or better conditions for workers. With the first shot of the Civil War, the Irish counter-revolution had begun.”
Women would also ‘know their place’ under the new regime and, as Weihman has noted, because of the weaknesses inherent in Cumann na mBan, though “Irish women after the Rising did gain both an independent nation and the vote, [they gained] few other rights”. The victory of the forces of the counter-revolution in Kerry and throughout Ireland meant, according to Mary McAuliffe, that
“… Irish women’s citizenship was, according to the increasingly conservative Free State, and the increasingly powerful and influential Catholic Church, domestic, to be defined by life in the home, marriage and motherhood.”
However, Mary Smith has commented that only James Connolly’s ‘revolutionary Marxist perspective … combined the theory and practice, bringing together in struggle the most progressive elements, male and female in the fight for liberation’.
The tragedy for revolutionary women and men such as Gobnait Ní Bhruadair, who sought radical political and social change in Ireland in the early Twentieth Century, was that no party existed which could provide a political home for them. There was no party which expressed the revolutionary socialist vision of Connolly and matched it with the ambition, strategy and skills to set about organising for the establishment of the workers’ republic in fact not rhetoric.
A version of the article will also be published in The Kerry Magazine, (2021, Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society), and Kieran McNulty is also completing a book on similar topics, Working-class Radicalism in Kerry, 1913-1923: A Social and Political Analysis, to be published next year.