‘A tigress in kitten’s fur’

Helen Molony was held as ‘an extremist of some importance’, a badge of honour for the Abbey actress turned trade union leader

Thu, May 23, 2013, 10:00

As the curtain came down for the interval and the audience were filing into the Abbey Theatre foyer, Helena Molony was already out of her costume, out the stage door and headed for Beresford Place to address an open-air anti-recruitment meeting.

It was 1915 and she spoke of the “perfidy of the British”, reminding her audience that “England’s difficulty was Irelands opportunity”. Stepping off the platform she ran back to the Abbey, just as she had done every night that week, to appear as Mrs Mulroy in the last act of The Mineral Workers by George Boyle.

But this time, waiting at the stage door, was manager St John Irvine, who “flew into a violent rage” and ordered an understudy to get ready to replace her. “I said ‘What about it? I am here half an hour before the time’. He said: ‘You have no right to address a meeting. This is not a tea party, or a Sunday School party.’ I said ‘I have no experience of Sunday schools. I have experience of the stage’.”

Molony performed that night and the incident was characteristic of her life over the decade 1912 to 1922 as she combined a busy acting career with work as militant separatist and emerging labour leader.

She later wrote “I was in the No. II (Abbey) company … but more interested in Liberty Hall and what it stood for, Inghinidhe na hEireann where I was fostered, and in the Citizens Army and the Volunteers – all of whose aspirations were simmering up to the boilover so to speak”.

The “boilover” came on Easter Monday, 1916. Molony had not just been speaking about rebellion; she had been at the centre of actual preparations for it since taking over the remnants of the Irish Women’s Workers Union and Co-Op at James Connolly’s request in 1915.

It was the start of a long trade union career but also a period of active military engagement. “If the simile ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ be used, the Workers Co-Op might be described as a ‘tigress in kitten’s fur’ being carried on as it apparently was by a group of working women for whom I acted as secretary…

“All the women of the co-op were members of the Citizen Army and bore arms and went into action with the Citizen Army on Easter Monday 1916…They were an integral part of the army and not in any sense a ‘ladies auxiliary’ but shared in the duties and responsibilities of their brothers in arms.”

These were extraordinary times, her apprenticeship as a trade unionist dovetailed with her work as a separatist and feminist and it is unlikely that she would have been a military combatant in any other situation. In fact her work throughout the War of Independence and Civil War never again involved active military service,

Imprisoned in England after the Rising, and classified as ‘an extremist of some importance’, Molony wrote letters home saying that she was thinking about writing a play, “a temptation I have long resisted, in public anyway”. Released at Christmas, she had received so many insults about stabbing the British in the back, she “came home determined to do it all again”.

She moved into a flat on Leeson Street and immediately renewed activity on all fronts; appearing in the first Irish production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya , resuming leadership of the Irish Women Workers Union, and remobilising public opinion.

Independence seemed farther away then ever as “we were defeated; nobody thought we would rise up again.” Defying not only the British authorities but trade union leaders and the commands of the IRB, she and “the extremist group in Liberty Hall, who were indeed the women” marked the first anniversary of the Rising. They “beflagged” the positions taken, pasted copies of the proclamation around the city and hung a banner on the roof of Liberty Hall inscribed “James Connolly Murdered 12 May”.

Barricading themselves in behind several tons of coal, it took a contingent of 200 police and army hours to shovel their way through to find “four girls inside Liberty Hall… sat like perfect ladies waiting for them…That celebration in 1917 established the 1916 Commemoration.”

Over the following turbulent years, Molony continued to work in the Abbey, with the Irish Women Workers Union (though no longer general secretary), as adviser to the Provisional Government, and was also in great demand “because I happened to have the misfortune to be able to speak. On any pretence,” she continued “we would hold an meeting – probably because it was forbidden”.

Moving from room to rented room and sometimes staying with friends, she was constantly raided. In fact “It would be easier to record the times I was not raided”.

Toward the end of this decade, 1912- 22, Molony had to think about one of the biggest professional decisions of her life – whether to remain a full-time actress or a trade union official. It was apt that her theatrical and political lives again tipped off each other so closely.

In February 1922, she appeared as Mrs Drennan in the first Abbey production of The Round Table by Lennox Robinson, (played by Sara Allgood later that year). Less than two weeks later she was back in the theatre but this time as executive member of the Irish Labour Party and Trades Union Congress for a special congress. Molony, vehemently anti Treaty, tabled an unsuccessful motion calling for Labour to stand aside so the upcoming election could be fought on pro-and anti- Treaty grounds.

In the event she chose to stay a trade unionist and left the stage.

Summing up those years she wrote “Military and social problems overshadowed artistic and cultural values”. That was certainly the case for Helena Molony; secretary of Inghinidhe na hEireann, Irish Citizen Army member and veteran of the 1916 Rising, 2nd general secretary of the Irish Women Workers Union, founding member of Saor Eire, leading member of the Dublin Trades Council and president of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions ... and Abbey actor.

Nell Regan is a freelance writer, poet and educator . Her biography of Helena Molony is published in Female Activists: Irish Women and Change 1900-1960 - Eds Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy, Woodfield Press, 2001.