When she moved to the Caribbean in 1938, Kay Donnellan could hardly have imagined what lay ahead.
The Galway native left Ireland to take up a job at a Catholic girls’ school in Port of Spain, on the British-ruled island of Trinidad.
St Joseph’s Convent had a long history of hiring Irish teachers and Donnellan must have seemed an exceptional candidate. Educated by nuns at the Dominican Convent at Taylor’s Hill, Galway, she had graduated from University College Galway with a first-class MA in English and French.
At that time, Trinidad was still highly segregated along racial lines. Its colonial government and economy were both dominated by white expatriates. In the same year that Donnellan arrived in the West Indies, the historian, writer and activist CLR James wrote of Trinidadian society that “the division of rich and poor is also the division of white and black”.
The colony’s white population generally steered well clear of political activism, but Donnellan was not a woman to keep her head down. She and another Irish teacher in the school, Frances “Frank” Cahill, soon found themselves speaking at trade union meetings and campaigning for reforms in housing and education.
The two colleagues were prominent voices in Trinidad’s labour movement by the time they were sacked in July, 1940, for their supposed “anti-British” and “ultra-socialist” views. In a letter justifying the decision, Sr Gabriel Mary of St Joseph’s Convent claimed they had become associated with “persons of very doubtful moral character”. An umbrella group of Trinidad and Tobago unions passed a resolution condemning the action, saying the teachers had the full support of their rank-and-file members.
Donnellan and Cahill were expected to return home, but they stayed in Trinidad and remained committed to their cause.
Four months after their sacking, they co-founded the Port of Spain-based New Dawn, an anti-colonial magazine “dedicated to the advancement of the West Indies”. Donnellan also briefly served as editor of Vanguard, a newspaper published by the Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union.
With the outbreak of the second World War, British authorities were particularly sensitive to subversive commentary. Donnellan and Cahill supported the fight against Nazism, but they were sharply critical of colonial governance.
In March, 1941, both were arrested under emergency laws that provided for detention without trial. The historian Bridget Brereton believes they were the only two women in British Caribbean colonies to be interned during the war for anti-government activities.
The news was met with anger as far away as London, where George Padmore, a prominent anti-colonial campaigner, commended the two women. “White men – even those calling themselves socialists – do not usually associate with coloured people in the colonies,” he wrote in a newspaper published by the Independent Labour Party. “I am sure West Indian workers will remember them with affection and gratitude long after the little Hitlers who now sit on their backs have been relegated to the dustbin of history.”
The British colonial secretary, George Hall, justified the arrests by claiming that Donnellan and Cahill had partaken in “anti-war propaganda calculated to diminish the war effort in Trinidad and to encourage the use of violence” – a charge vehemently denied by their comrades.
Among those who advocated for their release was Adrian Cola Rienzi a Trinidadian lawyer who had studied at Trinity College Dublin and been active in the Irish branch of the League Against Imperialism.
Donnellan’s life came to a tragic end shortly after her detention. In June, she broke out of the prison camp, reportedly escaping through a small gap in a security fence in between patrols. She was found drowned in harbour waters the next day.
A coroner’s inquest ruled that she had died by suicide. She was said to be pregnant at the time.
Two weeks after Donnellan’s death, Hall, the colonial secretary, told the British House of Commons that Donnellan had refused a conditional offer of release. “She was informed that the order for her detention could not be revoked unless she left the colony to return to Éire,” he said, “and she replied that she was not prepared to return to that country”.
Irish newspapers reported that Donnellan’s widowed mother was living in Salthill, where she ran a restaurant. Her sister was a teacher at a Newry convent and her brother was a medical student in Galway. The only statement from the family came in response to a report that erroneously described Frank Cahill as the father of her unborn child, assuming Cahill was a man. The paper in question subsequently issued a correction and apology.
Donnellan was widely mourned in Trinidad, with union leaders calling her a martyr in the struggle for working-class emancipation.
As a tribute in New Dawn put it: “She has died but her spirit lives. Working men and women of Trinidad who read her writings and listened to her addresses will inspire their sons and daughters with the fervour of this late friend of ours, this valiant daughter of the Irish countryside.”
- This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Catherine Healy, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world