A photographic history of the women of the Irish revolution

Liz Gillis’s book highlights the extraordinary role played by ordinary women in 1913-1923

Liz Gillis: ‘I hope I have done justice to the memory of these women, our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, great-aunts.’

Liz Gillis: ‘I hope I have done justice to the memory of these women, our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, great-aunts.’

 

The idea for writing Women of the Irish Revolution came when I was writing my last book Revolution in Dublin 1913-1923: A Photographic History. During my research I discovered so many women who had played a vital role in the independence movement. I had hoped to have a chapter concentrating on their role but due to limited space I was unable to do so.

Over the last number of years there have been biographies, autobiographies and a few general histories written about the women, but they pale in comparison to the volumes that have been written about their male counterparts. Theirs was a story that was waiting to be told. Rather than write a conventional history I decided to tell their story through a photo book.

Rather than telling the already well known stories of female figures such as Maud Gonne or Countess Markievicz, I hoped to highlight the less well known women, both the rank and file members who participated in the movement, the women who gave support to their husbands, sons and brothers who were fighting, and those women who suffered as a result of the conflict who did not ask to be part of it.

In order to get these stories I wrote to both the local and national newspapers asking for any information on any woman who had a connection with the events of 1913-23, and thanks to social media I was soon overwhelmed with the response. Thanks to the relatives and friends of these women who contacted me with their photos and stories, I was able to get access to material previously unseen.

Photographs came from not just all over Ireland but from around the world; France, England, America and Australia. While many were emailed to me, I was lucky to meet in person the nieces, nephews and grandchildren of these women. It was through talking with the families that these women became more than just names.

For most of these women, with the exception maybe of the widows of 1916, the revolution did not define them. In fact I discovered the opposite. It was they who defined the revolution. I was given photographs of them as children, as teenage revolutionaries, as mothers and grandmothers, and I realised their story did not begin and end in the years 1913-23. Those years were a part of their life, but they were daughters, wives, mothers before the revolution and when it was over they were still daughters, wives and mothers.

Eileen Bell can be seen as a baby in the book, and on the next page she is a young woman fighting in the revolution. At the end she is again seen with her husband and children on a family outing.

Dolly Lawlor is seen as a teenager who fought in the Easter Rising, and in a later photograph as a young woman just after the end of the conflict. At the end of the book there is a picture of her as a proud elderly lady, wearing her 1916 and War of Independence medals at the annual Easter commemoration.

There are wedding photographs of Josephine Stallard and Leslie Price, because I discovered that despite the war real life carried on and relationships between the men and women blossomed into love affairs.

Linda Kearns is photographed after her escape from Mountjoy Gaol in 1921, standing on a Union Jack beside her fellow escapees Eithne Coyle and Mae Burke.

The book took just under one year to write. Thanks to the release of the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and the pension files from Military Archives I was able to discover so much more about the role women played in this period. Many unfortunately tend to see the women as auxiliaries or bit players in the Irish revolution. But as I discovered, they were vital to its success.

They were nurses, dispatch carriers, gun-runners, aides, secretaries, pretend girlfriends, spies, court officials, organisers in matters of finance, propagandists and fighters. They stood side by side with the Volunteers and suffered infinitely more for doing so. They were the invisible army of the Irish revolutionary movement and when the conflict was over they were the ones who lost the most in the new Irish State.

But just like they proved their worth in the revolution they inspired the next generation and the next, because they showed just what can be achieved with determination and a fighting spirit. Thanks to their families and relatives they have not been forgotten.

I hope I have done justice to the memory of these women, our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, great-aunts. They left us a legacy to be proud of and I was honoured to be able to tell just a part of their story.

Women of the Irish Revolution by Liz Gillis is published byMercier Press

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