‘Gordon,” she said, “you’re ruining the guns with that coffee.” Few books published for the centenary of 1916 will be as original, as entertaining, as thoroughly researched or as well written as this analysis of women’s words, ideas and actions during the Easter Rising and the Howth gun-running that preceded it.
Getting behind the simplistic narratives favoured after independence, of manly Irish valour and women's patient suffering, At Home in the Revolution examines different kinds of heroism and the ways everyday life went on – or didn't, or couldn't – in and around 1916.
Mary Spring-Rice, daughter of Lord Monteagle of Brandon and an enthusiastic Gaelic League member, kept a diary in July 1914 while sailing to Howth with guns in Molly and Erskine Childers's yacht Asgard. Boston Brahmin-born Molly was the woman who worried about coffee being spilled. The spiller was her and Erskine's sailing friend, Gordon Strachey Shephard, an Old Etonian who would later die in action in the Royal Flying Corps.
Nine hundred rifles had been brought aboard the Asgard from a German tugboat and hidden in every possible recess. The two women shared a mattress laid across one stash, losing their hairpins among them, and fearing that the guns would become unusable as coffee, golden syrup and shaving soap splashed around the confined cabin space in rough seas.
At sea they were not as “ladylike” as they look in their famous posed photograph. “Sleeping in public”, the cabin door propped open on account of the heat, they rigged up a “dishcloth” for a modicum of privacy in daylight. In quieter moments, Spring-Rice got one of the two crew members (Charles Duggan, from Gola Island, Co Donegal) to help her with her Irish.
In Dublin, Mary McLoughlin, an Arnott’s shop assistant and a member of Clan na Gael, was one of several young women who moved guns from house to house, hidden in their clothes. In 1916, at the age of 15, she carried messages back and forth between the GPO, St Stephen’s Green and Jacob’s biscuit factory for Connolly, McDonagh and Plunkett.
When her brother arrived, he told Mary to go home: their mother was looking everywhere for her. When McLoughlin did eventually go home, still concealing a gun, her mother locked her in an upstairs room and went out to buy food. So she climbed out the window and returned to the GPO.
Social and political upheaval offered new opportunities for women and men of all classes, on both sides of the political divide. This book pays almost as much attention to what they didn’t say or do as to what they did.
Change laid bare
Novelists reveal character through direct speech and behaviour and move the story along with thought or action; here, everyday behaviours and spoken words, documented almost by chance, lay bare social change as it happened in those revolutionary times.
At least as important as the vividly personal information that Lucy McDiarmid has assembled is her reading of it, for she brings formidable critical skills to bear on details that historians often regard as trivial. Clear and readable, illustrated with photographs and full-colour documents at the end of each chapter, this is a serious study of gender, class and positioning: how men and women occupy space, defend it or invade it. It is an important contribution to the history of what it has been like to live in Ireland, and especially to women’s history.
McDiarmid is an American academic who first heard of 1916 when she studied the poetry of WB Yeats. For At Home in the Revolution she has mined diaries, letters and other personal accounts, published and unpublished, reading against the grain to produce a book that is by turns funny and heartbreaking.
Sources include applications from women who sought pensions in the 1930s (with varying success), and witness statements for the period 1913-21, which the Bureau of Military History gathered between 1947 and 1957 (and are now available online at bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie).
Following a large cast of characters on both sides of the conflict and on neither, McDiarmid notices bayonets used as cooking utensils, and the needlework required in order to appear appropriately in uniform. There is also Elsie Mahaffy’s concern for domestic detail. Mahaffy, daughter of the widowed provost of Trinity College, entertained representatives of the Empire in the Provost’s House while fighting raged outside.
Emotion is central: how women adjusted to new levels of physical proximity with other women as well as with men, and what they said about their feelings, how they expressed them, or kept them to themselves. It is about how they understood the feelings of the men around them, whether married to them for years, like Tom Clarke’s wife Kathleen, or shyly fancying young men in uniform while dressing their wounds, or providing food or clothing.
The night before
On the night before her husband’s execution, Kathleen Clarke decided not to tell him she was pregnant with their fourth child, in case she undermined his “very exalted state of mind”. Later, when she lost that pregnancy, she wished that she herself could die, but of course she didn’t. That last meeting is described on what became a kind of set piece, as women travelled to the jail in groups of two or three, holding their heads high when soldiers with fixed bayonets accosted them, to visit their husbands, brothers and friends who were about to be executed or deported.
Jack B Yeats painted this scene in 1924 as Communicating with Prisoners, but here we have the women's own words and thoughts. Some discovered only on arrival that the men they were visiting would die the next day. Like Kathleen Clarke, most of them were determined not to show their grief. Older women encouraged the younger to be brave for the men's sakes, and to save collapse for later.
McDiarmid’s keen eye for the absurd relishes non-sequiturs and ineptitudes, and devotes space as well to the airy unconcern of those who cared more about Fairyhouse Races and the state of the tennis court than about revolution. Her book makes the stiff figures of history breathe and laugh and cry, the high-minded thinking of 1916’s main protagonists embodied for a change.
The RIA has produced another beautiful book, lovely to hold, and the documentation is impeccable. Some 100 pages are devoted to illustrations, notes, a bibliography, a biographical appendix and an index.
Angela Bourke writes about Irish cultural history. She is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and an emeritus professor at University College Dublin