Easter Widows, by Sinéad McCoole: Portait of the Rising’s revolutionary wives

Story of the women behind the men of 1916 rewards the work it requires

Sat, Nov 22, 2014, 01:03


Book Title:
Easter Widows


Sinead McCoole

Doubleday Ireland

Guideline Price:

Easter Widows is the history of seven women.

Kathleen Daly loved music and wanted to make it her profession. She settled for becoming a dressmaker and made a successful business of it. She married Tom Clarke.

Wealthy Maud Gonne set up Inghinidhe na hÉireann, had children by her married lover in Paris, and turned down William Butler Yeats. She married John MacBride.

Lillie Reynolds, from poor farming people, was a governess to the children of a stockbroker and “had prospects” when she met James Connolly, then a Scottish soldier, at a Dublin tram stop. He was the son of a manure carter and became one himself as a civilian. She married him.

Fanny McBrennan had just left school when she was captivated on a train journey by dashing Edward Kent, who whistled “sweet as a bird on a bush”. When she married him she became Áine Ceannt.

Agnes Hickey was 17 when she met Michael Mallin, just as he was about to be posted as a British soldier to India for seven years. He sent her a shawl he had knitted for her; she sent him a sprig of shamrock. She married him on his return to Ireland.

Grace and Muriel Gifford were “noted figures in the social and artistic life” of Dublin and members of the Women’s Franchise League, though perhaps more for the “social aspect” than the politics. Grace, an artist whose portrait was painted by William Orpen, considered emigrating. She married Joe Plunkett in his prison cell hours before he was executed. Muriel trained to be a poultry instructress in England, then worked as a nurse in Dublin until ill health led her to give up paid employment, although she helped Maud Gonne feed poor schoolchildren. She married Thomas MacDonagh.

All of these women were widowed when their husbands were executed as leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Several have been written about by feminist historians; others remain largely unknown.

Sinéad McCoole’s bold strategy is to tell their collective history by structuring her book into three sections: the first, entitled “Romance”, sets up in individual chapters the seven marriages in the period leading up to the Rising. The second, “Parting”, covers the Rising and the executions. The third, “Mourning,” describes the lives of the widowed women and their families.

Immersed in their history

But the book is quite demanding of its reader. I had to make myself a cast list of the type helpfully provided by the authors of large 19th-century novels.

Some of the women emerge from the first part of the book as vivid characters. Others do not, and this leads to difficulty in later chapters. Several are overshadowed by their husbands. There are gaps in the archive. McCoole refers to correspondence between the couples, including love letters, but in many cases only the letters sent by the men have survived. Still, a bit more explanation and less use of first names only, particularly in relation to secondary characters, would have helped.

Easter Widows does reward the effort it requires. McCoole is occasionally distracted by interesting new angles on the men, but on the whole she keeps her focus on the women.

Kathleen Clarke, trusted confidante of the leaders in advance of the Rising, sees her husband go off, “full of hope for the future and admiration of his comrades in arms”. Pregnant with their fourth child, she, by contrast, recalls that “I was feeling that the world was tumbling around me, though I did not say so . . . As far as I was concerned, my happiness was at an end.”

Maud Gonne trails around the world – from Parisian boulevards to Dublin tenements to prison cells – with various animals, including a baby alligator, a monkey, a Great Dane and a lapdog.

Lillie Connolly sorrowfully burns letters and papers in the range of her home in Belfast. Later, seeing her husband for the last time, she sobs, “But your beautiful life, Jim, your beautiful life!”

Kathleen Clarke’s “though I did not say so” is interesting. Neither did she tell her husband at their final meeting that she was pregnant.

The women kept fundamental facts hidden from their men, protecting them from harsh domestic realities. Lillie Connolly and her daughters did not tell Jim that they were working in Belfast laundries and doing piecework making aprons, as he would have thought it a form of slavery. One daughter recalled that when they heard their father’s footsteps they’d hide the needlework.

Most of the women experienced considerable hardship. While their husbands were out in the world of meetings, organising and military training, the wives raised their children, often struggling in poverty. Muriel McDonagh, alone too many nights with her small child, succumbed repeatedly to depression. After the executions, on a holiday for the widows, she swam far out to sea at Skerries, despite warnings of dangerous currents, and drowned.

As widows of heroes, the women were expected to behave in public with pride and dignity; privately they had to fight, in some cases unsuccessfully, for their rights to pensions. The Connollys had “no money whatsoever”. Grace Plunkett may have had a miscarriage, and she fought endlessly with the Plunketts for financial support. (In the end she got a State pension based on her claim that she had nine dependants, although she had no children.) Michael Mallin had asked Agnes, still a young woman, not to give her love to another man.

Several became embroiled in the Civil War and spent time in jail. Kathleen Clarke said of Maud Gonne that in prison she was like “a caged wild animal”. Cumman na mBan opposed the Treaty on the grounds that it represented the loss of the Republic that had been proclaimed in 1916, an Ireland that offered women equality. After the adoption of the 1937 Constitution, Kathleen Clarke said it robbed women of the status they had been promised and for which they had fought.

Strange phrasing

Easter Widows.

The caption on a photograph of Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, claims that her hatred for John MacBride “was a key factor in the destruction of all their lives”. Iseult alleged that MacBride, her stepfather, was sexually abusive to her. So if she hated him, perhaps she had reason.

Easter Widows, a worthy addition to McCoole’s excellent back catalogue, is a valiant account of what the women did for a country that has yet to live up to the 1916 ideal of equality between Irish men and Irish women. Susan McKay is a journalist and the author of Bear in Mind These Dead