Lives and loves: the sexual side of the Rising

Exclusive extract from ‘Vivid Faces’, Roy Foster’s new book: Ireland’s revolutionaries of a century ago were part of a generation that explored other forms of liberation besides the political and national. Their diaries, letters and private reflections make clear their willingness to try alternatives to the heterosexual marriage

“When swinging, hold her hand only”: members of Monaghan Men’s Irish Dancing Class in 1905. Photograph: Library of Congress

“When swinging, hold her hand only”: members of Monaghan Men’s Irish Dancing Class in 1905. Photograph: Library of Congress


The revolutionaries were part of a generation that explored other forms of liberation besides the political and national, and one of these concerns the drama of loving.

The extent to which radical-nationalist political attitudes implied sexual radicalism too is often questionable; the revolutionary Todd Andrews recalled much later: “The absence of sexual relations between the men and women of the movement was one of its most peculiar features. I suppose all revolutionaries are basically Puritanical, otherwise they wouldn’t be revolutionaries.”

This is, however, not the whole story. From diaries, letters and private reflections it is clear that many of the female generation who made the revolution were frustrated by the expectations held out for them by their seniors, and were prepared to embrace alternative relationships to that of the heterosexual marriage. Nor were alternatives unknown in male revolutionary society either: one of the most celebrated revolutionaries also left for posterity the most detailed record of homosexual adventures imaginable. The men and women we are considering were, after all, the generation of the sexual revolutionary Edward Carpenter, and some at least read Sigmund Freud. Part of recapturing their world must involve prospecting the ties of affection, and the patterns of tension, between families, friends and lovers.

A new kind of marriage

A striking number of radical revolutionaries were at an angle to family life in another way, having a dead or absent father: Bulmer Hobson, Patrick and Willie Pearse, MacSwiney and his sisters, Roger Casement, Éamon de Valera, the O’Hegarty brothers, Liam de Róiste; while Denis McCullough, in a gesture worthy of Synge’s Christy Mahon, ejected his own father from the Irish Republican Brotherhood cell to which he was introduced, on the grounds of drunkenness. Embracing the path of radical nationalism, if you were from a unionist family, obviously entailed a repudiation of parents and sometimes siblings, as is clearly demonstrated by Muriel Murphy (later MacSwiney), the Gifford sisters, the Bartons and Alice Milligan. It was not only ideological objections that were raised in the way of young Irish radicals trying to build a new life.

The four Gifford sisters did so decisively, escaping from their comfortable Rathmines background. The Gifford girls jumped ship and “married out” in spectacular fashion: Muriel to the schoolteacher Thomas MacDonagh, the radical art student Grace to Joseph Mary Plunkett (in his condemned cell, after the Rising), Sydney (briefly) to Arpad Czira, a Hungarian she met in New York. Nellie remained unmarried. All were passionate nationalists. Their brothers remained respectable unionists, but it seems clear that the girls reinforced and sustained each other in their taking up a republican commitment and membership of several radical organisations. There are several other cases where siblings bonded together in revolutionary beliefs. Terence MacSwiney’s sisters Mary and Annie were just as extreme nationalists as he was, even before his death on hunger strike left them with a flame to guard for the rest of their lives.

Geraldine, Joseph, George, Jack and Mimi Plunkett supported and reinforced each other’s radical politics, partly as a strategy in the continuing war against their mother, who is presented in Geraldine’s copious autobiographical writings as sadistic and partly deranged. The Ryan sisters and brothers in Tomcoole, Co Wexford, reinforced each other’s nationalist beliefs, which were maintained most rigorously by Nell, the eldest; the correspondence of her younger sisters mocked her affectionately at first, but they grew into radicalism together through joining Sinn Féin and other organisations. Their parents seem to have remained moderate Home Rulers, while supporting their headstrong children in their revolutionary careers. Among the Quaker middle classes of Waterford, Rosamond Jacob and her brother Tom both became Sinn Féiners and Gaelic Leaguers, while their parents remained moderate Redmondites.

Education for women

The Ryan sisters’ correspondence profiles a lively existence of parties, flirtation and romance, revolving around Mary Kate’s Dublin circle. In her London days she had been unhappily attracted to Tom Kettle MP, but even before he became engaged to her bete noire Mary Sheehy, Mary Kate had decided he was not what she was looking for in a man – although the experience left her jaded and inclined to cynicism. Above all she felt she had had enough of men: “Their childishness and stupidity and gullibility and at the back of all that their conceit – their delusions about themselves and in rotation about you, about women.”

But Kettle continued to fascinate her, and she wrote long letters to her sisters claiming unconvincingly that he no longer attracted her (except for his eyes and his smile) – finally denouncing him because he had no sense of fun, unlike favoured Wexford friends such as Robert Brennan. “Finally about T Kettle – he has not enough of the Devil about him at all. Men ought to have a spark of the devil about them.” Her devoted admirer, the diminutive former librarian Seán T O’Kelly, may have had an unsuspected devilish streak, as he was capable of sending her sister Nell flirtatious letters at the same time as pursuing Mary Kate.

Mary Kate resisted marriage, enjoying her life as a university lecturer and monitoring her sisters’ admirers as well as manipulating her own. In 1911 she remarked to Min, after meeting various “newly married ladies”, “I prefer the Bohemian life by far, only can it go on for ever? There is something very undignified in not knowing when one is old, when youth is over. I wonder about myself.”

However, Seán T, as he was universally known, pressed his suit from Mary Kate’s return to Dublin in 1910 until their marriage, eight years later, in a world that was changing beyond recognition. The next time she visited Paris would be in 1919, when she and her new husband represented the “Provisional Government of the Irish Republic”, attempting to influence the peace-treaty negotiations at Versailles.

The exciting lives of the Ryan sisters remind us that these were young people, thrown into each other’s company, often in circumstances that were by their nature unchaperoned and “daring”. It is difficult to recapture the love lives of the past, at least when they were consensual; one of the disadvantages of most histories of sexual behaviour is that so much of the evidence has been gathered from criminal records or from the experiences of the poor, the violent and the marginal.

But one of the attractions of the Gaelic League, especially its summer schools and céilidhean, was the opportunity it provided for romantic and sexual contact. The younger Ryan sisters, while living at the Loreto Convent residence for women students, were technically not allowed to go unchaperoned to cafes and dances with young men in Dublin; Agnes’s letters to her sisters from the Gaelic League summer school at Ring clearly indicate a sense of welcome liberation.

This was swiftly noted by the authorities. J J Sheehan’s A Guide to Irish Dancing (1902) warned dancers: “Don’t hug your partner round the waist English fashion. When swinging, hold her hand only. A bow to your partner at the end would not be amiss, but be careful to avoid any straining after ‘deportment’. Leave that to the Seoinini [socially ambitious imitators of the English]. In short, be natural, unaffected, easy – be Irish and you’ll be alright.”

The corruptions inherent in undisciplined dancing continued to exercise the guardians of revivalist culture. A major controversy also developed over teaching men and women together in Gaelic League language classes, which was violently opposed by some priests. This and other attempts to impose Catholic moral policing upon the activities of the supposedly nonsectarian league infuriated people such as Rosamond Jacob. She and her brother also campaigned, fruitlessly, against sending league representatives to “the immoral literature committee which is a Catholic affair and no business of the Gaelic League anyhow”.

Jacob, for her part, was determined to read as much immoral literature as she liked. It is clear from her diaries that she also relished the opportunities for touching men and responding to the moves of her partners in Irish dancing. Cesca Trench’s diary records the long summer nights on Achill Island, where she went to Gaelic college: swimming, flirting, sleeping out of doors wrapped in cloaks.

The diaries of Piaras Béaslaí record much fairly indiscriminate hugging, kissing and cuddling in the Bootle Gaelic League during the early 1900s, although he also records his snobbish disapproval of several of the girls he meets there, on social or educational grounds.

His visits to Ballingeary Gaelic College, in Cork, as a part-time teacher afforded more spectacular opportunities than Bootle, enabling him to smuggle the local priest’s young sister, Bridie Fitzgerald, into his bedroom at night. He confided to his diary, “I always wound up the night by carrying her upstairs to bed,” and hiding her in his room. She had, he believed, “a kind of fearless innocence, not ignorance for she spoke openly and fearlessly on the most forbidden topics. Never before had I been in such intimacy with a female.” Bridie came to his room every night, and returned in the morning before he got up. He felt extreme guilt afterwards, but “time eventually solved it”.

The actual sexual behaviour of the radical generation is hard to track, but sexual unconventionality was not unknown. In 1916 Geraldine Plunkett believed, and recorded, that her sister-in-law Grace Gifford was pregnant when she married Joseph in his prison cell, and had a miscarriage shortly afterwards; in an extraordinary passage of her memoir she describes in unflinching detail the visit to her widowed sister-in-law where this became clear.

“Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America] because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal . . . I thought that was rubbish but they were very sure of it. Grace said or did nothing either way and I just carried on. The Castle thought that she was pregnant but that Joe was not the father. One day I went to Larkfield and on asking for her I was told she was still in bed – I went up to her room. She was in bed and a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc. I said nothing and she said the same. I went away a good deal relieved. [Marie] Perolz knew and agreed with me. We could not make her out. Perolz did not know whether Grace had induced it or not.”

Escaped out of window

This was not in fact the case, but some took such situations in their stride. The decisive Mabel McConnell, born in 1884, fell in love with the young poet Desmond FitzGerald in 1910, when she was working in London and enthusiastically involved in the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and the Women’s Social and Political Union. Four years younger, Desmond was a less zealous nationalist at this stage. (His love letters to her are entirely, if self-deprecatingly, in English.) He admired her passion and vehemence, and tried not to resent her Sinn Féin commitments coming between them, although his letters are sometimes unable to resist irony (“forgive the non-Irish manufacture of the paper. Yours was most edifying”).

Having returned unwillingly to her rich family in Belfast in 1911, Mabel discovered she was pregnant. She escaped (out of a window, late at night) and fled back to London. She and Desmond were married in May 1911 and decamped to live an artistic life in Brittany. This may have spared her family some embarrassment, although that they were married in a Catholic ceremony cannot have pleased such pillars of unionist orthodoxy. (Her father was the managing director of the Craig family’s whiskey distillery.) Independent-minded to the end, Mabel deferred her own conversion till much later in life. (“I always wanted to be a Catholic but suspected that I did not want it enough.”)

Todd Andrews’s recollection that there were no sexual connections between the young puritans of this era seems unlikely. Much later the feminist and republican Marie Perolz similarly told the Bureau of Military History, “We did not think about sex or anything else. We were all soldiers and I was only bothered about what I could do for Kate Houlihan,” but this may reflect the atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s rather than the situation at the time. Annie O’Brien recalled that, although she was deeply attracted to Con Colbert from St Enda’s, and went to parties and Irish dances with him, to her disappointment “he was not at all interested in girls; he was entirely engrossed in his work for Ireland”.

However, Kevin O’Shiel, as a Catholic nationalist student at Trinity College Dublin in 1910, remembered that the topics discussed at night in college rooms were, in order of importance, “Sex, sport, religion, literature, medicine (gynaecological and forensic, mainly), law, history, politics.” The priority is interesting: sex first, politics last.

The charismatic young IRB organiser Seán MacDermott remarked merrily on his 1911 census form that he was “heartbroken for being single”, and few women remembered him without describing his looks.

Men were not immune either: Richard Mulcahy remembered him 50 years later as “an extremely handsome boy, a beautiful head and a sallow complexion that had a certain beauty of its own, you know, and lovely outline of face”. His wife, Min, concurred, adding that MacDermott walked with a stick after a bout of polio, but “otherwise he was absolutely perfect”.

The beautiful Mary Maguire, who taught at St Ita’s and later married Pádraic Colum, was pursued aggressively by Thomas MacDonagh before his own marriage to Muriel Gifford; Maguire found his refusal to take no for an answer, and obsessive behaviour, distinctly alarming.

Obsessive love poems

Dorothea revealed that she “admired young German women because they had so much sex in them”. She also railed against the practice of not telling girls enough about sex before they married, with which Jacob’s mother emphatically agreed (although her daughter thought privately that girls must be “illiterate or imbecile” if they didn’t find out for themselves). She would come in time to dislike her sister-in-law intensely, but her longing for Tony lasted many years. She would subsequently transfer her sexual obsession to the much younger – indeed, adolescent – Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, son of her friend Hanna. (“He is well made and I should like to see him stripped.”)

Plain and intense, Jacob feared that her powerful character and vehement opinions would always repel men. When she shared her worries with Dorothea “she was stumped by my contention that if it’s want of sex in me that makes me unable to attract, why can I care so much about them. She admitted that feeling sex so much ought to have an effect, and said I should go to a hypnotist.”

Later in life, aged 41, she would have a passionate but secret physical affair with the republican activist Frank Ryan, which was described in unflinching physical detail in her diaries. (“I got him into the other room & into bed – kept his shirt on, but when I was naked he took me in his arms, standing & then got into bed & I cd feel his lovely skin all over – but he’s still inexperienced & I couldn’t get right, except once when he hurt like hell.”)

Jacob believed that “promiscuity in both sexes is better than the double standard of morals”, and in this she was at one with many of her generation. Constance Markievicz, with her hard-drinking and erratic Polish husband, may have been allowed a similar licence. (Bulmer Hobson later told his son Declan of his surprise when she demanded to warm herself, on night manoeuvres with her Fianna boy scouts, by getting into bed with them.)

However, although they behaved more conventionally, the marital correspondences of Éamon and Sinéad de Valera, and Tom and Kathleen Clarke, are unabashed in their passionate endearments and sense of physical deprivation when they were apart (which was often). Writing to Sinéad from the west of Ireland, where he was teaching at a Gaelic League summer school, de Valera sent her a translation of an erotic poem in Irish. (“I couldn’t go into the meaning with the mixed class . . . but I wished you were with me till we discuss it.”)

Retailing the poet’s descriptions of his beloved’s “unfastened breast” and her “three jewels, the nicest in the world”, he added, “The word ‘beal beosac’ came into a poem a few days ago. We translated it as ‘nectar lipped’ – but I understood what the poet meant. Those wild kisses.”

This is an edited extract from Vivid Faces, Roy Foster’s new book, published by Allen Lane on October 2

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