Revolutionary wives: author Sinéad McCoole on discovering the stories behind the 1916 widows

The stories of the seven widows of 1916’s leaders are a living social history of love and sacrifice Sinéad McCoole on writing Easter Widows

Maud Gonne  MacBride, Major John MacBride and their baby Sean in 1904

Maud Gonne MacBride, Major John MacBride and their baby Sean in 1904

 

In writing Easter Widows I took the well-worn tale of the Rising and its aftermath and reconstructed it from the viewpoint of the seven widows of the executed leaders of the Rising. In recounting the biographies of the seven women – Kathleen Daly Clarke, Maud Gonne MacBride, Muriel Gifford MacDonagh, Grace Gifford Plunkett, Fanny O’Brennan (whose married name was Áine Ceannt), Agnes Hickey Mallin and Lillie Reynolds Connolly – my aim was to bring the social history of this period to life.

Easter Widows begins with the story of the romances of seven couples. Of the 16 men executed in 1916 for their part in the Easter Rising, seven were married – Tom Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett, Michael Mallin and Major John MacBride.

Agnes MallinTheir wives, coming from all levels of society, endured the deaths of their husbands, the loss of their children through exile and early death, imprisonment, harassment, poverty and illness against the backdrop of war and its aftermath, the foundation of the Irish Free State, the partition of Ireland and the restrictive role of women enshrined in the Constitution.

The stories are surprising, shocking and sad. Few of the seven women could have envisioned that they would become the widows of revolutionaries. Lillie Reynolds and Agnes Hickey fell in love with British soldiers. When Kathleen Daly married Tom Clarke, 20 years her senior, she thought that his past as a freedom fighter was behind him, but all that changed when the family returned home from their life in America in 1907.

Although the military council meetings took place in Áine Ceannt’s house in those months leading up to Easter 1916, she was unaware that her husband had signed a Proclamation declaring himself a member of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

Research for this book began back in 1994 when work was under way on the new museum wing of Kilmainham Jail and I was working as a curator, looking at the role of women in the revolutionary period 1900-1923. While searching for material for the 1916 exhibition Last Words, I decided to trace the descendants of those who had taken part in the Rising – using the phone directory.

Grace PlunkettI got to know the surviving children of the 1916 leaders – Tom Clarke’s youngest son Emmet, and Joe and Maura Mallin, the children of Michael Mallin, as well as the grandchildren of the leaders – the descendants of Kathleen, Maud, Lily, Áine, Agnes and Muriel. There is much in the book which will be new to readers, as many of the family members witnessed first-hand their grandmothers’ lives, and the difficulties they encountered in their widowhood, against the backdrop of years of warfare.

When I first heard some of the stories of the Easter widows, I could scarcely believe them: they sounded like fiction rather than fact. At first I was not sure this story could be written. Did the documentation survive? Was there enough first-hand material to tell it using the women’s own words?

In 1994, I was told that Rónán, son of Áine Ceannt, had accidently burned all the family papers that he had intended bringing to the National Library of Ireland (NLI). I believed the material was lost until, about 12 years later, a student brought my attention to a listing that had just appeared on the NLI’s website – Collection List No. 97, compiled by Dr Brian Kirby, in association with the National Committee for History, and was described as “a collection of the political and personal papers of Éamonn Ceannt, of his wife Áine and of her two sisters Lily and Kathleen O’Brennan”. This collection contained the letters and information to tell their story.

Muriel Gifford

The Tom and Kathleen Clarke archive came up for sale in 2006. I was able to examine the entire archive before it was sold. When the material came up for sale I was surprised by the extent of it, and particularly by the love letters between Kathleen and Tom. It gave me a real sense of discovery to be the first reader outside the family circle to be given access to them, albeit for the preparation of their sale. Looking at them before they got to an archive, to be reading them alongside Tom’s prison letters, was a privilege. The love letters are now preserved in the NLI. However, some of the supporting material is now dispersed forever, as it was sold in different lots to private collectors and is therefore no longer in the public domain.

Lillie ConnollyLillie Connolly’s story was the easiest to research, because of the wealth of material written about their upbringing by her daughters Nora and Ina. The countless works on James himself, while invaluable, proved very difficult to condense into a “romance” chapter. Retired Brig Gen James (Seamus) Connolly, Lillie’s grandson, was so helpful with his family stories.

The holdings for Thomas and Muriel MacDonagh are substantial, and the NLI holds the first-hand material needed to tell their story, placed there by their descendants. The NLI was also a treasure house for Grace Gifford. Her love letters from Joe Plunkett are among their holdings, as well as Grace’s wonderful scrapbook, in which she records and corrects much of the misinformation about their prison wedding (debunking some of the stories and, alas, some of the famous song lyrics).

Maud Gonne MacBride, John MacBride and their son Seán MacBride have all had biographies written about them. There are volumes of letters between Maud and WB Yeats, and also between her daughter Iseult and the poet; Maud’s granddaughter Anna MacBride White gave me access to her family papers and to images. The Fred Allen papers in the NLI were a wonderful source for John’s voice.

Maud GonneI was given access to the Mallin papers, Agnes Mallin’s diaries and Michael’s love letters to her, which allowed their story to be told for the first time. I am very grateful for the trust placed in me by the Mallin and Phillips families. Joe Mallin, the curly-haired toddler described in his father’s last letter as “my little man, my little man”, the child of whom he wrote with anguish in his final hours “I cannot keep the tears back when I think that he will rest in my arms no more”, has lived to read my words, my take on his story. People talk about living history – I have been fortunate enough to have that experience.

Susan McKay reviews Easter Widows (Transworld Ireland, £22.99) by Sinead McCoole in The Irish Times tomorrow.
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