Helena Molony: A persistent fighter for working women
Vote 100: The life-long trade unionist advocated for improved conditions and representation for women
Helena Molony (1883–1967), actor, republican, trade unionist, and feminist, was born on January 15th, 1883, at 8 Cole’s Lane, off Henry Street in Dublin, the younger of one daughter and one son of Michael Moloney, a grocer, and Catherine Moloney (nee McGrath). Orphaned at an early age, she had an unhappy relationship with her stepmother, whom her father married shortly before his death. It is believed that Helena probably received a Catholic secondary-school education.
Throughout her adult life she styled her surname “Molony”, though some sources erroneously use the spelling “Moloney”. Self-described in reminiscence as “a young girl dreaming about Ireland”, she was deeply moved on hearing a speech by Maud Gonne in 1903, and soon joined Gonne’s women’s organisation, Inghinidhe na hÉireann. Adopting the pseudonym “Emer” for her work with Inghinidhe – the name she was known by within Gonne’s circle of republican women for the rest of her life – she became the organisation’s secretary in 1907. Opposed to the socially conservative and dual-monarchist policies advocated by Sinn Féin’s Arthur Griffith in the United Irishman, she assisted Gonne in launching Ireland’s first women’s periodical, the monthly Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland), to advocate for “militancy, separatism and feminism”.
During Dublin protests in July 1911 against the impending visit of King George V, Moloney was arrested for throwing a stone at portraits of the monarch and his consort
Molony edited the journal between 1908 and 1911, and wrote its “Labour Notes” from 1910, thus initiating her involvement with the trade-union movement. She was introduced in 1908 by Bulmer Hobson to Constance Markievicz, whom she brought into the nationalist and feminist movements, and assisted in the founding in 1909 and early operation of the republican scouts’ organisation, Na Fianna Éireann.
During Dublin protests in July 1911 against the impending visit of King George V, she was arrested for throwing a stone at portraits of the monarch and his consort outside a Grafton Street shop. Jailed after refusing to pay the fine, she was the first Irishwoman of her generation imprisoned for a political offence, but served only several days of a one-month sentence before the fine was paid for her by Anna Parnell, a nationalist, land activist and sister of Charles Stewart Parnell.
Trained in the Inghinidhe acting class by Dudley Digges , she began acting professionally in 1911. Acclaimed for her performance the same year in Eleanor’s Enterprise by George Birmingham – produced by the Independent Dramatic Company, which was run by Count and Countess Markievicz – she was invited to join the Abbey Theatre. There, amid interruptions due to political activity and time abroad, she appeared regularly until the 1916 Rising, and intermittently for several years thereafter, playing in first productions by Lady Gregory, Lennox Robinson, Brinsley McNamara and others.
During the 1913 Dublin lockout, Molony employed her theatrical experience to make up the disguise of James Larkin as an aged clergyman, in which guise he entered the Imperial Hotel and, from a balcony, briefly addressed a crowd in Sackville Street, resulting in the “Bloody Sunday” police baton charge of August 31st. Playing over ensuing months in The Mineral Workers at the Abbey, between her scenes Molony addressed strike meetings at Liberty Hall.
When the Irish Women Workers’ Union was reorganised as an affiliated branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in August 1915, Molony, on the recommendation of James Connolly, was elected to become general secretary. Manager of the Liberty Hall Workers’ Clothing Cooperative (which manufactured cartridge belts prior to the Easter Rising), she was secretary of the Irish Citizen Army women’s group, and performed in its acting troupe. On Easter Monday in 1916 she was attached to the Irish Citizen Army contingent, commanded by fellow Abbey actor Sean Connolly, that operated in the Dublin Castle area. She supervised the nine women of the City Hall garrison in establishing a first-aid station and commissariat, and witnessed Connolly being shot dead by a sniper.
Arrested on the garrison’s surrender that night, Molony was one of five women interned in England until her release from Aylesbury prison in December 1916. Returning both to politics and the Abbey stage, she appeared in the first Irish production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in February 1917; serving briefly on the Sinn Féin executive, she attended the October 1917 ardfheis that reconstituted the organisation as a republican party.
Although resuming her post as general secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union in 1917, she was replaced in 1918 in a reorganisation by Louie Bennett, under whom she served for some time as deputy. She remained an official of the Irish Women Workers’ Union for more than 20 years, where her republicanism and social radicalism was often in conflict with the union’s moderates, led by Bennett and Helen Chenevix. Active in the Irish Citizen Army until 1923, during both the War of Independence and Civil War (in which she was on the anti-treaty side) Molony served in various capacities, including training, propaganda and courier of arms and messages. She strenuously supported the contemporary workers’ soviets and factory seizures.
A fervent fighter for the working class, Molony retained her revolutionary ideals into a time when the nationalist and trade-union movements eased into respectability
Pressured by Bennett to concentrate on trade-union duties, she abandoned the stage in a last, memorable performance in Lennox Robinson’s Crabbed Youth and Age in November 1922. At points in the 1920s and 1930s she urged reorganisation of the trade unions along industrial lines, partly to resolve rancorous jurisdictional disputes between Irish-based and cross-channel unions and partly out of an abiding syndicalist conviction. When the Irish Labour Party and Irish Trade Union Congress split into separate organisations in 1930, she led a losing fight to keep both bodies committed to the socialist objective of workers’ control of industry. Her longstanding concern was the organisation of domestic workers, for which she led periodic – albeit largely fruitless – campaigns. Her 1930 visit to the USSR accentuated ideological tensions within the Irish Women Workers’ Union.
She was active, often alongside Gonne, in the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League, the People’s Rights Association, and the Anti-Partition League. On the founding executive of the left-wing, nationalist organisation Saor Éire in September 1931, under pressure from Bennett she resigned within a month. As organising secretary from 1929 to 1941 of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, she was prominent in affecting the union’s growth to more than 5,000 members, representing a quarter of the country’s women trade unionists.
Serving several one-year terms on the Irish Trade Union Congress executive between 1921 and 1922, and 1933 and 1938, as congress vice-president from 1935 to 1936, she unsuccessfully opposed those provisions of the Conditions of Employment Act which allowed the displacement of women workers by men. Vice-chair of the 1936 trade union commission of inquiry, she defended the Irish Women Workers’ Union’s status as an all-female body on the grounds that women constituted a separate economic class. She was the second woman (after Bennett) to be elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress from 1937 to 1938, but ill health prevented her from delivering her annual presidential address. Under pressure over alleged wartime IRA associations, she retired on health grounds in October 1941.
A fervent speaker and, according to historian Mary Jones, a “doughty fighter for the working class”, Molony retained a passionate commitment to her early revolutionary ideals into a time when both the nationalist and trade-union movements eased into moderation and institutionalised respectability. After living through her 20s on a small family bequest, for many years she led a precarious and unsettled existence, often reliant on friends for accommodation. Bouts of depression, heavy drinking and physical illness often occasioned absence from work, and contributed to her induced retirement. She never married, but from the 1930s had a close relationship with psychiatric doctor Evelyn O’Brien, with whom she lived on the North Circular Road and, after 1966, on Strand Road in Sutton. She died in their Sutton home on January 28th, 1967, and was buried in the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.