Writing 100 years after the events of the 1916 Rising, I would have expected to find it impossible to relate to women who had taken part in a struggle so long ago. However, I have been working as a historian in this area for a quarter of a century, and they seem to me like the most modern of women.
We now have the names of 300 participants, compiled from lists in private collections by the activists themselves, the roll of honour, the official lists of those arrested, those with “reckonable” service who got a pension, and those who got medals.
The perception of women’s participation has changed with the generations. Some women whose families know they took part were “basket girls”, whose sympathy was with those who went out but did not see themselves as participants, although they did risk their lives.
Mabel FitzGerald, mother of future taoiseach Garrett FitzGerald was in the GPO for a couple of days, but in accounts of the GPO by other women she did not feature.
Linda Kearns, a nurse, set up a first aid hospital, and Annie P Smithson published her account as In Times of Peril: Leaves from the Diary of Nurse Linda Kearns from Easter Week, 1916, to Mountjoy, 1921. Some contemporaries disputed it, while others objected to her inclusion on the roll of honour because she also treated British soldiers.
Some women never claimed a pension or a medal because they did not support the Irish Free State or the work of the Bureau of Military History, which collected recollections of that time.
Some said they “did it for Ireland” and did not need the money to apply for a pension. They were the exceptions; economic necessity is a recurring theme in the applications.
New material tells the story of those women who lived in poverty in the new state. It is based on lobbying by Cumann na mBan members of government ministers, seeking places on the housing lists for 1916 veterans. There are also letters from women seeking jobs as police or as cleaners in Government Buildings.
These representations were rejected in all cases, thus alienating more women. Seeking out these women is difficult partly because of their problematic relationship with the new state; some never accepted the Irish Free State, or partition.
Others disappeared for a much simpler reason – they married, and they had taken part when they were single. Pension records have finally given us the information on this, as have the many social media forums set up by relatives.
Those 300 women who took part in the Rising came from all classes, from all parts of the country. They were shop assistants, dressmakers, teachers, clerks, working alongside artists, actresses and even a doctor.
During the Rising, one observer, a member of the Red Cross, described the women in a letter published in a newspaper of the time as “from titled ladies to shop assistants”, and the piece commended them on “their cool and reckless courage”.
Those who came into the Rising through Labour and Liberty Hall remained active in trade unions and workers’ rights. They have long been described as forgotten, but once you know their names, you find they contributed to many things over the past 100 years.
Many of the women who took part in the Rising remained politicised and during the Civil War there were up to 100 of them among the prison population of more than 1,000 women in jails including Kilmainham, where some had been imprisoned for days following the Rising.
In a private letter, Gen Maxwell had described them in 1916 as “silly little girls”; seven years later WT Cosgrave, who had fought alongside many of them, described them as “no ordinary women” in the context of dealing with them now as very difficult prisoners.
Those who turned away from politics were lamented by Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, when she complained of them “returning without protest to their domestic role”.
Maud Gonne MacBride (below) and Charlotte Despard continued their weekly protest about the condition of prisoners through the 1920s. Today we would call them human rights activists; they were known by Dublin wits as “Maud Gone Mad” and “Mrs Desperate”.
Some of those who were “against” the new state set up political parties. The Women’s Party failed to make inroads in the 1943 election and was gone within the year. Others remained in organisations such the White Cross, later the Red Cross, and in social work, and later in the organisation of political parties. They did not disappear, but they were not at the cabinet table.
Legislation introduced in the Irish Free State in 1927 took women off juries; in the War of Independence, they had been judges in Dáil courts.
Many of those in the influential position of national school teachers were removed from the workforce with the introduction of the marriage bar in 1934. Such a bar was in place in other countries too, but lasted longer in Ireland.
The formidable Margaret Skinnider, who had been wounded in active service during the Rising, did not marry. She was active in the INTO, and worked to bring about equality of pay for women. She even went to Manila to take part in a conference of teachers worldwide representing the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation.
Why did our history books not record this body of women? Why were these deeds relegated to the RM Fox's How the Women Helped in Dublin's Fighting Story 1913-1921. Told by the men who made it?
Useful to ‘the movement’
The fact that so many of them were not arrested meant they did not make the official record. This was useful to “the movement” as it was called, as they became the silent and secret army.
As Countess Markievicz said of them in the War of Independence, they were the “eyes and ears of the organisation”. Her own role in the underground government as minister for labour would not bring the fame she could have expected had she taken her seat in Westminster in 1918, when she became the first female elected to the House of Commons.
Military Archives material released in the past decade has transformed what we know of women’s involvement in the revolutionary years.
Witness statements give us the voice of participants, but letters of verification written for women to receive pensions give us the stories of many that had been elusive.
They are available free on the Military Archives site and make for interesting reading for descendants and scholars alike.
I end with the voice of one of the participants, Helena Molony, described as “a clever and attractive girl with a tremendous power for making friends”, who introduced both Dr Kathleen Lynn and Countess Markievicz to nationalist politics.
In 1963 she had been asked for over 47 years what the women did in the Rising, and she always replied in the same fashion: “I feel they might as well ask me what did the tall, fair-haired men do in wars and what did small men do. My answer in both cases is the same: they did what came to their hands to do – day to day, whatever they were capable of by aptitude or training.”
She may have said it 52 years ago, but it could be a sound bite from a “modern” woman today.
Sinead McCoole is a curator and historian and a member of the expert advisory group on commemorations