Women of 1916
300 women participated in the 1916 Rising in a variety of roles, but many of their contributions went unacknowledged for decades
Countess Markievicz and Michael Mallin captured after the Easter Rising. Photograph: courtesy of National Museum of Ireland
The perception of women’s participation in the 1916 Rising has changed with the generations. We now have the names of 300 participants. 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, and letters of verification written for women to receive pensions give us the stories of many that had been elusive.
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, though some later objected to her inclusion on the roll of honour because she also treated British soldiers.
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 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”.
Some of 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.
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.
The formidable Margaret Skinnider, who had been wounded in active service during the Rising, did not marry. She was active in the Irish National Teachers Organisation, and worked to bring about equality of pay for women.
Why did so many history books not record this body of women? 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.
Sinead McCoole is a curator and historian and member of the Expert Advisory Group on the Decade of Centenaries. Curatorial Adviser, Ireland 20116 Centenary Programme