Republican who challenged sectarianism of Provisional Sinn Féin and IRA
Obituary: May Mac Giolla was a lifelong Workers’ Party member and widow of Tomás Mac Giolla
May Mac Giolla at the 2007 unveiling of the stone to commemorate Elizabeth O’Farrell who played an active role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Also pictured are Tomás Mac Giolla and Maeve Killeen, a great-niece of Ms O’Farrell. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Born: 22nd October, 1930; died: 24th March, 2018
May Mac Giolla, who has died aged 87, was a lifelong Irish republican very much in the socialist tradition who staunchly supported her late husband, Tomás, and his Official Sinn Féin allies after the split in that party at the end of 1969 which led to the setting up of Provisional Sinn Féin.
Her life had a certain inevitability to it. Her parents, Lawrence (Lar) and Elizabeth (nee Reilly) McLoughlin were both members of the Irish Citizen Army, close friends of both Countess Markievicz and Jim Larkin. As an adult – remembers Anne Finnegan, her friend and a fellow member of the Jim Larkin cumann of the Workers’ Party (as Official Sinn Féin eventually became) – Ms Mac Giolla took pride in pointing out the window in Barry’s Hotel from which her father had taken shots at British forces, directed by the countess, an experienced riflewoman.
Mac Giolla became active in Sinn Féin in her teens in Dublin’s East Wall district, where she went to work after school for Hely’s, the well-known Dublin printing firm, later to become Cahill’s. During this period also, she worked voluntarily for Gael Linn’s pools enterprise.
Some years after joining the party, Tomás Mac Giolla also joined, in 1951. They married in 1961 and in 1962 he became president of Sinn Féin.
An indication of the depth of her commitment at that time to the Republican cause is a surviving letter from the adjutant-general of the IRA to Clann na Gael and the Friends of Sinn Féin in New York, recommending Mac Giolla to them when she emigrated to the US in 1956, where she remained for three years.
Another early interest from this time, as recalled by Mairín de Búrca, former general secretary of Official Sinn Féin, was the support group Cumann Cabhrach, set up to support the families of Republican prisoners at a time when there was virtually no social welfare, at least in the Republic. De Búrca told The Irish Times that but for this work – in which Mac Giolla remained active up until the end of the Northern Troubles – “many families would have starved”.
Mac Giolla and her husband were early supporters of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Marian Donnelly, another friend from that time and a member then of the Republican Clubs movement in the North, recalls how May was “completely supportive” of the association, urging people from the South to come up in buses to take part in its protests in the late 1960s.
Both Mac Giollas were fiercely opposed to what they saw as the sectarianism of Provisional Sinn Féin and IRA, an opposition that was both political and philosophical.
Belfast-based Unitarian minister Chris Hudson, a former trade unionist, said the couple were early supporters of the Peace Train initiative, in which more than 2,000 people from North and South came together to travel to Belfast and back to Dublin on trains to assert their commitment to peaceful-only methods of solving the Troubles. On one of these trips, in 1989, the Provos phoned in to police a bomb scare, and one of the trains, with the Mac Giollas and Hudson on board, was delayed for several hours at Portadown in consequence. In a comment to The Irish Times, Hudson remembered the Mac Giollas fondly:
“May was really great at encouraging us, and asked me to speak at Tomás’ funeral service in Ballyfermot Community Centre, when I gave a homily. I was really fond of Tomás and May – they gave their best years to Dublin.”
Anne Finnegan underlines that Mac Giolla’s anti-sectarianism was rooted also in a critical view of religion itself: “she was very strong on [the need to] separate church and State. She saw the damage religion did to women…and was very active in opposing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution [inserting a ban on abortion in to the Constitution] in 1983.” Tellingly, Mr Hudson was the only clergyperson invited by May Mac Giolla to her husband’s funeral.
Several friends of Mac Giolla recall also her love of animals, and a lifelong commitment to the GAA, and particularly camogie, which she had played as a schoolgirl in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
May Mac Giolla was predeceased by her husband, and by her brothers, Éamon and Patrick (Paddy). She is survived by her sister, Carmel.