Irish emigrant women took part in fight for independence

Secretary to Eamon de Valera in US and Liverpool Cumann na mBan member among applicants

The military service pension collection archivists highlight three people who made lasting impacts on Ireland's formation: Agnes McCarthy, Sean Hyde and Dennis (Sonny) O'Neill, the man believed to have killed Michael Collins. Video: Enda O'Dowd


Showing that the fight for Irish independence went beyond the confines of this island, two remarkable Irish emigrant women made their cases for the award of military pensions for service overseas in the latest offerings from the Military Service Pensions Collection 1916-1923.

Kathleen O’Connell was born in October 1888 in Caherdaniel, Co Kerry into a family with strong nationalist credentials. She emigrated to the United States in 1904.

O’Connell worked as secretary to the American Delegation of the Gaelic League in New York from 1912. She joined Cumann na mBan in America in 1916 and, shortly afterwards, the Friends of Irish Freedom.

From 1919, O’Connell worked as a secretary to Eamon de Valera and Harry Boland in the US. De Valera visited the United States from June 1919 to December 1920, primarily to raise funds, but also to ask for official recognition of the Irish Republic, to secure a loan to finance the work of the government and the IRA and to secure the support of the American people for the Republic.

O’Connell returned to Ireland in January 1921 to work for de Valera in his capacity as president of the Irish Republic and president of the Irish volunteers. O’Connell’s application only relates to service after 1919.

On June 22nd 1921, O’Connell was arrested, along with de Valera, by British forces, but released soon afterwards. She carried on working for de Valera during the truce period and she states that on June 28th, 1922, following the outbreak of the Civil War and during a period of heavy fighting in Dublin, she carried despatches between a number of anti-Treaty posts there.

O’Connell’s files contain an account of the following exchange:

“Q. I see in your statement, ‘I brought dispatches from Harry Boland to Michael Collins re Thompson guns and other secret matters.’ Is that correct?

A. That is correct”

O’Connell continued to work with de Valera during the Civil War until his arrest in Ennis, Co Clare on August 15th 1923. After that she worked for Sinn Féin TD for north Mayo PJ Rutledge.

In her final salvo to the pensions board O’Connell wrote: “I am sure it is needless to say that practically the whole period from January 1921 to August 1923 was a period of great strain and anxiety.”

According to the archive, the pension was signed off on under the Military Pensions Act, 1934.

The receipt of the following letter in 1945 from the then taoiseach must surely have helped: “Miss O’Connell has read for me her evidence. I agree with it in general.” – Eamon de Valera.

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, Sheila Browne, who applied for a pension for a period of service in that English city from an address in Wales was granted a pension calculated on the basis of almost two years’ service, although she had originally claimed full service from April 1st, 1916 and full and part service until July 11th, 1921.

Browne, who was born in 1887, in Co Cork, had joined Cumann na mBan in 1916 and was captain of the Liverpool branch.

Asked as part of her application about her connections to Sinn Féin, she said she was operating in the Sinn Féin wing. Asked about the links between the two organisations, Browne responded: “I don’t think they understood the women’s activities and they did not think it was a serious thing.” She did point out, however, that “if you had a Sinn Féin ceilidhe (céilí) most of the Cumann na mBan members would come to it.”

According to the files, Browne was involved in a number of activities - drilling, fund-raising and first aid. She also kept arms under her floorboards.

On one occasion in 1919 following a raid in Everton, she took arms and hid them. She was later to bring arms to Cork on the occasion of Terence McSwiney’s funeral. McSwiney was a Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork who died in jail after more than two months on hunger strike.

Browne also says she supplied the paraffin that was used to start fires in Liverpool. Her home was raided twice and she was taken away and imprisoned in November 1920. Charges made over the Liverpool fires did not stick and she was not found guilty, although she was imprisoned for three months until February 1921.

After this, Browne says she was instructed to sever her connection to Cumann na mBan by Liverpool-based IRB member Neil Kerr. This move probably reflected the attention she was now attracting. “After we were released there was one man in particular who shadowed us all the time for months and months,” she said.

For this reason, Browne states in her application to the pensions board that she did not have further service after February 1921, however she did continue her involvement. The precise details of her involvement after this are just a little more obscure.

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