Women at war: the jobs they did

From monitoring telephone calls to stealing and hiding guns, women were in the thick of it

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

 

Margaret Pendy

Awarded a pension for one and three-quarter years’ service from April 1st, 1919, to July 11th, 1921, Margaret Pendy was typical of the women who contributed to Irish independence.

A telephonist at the Tralee exchange, she was advised by Austin Stack not to join Cumann na mBan as her help would be much more useful if she stayed outside the organisation.

As a telephone operator, Pendy would listen to conversations between the military and the police in Tralee and pass on relevant information to intelligence officer John O’Sullivan.

She would also copy telegrams telephoned by “Crown forces”, and pass them on.

According to the files, Pendy “rendered very valuable and special service by maintaining contact and transmitting to the local intelligence unit of the IRA and the brigade every scrap of information concerning the activities and movements of the British military and police”.

Pendy would also aid IRA communication between volunteers. It was noted that the IRA had tapped the entire telephone system on the Tralee-Dingle railway and it was her duty to plug them in whenever they wanted to talk. A number in the Tralee public exchange was reserved for this purpose.

Hana Blaney

Blaney was awarded a pension for “two and one-sixth years” of service in 1941.

According to her statement, she had joined Cumann na mBan in 1918 and was appointed secretary of the Rossnakill, Co Donegal, branch. Her husband was “Battalion OC” and their house was used for meetings. Hana Blaney also states that the house was used as a “dump” for revolvers, rifles and ammunition, which she would hand out.

In addition to the firearms, she also provided food for visiting combatants.

In 1920 she went to Scotland for three months because of ill-health, and her service was interrupted. However, in 1920 she returned from Glasgow with her husband and they went to Strabane, bringing with them a “parcel of arms”.

During the Civil War, she continued to host meetings in her home, and carried on providing food and handling dispatches. Free State Forces found and seized the arms dump, however.

Agnes McCarthy

Draper’s assistant Agnes McCarthy, from Main Street, Cork, was awarded a pension for service between April 1918 and March 1923. Her brother Florrie O’Donoghue wrote to the pensions board on her behalf and, although he acknowledged that he was “reluctant to make a statement in this case because the applicant is my sister”, he said that he was the only one aware of the full nature of her service.

From the time O’Donoghue was appointed brigade adjutant in Cork in 1918, Agnes McCarthy kept all of his papers.

She also looked after his “revolvers and grenades” when he was not carrying them himself. She also carried messages and dispatches between brigade staff and kept a lookout for them during their meetings.

Her brother indicates that the volume and frequency of her work increased dramatically in 1919 and included handling intelligence reports.

Agnes married after the truce. Her house was raided several times and her husband was imprisoned in Cork gaol. McCarthy is recorded as suffering from ill-health after the birth of her child and the death of her husband.

In a letter on her military pensions file, a Mr D O’Donovan writes: “Without question she deserves a pension. I remember making a box for an explosive charge in her kitchen one night . . . I can’t remember where it was for.”

Amelia Wilmott

A member of Cumann na mBan, Amelia Wilmott, from Listowel, Co Kerry, was granted a pension for her service between April 1920 and July 1921, although she claimed full service from April 1919 to September 1923 and appealed the award.

Wilmott worked in Abbeydorney RIC barracks from 1919 to 1920 as a housekeeper and cook. She gathered information and helped to procure arms and ammunition.

In January 1921 she moved to Listowel barracks, where her duties were similar (officially and unofficially). Around June 4th, 1921, Wilmott stole a Webley revolver from a “drunken Tan” and sent it out to column commander Denis Quille.

Wilmott did come under suspicion, but Quille thought up the cunning ruse of sending her threatening letters from the IRA. These brought her so far back in favour with the Tans that they supplied Wilmott with a bodyguard each night to take her home.

Wilmott continued to supply Quille with ammunition. He wrote in 1935 to support her pension application. He states that, “at dreadful risk to herself”, she sent him “revolvers and ammunition which she had stolen from the Black and Tans”.

Wilmott was dismissed from her job in the barracks in September 1921.