The forgotten role of women insurgents in the 1916 Rising

 

The debate surrounding the 90th anniversary of 1916 tends to forget about one important group of participants - women. Tom Clonan examines the role of women in the rising

Contemporary accounts suggest that up to 90 women took part in the rebellion of Easter 1916 in Dublin. Sixty or so were members of Cumann na mBan (the League of Women), formed in 1914 by a group of women who attended the inaugural meeting the previous November of the Irish Volunteers.

The constitution of Cumann na mBan contained explicit references to the use of force by arms against crown forces in Ireland. Under its constitution, the primary aim of the organisation was to "advance the cause of Irish liberty" and "teach its members first aid, drill, signalling and rifle practice in order to aid the men of Ireland".

Weapons training became an integral part of Cumann na mBan's core activities. For example, in addition to the rifle training mentioned in their constitution, documents held at Military Archives in Dublin show Cumann na mBan members including a Lily O'Connor to have been "highly proficient" in the use of a wide range of weapons including Webley, Colt and Smith and Wesson revolvers.

On the day of the Rising, 40 such women - including Winifred Carney who arrived armed with both a Webley revolver and a typewriter - entered the General Post Office on O'Connell Street in Dublin with their male counterparts. By nightfall, women insurgents were established in all of the major rebel strongholds throughout the city - bar one. Éamon de Valera, located in Boland's Mill had no women under his command.

According to some sources, de Valera steadfastly refused, in defiance of the orders of Pearse and Connolly, to allow women fighters into the Boland's Mill garrison. One Cumann na mBan member who fought in the Rising, Sighle Bean Uí Donnachadha later remarked: "De Valera refused absolutely to have Cumann na mBan girls in the posts. The result, I believe, was that the garrison there did not stand up to the siege as well as in other posts."

The women in the rebel garrisons fought alongside the men and were not confined - as is commonly believed - to nursing duties or other tasks traditionally assigned to women such as making tea and sandwiches for the fighting men.

Constance Markiewicz for example - armed with a pistol - during the opening phase of the hostilities shot a policeman in the head near St Stephen's Green. Later, Markiewicz along with other female fighters - after a day of carrying out sniper attacks on British troops in the city centre - demanded that they be allowed to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel. Their superior officer, Michael Malinn, refused on the grounds that the risks to the women were "too great".

According to contemporary accounts, Markiewicz's indignant reply was that the 1916 Proclamation, the rebels' declaration of their beliefs and intentions, stated that women were equal and that they had the same right to risk their lives as the men. Mallin relented and a number of women were shot en route to the Shelbourne.

In a related incident, volunteer Margaretta Keogh was shot dead outside the South Dublin Union.

Margaret Skinnider, a Glasgow schoolteacher who had heard about the rising through suffragette contacts travelled to Ireland during her Easter holidays to join the armed struggle on the basis that it promised equal voting rights for women - a revolutionary idea at the time.

She arrived - miraculously - by bicycle and managed to join the garrison at the Royal College of Surgeons on St Stephen's Green. Later, on being shot and captured by British troops near Harcourt Street, she was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the military authorities.

Later, while on hunger strike her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She was subsequently released and returned to Scotland to write a memoir of her activities entitled Doing My Bit For Ireland.

Another sizeable contingent of women, mostly members of the Irish Citizens Army, also fought during the rising.

The Irish Citizens Army expressly committed its female members to combat during the insurrection and women from this organisation played a vital role in a failed attack on Dublin Castle - from the rebel's point of view, the most potent symbol of British occupation and oppression.

Under the command of Seán Connolly, a contingent of 10 men and nine women - armed with revolvers - launched an attack on the gates of the castle.

Failing to gain entry, they fell back and occupied City Hall just beside it. Later, the rebel garrison at City Hall under the command of Kathleen Lynn - the only officer present - surrendered to the British. At first, the British refused to take the surrender from a woman and seemed at odds as to what to do with the women they encountered in the various garrisons throughout the city.

Initially, the British military authorities simply asked the women to "go home". They refused.

Many, like Kathleen Lynn, were sentenced to death. Those sentenced to death went on hunger strike and succeeded in having their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Eventually, they were released.

Lynn - the first female medical doctor to be elected a resident doctor to the Adelaide Hospital - subsequently went on to found St Ultan's Hospital in Dublin's city centre where she initiated Ireland's first immunisation programme for children.

As the rising ground to a halt under a ferocious British onslaught, women all over the city surrendered with their male counterparts.

In the GPO, Pearse selected Elizabeth Farrell to present the surrender to the British authorities.

Rose McNamara, the officer in command of the female detachment at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery presented the surrender of herself and 20 other women to the British. According to an account of that surrender: "The women of the garrison could have evaded arrest but they marched down four deep in uniform along with the men. An attempt was made to get them to sign a statement recanting their stand but this failed.

"Miss McNamara who led the contingent went to the British OC [ the officer commanding] and explained they were part of the rebel contingent and were surrendering with the rest."

In the years that followed, women played a high profile role in the emerging Irish Free State. Six women were elected to the first Dáil of May 1921. Forty three women were also returned to borough and district councils.

Kathleen Clarke, the first female lord mayor of Dublin was elected in this period. Women also served as judges in the Sinn Féin courts between 1919 and 1921. All of these developments for women - revolutionary when compared with the lot of women elsewhere in Europe at the time - were consistent with the renewed and newly stated aims of Cumann na mBan.

In 1921, the organisation reiterated at its annual convention that its primary aim was: "To follow the policy of the Republican Proclamation by seeing that women take up their proper position in the life of the nation."

In the same year, negotiations in London between an Irish delegation led by Arthur Griffith, the founder and head of Sinn Féin, and Michael Collins, minister for finance in the government established by the first Dáil in 1919 and head of the IRA, and the British government headed by prime minister David Lloyd George, led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which delivered Irish independence but at a price: six counties in Ulster would, as Northern Ireland, remain part of the United Kingdom because a majority there wanted nothing to do with the Irish Free State, as the South was to be known.

The Treaty was supported strongly by Griffith and Collins, and ratified by the Dáil, but was rejected by Éamon de Valera. In the ensuing civil war, Cumann na mBan also took the anti-Treaty side.

The role of the women drew particular criticism at the time. A London newspaper, The Sunday Graphic published an article headlined "Irish Gunwoman Menace" which described them as "trigger happy harpies". Underscoring the conservative years to come, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland issued a pastoral letter in October 1922 urging all women to desist from revolutionary activities.

The government of the Free State banned Cumann na mBan in January 1923 and opened up Kilmainham Gaol as a detention prison for suspect women.

Minutes of the executive council of the Senate and Army Intelligence reports of the period - held at Military Archives - identify female dissidents at the time as a primary threat to the security of the state.

The then minister for home affairs, Kevin O'Higgins, described the female dissidents as "hysterical young women who ought to be playing five fingered exercises or helping their mothers with the brasses".

Slowly but surely, the women were deterred from continuing in their dissident activities as greater numbers were arrested and interned.

Some remained defiant, however. In 1922, Máire Comerford found herself inside the Four Courts which was being shelled by the newly formed Free State Army. She later recounted the manner in which "the building was shelled through and enveloped in flames. It was time for all of us to leave or surrender. I rode off through the smoke and the ruined buildings on my bicycle. I had stayed almost to the end and had cheated the enemy".

Comerford was subsequently arrested for her part in a plot to kidnap the then taoiseach, W T Cosgrave. She was shot and wounded while trying to escape. She resorted to hunger strike and was eventually released.

A final handful of women continued to fight. Armed with a revolver an Eithne Coyle held up the evening train at Creeslough and set fire to all of the newspapers on board.

For a month she continued hijacking and burning trains.

In order to facilitate these activities, Cumann na mBan operated city-wide creches to release women for active duty.

In documents held at Military Archives in Dublin, a Free State army officer describes raiding a "baby club" at 21 Werburgh Street where "seditious" papers were seized.

Other papers seized by the military authorities at the time reveal a great deal about the wider military activities of female volunteers.

One letter from the intelligence department of the IRA - 1st Northern Division - to female "Operative No 23" states: "Girls can get any amount of information from most men. Get them going. Don't think there is anything ignoble about army intelligence work. There is not - decidedly not. No army can move an inch or win the slightest victory without it. Help us move miles. Help us win victories. Realise your own importance - we realize it and rely on you."

However, as the 1920s wore on, the role that women played in the political life of the nation steadily waned.

The mythology of 1916 that became central to the emerging identity of the State contained little or no reference to the activities of the women who participated in the rising.

Their contribution remains largely unrecognised in the debate today on the legacy of 1916.