Revolutionary and trade unionist – Brian Maye on Margaret Skinnider

An Irishman’s Diary

Margaret Skinnider: involved in the three great causes of women, labour and Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century

Margaret Skinnider: involved in the three great causes of women, labour and Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century

 

Margaret Skinnider, who died 50 years ago on October 11th, was involved in the three great causes of women, labour and Ireland in the early decades of the 20th century. A teacher by profession, she was active as a revolutionary and trade unionist and was a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights.

She was born in Glasgow in May 1892 to parents who had emigrated from Monaghan. Education was important in the family and she became a primary teacher of maths in the Hillhead area of Glasgow. She campaigned for votes for women as a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union and, inspired by Countess Markievicz (whose socialism she shared), she joined the Glasgow branches of both the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan when they were set up.

When the first World War began, she joined a women’s rifle club, established to train people in preparation for a possible invasion, and became a crack shot. It was ironic that she was trained to defend the British Empire, against which she would soon be fighting.

Before the Easter Rising, she travelled between Glasgow and Dublin, at times smuggling detonators hidden in her hat, which she would then test with Markievicz in the Dublin mountains. She joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army (ICA), participating in raids for arms and drawing detailed maps of Beggars Bush and Portobello army barracks for subsequent use in a rising. Dressed as a boy, she took part in marches of the Fianna Éireann republican boy-scout movement around Dublin.

Tipped off by Markievicz about the imminence of the rising, she returned to Dublin at the beginning of the Easter school holidays. During Easter week, she served with the ICA contingent that occupied Stephen’s Green and the College of Surgeons, under the command of Michael Mallin (with Markievicz as second-in-command). She delivered dispatches by bicycle but also did sniper duty. When Mallin expressed reluctance about having her involved in direct action, she responded (according to herself): “I said we have the same right to risk our lives as the men, that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women and men are equal.”

While attempting to set fire to a building on Harcourt Street to prevent a British sniping-party retreat, she was seriously wounded by gunfire. She was treated in the College of Surgeons and then removed to St Vincent’s Hospital. After the rising, she spent nearly two months in hospital recovering, by far the most badly wounded of the women combatants. She spent a brief period in the Bridewell but was released on medical grounds and managed to make her way back to Glasgow.

Cumann na mBan and the Glasgow Irish Volunteer awarded her the Irish Cross for bravery and while on a propaganda speaking tour in America, she wrote Doing My Bit for Ireland, about her part in the Rising. She returned to Ireland to train recruits and was active in Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence. She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was paymaster-general to the anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War until her arrest and imprisonment in Mountjoy and the North Dublin Union.

She succeeded in getting a teaching post in the Sisters of Charity King’s Inns Street primary school despite being on the anti-government side during the Civil War and worked there until her retirement. Her application for a military pension in 1925 was turned down on the grounds that the relevant Act was interpreted to apply only “to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense”. She was finally granted a pension in 1938.

Very active on behalf of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), she campaigned strongly for equal pay and status for female teachers and served on the union’s executive committee during the prolonged teachers’ strike in 1946 and on the salaries and arbitration committee established afterwards. She helped to secure common incremental salary scales for women and single men, introduced in 1949. On the INTO central executive committee 1949-61, she was the union’s vice-president 1955-56 and president 1956-57. She was very anxious to get rid of the marriage bar for women teachers; it was abolished in 1958. Following her retirement from teaching in 1961, she served on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions executive council for two years and also sat on the committee that advised on the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Easter Rising.

She was unmarried but lived from 1919 for the rest of their lives with Nora O’Keefe, from a Tipperary republican family, whom she met in New York; it was a lesbian relationship according to her biographer, the historian Mary McAuliffe. She died aged 79 and was buried beside Countess Markievicz in the republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery.

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