Women were among the chief sufferers in the ensuing conflict

The leaders could not have anticipated the treatment of their widows in later years at the hands of their countrymen, writes …

The leaders could not have anticipated the treatment of their widows in later years at the hands of their countrymen, writes Sinéad McCoole.

In 1916 a small group of men, intellectuals, teachers, writers, poets and workers, led a rebellion against one of the greatest empires the world had ever known.

Of the 15 men executed there were seven widows: Kathleen Clarke, the wife of Tom Clarke; Áine Ceannt, the wife of Éamonn Ceannt; Lily Connolly, the wife of James Connolly; Agnes Mallin, wife of Michael Mallin; Muriel MacDonagh, the wife of Thomas MacDonagh; Grace Gifford, who was married and widowed in one day; and Maud Gonne, whose experience was different from the other widows as she had been estranged from Major John MacBride. His execution enabled her return to Ireland with their son Seán, ending years of self-imposed exile in France.

In the aftermath of the Rising these women's status as widows was used for propaganda purposes. The story of the midnight marriage before execution was reported in international newspapers, and in the patriotic tradition ballads were composed. At Christmas 1916 the Catholic Bulletin published images of the leaders' families. Viewing those images now, the most striking feature is the youth of the children. Such imagery was a major factor in gradually turning public opinion from hostility to sympathy.


Three of the widows - Kathleen Clarke, Áine Ceannt, Grace Plunkett - became important figures after 1916. The IRB had entrusted Kathleen Clarke with the names of the key men throughout the country. She was chosen on her own merit, not because she was Tom Clarke's wife. She had been asked to oversee the providing of support for the families of men if the fighting lasted a number of months. Immediately after the executions, she set about establishing a fund to support the families of the 78 Volunteers who lost their lives and the 2,000 internees. According to the reports of the Irish Volunteer Dependants' Fund (IVDP) this affected the means of 10,000 people. Crucially, Kathleen Clarke appointed Michael Collins as secretary of the IVDP when he was released from Frongoch; in this position he built up a network which would be vital during the War of Independence.

The British authorities never gave Muriel MacDonagh official notice of her husband's execution. She discovered his fate in an evening newspaper. The last time she saw him was on Easter Sunday, and she later recalled his last words to her were simply: "I may or may not see you tomorrow." He did not say anything about the revolution. She never saw him again. At midnight on May 2nd, 1916, Thomas MacDonagh wrote to her from his prison cell in Kilmainham Gaol: "I am ready to die. For myself I have no regret. My dearest love, Muriel . . . I have only one trouble in leaving life - leaving you so. Be brave, darling. But for your suffering this would be all joy and glory."

Muriel was drowned off the coast of Skerries the following summer. She had a history of nervous breakdowns prior to her husband's death and as a result many suspected she had committed suicide. Her son Donagh was aged four and daughter Barbara just two. At the time of his mother's death Donagh was in hospital. He remembered a nurse took him to look out the window to watch horses with black plumes passing down the road.

It was only years later that he realised he had witnessed his mother's funeral cortege.

During the War of Independence the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries raided the homes of the widows and their families, but later during the Civil War their own people treated them more brutally. Soldiers of the Irish Free State Army singled them out for attack because they represented "the Republic". All the widows had rejected the Treaty, which gave Ireland limited self-government and not the Republic their husbands fought and died for.

Kathleen Clarke, Maud Gonne MacBride, Grace Plunkett were among the 12,000 republicans imprisoned by the Free State. Áine Ceannt described how men with blackened faces invaded her house on numerous occasions smashed windows, ate the food and maliciously destroyed furniture and belongings. These raiders stole items that had once belonged to Éamonn Ceannt, destroying his wife's few keepsakes. She wrote: "All the etchings of the seven signatories were torn down and torn to pieces, in fact anything pertaining to that period was particularly mutilated. However, we are still alive."

For Agnes Mallin her agony was to be told her eldest son Séamus was to be shot by his fellow countrymen, until in an act of mercy his name was removed from the execution list. When released from prison, he left Ireland and his mother never saw him again. Exacerbated by over-work, at times working at two jobs to support her family, Agnes Mallin contracted TB. Even when the Free State was established and pensions were given to the widows, Agnes Mallin was given a reduced sum as her husband had not been a member of the Military Council and had not signed the Proclamation of Independence.

Áine Ceannt and Kathleen Clarke remained in public life until old age. Kathleen became the first female lord mayor of Dublin. Maud Gonne MacBride also remained a lifelong activist working on behalf of women, in particular those who remained republican. Her group, which sought justice for those who opposed the Free State, was officially known as the Women's Prisoners' Defence League but became known affectionately as "The Mothers".

As evidenced by their last letters, the 1916 leaders went to their death aware of the difficulties they were presenting their wives and children left without financial support, but they could never anticipate what happened to those women in the years of conflict that followed. Maura Mallin never met her father - she was born three months after his execution. There were protests outside the hospital from those who had opposed the Rising. From the moment she was born the past shaped her future.

Yet when she died last year no political party or public representative attended her funeral. She once told me that she believed her mother was the heroic one, as she had to live on with all the suffering that the Rising brought to her and her family.

The leaders could never have foreseen that their own country men and women, in the name of Ireland, would attack their wives. There was no fanfare in the Free State for the widows. Some of the women lived to see the Republic declared in 1949, but it was not the Ireland that had been hoped for in 1916. They saw the country divided, they witnessed Éamon de Valera intern and shoot his former comrades in the IRA. The ideals enshrined in the Proclamation of a land of equal opportunities did not apply to those women.

Sinéad McCoole is working on Easter Widows, The untold Story of the Wives of the 1916 Leaders - the third volume in a trilogy on women activists, 1900-23.

Tomorrow: Paul Bew on why the Rising condemned the Republic to half a century of material failure.