On the 2nd April 2014, over 100 women gathered in Wynn’s Hotel Dublin at a gathering presided over by Agnes O’Farrelly, Professor of Irish Language at University College Dublin and Ireland’s first female Irish-language novelist. Their purpose was to discuss the role of women in the lead up to revolution and on into the fight for Irish independence. A century later, the key part these women played in the 1916 Easter Rising and beyond is slowly emerging after years in which their names and the organisation they formed (Cumann na mBan, The Irish Women’s Council) has slipped from the pages of history.
The 1916 Easter Rising, commemorated in Ireland throughout this centenary year, was smaller than perhaps History allows: confined to a small uprising in the centre of Dublin and involving fewer than 1500 people. The brutal response of the British military, however, turned it into a seminal moment in Irish history, signalling, for nationalists, the re-birth of the Irish nation and setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to Irish independence.
The centenary has been controversial, with many questioning whether the history of this period remains too raw to bear the weight of celebration. For the historian, however, the release of archive material in the run up to 2016, including the Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC) with nearly 300,000 files from veterans of 1916-23, has been a positive outcome. These archives shed new light on many of the participants in the independence struggle and particularly on the very active military role played by Cumann na mBan members.
The leaders of the Rising may all have been male but the inclusive intent of the new Ireland was clear in the language of the 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic which was addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” and guaranteed “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. These sentences carry considerable weight given that women in most of the world could not even vote. On 23rd April 1916, the Cumann na mBan, whose constitution explicitly referenced the use of arms, was included with the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army into the Army of the Irish Republic. By the end of 24th April, women were actively engaged with the Rising at all bar two of Dublin’s major rebel strongholds.
Who were these women? The most well-known is probably Countess Constance Markievicz (pictured on the right), second in command at the St. Stephen’s Green outpost and the first woman elected to the House of Commons (although as a Sinn Fein member she did not take her seat). She made her way into the history books; 200 others who fought just as passionately for nationalism and social justice barely merit a line. Women such as Mary Spring Rice and Molly Childers who worked as part of the gun-running crew on board the Asgard yacht; Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell who were among the last to leave the besieged GPO building; Rose McNamara, officer in command of the female battalion at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery, who marched her troops to the British garrison at the surrender although they could all have evaded arrest on account of gender; volunteer Margaretta Keogh who was shot dead outside the South Dublin Union.
These women served as scouts, snipers, despatch riders and soldiers next to the men and were praised by Padraig Pearse (one of the 6 leaders) for their “bravery, heroism and devotion in the face of danger.” Many continued the fight for independence after 1916: 500 members of Cumann na mBan were imprisoned during the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and they were particular targets for brutality by the Black and Tans.
The heroes of the Easter Rising are widely remembered in Dublin – 16 have a railway station named after them – but the women have been largely forgotten. Part of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Eamon de Valera. His 1937 Irish Constitution wiped away the memory of the women who fought for the independent Ireland he shaped and put women firmly out of the public arena. As though the progressive language of the 1916 Proclamation had never been uttered, Article 41 of his Constitution reads “by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” It is no coincidence that Valera was the only leader in 1916 who refused to have women at his Dublin outpost.
The controversy over 1916 and how it should be remembered will continue. It cannot be denied, however, that looking back to Ireland’s past has helped bring back into the light women who stood shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades on the front line and deserve their place in history. The centenary year has funded a number of projects concerned with rediscovering the women of the revolution – the Richmond Barracks project and the associated book about the 77 women interred there, by historians Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, is a fascinating source for anyone wanting to explore the topic further.
In 1917, Ireland’s foremost suffragist, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, an active participant in the Rising whose husband was killed during the fighting, told audiences on a speaking tour that “it is the only instance I know of in history when men fighting for freedom voluntarily included women.”
Whatever side of the debate you are on about the centenary itself, that is surely something worth commemorating.
They stand for the honour of Ireland
As sisters in days that are gone,
And they’ll march with their brothers to freedom
The soldiers of Cumann na mBan
(The Soldiers of Cumann Na mBan, Brian O’Higgins, 1916)
Catherine Hokin is a Glasgow-based author with a degree in History from Manchester University. Her debut novel, Blood and Roses, was published in 2016. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history and popular culture.