Jenny Wyse-Power. Elizabeth O’Farrell. Stasia Twomey. Mary Colum. Mary MacSwiney. Nora Connolly O’Brien. Dr Dorothy Stopford Price. Dr Ada English. Kathleen Clarke. Dr Brigid Lyons Thornton. Ring any bells? Hint: We’re talking Irish history here.
A few of those names are probably more recognizable than others - Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly; Kathleen Clarke, wife of Tom Clarke. In the main, however, and despite their extraordinary lives, these women’s stories were to a large extent left untold.
We recently passed the 100 year anniversary of the foundation of Cumann na mBan, the organisation formed by Irish women to further the cause of Irish liberty in 1914. It wasn’t the first time women had come together to discuss their ideas and get involved in events that have now become pivotal historical moments, but Cumann na mBan is perhaps the most well known of those groups.
(Cumann na mBan convention, photo courtesy of the Military Archives)
That’s not saying much, considering the number of people I have met who had no idea of the extent of what these women did for Ireland and Irish society at a time of terror, violence and unrest.
When I heard about the Centenary events, I was almost giddy with excitement at the chance to work on something that’s been a passion of mine for years. There was a full State commemoration ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery attended by the President, a plaque was unveiled at Wynn’s hotel in Dublin to mark the first meeting of the organisation, and a two day conference was held by the Women’s History Association of Ireland.
Requesting and receiving the images in this post and more from the Military Archives and Kilmainham Gaol Museum made my week and I couldn’t stop examining them, imagining myself in them. What must it have been like for these women? Thrilling? Terrifying? Or was it just an essential part of life for them?
Friends and family members have sighed and rolled their eyes as they realised I was off on one about “the wimmin” again.
Seriously though, this shouldn’t be a niche interest - these women contributed to the formation of our state just as much as the next volunteer did, some of them more so. Anyone with an interest in Irish history should also have an interest in them.
Being a bit of a history nerd and a feminist, I’ve always been fascinated by their stories. I’ve read several books on the women who took part in the numerous rebellions this island has seen - among them Sinéad McCoole’s excellent No Ordinary Women, or A Noontide Blazing by John Colwell, if anyone’s looking for recommendations - and I’m in awe of their bravery.
(Cumann na mBan members, “Mrs Ceannt, Miss Ffrench Mullen and Madam Markievicz”, photo courtesy of the Military Archives)
Women have often been just a footnote in the history of the struggle for independence, despite the fact that hundreds played a part in the 1916 Rising, and the War of Independence. There were women fighting on both sides of the Civil War, and throughout these years, across the country, women were providing safe houses, treating wounded fighters and risking their lives carrying messages between rebel groups (one carried messages in her plaited hair).
As Mary McAuliffe, President of the Women’s History Association of Ireland, tells me in the video, women were at the frontline, and “they experienced that violence directly”. For women, expected to keep family homes together when everything was crumbling around them, there was no option to go on the run or into hiding. In a way what they did was braver than the men’s exploits. On top of that, they faced social backlash in the form of society’s disapproval of their actions. It wasn’t considered very ladylike to bear arms (and still isn’t…) and joining a secret organisation and learning to shoot a gun went against all of society’s expectations.
Many of the women had family who were involved in the fighting, brothers or husbands or fathers.
Countess Markievicz is about the only one of their number whose name found an unquestionable place in history. Hundreds, maybe thousands more simply faded into the background again once the war was over, never uttering a word about what they did. It wasn’t until historians and writers took a particular interest in them that their stories began to emerge. If you have the time and interest, delving into this forgotten corner of Irish history is pretty fascinating, and highly recommended. Watch the video for a taster!