On the 14th of March 2015, the Seán Heuston 1916 Society Dublin held their monthly educational lecture and were privileged to host a talk by author Liz Gillis on Women of the Irish Revolution. Liz’s talk focused mainly on the characters and organisations largely overlooked by mainstream Irish educational discourse.
Guests were introduced to an organisation set up by Maud Gonne, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), and their role in promoting all things Irish in the early years of the 20th century – from art, music and language, to economic policies like buying Irish produced goods. They also paved the way for the introduction of radical ideas about equality and revolution to the youth of Dublin, before groups like Sinn Fein, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Volunteers had even came into existence.
We were then brought forward to 1914 and the Howth gunrunning. Two women were central to this plan; Mary Spring Rice, who had the original idea for the arms importation, in response to the UVF landing guns in Larne in 1912 to oppose Home Rule (Mary also raised over £2,000, a monumental sum for the day and socio-economic position of the people who would have been contributing), and also on board the Asgard was Molly Childers, wife of Erskine and an accomplished helms-women in her own right.
With the founding of Cumann na mBan in 1914 there was a noticeable increase in the presence of female radicals on the streets around Ireland and this organisation played a central role in the funerals of the Bachelors Walk massacre and the iconic burial of O’Donovan Rossa.
When the rebellion of 1916 began, several women held prominent position in the Irish Citizens Army and also carried out important duties on behalf of Cumann na mBan on the streets of Dublin under martial law – smuggling messages, weapons and risking being shot where they stood. The female revolutionaries also saw action in the GPO and other rebel garrisons across the city, except Bolands Mill as the misogynist Eamon DeValera saw women only fit for cooking and washing.
Of the many women who took part in the Rising some names a very recognisable to those with an interest in this period; Countess Markievicz, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Bridget Davis, Madeleine French Mullen, Helena Molony, Winifred Carney were amongst the many who risked their lives during Easter Week. Margaret Skinnider from Glasgow travelled over from Scotland with a cache of detonators and using her training as a markswoman managed to snipe a number of enemy soldiers during combat. Margaret was severely wounded, taking a bullet to the spleen. She survived and made a full recovery.
Following the Rising the women Volunteers were held in the vicinity of their male comrades in Kilmainham Gaol and all would have heard the 14 separate crashes of rifle-fire that marked the killing of the leaders, who were executed in Kilmainham. This served only to reaffirm their dedication to the struggle for freedom, the sight of the inside of an imperialist prison would do little to deter their dedication.
Women like Kathleen Clarke, wife of Tom, were the main driving force behind reorganising the struggle while the leaders were dumped into shallow lime pits or imprisoned in Frongoch internment camp.
In the run up to the resoundingly successful 1918 General Election, that essentially mandated the 1916 Proclamation and led to the creation of the First Dail, the women of Cumann na mBan played a key role in canvassing, educating people on how to vote and providing transport for elderly citizens to polling stations.
When the War of Independence broke out in 1919, again the female revolutionaries played a key role in gathering intelligence, communications, gun running and providing logistical support to the rural Flying Columns and urban Active Service Units of the IRA.
In this lecture Liz covered many narratives and key female figures of the Tan/RIC War years and without spoiling her hard work we would encourage the reader to invest in her brilliant book, ‘Women of the Irish Revolution’ (published by Mercier Press).
Liz has a number of books published which can be bought at.
One of her books on the Civil War / counter-revolution called The Fall of Dublin will be the subject of a lecture that the Seán Heuston Society will facilitate later in 2015. All historical talks organised by the Dublin Society are free to the public and family friendly. Feel free to join us on the next occasion.
Liz’s talk can be viewed here.