52 years ago today, Ireland lost an incredible feminist voice. Few women have ever managed to juggle being an activist, a rebel, a suffragist, a wife, a prisoner, a judge, a volunteer, a commanding officer, a hunger striker, an author, and the President of a political party, especially during a time when most women were dismissed and ignored. In fact, only one comes to mind.
Margaret Buckley (née Goulding) was an unrepentant suffragist and Republican woman who began her long and lustrous career of activism and politics as the president of the Cork chapter of Inghinidhe na hEireann, before the organization merged with Cumann Na mBan. Later as a married woman, she became a prominent organizer of the Irish Women’s Workers Union and eventually returned to her role as President, but the next time she did it as the head of a newly revamped Sinn Fein.
Between her two presidencies, she was arrested in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising and jailed. When she was released under amnesty in 1917 she led a quieter life for about 3 years while she cared for her dying father. After his death she returned to Dublin and became a Dáil Éireann Court judge. She was tossed into the clink again for rejecting the Anglo-Irish treaty where she became the OC of the female republican prisoners in Mountjoy prison. She took care of the other Republican women and always had the courage to speak out on their behalf. While imprisoned she went on hunger strike to protest their treatment and the conditions they were forced into at the prison.
Upon her release in 1923, she became an active member of the Women Prisoner’s Defence League, founded by Maud Gonne and a member of Sinn Fein, as well as a lot of other organizations. Eventually, Sinn Fein named her as President, thus making her the first female leader of an Irish political party at that time. As leader and as a woman, she opposed many edicts that Eamon De Valera was putting forth. She remained a fiery suffragist and when she was heckled at a meeting regarding the Constitution he was formulating, she retorted with “If I were dealing with the Constitution, I would have something to say about De Valera’s treating the women of this country as half-wits“. To publicly display her discontent, on the day his constitution went into effect she flew a black flag over the head office in protest.
While she was the head of Sinn Fein, she also somehow found time to become an author. In 1939 she published a book called “The Jangle of the Keys” which was an account of how she and other Irish Republican women were treated in prison and it was surprisingly not just an angry or bitter rant. A few years later she published her own Short History of Sinn Fein. All this while leading a political party and mending fences between that party and the IRA. When she took office, the two had severed their long and contentious ties and several attempts to improve communications between the two failed. By the time she stepped down in 1950, the relationship had been revived. Sinn Fein made her an honorary VP when she retired and it was a title she held for the rest of her life.
She died in her early 80s on July 24th, 1962. She packed so many things into those 83 or so years that it’s difficult to imagine her as a mere human. Most of us could never come close to accomplishing even half of what she did in her life. She was an amazing woman, a capable leader, a true patriot and a formidable opponent.
She is buried in St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.