It’s rare that a woman can juggle an immense amount of political power, a restaurant of her own and a family of four children. But Jennie Wyse Power did all this and more, at a time when most women weren’t even getting an education. She was an Irish superwoman and an unapologetic suffragist who passed away on this day in 1941.
Miss Jane “Jennie” O’Toole was born in 1858 and was lucky enough to receive an education when she was a young girl, a feat that was not at all common for some women of that day. She was smart as a whip and soft-spoken growing up but once she entered adulthood, she didn’t stay quiet for long. Jennie entered the realm of politics and rebellion until her early twenties and once she began, she just didn’t stop. Near the turn of the century, finding a group, league, organization, or movement that Jennie didn’t belong to or create would have been a difficult feat. She was a staunch suffragist, a Nationalist, and a woman who wanted to change the world. She had powerful friends—from Anna and Charles Parnell to Constance Markievicz, Arthur Griffith, and Maud Gonne and between them all it’s pretty safe to say that Ireland was forever changed. Jennie’s political career all began with the Land League, where she also met the man she would marry.
John Wyse Power was involved in many other political organizations too and he and his new wife became a Home Rule powerhouse couple full of Nationalist fervor. They were close confidantes and followers of political leader Charles Parnell, so close that they named their first child after him. When scandal eventually unseated Parnell, the Wyse Powers withdrew from politics themselves—brokenhearted, angry, and disillusioned with the whole political process. Jennie opened a tea shop and restaurant in Dublin and went about conquering her business. They remained politically quiet for a time focusing on the business and their four children, although they always knew what was being planned, given the highly-positioned rebels they called friends. Jennie continued working in the women’s equality movement while she ran her business but it wasn’t until years after Parnell’s death that she re-entered the greater political arena by compiling “Words of the Dead Chief”, a book of excerpts from Parnell’s greatest speeches. Soon the Wyse Powers became involved in many secret political organizations again – John was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Jennie became one of the ruling members of Inghinidhe na hEireann, Ireland’s premier female Nationalist group. Later she could add being the first President of Cumann Na mBan and a founding member and Vice President of Sinn Fein to her resume as well. She accomplished all this while managing her own business, tending to many children, and being the head of a bustling household. Jennie Wyse Power was a tour de force.
Her restaurant was very popular and convenient with the rebel crowd, as was her home. Before the Easter Rising began in 1916, its leaders used her house to gather, write, and sign their Proclamation of Independence. The night before the uprising started, Constance Markievicz spent the night at Jennie’s house, in order to ensure that the police could not arrest her in her own home before she joined the fight. Jennie wasn’t a fighter but she supplied some food to the insurgents during the Rising and when she returned home she found that it had been set on fire during the conflict. She did not let the loss of her house slow her down. As soon as the Rising was over, she and her daughter Nancy quickly joined Kathleen Clarke in her mission to support the families of those who had died in the Rising. A tiny room in her restaurant served as a meeting place and favorite haunt of the Irish Volunteers in the months and years after the battle, since her house was no longer available.
Historically, fighters and rebel groups do not look kindly upon those who walk away from them. No matter what they had done to further the cause before they decided to leave, all that matters is that they left. This may be why Jennie Wyse Power is absent from many of the Republican honor rolls. This formidable woman who had been involved in so many organizations that furthered the Irish cause, found herself on the unpopular side of the Anglo-Irish treaty and the resulting civil war when it came to her Nationalist friends. She had always been a Home Rule supporter so it was no shock that she supported the treaty which would essentially give Ireland that limited freedom but when she tried to convince her rebel friends to accept it as well, it did not work. Jennie was quickly ostracized.
She was replaced by her good friend Constance Markievicz as the President of Cumann Na mBan and as a group, they refused to support the treaty, thus forcing Jennie out. She founded Cumann na Saoirse, a women’s group that was less militant who supported the Irish free state. She went on to become an appointed member of the Seanad Eireann, (the upper house of Parliament in Ireland) a position she held for many years, leaving her militant past behind. She even publicly doubted the stories of abuse that her former friends and current female prisoners were reporting. This was a peculiar response for someone who had been such a suffragist and good friend to the women who claimed they were being abused, and it was somewhat unforgivable. Her rise to power in the Free State cost her the friendships that she used to cherish and while she was comfortable in her position, the inequality of women persisted in the new government that she was part of. In 1935 she did align herself once more with Kathleen Clarke and fought against the Conditions of Employment Bill, a bill that allowed for serious discrimination against women to continue. Both women were able to put aside their differences to fight against the bill, but they were never as close as they had been again.
In spite of the rift she had with those she once called confidantes, when Jennie Wyse Power passed away on this date in 1941, her death was mourned by those on both sides of the political arena in Ireland. Her funeral was attended by Free State supporters and by the militant Republicans who had been her political adversaries for the last 20 years of her life. A plaque marks the spot where her home stood in modern day Dublin, commemorating the signing of the Proclamation that took place there. Jennie Wyse Power was a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to family, activism, and politics – of that there can be no doubt. She rests in Glasnevin Cemetery with her husband and family not far from the Republican plot where many of her old friends are remembered.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis