Today in honor of Ms. Helena Molony’s birthday, I give you the bit I wrote about her in my new book; Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition. She was a pretty awesome lady, and one of many that I celebrate in the first section of the book. I hope it tempts your curiosity about the rest of them too. If it does, the book is available worldwide through Amazon and nationally through Barnes and Noble, other bookstores, Amazon, and Blurb. Enjoy!!
At the turn of the 20th century in and around Dublin, the number of women who were breaking molds and changing lives was staggering. It’s astounding that they didn’t take over the world and it’s unforgivable that they aren’t as well known as the other leaders of the era. Helena Molony was one of those women and she is one of the most under-appreciated revolutionaries of all time.
Helena was about twenty when she was inspired by a Nationalist speech given by Maud Gonne. Maud was a powerful orator and a fiery suffragist who nurtured Helena’s growing dedication to Republicanism and the two became life long friends. Together they became integral members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Ireland’s first female Nationalist organization. By 1908, Helena had founded the only women’s political newspaper; Bean na hÉireann, whose expressed aim was “to be a women’s paper, advocating militancy, Irish separatism and feminism.“ It has been described as the women’s paper that all the men would secretly read. It included everything from weapons advice to cooking recipes and sewing tips. Helena also introduced both Kathleen Lynn and Constance Markievicz to Nationalism and the Republican cause. It’s hard to imagine the Easter Rising or Irish history in general without those women, but it could have played out that way if not for the persuasive determination of Helena Molony.
Once Helena gave herself to a cause, she never wavered. She threw herself head first into Republicanism. She learned how to handle weapons and recommended that all women learn how to shoot. She kept many revolvers in her house, including one that was always hidden under her pillow. Helena started a campaign to keep Irish girls away from British soldiers and she offered her home as a safe house on many occasions. Na Fianna Éireann’s Dublin chapter, a scouting program championed by Constance Markievicz, was founded in Helena’s home. In Molony’s spare time she acted on the stages in Dublin and took donations to feed children. She opened schools in the slums where no one else would and she helped gather support for families of prisoners. Molony eventually became the Secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers Union, and she worked closely with revolutionary leader James Connolly on many projects. She once helped him protect Liberty Hall by holding the police at gunpoint when they tried to raid without a warrant. Helena was a warrior and a truly capable woman.
It should come as no surprise to learn that Helena was one of the women who fought in the Easter Rising. When her company’s position fell to the English, she was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. A few hours later when they went to question her, they found her cradling her bloody fingers, and the lock was half off the door. She was then moved to Kilmainham Gaol, where she again tried to escape by digging a tunnel through the thick stone walls with a tiny iron spoon. The attempt was not successful. One might think that Molony would want to destroy that jail after being held there so often, but years later when it was slated for demolition, Helena fought for it. She helped make it the historical gem it is today.
After Helena was released she assisted Countess Markievicz who had been appointed to the Ministry of Labour in the new Republican Government – the Dáil Éireann – and she served as a judge in their courts. Molony remained active in politics for many years, and became the second woman to hold the presidency of the Irish Trade Union Congress. No matter what else she achieved however, she always regarded the Easter Rising as the highlight of her life. Helena’s closest friends were the leaders and martyrs of the uprising, and she mourned and revered them for the rest of her days. She organized the first commemoration of the conflict, and she led other women in a wreath-laying ceremony before marching to the GPO in 1917. Helena’s wartime connections to the Irish Republican Army, her warrior past, and her support of socialism took a toll on her career. She stepped down (or was removed) from the Trade union in 1946, amid rumors of alcohol abuse, depression, and lesbianism. She left much of the public world behind shortly after her resignation.
Molony lived in relative poverty for the next twenty years or so, relying on friends for support and places to live. Her relationship with Evelyn O’Brien, who was her roommate until her death in 1967, always raised eyebrows. At other times in her life she was also linked romantically to Bulmer Hobson and Seán Connolly. Helena never claimed any sexual preference outright and did not seem to care or feel the need to clarify it when people whispered or gossiped about her. She just went on living her life, with whomever she chose.
Helena Molony passed away at the age of eighty-four. She is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery near some of her dearest friends. She most certainly deserves a bigger spotlight than she has received throughout the years for without her, history as we know it would have been forever changed. She was a leader of leaders, a woman who fought just as fiercely for Ireland as the men who get most of the credit, and a giant in her own right.