Over the last few years interest in the roles that women played throughout Irish history has finally picked up. We now know that there were far more women who took part in the Easter Rising than previously thought. Estimates have put their numbers anywhere from seventy-seven to several hundred and many are finally getting the recognition that they have deserved for so long. Sorcha MacMahon was one of those women and without her, the 1916 uprising may have been very different indeed.
Sorcha was born on this day in 1888 and was one of seven children. Unlike many who had to learn the Irish Language later in life through private instruction or the Gaelic League, Sorcha was raised on it. Irish was the family’s first and preferred language and she was more than fluent in it at an early age. When she finished school, she left the family home in Monaghan and headed for Dublin where she began working as a bookkeeper. She also worked for the central branch of Cumann na mBan, a women’s organization dedicated to Irish independence. She was the group’s secretary and she was trained in nursing and first aid – skills that she passed on to many of the other women. MacMahon was also on the committee that planned the homecoming funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a famous Fenian who had been living in exile in America. Patrick Pearse, one of the future leaders of the Easter Rising, gave his most famous and enduring speech at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside saying, “They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace..” It was a call to arms and a masterful combination of propaganda and Nationalism that Sorcha and the others on the committee supported.
Through these activities Miss MacMahon became a confidante of many, including Tom and Kathleen Clarke, Michael Collins, Patrick Pearse and other prominent members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The IRB did not allow female members but they were not above using women they could trust to deliver messages, weapons, and orders throughout Ireland. Sorcha was asked to make a list of other willing and reliable couriers who would be sent all over the island. She also went on a few of those missions herself. She had a bicycle basket full of weapons, ammunition, and orders on more than one occasion and at any point, the plans for the Rising could have been discovered if she had been caught or if she had misjudged any of the other women she recommended for such tasks. Luckily, her instincts were sharp and she was careful so that never happened.
When the Rising began, she went to various homes in Dublin to mobilize volunteers and to rally Cumann na mBan members. Later she ferried messages between the Four Courts garrison and the GPO headquarters. MacMahon traveled between the two posts at least fifty times without being caught. She also delivered messages to Kathleen Clarke from her husband Tom, one of the leaders in the GPO, whenever she could.
When the Rising came to a close McMahon vanished into the streets of Dublin, avoiding any charges related to her activities during the conflict. She immediately teamed up with Kathleen Clarke to help her start the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents Fund, later known as the Irish Volunteers Dependents’ Fund. When Clarke had a miscarriage a few weeks after her husband’s execution, Sorcha postponed her own wedding to work on the project while the widow recovered. When Kathleen hired a young Michael Collins to track and dispense funds to the families, MacMahon worked directly for him. She continued to work for Collins throughout the War of Independence.
Sorcha MacMahon left her activism and politics behind when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was ratified. Given her proximity to Collins and her withdrawal from Cumann na mBan when they announced they were against the treaty, it’s pretty safe to say that she was in favor of the agreement. She was not active during the Irish Civil War and after Collins was assassinated, she eventually moved out of Dublin city.
Like so many other women, Sorcha MacMahon’s contributions to Ireland’s fight for freedom have been woefully under reported and because she supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty, she is not celebrated in many Republican circles. However, it is impossible to deny how devoted she was to Ireland and to her friends and family. She proved it first with activism and ammunition and later with silent support. Given that today is her birthday, I figure it’s long past time to honor her for her bravery and her dedication. She earned it, at least fifty times.