Mary O’Dwyer (née Breen) was not a typical Irish Republican woman. She did not have the support of a politically powerful family, in fact they actively discouraged her from joining any political group. She defied them, her parish priest, and others when she began canvassing in County Tipperary for Sinn Fein at age sixteen. Two years later, Mary joined (and eventually commanded) her local branch of Cumann na mBan.
During the Irish War of Independence Mary quickly came to be known as an astute intelligence agent and a safe host for Irish Republican Army soldiers who were on the run from authorities. She housed and fed up to eight men at a time, keeping fresh supplies handy for the many wayward volunteers in the area. She stored arms and ammunition and often led men to safety through the fields. She knew the tiny footpaths and back roads of the entire area which made her the perfect courier. Mary moved intelligence and weapons through the whole of County Tipperary. She was friendly with all the Republican leaders in the area including Dan Breen (no relation), who said that Mary “took big risks” and was “more a Volunteer than a member of Cumann Na mBan.”
Breen’s statement was intended as a compliment and was indicative of the times. The women of Cumann na mBan were seen as support staff for the Irish volunteers and not much more, but Mary Breen was not content in that role. She made herself an imperative part of many missions in addition to doing all the support work that was expected. Her local knowledge and surveillance resulted in many of the I.R.A.’s successful ambushes and heists. She catered a three-week long training camp for Irish Volunteers at Ballinard Castle and organized the entertainment for them even as she continued to be an integral part of other operations throughout the county. She was a force to be reckoned with who seemed to truly enjoy what she was doing.
Mary’s activities increased during the Irish Civil War. She was a sought-after scout and she led Dan Breen’s flying column through the wilds of Tipperary with ease. She worked in a mental hospital and spied on the Free State forces in Clonmel. Once she overheard them talking about a raid so she raced out on her bicycle to warn the anti-treaty forces that the Free State was coming. She probably saved their lives but her own luck ran out shortly thereafter and Mary was finally arrested for her activities. She only spent four days in jail during her many years of covert action. It’s rather astonishing that she was only arrested once in her many years of service, but obviously she knew exactly how to do her job.
Mary Breen married one of her male counterparts and became Mary O’Dwyer shortly after the civil war ended. She had children and “settled down” but she stayed devoted to the Republican cause for most of her life…. which was a long one indeed. Mary O’Dwyer was ninety years old when the police busted into her home to arrest Father Paddy Ryan, the “Republican Priest” who was being harbored there while Scotland Yard hunted for him. She lived to be over a hundred years old and never lost her passion. She died on this day in 2003 and is remembered for her childhood defiance, her mad skills, and her undying support for a free Ireland.
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