Dan Breen was an integral and powerful man in Ireland’s long fight for independence. He was a husband and father, a gangster, a politician, a speakeasy operator, and an author, but first and foremost he was a self-described soldier who was dedicated to freedom.
In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
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.
On this day in 1883, Helena Molony was born in Dublin. She was orphaned when she was young and didn’t have the happiest of childhoods but this made her strong-willed and a survivor. She dreamt of a better life and soon that dream came to include a free Ireland. When she was older, she looked back at that time saying, “I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit.”
Whether it was Maud Gonne’s spirit that energized Helena or not, one thing is certain – she was immediately and completely devoted to Ireland. She and Maud became fast friends and together they were prominent members of both of Ireland’s Nationalist groups for women, Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan. Helena founded the first political newspaper specifically for women in 1908 and she started a movement aimed at keeping girls away from English soldiers. She was heavily involved in nearly every suffrage or labor campaign and was assigned to the City Hall garrison during the Easter Rising of 1916. When the authorities came to interview her after she was arrested for her role in the uprising, they found her with torn and bleeding hands and the lock halfway off the door. Similarly, while Molony was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol her captors discovered that she was trying to dig her way through the massive stone walls with a rusty spoon. She was indomitable and unapologetic.
These traits carried over into every aspect of her life. Helena fought again in the War of Independence, ferrying messages for Micheal Collins and Liam Mellows and was fiercely opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty that partitioned Ireland. She was active in the resulting civil war on the Republican side. She remained loyal to her friends, even when her reputation and political career suffered for it. Molony was unwilling to compromise in nearly every way, including her personal life. She was linked romantically to both males and females in a time when that was considered not only a sin, but illegal- and she refused to be labeled or cornered. All of these things cost her and eventually, Helena was forced out of politics and public life.
Even then, Helena maintained strong friendships, often depending on friends for shelter and care. When she died after a long and full life, she was buried next to many of them in the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, where she is remembered to this day.
Addendum: For more about Helena please click here. If you’re looking for even more or other fierce women like her, why don’t you grab a copy of my book? “Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition” is available world-wide in bookstores, on Blurb, and all Amazon markets. (Sorry, it’s been awhile since I indulged in some shameless self-promotion.)
Bridget “Brede” Connolly was one of the many women who took part in Ireland’s Easter Rising of 1916. She navigated through the streets of Dublin ferrying communications between James Connolly in the General Post Office and Ned Daly, in Church Street. Brede didn’t have that far to go as the crow flies but she had to make it through some of the fiercest fighting of the insurrection to deliver these messages and she did it time and time again.
On this day in 1948, Ireland said goodbye to one of its fierce and famous daughters. Elizabeth “Lily” O’Brennan was a famous writer and one of three revolutionary sisters in the O’Brennan clan. She was a true believer in the cause of Irish freedom and she fought for it even when it cost her her own.
When Máirín Cregan was born on this day in 1891, her mother made a very important decision. She insisted that her daughter would grow up learning history and the Irish language. As a young adult, this eventually led Máirín right into the Gaelic League where she developed a sort of nationalist fervor. She was also quite a talented vocalist so she ended up moving to Dublin to study at the Leinster School of Music. When she arrived in the city in 1914, she socialized with the Ryan family, a strong Nationalist clan. Máirín was quickly rubbing shoulders with some of the most prominent Nationalists in Dublin including Min Ryan and her fiance, Seán Mac Diarmada, who was one of the future leaders of the Easter Rising.
On this day in 1958, Ireland lost a powerful (albeit slanted) voice. Dorothy Macardle was best known for her book “The Irish Republic” which was commissioned by her idol and friend Eamon De Valera. Her blind faith in his political party and leadership is apparent throughout her history book but so are the echoes of a rebel suffragist and her whispers of dissatisfaction when it came to women’s rights. Dorothy Macardle may have been a vocal member of Dev’s faithful flock, but that’s not to say she was entirely happy with all of his policies.
I arrived in Derry during a downpour, even though the sun was still peeking through the gathering storm clouds. By the end of the trip, I felt like the weather was a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Derry is rare. It is dark, but light pierces through it. It is grey but full of color. It is gathering and ready, but still and waiting. It is tragic and beautiful. Derry is a very special place.
The ladies of Cumann na mBan have always had very strong opinions about the state of Ireland and its politics. Since its inception, the majority of CnamB members have fought for a united Ireland. During the lead up to the Easter Rising of 1916, these women supported the Republican cause in many different ways. They raised funds for the uprising, trained in first aid in order to help wounded Volunteers, smuggled various weapons and explosives throughout Ireland, spread important news, and many learned to shoot and fight themselves. They became a force to be reckoned with.
In the aftermath of the Rising, CnamB was flooded with new members and big ideas. They were prominent in the Dáil Éireann, the Republican legislature set up to counter England’s rule. Many of the widows of the leaders of the Rising were some of the loudest voices and strongest supporters of a free Ireland, and almost all were members of the female Republican organization. Eamon De Valera called them the “most unmanageable revolutionaries.” Many others accused the organization of making decisions based on vengeance and emotion without thought or consequence, especially when they voted against the Anglo-Irish Treaty ninety-four years ago today.