When you listen to or read accounts (including my own) of Margaret Skinnider’s life it’s immediately clear that she was a fighter and a warrior. She was brave and devoted to Irish freedom. She was gravely wounded in the Easter Rising but somehow survived her injuries to continue fighting for Ireland, for recognition and pensions for women, and for Irish workers for the next five decades or so. Her fierceness has inspired many and we’ve all rushed to applaud Skinnider’s fighting spirit, using it to highlight and recognize the important (and often atypical) roles that Irish women played throughout history.
It’s pretty common knowledge that Margaret Skinnider was a teacher, a revolutionary, a union boss, a devoted suffragist, a deadly sniper, a commanding officer, an explosives expert, a smuggler and so much more. We’re used to seeing her as a dedicated, cross-dressing, sharp shooting freedom fighter so it might be a little jarring to hear one of her best friends say that Skinnider was love and kindness incarnate and that she was gentle. Sure she was a soldier who spent most of her life fighting for one cause or another but she was also full of empathy and love, kindness and compassion – and many of the historical narratives (including my own) overlook those aspects of Skinnider’s life.
This is part of a bigger problem. In our rush to make sure that women are counted among the heroes of history, we often highlight only the fiercest and more traditionally “male” aspects of them. We tell tales of how they outsmarted others and how they aggressively fought for something and proved themselves worthy of remembrance and praise. We often ignore their traditionally “feminine” sides in favor of a glorious and heroic tale. The famous photo of Margaret dressed as a boy with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth is a perfect example of that. We remind people that that she was a female sniper and one of only two women who wore a soldier’s uniform during the Easter Rising, and we set her apart from the hundreds of other women who were there in their Easter skirts and dresses. There were many other brave women on active duty and they each brought their own fighting spirit and individual set of skills…some of them even saved Skinnider’s life after she’d been shot multiple times. These women are just as worthy of remembrance whether we know their names and stories yet or not, even if they had more traditional roles. Margaret’s exciting and unusual tale has become more popular in recent years but in telling it we’ve done her a disservice. We’ve all celebrated her deeds but most of us ignored the other aspects of her life. It’s less common knowledge that Skinnider was as gentle, loyal and loving as she was aggressive. She lived a long life full of love, music and long lasting friendships. Her favorite song about Ireland was a somewhat sappy love song called The Jackets Green. She was a lesbian in a committed and life long relationship in an era when that was not only frowned upon, but illegal. Mary McAuliffe’s newish book about Margaret Skinnider uncovers that love story and much more. It is an overdue biography that focuses on Skinnider’s life as a whole, rather than highlighting one or two of her legendary acts. It gives our inspiring hero her entire life back, long after she passed away.
Which brings us to the point, dear readers. On this day in 1971, the mighty Margaret Skinnider threw off this mortal coil. She is buried in the Republican 1916 plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, where she rests next to many of her dearest friends and comrades. To remember her today, why not listen to this interview with Mary McAuliffe where she talks about some of the lesser known aspects of Skinnider’s life or you can listen to Margaret tell her own story of Easter week right here. If you’re like me and you still haven’t been able to break up with the written word, you can find Skinnider’s own 1917 propaganda masterpiece, Doing My Bit For Ireland in various places on the web and in bookstores throughout Ireland. While you’re at it keep an eye out for Margaret Skinnider by Mary McAuliffe as well.