On this day in 1916, Ireland’s Easter Rising began. All throughout Dublin men and women made their way to strategic outposts in the city with the hope that they could take them and last long enough for Ireland to be declared an independent nation. They were intent on overthrowing the English control of their homeland and went out with only that purpose in mind. Most other people had no idea of what was to come and they got up in the morning and headed to work as usual, unaware of how different their city was about to be.
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.
Ireland is steeped in mythology and tales of faeries but these fae have nothing in common with the adorable little Disney-created pixies that flit across the movie screen. Irish faeries have a dark side and many folks still attempt to appease them to this day. You can still find bowls of milk outside certain homes on certain days and many locals who stay away from nearby hills, caves, and mounds. They warn wayward travelers to do the same. Some have iron in their doorways or other superstitious markings to protect against dark creatures of a different world. In the past these beliefs were even more prevalent and tales of changelings and other mischievous things in the night were simply a part of life. These stories also became part of a highly publicized murder after a young woman named Bridget Cleary was burned to death by her husband, her father, and others, on this day in 1895.
Stephen O’Donohoe was a poor law clerk in Dublin. He was a family man with four children who struggled to get ahead but only barely managed to scrape by. Like many, he blamed the English rule in Ireland for his woes. He was one of thousands of men who joined the Fenian Brotherhood, a group dedicated to overthrowing the government and getting the English out of his country.
Thomas Farrell was from Williamstown and was a confectioner by trade. He joined the Fenian Brotherhood as well, and while it’s not clear if these two men knew each other, what is certain is that they are now tied together for all of eternity.
Many of Ireland’s great Fenians scattered to the wind to avoid prison when their various uprisings failed. More than few of them ended up on America’s shores and promptly set about creating organizations that furthered the Irish cause within the United States. One of those powerful men was John O’Mahony, the founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.
On January 30th, 1972, thirteen innocent people were murdered and twenty-eight were shot during an anti-internment march through the Bogside area of Derry. Another innocent victim died later as a result of his injuries, bringing the total number of fatalities to fourteen. That bleak day became known as Bloody Sunday. At first the soldiers and the English government tried to claim that all who had been shot or killed were armed, dangerous, and/or members of the Irish Republican Army. Witness statements backed up with photographic evidence, forensics, and videos helped disprove their lies but it took nearly forty years and the most expensive inquiry in English history to finally exonerate the victims.
An anonymous teenage girl who would now probably be in her mid-to-late sixties made a quick and pivotal choice on Bloody Sunday that helped set those things in motion and has affected millions of people since. As she and her friends wandered through the aftermath of the Bogside Massacre, a stranger approached them. He quickly explained that authorities had begun searching people nearby and he had some rolls of film he needed to hide. This young girl quickly put the film in her underwear, assuming that her undergarments would not be searched if she were stopped. She was either not stopped or was correct in that assumption because later she met the man, Gilles Peress, at a hotel where she handed over his rolls of film and then promptly vanished. Peress drove straight out of Derry that night with his precious cargo and never saw the blonde girl again.
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.)