In the wee hours of the morning of October 23rd, 1971, the British Army rolled into the Falls area of Belfast with the intention of raiding houses and arresting anyone they suspected of criminal or “dissident” activities. It was a regular occurrence in the area and the residents had various ways of warning each other when the army was around. Runners would spread the word ahead of the vehicles and the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) would bang trash bin lids on the streets as an early alarm system. Sometimes people would blow whistles or sound horns from their cars as well which was exactly what two sisters, Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire, left a party to do on that early Autumn morning. When one of Meehan’s children asked where she was headed she told him that she’d be right back, as she grabbed a handheld horn and headed to a car outside. These words were the last she ever spoke to her family.
There are many, many women in Irish history who never get the recognition they deserve for their contributions to it. Anne Devlin may be the most egregious example of that. Her strength and dedication to the Irish cause was truly like no other.
Everyone has that place in their head. One place that they’ve fallen in love with whether or not they’ve ever been there. One place that serves as a goal or a dream and becomes a fantasy location where everything would suddenly be perfect. Many never reach that imagined place or if they do, they quickly find that the perceived nirvana in their head doesn’t match the reality in any way. We often romanticize or fantasize about other places because after all, the grass is always greener on the other side.
On May 25th, 2018, Ireland will have the chance to repeal the Eighth Amendment of its constitution in a referendum. This amendment was adopted in 1983 and it asserted that a fetus had the same rights as the woman who carried it. It’s no surprise that this law came into existance, since Ireland was still pretty synonymous with the Catholic faith when the Amendment was passed and while it allowed for pregnancy termination if the life of the mother was shown to be at risk, it made proving that exception more difficult. It also didn’t allow for the mental health of the mother – only the physical. The Eighth strengthened penalties for seeking an abortion both in Ireland and abroad and it ensured that community groups and organizations could not legally help women who wished to explore those options. It took decades of hard work to rectify the latter circumstances but abortion in Ireland was and is still illegal.
This is not to say that women (and girls) don’t get abortions. Recent statistics estimate that more than 150,000 Irish women have had abortions since the eighties. About a dozen have them every day – either by traveling to the U.K. where abortion is legal, by using the outlawed Plan B pill, or getting an illegal (and sometimes unsafe) abortion in Ireland itself. These women risk a prison sentence of up to fourteen years if they are caught having an abortion on the island, but they do it anyway and that is really the only point that should matter in the upcoming referendum on whether the Eighth should be repealed or not.
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.)
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.
Gather the women!!
Jan. 6th marks Nollaig na mBan, also known as little Christmas or Women’s Christmas in Ireland. It’s an old Irish tradition that evolved from celebrating the Epiphany but these days it’s become less about religion and more about fun and frivolity. Traditionally, Irish women were not only responsible for the Christmas time entertaining and feasts but they also had to deal with all the holiday clean up, and every day chores and household duties too for that matter. Except on January 6th, that is. That’s the day they finally got a break. On Women’s Christmas, (12th Night, little Christmas or whatever you want to call January 6th) the men took over the chores and the households so that the women could gather and drink, tell stories, kick off their shoes and relax for a moment.
It was a real treat back in the day – so much so that it continues now, even though women’s roles have changed all around the world. In modern times, it’s a day for women to gather and treat themselves to a night out at a bar with friends, a trip to the favorite day spa or salon, or head out for a fancy meal. Nollaig na mBan is the day to play hooky from work (or from the house and kids) to enjoy a day with your ladies, create your own little henhouse, tell stories, catch up, or have a cocktail and relax. No matter what women normally work too hard on, Jan. 6th is the time to take a day off, even if it’s only a mental one. It’s well deserved.