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.
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.)
The newly revamped Museum of Free Derry has been mired in controversy since before its doors reopened. At issue is an exhibit that includes the names of all the people who were killed in the area during the Troubles. This seems harmless except that the names of British soldiers and police officers are also there, right alongside many innocent victims who were killed by those very same squads. The decision to include those names may seem reasonable from a purely educational viewpoint but the Museum underestimated the emotional response from locals who lost friends and family members during the conflict. For some of them, the inclusion of these government contingents is an affront to the memories of their loved ones and a blatant disregard for their own feelings and their continuing fight for answers and justice.
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.
Last year on International Women’s Day I was in Derry, exploring the murals that were off the beaten path. I found many honoring the women of the area – including one that was painted in honor of International Women’s day itself. I find that looking through my pictures of them now is just as inspiring as it was then, and I think sharing my favorites on both sides of the puddle is especially powerful on today of all days.
Don’t forget to look at their feet, and remember that Pearse chose a woman to stand at his side when the Easter Rising came to a close 100 years ago today