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anyway and that is really the only point that should matter in the upcoming referendum on whether the Eighth should be repealed or not.
On the third day of Ireland’s Easter Rising, a woman got off her bicycle at St. Stephen’s Green and delivered the message she’d been hiding to the rebel leaders inside. Then she took off her skirts, put on a homemade uniform, picked up a rifle and headed to the roof of the building to take her turn as a deadly sniper. In between shots, Margaret Skinnider formed a plan for a bombing mission that would make the area safer for her comrades and fellow rebels.
Attempting to execute that plan nearly killed her when Ms. Skinnider was shot three times on this day in 1916. Her grave wounds earned her the distinction of being the only woman who was so seriously wounded in the rebellion and it cemented her place in Irish history. You cannot have a project that involves women in the Easter Rising without including Margaret’s near death experience so today belongs to her.
On the second day of the Easter Rising, Kathleen Clarke fretted and wandered around the house, wondering how her husband Tom was doing. He was one of the leaders of the insurrection and was in the General Post Office headquarters with the other commanders, miles away from his wife. Kathleen had been asked to stay out of the fight by her husband who was counting on her to keep their business going, their family healthy, and if necessary, to protect his legacy when the Rising was over. She couldn’t do any of that if she took part in the battle and was arrested or hurt – so as unbearable as it must have been for her, she stayed at home.
Miraculously, the Clarke home wasn’t raided or attacked in any way on the first night of the rebellion. Kathleen spent a restless night in her home and then headed out to the garden in the morning to distract herself from what was happening around her. Planting and tending the garden was one of her favorite hobbies. April 25th, 1916, was a warm day and the ground was parched so she took a can of water with her when she started planting. Kathleen had just put it on the ground when she heard a hissing sound and her instincts kicked in. She ducked and remained still for quite some time. When she finally got up, she looked around to see what had made the sound. The bucket she had been holding seconds before had two bullet holes in it and the water was seeping onto the ground.
The Clarke house was not in the thick of the fighting but there were a lot of bullets flying throughout Dublin that week. In theory one of them could have randomly gone through the backyard at precisely that moment…but many (including the lady herself) think that Kathleen Clarke was deliberately targeted because of her husband’s actions and her own support for a free Ireland. She never found out whether she had been purposely fired on or not – but her own brush with death over Easter week did not stop her from accomplishing all of the plans she and her husband had made before it began. She immediately started a fund for the dependents of Volunteers and she kept her own family afloat, even after the English executed her husband for his role in the Rising. Easter Week cost her a child, a husband, and nearly her own life but she refused to let these losses cripple her and she never wavered in her support and her own fight for a free and independent Ireland.
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.