Women in the Easter Rising

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Irish women workers

‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

‘Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.’ - Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 24 April 1916.

An estimated 280 women participated actively in the Easter Rising on the side of the revolutionary nationalists, performing all kinds of tasks: they fought as soldiers, provided medical care, transported supplies and delivered vital communications be­tween outposts. In the main they were members of either Cumann na mBan, the Republican women’s military organisation which had been formed in 1914 and subsequently became part of the Irish Volunteers, or of the Irish Citizen Army, which was formed after the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out. 77 women were captured when the rebels surrendered on 29 April and were taken – either directly, or after being held elsewhere – to Dublin’s Richmond Bar­racks. Here the majority of insurgents, both male and female, were processed, before being released or imprisoned elsewhere, either in Ireland or England.

As part of the centenary commemorations, Dublin City Council has published Richmond Barracks 1916 We Were There – Women of the Easter Rising, a text which sets out to provide a definitive history of all those who participated in the Rising. Although for many years, none of the women who participated in the Rising were acknowledged, work has been done to redress this and there are some names which are now better known. They include:

  • Constance Markiewicz, the Irish aristocrat married to a Polish count, who became a prominent socialist and nationalist, and who famously advised women joining the struggle to ‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver’.
  • Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, a leading Irish suffragette whose pacifist husband Francis took no part in the Rising but was murdered by British troops.
  • Winifred Carney, who entered the Dublin Post Office with a typewriter in one hand and a revolver in the other, and remained there until the end of the Rising, refusing to leave the side of the injured James Connolly.
  • Dr Kathleen Lynn, member of the Irish Citizen Army and chief medical officer of the Rising; she taught First Aid to volunteers in preparation for the Rising and co-ordinated emergency medical assistance to the rebel army throughout the Easter events.
  • Elizabeth O’Farrell, who delivered the letters of surrender from Patrick Pearse to British General Lowe and to other insurgents, and has become well known precisely because of the attempt to airbrush her contribution from history, both figuratively and literally, with her presence being removed from photos.

These women were part of ‘a vocal radicalised cohort of women’, who had been politicised in the years leading up to the Rising; the authors of Richmond Barracks describe how: ‘Three movements – feminism, soc­ial­ism and nationalism – energised and engaged a new generation of female activists from 1900.’

Alongside these better known figures, there were many other women whose names have been almost entirely unknown until now – many of them younger working class women, who were politicised by their involvement in the Lock-Out and other labour struggles of the period. Women such as:

  • Annie Norgrove – a 17-year-old working class Protestant, whose gasfitter father was an active trade unionist; she joined the Irish Citizen Army during the 1913 Lock-Out and spent the days of the Rising ducking to avoid sniper fire as she ferried water and other supplies to the insurgents stationed on the roof of City Hall.
  • Brigid Lyons – a farmer’s daughter from Sligo, who joined Cumann na mBan as a teenager, travelled to Dublin from Longford when she heard the Rising had begun, and served in the Four Courts, helping to feed the garrison there. After the Rising she campaigned for Sinn Fein and became a commandant in the IRA.
  • Bessie Lynch – a shirt-maker from a working class Dublin family, who worked as a ‘personal orderly’ to Countess Markiewicz, with duties involving learning First Aid, dyeing military uniforms and gun-running.

Information on these women’s contribution to the Rising has become available over the past two years since the archive of the Military Service Pensions Collection was made public. The pension scheme was introduced in the 1920s and then expanded in the 1930s; it received 80,000 applications from people who said they had participated in the Rising, 15,700 of which were granted.

Among the first batch of files released to the public in 2014 was that of Margaret Skinnider, who fought and was wounded in the Rising but was refused a pension on the grounds that the law was only ‘applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’. She eventually won an appeal in 1938.

No equality in the Free State

Women participated in every part of the 1916 Rising and fought among the Volunteers at every command post – except one. At Boland’s Mill the commander refused to let women participate; that commander was future President and Prime Minister of Ireland Eamon de Valera. After the Rising was over and the revolutionary leaders who had proclaimed there would be equality in the new Irish Republic had been executed by the British, the reactionary power of the Catholic Church reasserted itself. Women were increasingly marginalised and, although the 1922 Con­stitution which followed Partition did give women in the 26 Counties full voting rights, subsequent laws introduced over the next 15 years prevented them from sitting on juries, working as teachers or civil servants after they had married or being employed in industry.

In the 2016 commemoration of the Easter Rising much has been done to redress the writing out of history of women’s contribution; however the current Irish Constitution continues to contain a clause introduced in 1937, which states: ‘… that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ Until 2013, the Free State government also kept in place the anti-abortion laws inherited from British rule, when it replaced them with a restrictive version of its own.

Nicki Jameson

Richmond Barracks 1916 We Were There – Women of the Easter Rising by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Dublin City Council, 2016.

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