Though they’re rarely at the fore of the story, the women of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising were essential to the rebellion. They carried messages and supplies, provided cover fire in battles, and served on the front lines. In this episode Averill and Sarah dive into the historical treatment of the women of the Easter Rising, and the failure of the Free State after Ireland gained its independence to adequately honor the sacrifice of those women. 

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Transcript:

79 and Counting: Women of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Researched by Averill Earls, PhD, Hannah Pfeifer, and Jackie Duncan

Recorded by Averill Earls, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

In late April 1916, violence engulfed the streets of Dublin, Ireland. Irish rebels laid siege to the city, among them militant and supporting women who were willing to fight and die for Irish independence. Among them were 60 members of the Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary force of the Irish Volunteers; but also a number of women members of the Irish Citizens Army, including the fierce Constance Gore Booth Markeivicz; the trade unionist Winifred Carney; and the Scottish sharp shooter Margaret Skinnider, who thought to “do her part” for Ireland.

For most of the 20th century, histories and nationalist mythologizing excluded women from the narratives of the Easter Rising. There’s a famous photo of the Irish rebel’s surrender, in which Padraic Pearse stands before two British soldiers. Irish nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, who ministered to the rebels’ wounded in the General Post Office throughout the conflict, was airbrushed out of that famous photo. Early iterations left her feet and part of her skirt, visible next to Pearse’s feet. Later iterations of the photo removed even those traces of her from the photo. To those documenting the Easter Rising, having a woman waving the white flag alongside hero and martyr Padraic Pearse didn’t fit in with the nationalist mythology they were attempting to cultivate. Women were effectively “Eirebrushed” out of the story entirely.

This was made possible, at least in part, because of the marginalization of women’s groups who were central to the nationalist movement. Cumann na mBan, the celebrated women’s auxiliary unit associated with the Irish Volunteers who launched the Easter Rising, struggled against marginalization from their founding in April 1914 up through the Easter Rising. They were excluded from planning, or sent away from their assigned posts during the Rising because many of their male counterparts considered them unfit for service. And this marginalization has a much longer history.

Organizations like the the Ladies’ Land League and the Irishwomen’s Franchisement League are rarely discussed as central to the broader narrative of the Irish Home Rule and independence movement. But the Ladies’ Land League maintained the land war, until Charles Stewart Parnell ordered them to stop, when he and his fellow leaders of the men’s Land League were in prison. And women’s suffrage in 1918 was essential to the election of the Sinn Fein members who established the first Dail in 1919.

Women’s organizations were central to the Irish independence movement. Those who were too loud, too feminist in orientation, or too outspoken were largely expunged from the official narratives. Only individual women, like Constance Markievicz, who were heroes in their own right, could be lauded, and not as representatives of broader movements, but instead as outliers who acted unlike ‘real women.’ As historians like Margaret Ward have shown, the range of experiences are important to understanding what it was like to be a women in 20th century Ireland. There’s an interesting mix here — of those who bowed to the strict gender regime of a Catholic-nationalist ideology, of those who resisted it until their dying breath, and of those who just wanted to do their thing, and rode whatever horse got them into battle.

In the last 20 years, we’ve finally seen scholarship that has revised the narrative of Irish independence. Margaret Ward’s 1995 Unmanageable Revolutionaries follows the key women’s organizations that helped shape the Irish nationalist movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

 Though a great deal has been written in the interim, I always go back to this text, because it peels back the layers of women’s work in the Irish nationalist movements. While women are still not front and center of most popular representations of events like the Easter Rising, they can no longer be denied their place in the story of Irish independence, from the mid-19th century up through the 20th, and particularly that of the 1916 Easter Rising.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

In the second half of the 19th century, the majority of Irish nationalists agitated for “Home Rule”–a constitutional approach to autonomy in domestic affairs, effectively a return to the way things were before the 1801 Act of Union. (Through the Act of Union, the British government dissolved the Irish parliaments and installed a British administration in Ireland to oversee direct rule from London.) There was a counter-movement in the north among “Ulster Unionists”–primarily Protestants who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, citing things like if the Irish ruled Ireland, it would be Catholic-majority and then “Home Rule would mean ‘Rome Rule’.”

Oh, the irony. For those of you unfamiliar with Northern Irish discrimination against Catholics, the irony will be lost, but start with Patrick Radden Keefe’s very readable Say Nothing, and you’ll understand.

But anyway, the Home Rule bills that were introduced in the 1870s through the 1890s were always defeated. Sometimes they didn’t make it through the House of Commons, and if they did, they were always vetoed by the House of Lords. But most Irish people, those who cared about the issue, anyway, preferred a constitutional solution to Irish autonomy. Throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th, the militant rebellions were always fringe-groups. The 1848 Young Irelanders, the 1867 Fenians (including the Irish-Americans who crossed the border from Buffalo to Canada and tried to “hold Canada hostage” in exchange for Irish independence LOLZ), and of course the 1916 Easter Rising– weren’t widely popular for the most part.[1]

And that isn’t surprising — there are always going to be major divides between those who think that violence is a viable solution to injustice and oppression, and those who abhor violence, and believe that it is unacceptable in any situation.

So even though Charles Stewart Parnell, the golden boy of the Irish Parliamentary Party and leader of the Home Rule Movement in the 1880s and early 90s, was the leader of the Irish Nationalist Land League and an agitator in the Land Wars of 1878-82, he and his supporters were primarily focused on a parliamentary act to establish Irish autonomy, a Home Rule Bill. The Land Wars, unlike the 48ers or the Fenians, were engaged in rural agitation and protest in support of tenant farmers, rather than trying to bring about Irish independence through militant activity. Their activities addressed immediate issues and provided relief to families being evicted from homes or taken advantage of by absent landlords or unfair rents. Their long-term goals were to turn governance of domestic issues over to the Irish: that would solve the problems created by domestic issues like unfair rents and absentee landlordism. The Land Wars, then, supported the constitutional approach Parnell and his ilk pursued. They put pressure on Prime Minister William Gladstone to entreat with the Irish Parliamentary Party, and to put Home Rule Bills to a vote.

But, because of the veto power of the House of Lords, those votes never came to fruition. Women in the 19th century United Kingdom could not vote. They had little say in politics, though they had plenty to say. English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish feminists were active throughout the 19th century. Women like Josephine Butler took on the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, which we discussed in our episode on Syphilis in the British Empire, and ultimately pressured Parliament to repeal those laws. The Ladies National Association had branches all over the British Isles; though the Irish branch only ever had 49 subscribers between 1871-1885, it was a significant moment in political awareness among Irish women. It would be the start of some powerful popular women’s political organizations. Prior to the Cumann na mBan, Ireland had three major women’s nationalist organizations: the Ladies Land League, the Irishwomen Franchise League, and Inghinidhe na hEireann.[2]

The Ladies’ Land League, run by Anna and Fanny Parnell, was the counterpart to their brother Charles Stewart Parnell’s Nationalist Land League. Both groups agitated on behalf of tenant farmers, picking up an earlier rural movement to achieve the three F’s: Fair rent, Free sale, and Fixity of tenure. According to historian RF Foster, in the countryside the Land League: “reinforced the politicization of rural Catholic nationalist Ireland, partly by defining that identity against urbanization, landlordism, Englishness and—implicitly—Protestantism.”[3]

Maud Gonne founded the Daughters of Erin (we won’t butcher their Irish name…there are a lot of confusing consonants in Irish) in 1900, and it operated independently until 1915, when it merged with Cumann na mBan. Unlike the Ladies Land League, the Daughters were completely autonomous from other early 20th-century nationalist organizations, dedicated to the re-establishment of the complete independence of Ireland. More radical than the Land League, or even really the Cumann na mBan whom they ultimately joined, the Daughters pulished a monthly magazine, Bean na hÉireann, and raised money for their cause through subscriptions and by staging elaborate tableaux vivants on themes from Irish mythology. Gonne and the Daughters implemented school programs, organized reading groups and Irish-language programs for women, and protested Irish involvement in the British army during WW1. Gonne created a space for the Irish women who wanted to do more for the independence cause–and to ensure that the needs and rights of Irish women would be addressed in whatever form of autonomy Ireland achieved in the near future.

Hannah Sheehy-Skeffinton and Margaret Cousins founded the Irishwomen’s Franchisement League in 1908. From the start it was a radical feminist suffragist movement. Their members put out a pro-suffrage nationalist newspaper, the Irish Citizen, were imprisoned for smashing up the windows of the General Post Office, and went on hunger strikes while in prison. While they kept a neutral stance on Home Rule–their primary goal was votes for women, regardless of where those votes might take Ireland–they opposed WW1. The IWFL clashed most with John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, because he (and his party) voted against women’s suffrage in 1913.

The 1910 election left the Liberals reliant on the Irish Parliamentary Party to form a government. Simultaneously, the House of Lords lost its veto. That shift gave the Irish politicians the power they needed to push through a Home Rule Bill in 1912. In response, the Unionists in Ulster formed a militia. 250,000 Ulster Protestant men pledged themselves to the Solemn League and Covenant to resist Home Rule, and in 1913 they formed the Ulster Volunteer Force. By April 1914 they had 24,000 German guns and a promise that any attempt to implement Home Rule would result in violence.[4] Notably, 234,000 Ulster women signed a female counterpart to the Covenant. They were, of course, to play wholly supportive roles to the UVF and men of the Covenant, but this was a much larger show of women than any of the Nationalist or Republican movements.[5] They raised funds, and trained as dispatch riders and nurses.

When the UVF formed in the Ulster, the Republicans formed an equivalent in the south. The Irish Volunteers included a few women at their inaugural meeting, though they too were separated from the main meeting of men. According to Margaret Ward, “Through this separation, the work of female activists during the past decades was symbolically dismissed and women again relegated to the role of passive observers, excluded from any meaningful participation in political events.”[6] Only Padraic Pearse mentioned that the Irish Volunteers were there to “defend the rights common to Irish men and Irish women.” The final manifesto produced by the Volunteers promised that there would be “work for women to do,” though it was not made clear what that would be — other than not being in the “marching line.”[7]

The conversation of whether women would or should be included in the Irish Republican Brotherhood independence efforts continued in the months after the founding of the Irish Volunteers. As the IRB name suggests, there was no implicit space for women in the Republican cause. Though the IRB needed everyone, men and women, to rally to its cause, their appeals to women were pandering at best. They wrote Maud Gonne’s radical and autonomous Daughters out of the 19th century nationalist narrative, even as they used her name to reassure potential women volunteers that their work for the Nationalist cause would still be considered “womanly.”[8]

Caitlin de Brun wrote in April 1914’s edition of the Irish Volunteer that patriotic Irish women could look forward to making flags for the Volunteers, and not much else. That same month, the Cumann na mBan was founded, and de Brun’s predictions seemed spot on.

Cumann na mBan held its inaugural meeting on Thursday, April 5, at 4pm – which was, as Margaret Ward points out, hardly a convenient time for working women, and tells you quite a lot about the organization itself, and its members. The initial appeal was to women who did not need to work, and could dedicate their time to the cause. It operated thusly for several years, until patriotic women wrote letters of complaint to the papers, and finally they organized evening meetings for the broad-base of their membership.[9]

Countess Constance Markievicz examining a 1909 Colt revolver | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

At its start, it was made very clear by Agnes O’Farrelly, who presided over the first meeting, that Cumann na mBan would not take direct part in the defense of Ireland, unless under extreme circumstances. Nor would members be permitted to debate political matters — that was men’s domain. Instead they’d” 1. Advance the cause of Irish liberty; 2. Organize Irishwomen in furtherance of that object; 3. Assist in arming and equipping a body of Irishmen for the defence of Ireland; 4. Form a fund for these purposes to be called the Defence of Ireland Fund. They would only participate in first aid training, drill and signalling, and rifle practice when necessary. They would also, however, organize the Irish boy scouts — Constance Markievicz taught many an Irish boy scout how to shoot.[10] But for the most part, the ladies were relegated to fundraising. Hoo-rah.

The Daughters of Ireland remained independent of Cumann na mBan until May 1915, when Constance Markievicz negotiated their folding in to the larger organization. The Daughters, who’d been wholly more autonomous than Cumann na mBan ever was, did so because they wanted to be part of the mass movement. As Elizabeth Coxhead notes, this merger was particularly unfortunate, because the Daughters were by far the most creative and independent women’s organizations in nationalist Irish history, and lost much of their momentum in joining Cumann na mBan.[11]

In the year between their founding and the start of WW1, the members of Cumann na mBan–who were often the wives, sisters, and girlfriends of the Volunteers– “sewed haversacks, learned first aid, and raised money for their men. It was a division of labour that duplicated the differentiation of sex roles in the wider society, and discouraged the expression of any alternative views.”[12] This marginalization would continue in the years leading up to the Easter Rising, though not all members of Cumann na mBan accepted their marginalization.

Countess Markievicz was technically a member of the Executive of Cumann na mBan, but probably only because she was involved in most women’s nationalist organizations in the early 20th century. She felt that the rest of the Cumann na mBan leadership acquiesced too easily to the men of the Volunteers. At a meeting of the Irishwomen’s Franchise League, Markievicz said:

Today the women attached to national movements are there chiefly to collect funds for the men to spend. These Ladies’ Auxiliaries demoralize women, set them up in separate camps, and deprive them of all initiative and independence… take up your responsibilities and be prepared to go your own way depending for safety on your own course, your own truth, and your own common sense… the two brilliant classes of women who follow this higher ideal are Suffragettes and the Trades Union or Labour women. In them lies the hope of the future.[13]

Markievicz, who was a member of the Irish Citizens Army, tended to lean toward the more radical women’s organizations. The IWFL used radical, somewhat militant tactics to pursue their ends.

In its early years Cumann na mBan seemed sublimated to the Volunteers–and though its members regularly contested this characterization, the fact was that they didn’t have control over the money they raised, their participation in all nationalist activities was auxiliary, and for women like Constance Markievicz, that made the organization milk toast at best. But then Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, and Britain went to war.

John Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party took control of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914. At first, Cumann na mBan didn’t make any declarations against Redmond, even after he and the IPP opposed the suffrage bill in Parliament. But in October 1914, he offered the British government the services of the Irish Volunteers toward the war effort — and that, apparently, was too much. 170,000 Volunteers did join the British war effort in some way, and just 11,000 Volunteers stayed behind in protest. Cumann na mBan, on the other hand, opposed the Irish participation in the British war.[14]

The leadership of Cumann na mBan issued a statement shortly after Redmond declared the Volunteers for the war:

We came into being to advance the cause of Irish liberty and to organize Irishwomen in furtherance of that object. We feel bound to make the pronouncement that to urge or encourage Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British Army cannot, under any circumstances, be regarded as consistent with the work we have set ourselves to do.[15]

Between October 1914 and March 1916, the Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, and Irish Citizens Army prepared for battle. Cumann na mBan trained in first aid, stretcher bearing, and drill and signalling training. Some even started rifle practice. Winifred Carney, the labor unionist, came in first in a shooting competition between the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. By many accounts, the Cumann na mBan members seemed ready, and eager, for a full-fledged war.[16] They brought in 900 guns and 25,000 rounds of ammunition, purchased from the Germans with money raised by Cumann na mBan. Two gung-ho Cumann na mBan members, Nora and Ina Connolly, smuggled the goods to Belfast in the back of a car driven by a boy scout. Though they’d been excluded from the actual reception of the shipment off the Asgard, the writer Erskine Childers’51-foot yacht, they both agreed that the danger inherent in smuggling guns from Howth to Belfast more than made up for missing the action earlier in the day.[17] In the week leading up to Easter 1916, when parades and route marches were scheduled for the Volunteers and Cumann na mBan all across the country, the women prepared medical kits.

When the Home Rule Bill was passed in 1912, it was supposed to be rolled out within three years. It was complicated, of course, by the Ulster Volunteer Force in the north, but then put on hold indefinitely in 1914 when the war broke out. For the 11,000 Volunteers who stayed behind, and indeed, several other nationalist groups, including Cumann na mBan, they were tired of waiting for more unfulfilled politicians’ promises. The war, which had Britain’s army neatly tied up on the Western Front, was the perfect distraction. This would be an opportunity to seize control of Ireland once and for all, and take the independence that clearly would not just be given.

The planned Easter Sunday demonstrations were announced in newspapers all over Ireland. As indicated by their preparation of med kids, Cumann na mBan assumed this meant the start of the revolution, even if things hadn’t been spelled out in so many words.[18] But the 900 guns from the Howth run in 1914 were not enough to stage an uprising. The Volunteers were awaiting the return of Sir Roger Casement, who was supposed to be delivering both Irish prisoners of war who could join the uprising, and more German guns.

Prior to joining the Irish nationalist revolution cause, Roger Casement was an international celebrity for his exposés of imperialist atrocities in the Belgian Congo and Peru. He’d gone to Germany in 1916 on behalf of the Volunteers to get more guns–which the Germans supplied, though not as many as he’d hoped–and to try to convince the Irish Volunteers and soldiers who’d been captured by the Germans to join the independence struggle. They all turned him down. So he got into a German submarine, and headed back to Ireland, mostly empty handed. And then he got caught!! By the British. They hauled him off to London, charged him with treason, and sentenced him to death. At first, the public outcry against his arrest and conviction was strong– after all, he was a British hero–but then the British government leaked excerpts that were alleged to be from his private journals. These detailed sexual transactions with young men in the various ports around the world that he’d visited. And once he was tainted with the rumors of homosexuality, his friends dried up. A few, like Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, and George Bernard Shaw made appeals on his behalf, but to no avail. He was stripped of his knighthood, and he was hanged at Pentonville Prison.

So meanwhile, back in Ireland, Eoin MacNeil, leader of the Irish Volunteers, found out that Casement had been captured and there would be no additional guns or troops. He canceled the demonstrations, issuing his order via newspapers, but the leadership of the planned uprising decided to ignore him, and sent out messengers to say, Hey guys, its back on! But we’ll do it Monday instead of Sunday. Women carried most of the messages to disseminate these new orders, but it was chaos. Some regiments got the message, many did not. As a result, most of the events of Easter Rising were concentrated in Dublin, where the counterorders emanated.

On the Monday after Easter, 1916, Volunteers and Civic Army members descended on key locations around Dublin. They intended to take Dublin Castle, the seat of British power in Ireland, but failed to penetrate it, so instead they took over the General Post Office.

Other than message runners, though Cumann na mBan was left in the dark on the plans. Six women all wandered around Dublin trying to figure out where everyone had gone, and what the new plan was. They finally headed to Jacob’s biscuit factory, where they knew Thomas MacDonagh to be. They had to convince him that he needed women before he’d let them inside.[19]

Most of the women involved in the Rising had to fight their way into the insurgent camps before they could assist in the fight against British rule. According to Ward,

Eilis ni Rian, told to report for duty at 12 noon on the Monday, spent the whole day with other members of her branch, in full kit at Palmerston Place, wondering what was going on as they listened to the sound of intermittent firing. At 6pm a dispatch rider told them that their services were not required and they were to go home. They felt they had no alternative but to obey orders. However, Eilis and her friend Emily impulsively decided to go to the GPO, volunteering for any work at all. The sentry suggested that they report to an outpost on the opposite side of O’Connell Street… This situation was only resolved late on the Monday when two members of Cumann na mBan managed to reach the GPO and informed Pearse, Connolly and Clarke, the leaders of the Rising, of the difficulties being experienced by women. A hasty mobilization order was then sent out so that by the evening of the first day women were established in most of the major outposts.

In total, there were six units of Irish Volunteers, the members of the Irish Citizens Army, and those Cumann na mBan who made their way to posts that accepted them, spread throughout the city, holding key positions: the General Post Office, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Boland’s Bakery, the South Dublin Union, City Hall, and St. Stephen’s Green.[20] At the end of the first day, Monday April 24th, there were a total of 55 dead – 26 British military, 15 civilians, 11 rebels, and three Royal Irish Constabulary policemen.[21]

Women ended up serving under almost every commander around the city, many fighting alongside men, but most providing medical care, running messages between posts, and delivering supplies. There was only one exception — Eamon de Valera, future prime minister of Ireland and author of the 1937 Constitution that bluntly identified women’s place as “in the home”–refused to have any women under his command. In 1937, he admitted that he’d told the women who came to him to serve that he did not want them: “I said we have anxieties of a certain kind here, and I do not want to add to them at the moment by getting untrained women, women who were clearly untrained for soldiering–I did not want them as soldiers in any case.”[22]

By Margaret Ward’s estimate, 90 women took part in the Rising, 60 of them Cumann na mBan members, the rest from the Irish Citizen Army. No members of Cumann na mBan took part in the fighting, though their work was essential.[23] That said, there were women who took up arms in the ‘defense of Ireland.’ Among those were Winifred Carney, Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz, and Margaret Skinnider.

Winifred Carney | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Winifred Carney was a radical trade union activist, who’d been agitating to improve the wages and conditions of mill girls in Dublin since 1912. She helped in fundraising and relief efforts for Dublin workers during the 1913 Lockout, a major industrial dispute between 20,000 workers and 300 employers. James Connolly, an Irish Marxist, was one of the key organizers of the Lockout. The strike lasted nearly 5 months, and collapsed when the workers, many of whom were starving, went back to work and signed pledges not to join Connolly’s union. Many of the socialists involved in the lockout and the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (or the ITGWU) were pulled into the republican nationalist politics that promised a better future for Irish men and women. Connolly was one–in 1916, he was one of the seven signers of the Proclamation of Irish Independence that launched the Easter Rising. He, along with Padraic Pearse, Eamonn Ceannt, Tom Clark, Sean Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonaugh, and Joseph Plunkett, were all executed in the aftermath of the Rising.

Winifred Carney, though she wasn’t executed when it was all said and done, was another trade unionist pulled into the fray of the Republican cause.

Her friendship with James Connolly, cultivated through their work in the Lockout together, ensured that she wasn’t cut out of the action. She joined the Citizen Army, said to be a “crack shot” with a rifle, and was the one who typed up dispatches and mobilization orders in preparation for the Easter Rising. Not to diverge too far from appropriate gender roles, however, she served as Connolly’s “personal secretary” (lucky her) in the weeks leading up to and through the Easter Rising. She was the only woman in the column that seized the General Post Office on Easter Monday. She stayed at the GPO throughout the five days of the Rising, attending to the wounded, writing up orders and dispatches, and telling Patrick Pearse to bugger off when he suggested she get somewhere safe. She was interned at Mountjoy after the surrender on April 29, then at Aylesbury from July to December, before her release on December 24, 1916.

Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider were also at the center of the fray from the get-go.

Constance Gore-Booth, sister of the poet and dramatist Eva Gore-Booth, was known as “the Countess,” because she married a member of the Polish nobility, the dashing playwright/painter/theater director/count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, and thus she became the Countess Markievicz.[24] Eva and Constance’s father was an Anglo-Irish landlord. Of Constance, Margaret Skinnider said, “She knew where all the men and women who loved Ireland were working, and sooner or later met them all, in spite of the fact that she was of Planter stock and by birth of the English nobility in Ireland.”[25]

Eva was involved in the labor movement and women’s suffrage in Britain, and her sister, a well-known landscape artist who went to university in Dublin and then settled there to be part of the literary and art circles of Ireland, cared little for politics in her early life.

The Gore-Booths were good friends of WB Yeats, who wrote that the sisters were “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.” The gazelle was Constance.

It wasn’t until 1908 that Constance got involved in politics, and then she dove head-first into Irish nationalist causes. She joined Sinn Fein, the leftist political party that would declare independence in 1919 and form the first Irish Dail. She also joined the Daughters of Ireland, joined her sister in suffragist activities, including demonstrating against Winston Churchill’s election in 1908. The suffragists were successful that year – they stopped Churchill from being elected then, and advanced the possibility of women’s right to vote a step further.

In 1909 Markievicz and her friend Bulmer Hobson founded Fianna Eireann, the Irish paramilitary boy scouts, which focused on teaching teen boys how to shoot. According to Margaret Skinnider, “The countess was one of the best shots in Ireland, and taught the boys how to shoot.”[26]

Fianna Éiraenn demonstrating their medical support skills in 1914. | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1913, she was all in: she joined Connolly’s socialist Irish Citizen Army to protect demonstrators at the Dublin lockout, sold all of her jewlery to buy potatoes to feed the strikers, and helped the Daughters of Ireland set up a soup kitchen to feed poor children. Her husband moved back to Poland, never to return to live in Ireland. By all accounts the parting was amicable though, and they exchanged letters for the rest of her life.

Her friend, Margaret Skinnider, was a fair shot too. Skinnider was a feminist and suffragist who lived in Scotland but frequented Ireland once she got involved with the Glasgow branch of the Cumann na mBan. She was moved by the terrible conditions in Ireland, conditions created, as she and Markievicz saw it, by British rule. She got pulled into the preparations for the Easter RIsing by Markievicz. According to Margaret, the Countess, “had heard of my work in the Cumman  na mBan, and wanted to talk with me.”[27] Markievicz convinced Connolly to let Skinnider serve as a sniper in the Irish Citizen Army. Markievicz was not content to serve in a support role when it came down to the fight for Irish independence, nor was she content to let other capable women be sidelined.

In the weeks leading up to the rising, Margaret Skinnider smuggled detonators and bomb-making equipment into Dublin. She and several other women also tested dynamite in the hills around Dublin.

This time my duty was to go about Dublin, taking from hiding-places dynamite and bombs secreted therein. Once, on my way back to Liberty Hall with some dynamite wrapped in a neat bundle on the seat beside me, I heard a queer, buzzing noise. It seemed to come from inside the bundle. ‘Is it going off?’ I asked myself, and sit tight, expecting every moment to be blown to bits. But nothing happened; it was only the car-wheels complaining as we passed over an uneven bit of track.[28]

Once the Rising began, Skinnider served as a scout, message runner – often dressed as a boy – and sniper. She was stationed with Markievicz at St. Stephen’s Green, and was the only woman casualty. According to Markievicz, Skinnider, “like myself, was in uniform and carried an army rifle. She had enlisted as a private in the I.C.A. She was one of the party who went out to set fire to a house just behind Russell’s Hotel. The English opened fire on them from the ground floor of a house just opposite. Poor Freddy Ryan was killed and Margaret was very badly wounded.”[29] Markievicz, still confident in her friends stiff upper lip, continued: “Margaret’s only regret was her bad luck in being disabled so early in the day (Wednesday of Easter Week) though she must have suffered terribly. . .”[30]

In her account of the Rising, Markievicz describes without hesitation her own significance in the military proceedings.

When I reported with the car to Commandant Mallin in Stephen’s Green, he told me that he must keep me. He said that owing to MacNeill’s calling off the Volunteers a lot of the men who should have been under him had had to be distributed round other posts, and that few of those left him were trained to shoot, so I must stay and be ready to take up the work of a sniper. He took me round the Green and showed me how the barricading of the gates and digging trenches had begun, and he left me in charge of this work while he went to superintend the erection of barricades in the streets and arrange other work. About two hours later he definitely promoted me to be his second in command. This work was very exciting when the fighting began. I continued round and round the Green, reporting back if anything was wanted, or tackling any sniper who was particularly objectionable.[31]

Though later she wouldn’t stand in the way of early sexist legislation in the Free State, from 1908 until 1916, Markievicz embodied feminism. She ignored and waved aside claims that she couldn’t or shouldn’t do this or that. She’s alleged to have said that her fashion advice was to “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”[32]

Significantly, I think, of these three women, only Winifred Carney was born in Ireland. Markievicz was born in London, and Skinnider in Scotland. All, though, were of Irish parents, and found their way to the cause of Irish independence.

Constance Markievicz, a wounded Margaret Skinnider, and Winifred Carney, alongside 76 other women and 3,430 men, were arrested on April 29, 1916. At her defense, Markievicz said, ““I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom, and it doesn’t matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”[33]

At the trials, only one woman was sentenced to death–Constance Markievicz–and The Court “recommend the prisoner to mercy solely and only on account of her sex.”[34] Though Cumann na mBan women were relegated to support roles, there were threads of radical feminism and egalitarianism among the leaders of the Easter Rising. The fiercest proponents of that line of thinking, those leaders who insisted that the women of Cumann na mBan be utilized at the various posts around the city, or who accepted the women with guns as almost-equals, were executed for treason in the aftermath of the Rising.

The execution of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of Independence, and another nine Rising leaders, created a ripple effect through the Irish nationalist community. Though well within their legal right–the Irish rebels had, after all, committed treason against their government in wartime–the British government may have acted too hastily in dealing with the rebels. Public opinion swayed, and though most still supported Ireland’s participation in the Great War, in the aftermath, in 1918 they cast their ballots for the successors of the Easter Rising rebels: the members of Sinn Fein, the Republican party with radical separatist goals. Among those elected was Countess Constance Markievicz, who’d escape the firing squad in 1916 on account of her sex, but who never gave up the independence cause.

Markievicz, however, was more a nationalist than a feminist. She didn’t go on to fight for women’s rights so much as she fought for Irish independence. She supported Eamon de Valera, her friend, even though if she’d been assigned to his position in the Rising, she would have been sent home. She left the work of fighting for women’s rights to the others – the members of Cumann na mBan, and the suffragists of IWFL.

In the grand scheme of things, the British arrested only 79 women compared to 3,430 men in the wake of the Easter Rising. But the exclusion of the women from the narrative of Irish independence was intentional. The Free State, founded in 1922, did not rescind Irish women’s right to vote; in fact, they extended universal suffrage in 1922, granting it to all men and women over the age of 21 in Dail elections. Still, the leaders who ultimately shaped independent Ireland did not leave much room for women. Between 1922 and 2018, only 114 individual women in total have been elected to the Dail. Their minority in the government had grave and almost immediate effects.

Some women politicians, like Jennie Wyse Power and Eileen Costello, fought hard against the laws that would effectively marginalize women in the Free State. They both opposed the 1925 Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill, which sought to bar women from high positions in civil service. Ernest Blythe, Minister for Finance, said that “There is no doubt but in certain situations in teh Civil Service you must discriminate with regard to sex… You cannot, as I have said before, send women as a night patrol along the Border for the purpose of preventing smuggling.” Jennie Wyse Power shot back, “No men in a fight for freedom every had such loyal co-operation from their women as the men who compose the present Executive Council. When they wanted messengers to go into dangerous places, they did not call on members of their own sex.” Power and Costello both served in the Senate, which is much like our own Senate, with equal representation, as opposed to the Dail, which has proportional representation.

Power also opposed the 1927 Juries Bill, which removed women from the right to jury service, and the 1936 Conditions of Employment Act, which excluded women from certain types of industrial employment. Women like Power, and women in general were in a minority, though–and those sexist laws were enacted, elbowing women out of full and equal public and political participation.

And some of the women who were elected to office, like Margaret Collins-O’Driscoll, the only woman who served between 1927-32, failed to vote or speak out against laws that would ultimately hurt Irish women. Collins-O’Driscoll (who was famous revolutionary Michael Collins’ sister, for those of you who know a little about Irish independence, or who’ve watched all movies starring Liam Neeson), voted in favor of the 1929 Censorship of Publications Bill, which banned information on birth control (as well as hints of same-sex sex, but that’s a story for another day). That vote had dire consequences. Ireland had no sex education until the late 1990s, and high levels of teen pregnancy for decades, with 20 per 1000 Irish girls getting pregnant in 2001. Well into the 1980s, unwed teen mothers were confined in the Magdalen laundries, where they had their babies, and then the babies were taken from them and adopted out to, often American, families. Some of those girls never made it out of the Magdalen asylums.

Even Constance Markievicz, a leader of the Easter Rising, did little to stop the turn of the Free State to one largely unwelcoming to women. Though she was wildly popular, an outspoken Irish hero, and the first woman elected to be a member of Parliament, she chose not to take her seat for years because of broader nationalist politics rather than the immediate concerns of Irish women.

Countess Markievicz (in white) leads a victory parade of the Dáil, likely in 1918 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In the 1918 elections, Markievicz won the seat in Dublin against her opponent, William Field. She joined her Sinn Fein colleagues in refusing to take their seats in the House of Commons, forming instead their own Irish parliament, the first Dail, in Dublin, and launching the war of independence.  Cathal [KAhAL] Brugha appointed her Minister of Labor, and she served from 1919 to 1922. She supported Eamon de Valera in the Irish Civil War, and when the Anti-Treaty side lost, she left the country, and, like the other REpublicans who disagreed fundamentally with Partition, refused to take her seat in the Dail in 1923. More women were on the anti-Treaty side of things than the Pro, so that in 1922, the majority of women who were elected to seats in the Dail did not take them. Caitlín Brugha, Kathleen Lynn, Mary MacSwiney, Kathleen Clarke, and Kate O’Callaghan all refused to take their seats. Between 1927-1932, one woman–Margaret Collins-O’Driscoll–was the only female member of the Dail.

The Seanad was abolished in 1936, effectively curbing women’s effectiveness in the Irish parliament. The Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers advocated that at least one woman should be on every ballot in votes going forward, to ensure equal representation. They were ignored. Women wouldn’t be heard, for the most part, until the 1970s, when the Women’s Progressive Association began agitating for women’s voice and place in political life.

The leaders who shaped the Free State were not the radical socialist and feminist leaders who led the independence movement up through 1918. Instead, leaders like Eamon de Valera, who wrote in the 1937 Constitution that women’s place was in the home, shaped independent Ireland into the Ireland that he dreamed of.  And so the official narratives of Irish history, and particularly the founding myths like the 1916 Easter Rising, tended to write women out of them. Individuals like Constane Markievicz were tokenism at best, put on display to show what an outlier she was, rather than how she represented the hopes and intentions of Irish women more broadly. The Caitlín Brughas, Kathleen Lynns, Mary MacSwineys, Kathleen Clarkes, and Kate O’Callaghans barely get mention in that story, though they were on the front lines with Markievicz and de Valera, both literally–in the Easter Rising and War of Independence–and figuratively, in politics and the constitutional establishment of a Free State.

Bibliography

Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis, Richmond Barracks 1916: we were there: 77 women of the Easter Rising, (Dublin City Council, 2016).

Edited by Ruán O’Donnell, Mícheál Ó hAodha, Voices from the Easter Rising, (Merrion Press, 2016)

Richard Grayson, Dublin’s Great Wars : The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution, (Cambridge University Press; 2018)

Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, “Schooling the National Orphans: The Education of the Children of the Easter Rising Leaders,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 2016, Vol.9(2), pp.261-276

Marian Eide, “Maeve’s Legacy: Constance Markievicz, Eva Gore-Booth, and the Easter Rising,” Éire-Ireland, 2016, Vol.51(3), pp.80-103

Fearghal McGarry, The rising : Ireland–Easter 1916, (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Constance Gore Booth Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth), Also Poems and Articles Relating to Easter Week by Eva Gore Booth and a Biographical Sketch by Esther Roper, with a Preface by President de Valera, (Longmanns, Green, 1934)

Margaret Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland: A first-hand account of the Easter Rising, (Luath Press Ltd, 2017)

Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish Nationalism, (Pluto Press, 1995)

Helen McBride, “Eirebrushed: Erasing Women from Irish History,” Nursing Clio

Maria Luddy, “Women and the COntagious Diseases Acts, 1864-1886,” History Ireland (Spring 1993)

Brittany Columbus, “Bean na h-Éireann: Feminism and Nationalism in an Irish Journal, 1908-1911,” Voces Novae, vol. 1, iss. 2, (2018)

Cal McCarthy, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution, (Cork, Ireland: Collins Press, 2007)

Cumann na mBan Archives

Selected Further Reading

Turtle Bunbury, The 1916 rising : the photographic record (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

Alfred Fannin, Letters from Dublin, Easter 1916 : Alfred Fannin’s diary of the rising / edited by Adrian and Sally Warwick-Haller, (Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Andrew Himmelburg, “Unearthing Easter in Laois: Provincializing the 1916 Easter Rising,” New Hibernia Review, 2019, Vol.23(2), pp.114-133

Claire Wills, Dublin 1916: the siege of the GPO, (Harvard University Press, 2009)

Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Myths and memories of the Easter Rising : cultural and political nationalism in Ireland, (Irish Academic Press, 2006)


[1] Fearghal McGarry, The Rising: Easter 1916, (Oxford University Press, 2010) 9.

[2] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, (Pluto Press, 1995), 88.

[3] R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988) p 415.

[4] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 89.

[5] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 90.

[6] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 90.

[7] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 91.

[8] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 91-2.

[9] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 92-3.

[10] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 93.

[11] Elizabeth Coxhead, Daughters of Erin, (Secker & Warburg, 1965); Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 94.

[12] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 98.

[13] Brittany Columbus, “Bean na h-Éireann: Feminism and Nationalism in an Irish Journal, 1908-1911,” Voces Novae, vol. 1, iss. 2, (2018) 21; Cal McCarthy. Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution (Cork, Ireland: Collins Press, 2007) 17; Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 98.

[14] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 101.

[15] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 101.

[16] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 103.

[17] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 105.

[18] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 107.

[19] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 109.

[20] Richard S. Grayson, Dublin’s Great Wars, The First World War, the Easter Rising, and the Irish Revoluton, (Cambridge University Press, 2018) 124.

[21] Grayson, Dublin’s Great Wars, 127.

[22] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 110.

[23] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 111.

[24] Margaret Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland: A first-hand account of the Easter Rising, (Luath Press Ltd, 2017), 4.

[25] Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland, 4.

[26] Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland, 7.

[27] Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland, 4.

[28] Skinnider, Doing my Bit for Ireland, 8.

[29] Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, 40.

[30] Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, 41.

[31] Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, 39.

[32] Gina Sigillito, The Daughers of Maeve: 50 Irish Women Who Changed the WOrld, (Kensington Publishing Corp, 2007) 87.

[33] Constance Gore Booth Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth), (Longmanns, Green, 1934) 26.

[34] Constance Gore Booth Markievicz, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz (Constance Gore-Booth), (Longmanns, Green, 1934) 24.


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