Women and the Irish Revolution

Book Review by Dymphna Lonergan

Women and the Irish Revolution

Linda Connolly (ed.): Women and the Irish Revolution: Feminism, Activism, Violence, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2020.
ISBN: 978-1-78855-153-1
RRP: $41.15         pp. 272

‘Them Ducks Died for Ireland’ is the title of a poem by Irish poet Paula Meehan. She is one of three Irish poets discussed in Women and the Irish Revolution, recently released by Irish Academic Press. The book is a pleasing mix of solid historical research and creative responses, including a final poem, ‘Brightening’. The ‘ducks’ refer to the six waterfowl reported as having been killed or shot in St Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising. Coming across this report prompted the poet to consider the Green itself and its occupants at that time, both human and natural, what Ailbhe McDaid’ in Chapter 10 calls the ‘unnoticed marginalia’ of the Irish war of independence and the civil war. The ten-chaptured Women and the Irish Revolution examines in detail the marginalia of Irish women’s role in the revolutionary wars. Doireann Ní Gríofa’s poem ‘Brightening’ captures the result, ‘our windows lit one by one,/from within…/A vast constellation of sparks to star the dark.’

The majority of the chapters in Women and the Irish Revolution are historical accounts of Irish women’s participation in the revolutionary wars. In this, the chapter authors have made great use of the free online resource The Military Service Pension Collection from the Military Archives in Dublin. (see https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923) The idea of a Military Service Pension stemmed from a wish in 1932 to reward those who took part in the fight for Irish freedom with the gift of a pension. The online resource that is a collection of applications is a gift that keeps on giving – from a resource for family history (my own family’s story of a relative who fought in the Rising verified with the application made by Patrick McCabe who was at Boland’s Mill), to a source for historians in general. For research into women’s roles in Irish life at the time, the Collection can illuminate women’s experiences and activities that, as the Preface suggests, can be ‘…rendered invisible in a male-centric narrative.’ Seven of the ten chapters are written by women, with Chapter 11 co-authored by Sarah-Anne Buckley and John Cunningham.

Until the centenary of the Rising, little written information has been available on women’s roles in the Irish revolution. Marie Coleman in Chapter 7 says that previously there were ‘only 146 transcribed witness statements from women’ in the Bureau of Military History. This new online resource contains 300,000 files with easily accessible information on applicants’ details of their roles. A scroll through the archives also shows evidence of ‘the less-regarded work’ of women’s participation that made it difficult for them to be successful in their claims: ‘Cumann na mBan were restricted, along with the republican boy scouts, Fianna Éireann, to the two lowest ranks for pensions, ‘D’ and ’E’.

During the revolutionary wars, Irish women’s difficulties were further compounded by disenfranchisement and being unable to benefit from the much bigger suffragist movement in England. That movement’s task was to gain voting rights from Westminster. The Irish movement had the same purpose, to gain voting rights, but also to fight for Irish independence from the same Westminster government. Louise Ryan in Chapter 1 writes that ‘the ‘complexities of national boundaries led to ‘a sometimes tense relationship between suffragists in Ireland and Britain.’

Subsequent chapters deal with newly found evidence of Cumann na mBan’s wide-ranging work during the revolutionary wars, including its work in Belfast during and beyond the Truce period; female fatalities in Cork during the Irish war of independence; violence against women from both sides during the wars; and commemorating the Irish revolution. This latter topic includes an account of the Tuam Workhouse and the contrast between the commemoration of six volunteers executed on that site with the recent revelation that hundreds of unknown babies were buried there. The suggestion is that the ‘decade of centenaries’ that is being commemorated by the Irish government should extend its coverage to non-military activities and events.

If ever there was a case of a favourite chapter in this book, I would choose chapter 2, Lucy McDiarmid’s ‘Comradeship’ on the imprisonment in Holloway prison of Kathleen Clarke and her two ‘tall’ comrades, Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne, who at times tended to dispute ‘as to which of them had the highest social status’. The narrative is based on Kathleen Clarke’s notebooks and letters and would make a good TV series or film. Both Gonne and Markievicz loomed large in Irish literary and political life. In prison they were reduced to petty quarrels. McDiarmid points out that: ‘The issues that surfaced among them in Holloway were obsolete: there was not going to be any more Dublin Castle social life, and the Ascendancy was not going to be ascendant anymore’. The chapter nicely positions Clark as neutral ground between the other two and brings to mind the role of that white band in the centre of the Irish tricolour.

Women and the Irish Revolution emanates from a 2017 conference in Dublin. The book project hoped to ‘…prompt new public conversations and questions about the complex experience and their legacy in this period.’ It deserves to be widely read.

Dymphna Lonergan is a member of Tinteán’s editorial collective.