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No Ordinary Women

Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923
Sinead McCoole
O'Brien Press
No Ordinary Women


From the Foreword

Remember me is all I ask
And if remembrance proves a task, forget.

Nora O'Sullivan, Prisoner, North Dublin Union and Cork City (An entry in the autograph book of Kitty Coyle)

Finding Women

Thirteen days before Christmas, Aunt Bridie died. She was 85 years A old and had lived a good life, but the holiday was a sad one for the Halpin family because Aunt Bridie was the loved and respected matriarch of the clan in America. A strong and independent woman, she was the first to 'come over'... There were no memories of Bridie as a young woman; no one knew her dreams and wishes ... Aunt Bridie was the typical spinster aunt of many an Irish family in America ... After the funeral came the sorrowful task of clearing out the little apartment in upper Manhattan that Aunt Bridie called home. That job was left to Christy. With fond recollections, he examined each item and trinket that she had kept over the years. Then he saw the suitcase under the bed. He lifted it onto the table, opened it, and began to go through photos, newspaper clippings, and papers brown with age. As each document unfolded, a totally different picture of Aunt Bridie emerged. Now why, he wondered, would Aunt Bridie have a copy of the Constitution of Cumann na mBan ... Then he found the newspaper clippings of the troubled 1920s in Ireland of Black and Tan raids, of Civil War strife ... The next item stunned Christy - it was a detention order dated 8 August 1923, declaring Bridie Halpin a dangerous person and ordering her imprisonment... Each piece of paper was a personal memoir; a vignette weaving a biographical portrait of a time and person that - until now -he thought he knew well ... Then he came across a frail collection of papers, hand-sewn together ... a makeshift booklet... It was Bridie's jail journal - Christy couldn't believe what he was reading ... 'Far better the grave of a rebel without cross, without stone, without name than a treaty with treacherous England that can only bring sorrow and shame. Bridie Halpin, Kilmainham Jail.' This was not the Aunt Bridie he had known ... Christy left the apartment with an entirely new impression of the loving old woman he knew as Aunt Bridie.

This is how Mike McCormack, now Honorary Historian of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, wrote up Christy Halpin's account of stumbling upon his aunt's secret past in the Irish Echo of New York on 2 April 1988, in a piece entitled 'Aunt Bridie -A Woman of Ireland'.

Bridie Halpin's story is not unique. Many of the women who participated in Ire­land's fight for freedom never spoke about that period in their lives. This is particularly true of those imprisoned for their part in the Civil War. The bitterness of those years, and the women's experiences at the hands of fellow countrymen, meant that it was an episode best concealed. Also, it was a source of extreme embar­rassment to some families that their womenfolk had been in prison. In many households, the Civil War was never discussed; the subject was taboo in social cir­cles as well. Fintan Norris, son of Eilis Robinson Norris, told me that his mother never mentioned these troubled times to him, either during his childhood or later. Her story came to him in snatches, second-hand.

Even as late as the 1950s, the history of the Civil War was considered too controversial and emotive to be taught in schools in Ireland. When I spoke to Anna MacBride White - daughter of Sean MacBride and Catalina (Kid) Bulfin, and granddaughter of Maud Gonne MacBride and Major John MacBride (executed in 1916) - she told me that although the past was discussed in the house, she had to resort to textbooks to disentangle the complex story of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War.

1923 saw the greatest mass arrest of political women ever recorded in Ireland -the women that WT Cosgrave, taoiseach of the day, described as 'no ordinary women', saying that this dictated the way they should be dealt with in prison.

This book tells the story of the Irish revolutionary period, 1900-1923, from the perspective of female activists. This includes those women who saw it as a military struggle, those who saw it as a humanitarian crisis, those who saw it as political, and those who simply got caught up in 'the struggle' because they wanted to see cultural change. It is not meant to be a definitive account of the history of the period; instead, it focuses on a time when vast numbers of Irish women were politicised and sent to jail for their beliefs, with a special emphasis on their imprisonment in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising and during the War of Independence and the Civil War. It was, and is, the most comprehensive account of the 'ordinary women took part' - the elusive rank and file - with a focus in the main on those who were imprisoned. This book named them for the first time, painstakingly reconstructing a list from available source material. It highlighted the numbers of women and the geographical spread of those imprisoned.

Kilmainham Jail, Inchicore, Dublin, which was one of the primary places of detention, is now a museum run by the state. Built between 1787 and 1796, it was in use until the end of the Civil War in 1924. By the 1960s it lay in ruins, and over the next decade it was restored by the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Society, a group of voluntary workers, many of whom had fought for Irish freedom. It has become a national monument, having housed hundreds of Irish male and female freedom fighters during the 114 years that it was Dublin's county prison.

From 1991 to 1993, I was a guide at Kilmainham Jail. On my tours, the only women I mentioned were Countess Markievicz - who was second-in-command at the Royal College of Surgeons/St Stephen's Green garrison during the 1916 Rising -and Ann Devlin, the confidante of Robert Emmet, who was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail following the ill-fated Rebellion of 1803. Telling the story of other female activists who had been political prisoners, and their involvement in the shaping of modern Irish history, simply did not occur to me. However, there were reminders of the women's imprisonment all around me - in paintings and inscriptions in the cells, and the recollections of visitors who came to the prison. These hinted that there was a story waiting to be told.

In 1994 I set out, on behalf of the heritage service, to gather material on women who had participated in the struggle for Irish independence, to be included in a permanent exhibition on the history of Kilmainham Jail. This award-winning exhibition opened in 1996. By then, enough material had been sourced to hold an additional temporary exhibition, Guns & Chiffon, devoted to the role of women in the revolutionary period. Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president, launched this exhibition and an accompanying catalogue, Guns & Chiffon: Women Revolutionaries and Kilmainham Jail1916-1923, in 1997.

My research began as a discovery of women; their names and stories emerged slowly. Trying to tell their stories was a little like trying to walk into the mists of time. The material relating to women in the archives of Kilmainham Jail was, by and large, a collection of photographs of unidentified women and objects relating to individuals whose participation in the fight for freedom was unknown. One of these items was a photograph of a group of women, some of whom were wearing military uniforms. It later transpired that these were women who had participated in the 1916 Rising - this information came from a caption in the Irish Press of 9 April 1966. For the first time I saw the faces of these women and could put names on them, and to me they became real people. My work on the women of this period, originally expected to be of six months' duration, has become part of my life.