Friday, 25 March 2016

Women of Ireland

Women of Ireland

It is said that Constance Markievicz kissed her revolver before handing it over to the English Officer, Captain Wheeler, who was taking the surrender of Rebel forces at the Royal College of Surgeons in central Dublin in 1916.  Captain Wheeler was married to her cousin and knew her well. He would not have been surprised to find her fighting with the Rebels during those bloody days around Easter 100 years ago. Her commitment to women’s suffrage and Irish freedom were well known. Indeed Markievicz founded the Fianna √Čireann which trained youngsters not only to use firearms but in Irish history and folklore. Baden Powell, founder of the boy scouts, was looking to develop that quintessentially British organisation in Ireland but people like Markiewicz ensured many Irish youths were not inculcated with pro-Empire British ideals but rather primed to fight for Ireland. Many did and boys of 15 and 16 were to be found in every main Rebel strongpoint standing with their fathers and older sibblings.

Among the many women who took an active part in the Rising was Margaret Skinnider from Coatbridge. Constance Markiewicz knew her well and took her on a tour of Dublin’s poorer quarters in the months before the rising. The squalor she found there was the worse than anything she had seen in her native Scotland and confirmed in her mind that if all the people of Ireland were to prosper the country needed to be independent and plot its own course in the world. She said at the time of the Dublin slums…

‘I do not believe there is a worse place in the world. The street was a hollow full of sewage and refuse and the building as full of holes as if it had been under shell fire.’

Skinnider was the daughter of Irish parents and the studious looking Mathematics teacher would smuggle explosives to Ireland in her hat and once stood all night on the deck of the boat to Ireland lest the gas lights below deck set of the fuse wire she had coiled around her body. Skinnider was a first class markswoman and took a full part in the battles which raged around St Stephen’s Green. In her auto-biography ‘Doing my bit for Ireland’ she states…

“It was dark there, full of smoke and the din of firing, but it was good to be in action. I could look across the tops of the trees and see the British soldiers on the roof of the Shelbourne. I could also hear their shot hailing against the roof and wall of our fortress, for in truth this building was just that. More than once I saw the man I aimed at fall."

Nora Connolly remembered Skinnider well and noted that she had a natural authority which made the men around her accept her as their Commander. When she was ordered to burn a building on Harcourt Street to prevent a retreat by British soldiers, Skinnider was shot three times but this remarkable woman survived.

Not all the leaders of the rising were amenable to women fighting with their units. It is recorded that Eamon de Valera defied orders from James Connolly and Patrick Pearse to allow women combatants into Boland’s Mill. Women, in the eyes of many in Irish society should know their place but such attitudes were to change as the fighting raged in Dublin. Indeed as the British brought their huge material superiority to bear on the Rebels and it became an increasingly  hopeless struggle the women stuck it out bravely to the end. When the order to surrender was received and verified Rose McNamara, the officer in command of the female battalion at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery, presented herself and 21 other women to the British. One account of the surrender states that…

’The women of the garrison could have evaded arrest but they marched down four deep in uniform along with the men. An attempt was made to get them to sign a statement recanting their stand but this failed. Miss McNamara who led the contingent went to the British Officer Commanding and explained they were part of the rebel contingent and were surrendering with the rest. Recalling the events before being brought to Richmond Barracks, McNamara said: “The men gave each of us their small arms to do as we liked with, thinking we were going to go home, but we were not going to leave the men we were with all the week to their fate; we decided to go along with them and be with them to the end, whatever our fate might be.”

That so many women were prepared to carry supplies to the Rebels in the heat of battle, to act as messengers, nurses and above all as soldiers of the Republic says much about the ideals contained in the proclamation read out by Pearse at the General Post Office. The Irish Republic would ‘guarantee the suffrage of all her men and women’ as well as respect the religious and civil freedom of all the children of the nation. Thus for the duration of the Rising, at any rate, Irish women achieved at least a nominal measure of political parity with Irish men. The ideals of the men and women who fought in 1916 were of course submerged as more conservative forces in Ireland reasserted themselves in the decades after the rising. It may be argued that some of the revolutionary principles of the Proclamation of 1916 died with the leaders who were so mercilessly executed by the British. However the genie was out of the bottle and many women were no longer content to be allocated a seat in the back of the bus in Ireland. James Connolly, whose socialism is discernible in the Proclamation, once wrote…

‘For us of the Citizen’s Army there is but one idea- an Ireland ruled over and owned by Irish men and women, sovereign and independent from the centre to the sea.’

Connolly was clear that there would have to be a new deal for women in the Ireland he envisaged. In his view there was no point changing the flag over Dublin Castle from a Union Jack to a Tricolour if the same social and economic conditions which oppressed so many remained in place. He also wrote in that poetic way of his…

‘In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off’

It is a time to remember all who took part in the events of 100 years ago; for the brave men and women who took on an Empire and yes, even the working class Tommies who died fighting them. So as the Irish at home and around the world celebrate, remember and take pride in the deeds of 100 years ago they should perhaps also recall the role of women in their struggle. They fought for a new society, one in which women were equal with men in all things. One hundred years later can we claim that their ideals have been fully realised?



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, whatever your politics it can't be denied the men and woman of 1916 were progressive in the sort of country they wanted to create