Thursday 19 October 2017

Political agitator, actress and gun-toting feminist

Biography: Helena Molony: A Radical Life, 1883-1967, Nell Regan, Arlen House, pbk, 290 pages, €33.00

Helena Molony: A Radical Life 1883-1967
Helena Molony: A Radical Life 1883-1967

Damian Corless

A new book delves into the life of Helena Molony, a bundle of contradictions who Maud Gonne hailed as 'the most gallant and bravest'.

This important book tells the extraordinary tale of a true-life Wonder Woman who popped up again and again at pivotal points in the making of modern Ireland, a sort of Zelig with a cause.

Helena Molony was a trailblazing feminist, a gun-totin' rebel jailed for treason, a leader of the 1916 Rising, a top union boss, a champion of the poor, and a star of the Abbey Stage. Biographer Nell Regan has done a major service by piecing together the jigsaw of a dazzling life that featured more Byzantine twists and turns than that Hollywood bamboozler The Usual Suspects.

Molony was one of the usual suspects. From early adulthood, it was an occupational hazard to be shadowed and frequently 'lifted' by the authorities, first British, then Irish, who intercepted her mail and built thick files on her.

Women played a big part in fomenting the tumults of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War that consumed Ireland from 1916-1923. But once the guns fell silent, the men and the churchmen tried to bundle them back into the kitchen. Within a couple of decades, most had been written out of history. Molony was too famous, too outspoken and too indispensable to let that happen, but with her death in 1967, her incredible achievements slipped the collective mind. That's all put right in a book that really does have a plot worthy of a Hollywood actioner.

Molony had an unhappy childhood. Her alcoholic father fed her drink as an infant, which may have triggered her later struggles with the bottle. When he died, she and her brother were left in the clutches of a wicked stepmother. They ran away from home when she was 16.

In 1903, aged 21, she attended a meeting to protest against a visit by King Edward VII. The chief speaker was Maud Gonne MacBride. Molony recalled: "She electrified me and filled me with some of her spirit. She made me want to help."

She joined Gonne's Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) where she flew up through the ranks, with Gonne hailing her as "the most gallant and bravest". One activity was to walk up to young women 'walking out' with men "in the uniform of Ireland's oppressor", and hand them pamphlets urging them to withdraw their favours.

Molony edited the influential journal Bean na hÉireann, later calling it "a women's paper advocating militancy, separatism and feminism". It was to counter Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin newspaper which she disdained as "reactionary", with its goal of a dual UK monarchy with a crowned head in London and Dublin. Her contributors included Pádraig Pearse, Æ, JM Plunkett and James Stephens, and "the women's paper that all the young men buy" circulated as far afield as the US and France.

One convert was Constance Markievicz, with Molony later saying, "I more or less became political mentor to the Countess". Inghinidhe introduced Molony to acting, with Maud Gonne instilling the notion of theatre as propaganda. Molony proved a natural. Early on, Gonne wrote to WB Yeats: "I am so glad to hear you think (she) has the makings of an actress. She has great power of throwing herself completely into different parts." In the course of a long stage career, Helena Molony would star in over 100 Abbey productions.

Helena became romantically entangled with Bulmer Hobson, a senior member of both the Irish Volunteers and the IRB. Hobson would be sidelined by his own side in the run-up to the Easter Rising, imprisoned by the rebels for trying to cancel the Rising. Hobson and Helena apparently entered an 'understanding' that they would marry, but he broke that promise and broke her heart.

Heartbroken she may have been, but she kept herself fully occupied with a blossoming acting career and a parallel life as a political agitator. In 1913, some 20,000 workers were locked-out of their jobs in a dispute with employers over dismal pay and conditions. As the workers protested on the streets, the police waded in with brute force.

On the run, with a warrant out for his arrest, union leader James Larkin turned up at the Rathmines home the Markieviczes shared with Helena Molony.

Alarmed to hear that Larkin was thinking of throwing in the towel, Helena and the Countess persuaded him to keep up the good fight. As the author tells it: "Early the next morning, Molony took out her stage make-up and made Larkin up as a clergyman. The disguise enabled Larkin to pass through police cordons and into the Imperial Hotel on Sackville Street. From the balcony of the hotel, owned by (the biggest foe of the trades union movement) William Martin Murphy, he threw off his disguise and addressed the crowds below."

That address was to become one of the iconic moments in the birth of a nation, and Helena Molony's powers of persuasion, and a dab of her greasepaint, made it happen.

One of many admirers in awe of her talent, James Connolly urged her to organise workers in Belfast, but she had a successful acting career to maintain.

Molony was a genius publicist, she was a crack-shot with a pistol, she was fearless. In the run-up to the 1916 Rising, she ran guns from England before taking part in the attack on Dublin Castle.

Siding with the anti-Treaty faction in the Civil War, she spent the last of her savings on two revolvers. As the organiser of early 1916 anniversary commemorations, she was put under tight surveillance by the British authorities, who called her: "A dangerous woman who is evidently once again in the thick of the disaffected and whose doings and correspondence should be daily watched."

A quarter of a century later, the De Valera state was still keeping tabs on this dangerous woman, suspected of hatching plots with the Nazis. By the time of her death in 1967, she had been lauded and denounced as all things to all men and women. A brilliant bundle of contradictions, she lived life to the fullest, and then some.

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