Friday 23 June 2017

Brave women of 1916 finally recognised

Minister says women were airbrushed out of 1966 commemorations

Arts Minister Heather Humphreys views the Mná 1916 exhibition with Christina McLoughlin, whose Aunt Mary McLoughlin was a courier in the GPO in 1916, and Helen Mac Mahon, grandniece of Sorcha Mac Mahon, who set up the Irish Volunteers Dependants Fund. Photo: Frank McGrath
Arts Minister Heather Humphreys views the Mná 1916 exhibition with Christina McLoughlin, whose Aunt Mary McLoughlin was a courier in the GPO in 1916, and Helen Mac Mahon, grandniece of Sorcha Mac Mahon, who set up the Irish Volunteers Dependants Fund. Photo: Frank McGrath
Right: Sinead McCoole, curator of the Mná 1916 exhibition. Photo: Conor McCabe

Jane O'Faherty

The role of women in the Easter Rising was "airbrushed" out of 50th anniversary commemorations in 1966.

However, a new exhibition in Dublin Castle now celebrates the women of 1916.

'Mná 1916 - Women 1916' contains never-before-seen documents and photos from families of women who were involved in all aspects of the Rising.

The collection, charting the lives of 300 women, also draws on sources from the military archives and Census records, which have been brought together with personal items for the first time.

The women, who hailed from every county in Ireland, ranged from aristocrats to shop assistants.

Speaking at the launch last night, Arts Minister Heather Humphreys said she was delighted with the exhibition as women were "airbrushed" out of the official commemorations in 1966.

"They were very brave women to get involved because their status in society was different," she said.

At the time, women couldn't stand for parliament, because they couldn't vote.

"It's very important that we remember the women, because they made a huge contribution, they came from all walks of life and they played a very important role.

"That role wasn't recognised 50 years on in 1966 and it was very important to me that we would recognise the role of the women today," the minister said.

Sinead McCoole, author of the book 'Easter Widows', curated the exhibition and thanked those in attendance.

"State assets and national treasures are often terms used about items of great value, big houses with demesne and gold objects," she said. "This centenary year in this exhibition we have been able to use assets and treasures of a different sort dating to 1916 from the national collections, from libraries, archives, museums all over the country."

Helen McMahon, from Churchtown in Co Dublin, contributed documents and photos kept by her great-aunt, Sorcha McMahon.

A young woman from Monaghan, Sorcha came to the GPO to assist the rebels during Easter week.

"She would have carried dispatches that were both military and personal," said Helen. "She would have brought stuff to the families of the men who were in there.

"Then she would also have carried really inane things like underwear. The rebels were all told to pack enough stuff for one day." Sorcha eventually played a role in setting up the Irish Volunteers Dependants Fund with Kathleen Clarke. However, she took over most of the work when Kathleen suffered a miscarriage.

"Sorcha was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week," she said, adding that another military document attested that she sometimes worked 18 hours a day to get the job done.

"She didn't do anything by halves," said Helen.

In later years, Sorcha undertook secret work as Michael Collins's secretary. But Helen recalls that while Sorcha's two brothers got good jobs in the Irish Free State, she had to "return to normality".

"After the exhilaration of being involved in a movement like that, she ended up working in her husband's garage," she said.

Women were largely underestimated by British forces at the time, with General Maxwell referring to them privately as "silly little girls".

Comedian Oliver Callan said Italia '90 will always hold a place in the hearts of proud Irish people, but he believes it could face some competition from this year's 1916 commemorations.

The RTÉ satirist said he couldn't fault 2016's celebrations nationwide.

"The whole 1916 experience made me feel really sad that I didn't do history in college," he told the Irish Independent. "But I suppose we are doing a collective history degree as a country at the moment."

He added: "I was one of the very cynical people at the start. But I think it turned out to be one of the best things we've ever done in the country. I think it's been a huge success. We didn't know Italia '90 was a thing until 10 years later. I'd say 2016 will be the moment when we grew up a little bit."

Irish Independent

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