Saturday 1 October 2016

My 1916: The woman with the golden gun

The Royal Irish Academy is shining a spotlight on some of the lesser-known participants in the Rising, including a mysterious female sniper

Celine Naughton

Published 26/08/2015 | 02:30

Reeling in the years: Ruth Hegarty, managing editor of the Royal Irish Academy.
Reeling in the years: Ruth Hegarty, managing editor of the Royal Irish Academy.

Long before the Russians had women snipers fighting for the Red Army during World War Two, Ireland had her own femme fatale picking off the enemy during the Easter Rising.

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One of the lesser-known figures of 1916, Margaret Skinnider would regularly don her dark green ICA uniform to take pot shots from the Royal College of Surgeons. Then she'd put on a dress and cycle into the city to pass on a message, after which she'd return, pull on her soldier's breeches and start shooting again. And if that doesn't already sound like a character who'd give James Bond a run for his Moneypenny, she was also known for smuggling detonators concealed in her hat, then testing them with Countess Markievicz in the Dublin mountains.

Hers is one of 42 biographies detailed in 1916: Portraits and Lives, being published by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in advance of the centenary commemorations next year. While Pearse, Clarke and key British figures feature large, it also gives the perspectives of less-prominent characters, and Skinnider is one of managing editor Ruth Hegarty's favourites.

"She was fearless and fascinating in equal measure," she says. "When Mallin rejected her plan to hurl a bomb from a passing bicycle into the British-occupied Shelbourne Hotel as too risky for a woman, she argued that, as women were equal with men under the Irish Republic, they had an equal right to risk their lives."

Two years ago Ruth and her team started planning for the 1916 commemorations and, as with the best-laid plans, the project snowballed as it rolled closer to the date.

RIA books are typically big, quality tomes, but the photos intended for Portraits and Lives had not weathered well over the past 100 years. The ideal solution would be to commission original portraits, but it was an expensive option.

"We talked with the Office of Public Works, who commissioned them for the State Collection," says Ruth. "They will be exhibited at Kilmainham Gaol and we'll use the portraits for the book to be launched in October.

"Before the launch I want to invite the relatives of those people featured in the book to a special evening at the Academy. I'm trying to track down contact details, so if you're reading this and you're descended from one of those who fought in 1916, email me at publications@ria.ie.

"It promises to be a memorable event, when people with direct connections can come together and see the portraits of their ancestors in an intimate setting."

The portraits steered her on to a new train of thought: 15 railway stations throughout the country are named after rebel leaders of 1916, so she got in touch with Irish Rail.

"Some people may not realise that Pearse Station is named after both brothers, Patrick and Willie, or that Kingsbridge became known as Heuston Station in honour of Sean Heuston; at 25, one of the youngest to be executed.

"Casement Station in Tralee is named after Roger Casement, arrested when he landed on Banna Strand on Good Friday 1916 and was later hanged and buried at Pentonville Prison in London: 49 years later he was granted a State funeral and reinterred in Glasnevin.

"Plunkett Station in Waterford commemorates Joseph Mary Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol the day before his execution."

Irish Rail embraced the idea and from next March, commuters at these stations will see a gigantic poster of the relevant figure by artist David Rooney. You can then download an ebook to your phone to find out more.

"If 1916 encouraged a sense of working together, the people involved would surely have been impressed at the collaborative effort running through next year's centenary preparations," says Ruth.

"There's something deeply satisfying about that."

She's currently collaborating with historian Lucy McDiarmid on another book in the pipeline, At Home in the Revolution, which looks at the role women played during the Rising.

"It's full of eye-witness accounts from women who cooked for the men, treated their wounds, and in some cases had their hearts broken seeing their loved ones before they were executed... people like Eily O'Hanrahan and her sister who spent precious minutes with their brother Mícheál in Kilmainham Gaol the night before he was shot.

"We said goodbye to Mícheál," Eily wrote. "He did not weep, but kept up his courage. We did not give way either then. He kissed us several times and told us to give his love to Mother and Máire and to Harry when we found out where he was… We came downstairs and I got weak, and when I got to the ground floor I fainted."

"Discovering these stories - in the words of the people themselves - puts you in the picture as to what it must have been like to have lived during 1916," says Ruth.

"I'm not a historian, but working with our authors has opened up a whole new world for me. I see places on my way to work that I never noticed before, like Connaught Street in Phibsboro, where Bulmer Hobson, an opponent of the Rising, was held at gunpoint in Michael Conlan's house, a few doors down from the O'Hanrahans, to prevent him trying to quash the insurrection.

"His fiancée Claire Gregan turned up at the door looking for him, but was told he wasn't there. Claire later wrote: 'Bulmer told me afterwards he heard me and made a move to come to the door and that another volunteer guarding him pointed a gun at him.'

"These stories really bring the Easter Rising to life for me and I hope they will do so for generations to come."

Irish Independent

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