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The 1916 widows: The seven women left behind after the executions

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Kathleen Daly (Kathleen Clarke) courtesy of Helen Litton

Kathleen Daly (Kathleen Clarke) courtesy of Helen Litton

Frances (Fanny) O'Brennan (Áine Ceannt), courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Frances (Fanny) O'Brennan (Áine Ceannt), courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Grace Gifford (Grace Plunkett) courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum

Grace Gifford (Grace Plunkett) courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum

Lillie Reynolds (Lillie Connolly) courtesy of Seamus Connolly

Lillie Reynolds (Lillie Connolly) courtesy of Seamus Connolly

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Kathleen Daly (Kathleen Clarke) courtesy of Helen Litton

A Protestant governess in Merrion Square didn't flirt with British squaddies in 1880s' Dublin. But Lillie Reynolds shared a wry smile with the Scottish soldier who had raced fruitlessly after a tram. James Connolly was that soldier: the man who would free Ireland.

They're not who you thought they were, the flat monochrome men on the classroom poster of the 1916 heroes; the leaders of the Rising were once boys who fell in love. Sinéad McCoole's Easter Widows is about the women who loved them. She sketches the seven women who were to become widows in one week in May 1916 when their husbands would be executed - Maud Gonne MacBride, Lillie Connolly, Kathleen Clarke, Áine Ceannt, Grace Plunkett, Muriel MacDonagh. And she goes on to tell the story of the executions, the war, and the suppression of women by the revolutionaries' mediocre successors.

Three of those who would be widowed were Lillie Connolly, Kathleen Clarke and Maud Gonne - three very different people: Lillie Connolly a hard-headed working-class woman, Kathleen Clarke a scion of the Fenian bourgeoisie and Maud Gonne MacBride an ascendancy lady and an activist from her teens to her old age.

Lillie and James Connolly lived desperately poor. His Edinburgh Irish family had signed him into the British army at 14, and he was posted to Ireland. After they met at the tram stop he invited her to Scotland. To his astonishment she arrived - just as he slid out of the army and was living by occasional work, scraping horse manure off the streets. Then, luck: Connolly, a committed social activist with a rage against capitalism fuelled by his brutal childhood, got a £1-a-week job organising for the Dublin Socialist Club. They moved from tenement to tenement, he lost the job after a strike, he was arrested - and then Maud Gonne floated in and commissioned him to write for her Paris paper l'Irlande Libre.

Between Ireland and America, Connolly founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party, socialist newspapers Worker's Republic and the Harp, the Irish Citizen Army. While Lillie was out getting tickets for the boat to join him in America, their 13-year-old Mona tried to lift boiling water off the range using her apron, the apron caught fire and she was burned to death. Waiting in Ellis Island, Connolly said his wife and six children were inside. Puzzled, the official said there were only five children. . .

In 1910 Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Michael Mallin brought Connolly back to Ireland to organise their Irish Socialist Party. Lillie followed him home, then moved to Belfast where her daughters could get work (which they hid from their father, who could not stand the idea that they would have to sew and scrub to make up the family money).

During the Lockout, when Connolly was on hunger strike in jail, Lillie walked to the Lord Lieutenant's mansion to demand his freedom. He was brought to Constance Markievicz's home, where Madame Markievicz ran a food depot for locked-out workers, helped by Maud Gonne and their socialist and feminist friends. He lived the rest of his life there, taking the train to Belfast every Friday.

Connolly's Citizen Army took terrible losses in the Rising, devastating the leadership of Irish labour. James Connolly was the last of the Proclamation's signatories to be killed - to howls of delight from capitalists.

Kathleen Daly's uncle, John Daly, national organiser for the IRB, recruited British army corporal's son Tom Clarke into the movement; Clarke was picked up with dynamite on his first mission in London and he and Daly were jailed for life. Fifteen years later, the prosperous, rigidly Fenian Limerick Daly family - eight daughters and Ned Daly, the beloved baby boy born after his father's death - revered the released hero Clarke. Their precious Kathleen actually marrying this broken man 20 years older than her was quite another matter.

But the couple fought off the family's refusal and married, and went to America and bought a nice farm with the Dalys' help. Tom Clarke became a US citizen. Then they came home to a newly aroused Dublin and rented a tobacco shop, which became the centre of all plotting, with a permanent posting of detectives watching who came and went.

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At Easter 1916, Kathleen brought the children home to Limerick, with a note from Tom for local activists that the Irish Volunteers' Chief of Staff Eoin MacNeill "has signed the Proclamation and is quite enthusiastic". It proved otherwise.

Thirteen days later Kathleen was taken as a prisoner to Kilmainham Gaol. Clarke was exalted, awaiting execution, and gave her a telling message for the Irish people: "We have struck the first blow for freedom." Next day she was brought in again, to see her little brother Ned before the firing squad killed him.

She would go on to be Lord Mayor of Dublin, a TD and a Senator, opposing all the early State's efforts to suppress women and throw them out of work, and defending the Republic and its values to her last breath.

There's a little of a feeling of fingering through the lingerie drawer about Easter Widows; strange that the lives of these women 100 years ago can be taken out and stared at in intimate details that they cannot, of course, dispute.

John MacBride knew Maud Gonne would be ideal for his American lecture circuit. 'Divinely tall, and most divinely fair', as they said then, she had a heart-stopping romantic beauty that (my mother told me) would even in old age have every man in a room she entered unconsciously put his hand to his throat to adjust his tie. On his hero's return from the Boer War in 1901, Madame Gonne stood at the head of a delegation in the Gare du Nord - golden hair flying, golden eyes glowing, her Irish wolfhound Dagda at her heels.

She should have realised this red-faced, red-headed soldier wasn't a good match when he wrote admiringly to his mother that she "astonishes me the way in which she can stand knocking about" - meaning the rough life on tour. But Maud Gonne had no time for the conventional - from youth she had set up food depots for starving children; she had borne children to a man separated from his wife; she had supported her father's secret child.

WB Yeats, who loved her for years, was horrified when she planned to marry MacBride; Arthur Griffith tried to break them up - "you so unconventional. . . John full of conventions", but no. They honeymooned in Gibraltar, hoping to assassinate the visiting King of England; MacBride got drunk and failed.

In their sensational divorce, the least of the accusations was that he tried to rape the family cook; his defence was that he didn't need to rape anyone so ugly - he had plenty of money to pay a prostitute.

Madame Gonne stayed in Paris when MacBride was in Dublin, and vice versa. In 1910 he got a Dublin Corporation job, through her influence (to his fury when he found out).

On Easter Monday 1916, MacBride was walking to work when he met the Volunteers marching to Jacob's and joined them. The British were delighted to have the man who had fought them in the Boer War before a firing squad; Maud Gonne was finished with loving men forever.

Lucille Redmond is a journalist and lecturer. She is writing a book on her grandparents, Thomas and Muriel MacDonagh

Easter Widows

Sinéad McCoole

Doubleday Ireland, hdbk, 484pp, €32.60

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350


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