Stage: The Gonne girl who helped stage a rebellion
'I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903... She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit." With these words, one of the central figures of the Easter Rising was transformed from a bystander into a crucial participant in our shared history.
Helena Molony was 20 when she was awoken by Maud Gonne that evening and she went on to join Gonne's Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), one of the few organisations that facilitated political engagement by women at a time when they were denied the vote and excluded from most political organisations.
Molony soon emerged as a natural orator and leader, a modern-day Granuaile. In 1908, she established Bean na hEireann, a monthly "woman's paper advocating militancy, separatism and feminism… Friendly newsagents would say, "Bean na hEireann? That's the woman's paper that all the young men buy'."
Molony's political involvement thrived and the path she was on veered sharply to the left. She was working in Liberty Hall's food kitchen alongside Constance Markievicz during the Lock-out and became increasingly involved with the politics of James Connolly. She became general secretary of the Irish Women Workers' Union in 1915, as well as a very active member of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). The following year she would start the Rising.
Molony was due on the Abbey stage on April 24, 1916, for the matinee of Yeats' Cathleen Ni Houlihan. But, along with fellow actor Sean Connolly, she spent that afternoon marching to Dublin Castle. The story of that day is now resurrected in Rebel Rebel, a most timely play directed by Louise Lowe for Anu Productions (anuproductions.ie).
Starring Aisling O'Mara as the glorious Molony and Aonghus Og McAnally as Connolly, it runs daily at Bewleys Café Theatre until April 16th before embarking on a nationwide tour.
"We wanted to explore the notion of rehearsing for a revolution in the theatre, how these actors were performing these revolutionary acts on stage, how this fed into their idealism and how they would go home charged by it and talk politics through the night," says director Louise Lowe.
"Helena was so radical in her views and her thinking, she could never passively observe.
"In Rebel Rebel, we meet Helena in 1924, after she has been refused her state pension and is back playing Cathleen Ni Houlihan in the Abbey, wondering what has it all been for. She had started acting in 1909, she said she wanted to act not for art's sake but to learn how to make agitprop and political theatre. She was always very politically engaged. At the age of 15, she was campaigning for school milk for children.
"She was an inspirational woman, but she did struggle with alcoholism all of her life and that led to certain personal problems. At the time of the Rising, she was homeless and sleeping in Liberty Hall on a pile of coats in the co-op shop. There was a hole in the back of the shop that led into the printing room where The Proclamation was printed. Helena herself had set up the printing press and was in charge of guarding The Proclamation. Leading up to Easter week, the press was seized by eight Metropolitan policemen, but Helena held them up with her gun, she went everywhere with her own revolver."
On Easter Monday 1916, Molony and Connolly led the small second garrison from Liberty Hall to Dublin Castle. They both walked up to James O'Brien, a policeman from Limerick who was on duty at the Castle gate, a man that Connolly personally knew. Together, they raised their guns and Sean Connolly shot O'Brien straight in the face, the first bullet of the Rising.
They did make some attempt to take over Dublin Castle, but for some unknown reason they panicked and ran back out to City Hall. An hour later Connolly would die in Helena's arms as she whispered an act of contrition to him. As Yeats would later ask, "did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?"