Thursday 22 February 2018

Daughters of the Rising

Historian Sinead McCoole took on the mammoth task of piecing together the shards of the stories of 1916's revolutionary women, writes Anita Guidera

Women in Garden of Ely O'Carroll's house in Peter's Place Dublin, Summer 1916 courtesy of Kilmainham Jail Museum.
Women in Garden of Ely O'Carroll's house in Peter's Place Dublin, Summer 1916 courtesy of Kilmainham Jail Museum.
Back row, Marie McKeown, Aideen Ward, Kitty Shells. Front row, Ina Connolly, Lily Kempson and Alice Kavanagh. Ina and Aideen were daughters of James Connolly. The original of this image, which had been in Lily's possession, dated 22 August 1914, Belfa
Brid/Brigid Connolly.
Paddy Shortis killed in action during the 1916 Rising . The image was located by Maurice O'Keefe, during his collection of interviews with relatives for his Life & Lore series (funded by the DAHG),

For 100 years, most of the female spies, couriers, snipers, gun-runners and medics, who played such a crucial role in the fight for Ireland's freedom, had remained shadowy, nameless figures in the sidelines.

But a perfect storm of modern technology, public interest and expert research skills, has changed all that.

Author, historian and Easter Rising expert, Sinead McCoole, with over 20 years of expertise in the field of women's history, was invited by the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme to curate a major exhibition of Women of 1916/Mná 1916. She knew better than most the mammoth task that lay ahead.

"Women's history involves so much leg work. It is so painstaking. You might just have an obituary. You have to do family research and pull out wills and make connections between people, but then all of a sudden, records are released or somebody comes forward with a bundle of documentation and the pieces start coming together."

The timely release of digitised material from the military archives, identified for the first time 225 women with Reckonable Service, acknowledging the military role they had played during the Rising.

Sinead could then cross-reference this new information with existing objects, images and documentation from State institutions such as the National Library and the National Museum of Ireland.

She was also able to draw from other online resources, including pension records, census, birth, deaths, marriage and other church records.

Thanks to the publicity surrounding the centenary, there was an avalanche of new information and material from distant relatives.

Sinead was able to pool this invaluable new data with what she already had, and that which was being compiled by the network of Museums and Heritage Centres around the country.

Names could be matched with photographs of women in Cumann na mBan uniforms and more detailed stories began to emerge.

"It was the first time in my life that everybody was doing the same job together. So thanks to the internet and the accessibility of information, we managed to find a number of people who were the descendants of women who were activists who we wouldn't have been able to contact before.

"The expertise I had, was that because I had been working in the field for so many years, I was able to join dots and we were able to flesh out the stories, so they became more than a name."

The end result on display in Galway all month, includes a display of 53 door-sized panels featuring the stories of 300 extraordinary women from across the country.

Poignantly, one such woman, Brid Connolly has been reunited with the man she loved for the first time in 100 years. Brid, described by her contemporaries in Cumann na mBan as of the 'highest grade', took part in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and was imprisoned for her Republican stance in the Civil War.

Her papers which were sold at auction in 1999 had revealed a series of letters detailing her search for information on one of the volunteers, Paddy Shortis, who had been in the GPO. In the days that followed the Rising, she had visited hospitals, safe houses and prisons and wrote to anyone who she thought would know of his whereabouts.

Correspondence between Brid and Paddy's siblings in Kerry makes it clear that she was the 'girl' he mentioned in his letters home.

Tragically, she later learned he had been killed in the retreat from the GPO.

Paddy's picture which was located by Maurice O'Keefe, during his collection of interviews with relatives for his Life and Lore series, and Brid's picture, located from her family as part of an exhibition on Cumann na mBan for Fingal Library are together as part of the Carlow panel in the exhibition.

The exhibition also includes a small blackboard, detailing duties given to women in one of the garrisons, and containing the name Lily Kempson, a 19-year-old Dublin factory worker, who was armed in St Stephen's Green during the Rising.

Among the few treasured possessions Lily brought with her when she fled to the US in the immediate aftermath, was a photograph taken two years earlier in Belfast of her alongside five young uniformed Cumann na mBan women, among them, Ina Connolly and Aileen Ward, two daughters of James Connolly. The picture only emerged since the exhibition was completed.

Sinead is confident that all these women will now take their rightful place in history.

"When I started off, you would have been struggling to know the names of these women but now many of them are common knowledge.

"I think the tide has turned, I don't think they will ever be forgotten about in the same way, I don't think anyone will turn around and say women didn't have a role."

The Women of 1916 exhibition will run throughout the month of November at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUIG

Irish Independent

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