Wednesday 24 January 2018

My 1916: 'It's the women who suffer - they have to remain behind'

Éamon de Valera's comment on the pain of the 1916 widows proved prescient, writes history student Hannah Healy

Collection: Hannah Healy worked on the 'Letters of 1916' project.
Collection: Hannah Healy worked on the 'Letters of 1916' project.
Michael O'Rahilly

The men who led the rebellion of 1916 are often exalted for making the "supreme sacrifice", as Padraig Pearse cared to term it.

But they were not alone in that role. The women of Ireland played a big part. It would be a mistake to concentrate our attention on the sixteen executed leaders of the Rising.

We should take into regard that seven wives lost a husband, and that fifteen mothers lost a son. Margaret Pearse lost two, Padraig and William, while thirty-six sisters lost a brother and nine daughters lost their father.

In attempting to give the women involved with the Rising their fair share, historians can overlook or dismiss the importance and the significance of being someone's wife, someone's daughter or simply someone's mother.

While it might sound startling to modern ears, in the 1911 census, many women wrote 'Wife' under the title of 'Ocupation'. That this was just three generations back demonstrates that for the women of the early twentieth century, the title carried more weight than we are sometimes willing to ascribe to it now.

I am currently studying history at Trinity College Dublin and also working on Ireland's first public humanities project, 'Letters of 1916' in which we aim to create a crowd-sourced digital collection of letters written around the time of the Easter Rising (1 November 1915 - 31 October 1916). Through collaboration with both Irish and international institutions, alongside private collections, we have collected over 1,800 letters which demonstrate the intricacies of Irish life in 1916.

These letters not only follow the momentous events of 1916, such as the Easter Rising or the Battle of the Somme, but capture the life within the written words, the last words, the unspoken words, and the forgotten words of both the ordinary and extraordinary figures of 1916.

Through my work with these letters, I became interested in the story of Nancy O'Rahilly. Nancy (1875-1961) was a member of the Provisional Council of Cumann na mBan from its foundation in 1914. She was also the wife of Michael Joseph O'Rahilly, also known as 'The' O'Rahilly (1875-1916).

In 1916, Michael O'Rahilly had aligned himself with Eoin MacNeill, so much so that he was the one who delivered MacNeill's countermanding order, to cancel the Rising, to Limerick.

However, when Easter Monday came O'Rahilly felt he had a moral duty to stand with the men he had recruited and trained.

He took his place in the General Post Office in Dublin and was placed in charge of the roof, food stores and the prisoners. As failure began to look more and more inevitable O'Rahilly was supposedly urged to return home to his pregnant wife, Nancy, but he resisted the entreaties.

He was fatally wounded on Thursday April 27, leading a charge against a British barricade in Moore Street.

Before he died, The O'Rahilly wrote Nancy a memorable farewell. Knowing his fate, he reached into his pocket and found a note that his son had written to him. On the other side, he wrote this:

"Darling Nancy, I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street and took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was and made a bolt for the laneway I am in now.

"I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love Dearie to you and the boys and to Nell and Anna. It was a good fight anyhow. Please deliver this to Nannie O'Rahilly, 40 Herbert Park, Dublin. Goodbye Darling."

Nancy O'Rahilly was devastated following the death of her husband. She received numerous letters of condolence from friends and family both in Ireland and abroad.

It is through these letters of condolence that I became invested in the story of the wives, mothers and daughters of 1916. Widows such as Nancy and the children of the rebels became a symbol, a physical representation of the sacrifice made by others. The survival of a parent, wife or child left a physical presence associated with a martyred rebel, a presence that others were drawn to, cared for and supported for the sacrifice that they were deemed to have made, willingly or not. Those left behind were a tangible reminder whose influence could extend beyond that of a locket portrait or remembrance card. It is the power of this presence that we should not so readily forget.

In taking on this role, women like Nancy were also responsible for informing the next generation, for justifying the absence of martyred fathers and ensuring that current and future generations could build on their fathers' legacy.One of the great survivors of the event, Éamon de Valera recognised the importance of this role when he reportedly said 'We'll be alright, it's the women who will suffer. The worst they can do to us is kill us, but the women will have to remain behind to rear the children'.

There are many moving letters and interesting stories to be found in the Letters 1916 project.

By reading the letters of the I believe we can rediscover the stories of both the memorable and the forgotten.

For more information about the Letters of 1916 project, log on to

Irish Independent

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