Wednesday 25 April 2018

They fought with their brothers

As many as 200 women took an active part in the Easter Rising, writes Joe O'Shea

A group of Limerick volunteers and members of Cumann na mBan photographed in 1915
A group of Limerick volunteers and members of Cumann na mBan photographed in 1915
Margaret Skinnider.
Winifred Carney was in the GPO during the Easter Rising.

It has taken 100 years and tireless research and campaigning on their behalf. In the years after the Rising, the new Irish state denied most of them recognition. And on a more practical level, the pensions and support offered as a matter of course to the men.

But now the women of 1916, many of whom fought alongside or even commanded their male comrades, are finally being given a voice. And their stories, which take in the parallel struggles of the suffragette and trade union movements, the struggle for equality and basic rights, provide a fascinating counterpoint to the more familiar tales of brave Irishmen standing firm as the bullets flew and the bombs fell.

Up until very recently, if the women of 1916 were talked of at all, it was as nurses, angels of mercy and comfort, passively standing by with bandages and cups of tea as the men stood to their posts and took fire. But while estimates vary, as many as 60 women were combatants and between 170 and 200 took an active part, in many roles, from snipers and section commanders to nurses, HQ staff, quarter-masters and despatch runners (one of the most dangerous roles on a chaotic, urban battlefield).

On the day of the Rising, some 40 women entered the GPO with their male comrades. One, Winifred Carney, was armed with both a Webley revolver and a typewriter. By nightfall on the first day, there were women volunteers in all of the significant strongholds across the city. Except one.

In Boland's Mills, Eamon de Valera had no women under his command. Some sources later claimed that Dev straight-out refused to include women in the garrison, ignoring the direct orders of Pearse and Connolly. Sighle Bean Uí Donnachadha, a Cumann na mBan woman who fought, later said, "De Valera refused absolutely to have Cumann na mBan girls in the posts… the result, I believe, was that the garrison there did not stand up to the siege as well as in other posts."

Winifred Carney was a trade unionist from Belfast who became James Connolly's aide-de-camp, friend and confidante. She is said to have been the only woman present at the initial occupation of the GPO and was there until the end, with the rank of adjutant. She refused to leave the side of the wounded Connolly (despite direct orders to evacuate along with the other women) and alongside Elizabeth O'Farrell and Julia Greman, finally left the GPO with the last to surrender.

O'Farrell and her lifelong friend Greman were both nurses. It was O'Farrell who, at 12.45pm on April 24th, walked out into very heavy fire on Moore Street to deliver the final surrender. And she was sent back by the British commander to give the rebel leaders his call for an unconditional capitulation.

When O'Farrell and Greman were reunited with the wounded Connolly, he was said to have exclaimed: "When I was lying there in the lane I thought of how often the two of you went up and down there and nothing ever happened to ye!"

Margaret Skinnider was the daughter of Irish immigrant parents and grew up in Lanarkshire in Scotland. She joined Cumann na mBan after becoming involved in the Suffrage movement in Glasgow and then met Countess Markievicz in Dublin.

Skinnider started smuggling explosives and detonators to Dublin from Scotland (sometimes, she later recalled, the smaller components went in her hat). She later said she joined the struggle because the Republican Proclamation promised equal rights for women.

Ironically, since she became a sniper in the Rising, the young Margaret had become a crack shot in her youth after joining a rifle club which was set up to train young ladies to "defend the British Empire". When the Rising broke out, she took her rifle onto the roof of the Royal College of Surgeons and began sniping at soldiers.

"It was dark there, full of smoke and the din of firing, but it was good to be in action... more than once I saw the man I aimed at fall".

Skinnider was wounded three times in the fighting. But she was typical of the Cumann na mBan (and Citizen's Army) women who were drilled and trained to be more than just passive supporters of the men.

The constitution of the organisation, set up by a committee of nationalist women in 1913, made it clear that its primary role was to "Advance the cause of Irish liberty", and by any means necessary.

Weapons training and military drill were an integral part of the training. Members were expected - as set out in the constitution - to become proficient with rifles.

Documents held in the Military Archives in Dublin report on Cumann women such as Lily O'Connor being "highly proficient in the use of a range of weapons including Webley, Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers".

It was clear: In the event of the shooting starting, young women like Lily were not to cry out and look to the protection of the nearest Irishman. They were to stand and fight.

There were casualties. Nurse Margaretta Keogh was shot dead in the initial, confused fighting at the South Dublin Union. A nurse in the Union, she had rushed to tend to her patients when the shooting started. Volunteer commander Eamon Ceannt hailed the Carlow woman as "the first martyr of the Rising".

Ten men and nine women, under the command of Abbey actor Seán Connolly, tried to shoot their way through the gates of Dublin Castle in the early stages of the fighting. They were beaten back and occupied City Hall. The actress and journalist Helena Molony took part in the fight and later helped tend the wounded. On Connolly's death Dr Lynn, chief medical officer of the Irish Citizen Army, took command and later surrendered.

The reaction of British officers was indicative of how they saw the armed women volunteers. They initially refused to take the surrender from Lynn, who survived imprisonment and a hunger strike before going on to have a long career in medicine in Ireland, setting up a children's hospital in Dublin and starting the first mass immunisation programme for Irish children.

In many cases, especially in the early stages of the fighting, baffled British officers simply told the women rebels to "go home".

When British soldiers ran into Citizen Army member Jenny Shanahan while they were storming City Hall, they mistook her for an innocent bystander. The quick thinking Shanahan immediately played the role assigned to her by the tommies and warned them that there was a large, well-armed force of rebels on the roof. The soldiers halted their storming of the building for several hours.

Across the burning city, in Easter 1916, in all the garrisons and posts (except de Valera's Boland's Mills) scores of women stood and fought, ran dangerous missions or acted as vital support. When the surrender came, they marched off to prison with their brothers in arms.

Irish Independent

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