Friday 17 November 2017

The rise of Mná na hÉireann

Sinead McCoole is writing women back into Irish history - where they belong, as she tells our reporter

Independent women: Sinead McCoole has been researching the women of 1916 and their stories for years. Photo: Henry Wills.
Independent women: Sinead McCoole has been researching the women of 1916 and their stories for years. Photo: Henry Wills.

Celine Naughton

One thing the Irish freedom fighters had no need of in 1916 was gender quotas. Mná na hÉireann at that time rocked the system in their droves, and historian Sinéad McCoole says today's generation would find no better role models than these of our forebears.

Author of several bestselling books focusing on the women of the era, it's hard to think of anyone more qualified to bring these women's stories to life. And now, with the spotlight shining ever more brightly on the Rising, Sinead is training that light on hitherto unknown women to take their place in history as equals to such luminaries as Maud Gonne and Countess Markievicz.

"There were masses of women in politics at the turn of the century," says Sinéad. "Many came in through the trade union movement and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), the forerunner of Cumann na mBán.

"These women were doers; they rolled up their sleeves and made things happen. For some it was a military struggle while others saw it as a humanitarian crisis, some got involved for political reasons and others because they wanted to see cultural change.

"They came from all walks of life. They were shop assistants, doctors, housewives, laundry workers, artists, teachers and even schoolchildren. They were rich and poor, of all religions and none, and many were imprisoned for their beliefs, both in the aftermath of 1916 and the Civil War.

"In 1923, there was the greatest mass arrest of political women ever recorded in Ireland and, while incarcerated, they endured the full rigours of hunger strike and separation from family and friends."

One of those, Teresa O'Connell, contacted Sinéad in 1994 when she was curating an exhibition called Guns & Chiffon in Kilmainham Jail.

'As an ex-prisoner of Kilmainham Jail, I have no records left as things were confiscated,' she wrote. 'As far as I know, many of my friends there are now happy with God… Thank you very much for remembering Ireland's dead.'

"Over the next five years, I met with Teresa often," says Sinéad. "As she recounted her memories of those times, she was transformed from an old lady in her 90s to a young girl again. She recited poetry, sang songs and told me about the conditions and lives of her fellow inmates.

"When she attended the launch of the exhibition in 1997, I saw her glancing around the main compound of Kilmainham Jail with a look of nostalgia, as if she could see the laughing, smiling faces of her comrades who had been imprisoned with her almost 75 years before."

And then there's the story of Christy Halpin, who started clearing out his Aunt Bridie's New York apartment after her funeral and discovered her secret past. Far from the frail old spinster aunt he remembered, a new figure emerged from the photos, newspaper clippings and jail journal he found in a suitcase under the bed. Jail journal? He read on…

'Far better the grave of a rebel without cross, without stone, without name, than a treaty with treacherous England that can only bring sorrow and shame. Bridie Halpin, Kilmainham Jail.'

"Bridie Halpin's story was not unique," says Sinéad. "Many of the women who participated in Ireland's fight for freedom never spoke about this period of their lives, particularly those imprisoned for their part in the Civil War.

"The bitterness of those years meant that it was an episode best concealed. Also, it was a source of extreme embarrassment to some families that their womenfolk had been in prison."

In her book Easter Widows, Sinéad chronicles the lives and loves of the leaders' wives: Lillie Reynolds Connolly, Maud Gonne MacBride, Kathleen Daly Clarke, Áine O'Brennan Ceannt, Agnes Hickey Mallin, Grace Gifford Plunkett and Muriel Gifford MacDonagh. She also debunks some of the myths about certain events, such as the marriage of Grace with Joseph Mary Plunkett, for instance.

"Some people think they spent his last night together, but in fact, they had only 10 minutes with each other after their wedding in Kilmainham Jail, hours before his execution," she says. "Grace said that for two people who'd always had so much to say to each other, in the end, for those precious minutes, supervised by prison guards, they were at a loss for words."

Sinéad felt compelled to write women into Irish history when she saw just how much of their presence was missing.

"As a historian, I see my role as that of custodian of people's stories. And whether it's writing a book or curating an exhibition, it's important to put these stories out there so that people are remembered."

When not writing or curating, she runs the Jackie Clarke Collection in Ballina, Co Mayo, a treasure trove of historic memorabilia collected by the eponymous local businessman. An original copy of the Proclamation and a cockade from the hat of Wolfe Tone are among the 100,000 items in the archive.

As a result of projects for 2016, she has had a chance to meet descendants of activists of whom she says, "They're like my extended family. I knew many of them in my 20s and it's great to have the chance to catch up again."

An updated edition of 'No Ordinary Women: Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923' (O'Brien Press) is published soon.

Irish Independent

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