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A life story not yet told

Author and historian Dr Sinead McCoole is tracing the life of a young nationalist woman from Sligo said to be in an iconic picture but information is scant

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Sligo woman, Bridget Mullane (who became better known as Bridie O’Mullane) who was responsible for the establishment of a branch of Cumann na mBan in her native town in 1917

Sligo woman, Bridget Mullane (who became better known as Bridie O’Mullane) who was responsible for the establishment of a branch of Cumann na mBan in her native town in 1917

Dr McCoole, who works in the Department of Tourism, Arts and Culture in the Commemorations Unit and has been a member of the Government’s Expert Advisory group on the Decade of Centenaries since 2012

Dr McCoole, who works in the Department of Tourism, Arts and Culture in the Commemorations Unit and has been a member of the Government’s Expert Advisory group on the Decade of Centenaries since 2012

Is this Sligo woman Elizabeth Jane Crotty reciting the Rosary outside Mountjoy prison in 1920?

Is this Sligo woman Elizabeth Jane Crotty reciting the Rosary outside Mountjoy prison in 1920?

High Street, Sligo where the Crotty family lived in the early 1900s

High Street, Sligo where the Crotty family lived in the early 1900s

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Sligo woman, Bridget Mullane (who became better known as Bridie O’Mullane) who was responsible for the establishment of a branch of Cumann na mBan in her native town in 1917

sligochampion

The year was 1920, the month was April, a movie camera from Pathé News was rolling when a woman of small stature according to contemporary reports made her way to the front of the crowd and stood on a stone to make herself taller and addresses a large crowd, some of those present estimated at being 20,000.

The immense crowd had gathered outside Mountjoy Prison, on the northside of Dublin.

It was described as a 'vast angry throng' who had been 'excited to desperation' by the news that 70 Sinn Féin members were on hunger strike inside Mountjoy Jail because they were being treated as common criminals and not given political status.

It seems that violence was inevitable as the crowd was surrounded by tanks, military and police guards.

It was April 14th when the young woman with her back to the wire entanglement that separated the crowd from the prison walls began to recite the Rosary in Irish.

Any impending disaster was averted, as immediately 'passion subsided' as the heads became bowed in reciting the prayers.

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Then she walks out of frame and disappears out of history … Almost a hundred years later to the day I posed the question on Twitter - who is she?

For a brief time, she is the subject of a Twitter exchange, specialists in the area of women's history did not know who she was.

According to the Illustrated London News, the woman was in the Sinn Féin movement, while the Melbourne Advocate described her as a young Irish girl. Today we would not describe her as that but at the time it was common an unmarried lady to be described as a girl until she married.

Historian Ailbhe Rogers responded to the newspapers detailing her identity as a Miss Crotty. There are 17 possibilities in the 1911 census … single, female, Catholic.

Was it Crothy as one report said, or Crotty as suggested by another? Dr Seán William Gannon, Author of Policing, Palestine and Administering the Empire 1922-1966 replied with the other newspaper references and posed the question could it be Elizabeth Jane Crotty imprisoned with Bridie O'Mullane in Sligo the year before?

I started the search on yet another of these elusive women who fought for independence, whose lives must be built from tiny fragments of research.

In January 1919 Elizabeth Jane Crotty was described as fair haired with green eyes and a fair complexion and stood 4 feet and eleven inches when her details were inserted into the Sligo Jail Register.

She was aged 27 years of age and held for 7 days in Sligo Jail.

She and her companion Bridie O'Mullane had been charged with selling flags without a permit by Constable Mullan on 3 November 1918.

These flags were small pieces of paper with printed slogans affixed with a straight pin.

The Royal Irish Constabulary Officer reported that the small flags were being sold to fund raise for the Gaelic League.

The Irish language organisation Conradh na Gaeilge had been established in 1893 to revive the language as well as promoting Irish culture.

Bridie O'Mullane recalled it somewhat differently years later when she gave her interview to the Bureau of Military History on 13 November 1950.

She said it was a Cumann na mBan collection for the starving people of Central Europe. Interestingly, she does not name her companion, who she said was a member of Cumann na mBan.

Alexander Dobbyn, District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary reported in Petty Sessions Court that when they were stopped and asked on whose authority they were selling the flags, Elizabeth Crotty replied 'no authority' while Bridie O'Mullane said 'no authority except that of the Irish Republic, the authority she recognised.'

The two women did not appear in court to pay their fine of ten shillings on 21 December 1918 which resulted in their incarceration in the opening days of 1919, without hard labour.

When Elizabeth Jane (recorded on her birth certification as Eliza Jane) entered the prison, she refused to give her next of kin.

She gave her address as Ballintogher, a village in County Sligo where she was born in February 1891 and had lived until she was ten years old.

We know from the Census of 1901 that the family had a brief stay of a few months in Ballina, County Mayo before moving to live in Sligo at 32 High Street.

This raises the question, did the prison official who was filling in the Register know who she was? She had been arrested on High Street where she had lived for the past 17 of her 27 years. It was very likely.

The family were well known in Sligo because the year after they moved there, Elizabeth Jane's older brother had set up the Standard School in their home place at 32 High Street teaching shorthand and other commercial skills.

Professionally known as E. J. Crotty he was known to family and friends as Ned.

At seventeen he had been one of the youngest people in the country ever to be awarded the Sir Isaac Pitman & Son Teacher's Certificate and one of only forty people in Ireland to hold this qualification and the sole holder of this certification in Connaught.

By the time Elizabeth Jane was fifteen, and still in school, Mary Ellen, one year her senior was teaching in the family business school.

The Standard School was thriving when tragedy struck, when Ned died suddenly of a heart attack, he was just 21 years old.

His death was shocking, as reported in The Sligo Champion on 23 February 1907.

His health had not given 'rise to much anxiety' and 'he had been working up to the days before his death.'

His untimely death was recorded by his grieving father, Constable Maurice Crotty.

Was the reason Elizabeth Jane had been so reticent to include her correct personal details was because of her father's profession?

Her father a native of Waterford who had been a labourer when he enlisted in the Royal Irish Constabulary at the age of 22.

He was posted to Tipperary North Riding, Wicklow and Leitrim.

It was in Leitrim that he met Elizabeth Jane's mother, Catherine Sweeney. The Crotty family came to live in Sligo in 1901.

A decade later Elizabeth Jane was still living on High Street with her mother and her sister Mary Ellen.

The Crottys still lived over a shop on High Street but had moved to a smaller dwelling, but it still had seven rooms.

The family had broken up the year following Ned's death.

Maurice had retired from the RIC and moved back to Waterford briefly before moving to England, working first in Liverpool and then in London for Customs and Excise, (information from his pension files that have survived).

The family were not estranged and decades later Elizabeth Jane would be described as 'daughter of an ex-RIC man' on her death certificate when it was registered by a friend and her mother was described as a widow of an ex-RIC Constable when her death was certified by Mary Ellen.

Maurice Crotty's death in a London hospital in 1926 was recorded in the form of a small memorial notice placed in The Sligo Champion by 'his loving wife and daughters.'

Elizabeth Jane's involvement in the Nationalist movement is unquestionable, given that her companion when she was stopped by a RIC Constable that November day in 1918 was Bridget Mullane, (who became better known as Bridie O'Mullane) and had, the previous year been responsible for the establishment of the Sligo Branch of Cumann na mBan.

Countess Plunkett, mother of the 1916 Leader, Joseph Plunkett had encouraged her daughter Bridie to form a branch of Cumann na mBan in 1917 when she visited the town.

They were in Sligo as her husband Count Plunkett was conferred with the Freedom of Sligo following his victory for Sinn Féin as MP for North Roscommon.

During the Plunketts stay in Sligo they had breakfast in Bridie's house on Grattan Street. In 1918 she had also been elected by the Executive of Cumann na mBan.

She began to form branches in County Sligo, before becoming an official organiser throughout the country over the next few years.

Later taking the Anti-Treaty side she was arrested and held in Kilmainham Jail during the Civil War, where she decorated her cell with slogans and drawings that are still there. Interestingly she too was the daughter of an ex-RIC Constable, James Mullane, he was later imprisoned in Sligo Gaol for his disaffection.

Bridie's story is well documented in her own words, this is a search for her elusive jail companion in 1919, who disappeared from the record.

There are those who always remain elusive, all participants in those years of conflict wanted to avoid detection.

What we know from the 1911 Census was that Elizabeth Jane was still in education at 18 but without the 1926 Census we don't know what she did next.

We know she died unmarried at the age of just 42 in 1936. She died in Rathquarter and her death was registered by Anna O'Dwyer. She left all her estate to her only surviving sibling, Mary Ellen.

Miss Mary Ellen Crotty continued her brother's school for almost ten years, then worked as a freelance shorthand teacher from their new home at 9 High Street as documented from advertisements from in this newspaper's archive.

She was a part-time teacher of shorthand in Sligo Technical College from 1923-1932, when she stopped teaching due to ill health. She was reappointed in 1951 as a shorthand teacher, conducting night classes.

She was still alive in 1953 when she was mentioned again in The Sligo Champion, elsewhere it notes that by 1948 she had moved to 8 Lyons Terrace.

As she dies after the time frame for accessible death certification, I am writing this article in the hope that a reader might know more about the Crotty family.

Does a family archive survive that details Elizabeth Jane's role in the campaign of independence? Would it have a picture that confirms Miss Crotty of Sligo is indeed the woman captured in Pathé News footage 100 years ago?

Please contact Dr Sinéad McCoole on 085 8775706.


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