'Soldiers Are We': Women in the Irish Rising
Charles Townshend has read hundreds of 'witness statements' from the men and women who took part in the Easter Rising, made available to the public in 2003 after decades in a government vault.
‘Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland’ – the stirring first lines of what was eventually to become the national anthem of the Irish Republic – were heard publicly for the first time in 1915. The composer of the ‘Soldier’s Song’, Peadar Kearney, had accidentally shot himself in the foot during rifle practice with the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers, and his comrades held a concert in Clontarf Town Hall to raise money to support him while he was incapacitated. They succeeded in selling several thousand copies of the song at a penny each. The event, the accident that caused it, and the song itself – which became an instant symbol of the Volunteer spirit – were all emblematic of one of the most extraordinary political movements of modern times.
The Irish Volunteers had been formed in December 1913 to keep the British government firm in the face of Ulster’s threatened resistance to Irish Home Rule, and in direct reaction to the ever-growing anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). By 1914 the rival militias far outnumbered the government’s military and police forces. Political passions ran high, and the fear of civil war was more intense than at any time since the 1798 rebellion. In 1914, both sets of Volunteers smuggled thousands of rifles into Ireland in large-scale gun-runnings.
The rifles brought in by the Irish Volunteers, known as ‘Howth Mausers’ after the port where many were landed, were obsolete and unwieldy. But they became the most prized symbol of the Volunteer movement. Each Volunteer had to subscribe the funds to buy his own weapon. Ammunition was in short supply, but the Volunteers set up a small rifle range in a Dublin suburban park, and practised as much as their limited funds allowed. Concerts like that in Clontarf Town Hall were a key method of raising funds as well as public awareness of their cause. Self-financed, largely self-trained, and electing their own officers, the Volunteers were a remarkable political army. They were a national, as well as nationalist, movement, but their core strength lay in Dublin, the ‘deposed capital’ (deposed by the 1801 Act of Union that had taken Irish parliamentary representation across to Westminster).
The most crucial event in the Volunteer movement’s short history, the split that followed the outbreak of the First World War, left much of it in tatters as the majority accepted the leadership’s pledge to support the British war effort. In many places the minority were left without leadership or resources. The Dublin Brigade, however, remained impressively coherent and committed. On Easter Monday 1916, April 24th, it seized control of the city and launched the most significant Irish rebellion since 1798. It lasted just a week, but it transformed Irish history.
The astonishing drama of Easter Week 1916 is deeply etched in Irish historical memory. But the direct memory of the participants, the first Army of the Irish Republic, has been harder to recover. The original records of the Irish Volunteer organization have mostly disappeared (many of them buried or burnt in 1916), and no full history of the movement has so far been written. Although a number of former rebels penned personal recollections over the subsequent decades, no official history of the 1916 rebellion or the 1919-21 war of independence was ever compiled. The nearest approach was the establishment of a bureau of military history in 1945, almost thirty years after the rising. Over the next six or seven years, well over a thousand ‘witness statements’ were supplied by former fighters of the Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army (ICA), and the principal women’s organization, Cumann na mBan. These were soon effectively buried in government vaults, and far from providing the basis for an official history, they were closed off to all researchers. The reason seems to have been the fear of controversy. Despite the fact that each statement was prefaced with a note specifying the restrictions to access imposed by the author – in practically every case the answer was ‘none’ – these became regarded as confidential, even secret documents. Only after the death of the last surviving participant were they finally released into the public domain, in March 2003.
The story about the Volunteer concert is drawn from one of these statements, and together they give us a vivid sense of the experience of the early Irish Volunteers. They come in a wide array of styles and sizes, ranging from a handful of pages to more than two hundred. Some are laconic and tightly focused, others expansive – one begins with an indignant account of the ‘tithe war’ of the 1830s. Some writers naturally knew more about what was going on – notably those in the inner circles of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret revolutionary organization whose ‘military committee’ planned the rebellion. Those in the higher ranks of the Volunteers tended to have a wider grasp of affairs, though of course all the senior commanders were executed after the rebellion – with one famous exception, Eamon de Valera, and he chose (despite much urging by others) never to record his recollections of 1916. Nor, sadly, did the most celebrated of the women rebels of 1916, Countess Markievicz. But many women (almost 150) did write witness statements, and in these we get a real sense of liberation through revolution – a liberation that subsequent generations would struggle to replicate.
Women were closely involved in the preparations for, and the conduct of, the military action in Easter week. Cumann na mBan was launched four months after the Irish Volunteers specifically as an auxiliary force. By contrast, the women members of the ICA, never an all-male outfit, planned not only to nurse and cater for the fighters, but to join the fight themselves: ‘to knit and darn, march and shoot’ as one put it. But the boundaries between these groups were, in any case, blurred. Winnie Carney, who came to Dublin to act as secretary to James Connolly, the revolutionary socialist leader and organizer of the ICA, and stayed with him to the bitter end of the fighting, was a member of Cumann na mBan rather than the ICA, and so was Connolly’s own daughter Nora. The badge worn by Cumann na mBan members, it may be noted, featured not a first-aid kit but a rifle, and their organizational rhetoric was unmistakably military.
Yet though Countess Markievicz, an officer in the ICA, was present in Liberty Hall (the trades union headquarters in Dublin) when the final decision to rise was taken, many of the women members were not mobilized. Some of the rebel commanders simply forgot about them, others deliberately excluded them – when Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, a Dublin stage star, finally forced her way into the heavily-fortified Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, its commander greeted her with the words ‘We haven’t made any provision for girls here.’ So the experience of the two hundred or so women who joined the 1,400 rebels was varied. Most were consigned – willingly enough, perhaps – to catering duties and kept out of danger as far as possible. Rose McNamara, a Cumann na mBan captain who successfully managed the food supply for the Marrowbone Lane Distillery garrison, recorded that only on Friday, four days after the start of the rebellion, was she ‘brought up to the firing line to see two of the enemy soldiers lying dead – on top of one another – outside.’ However, Aine Ryan, doing the same job at the Hibernian Bank on Sackville Street, got into greater danger. She was called across to help an outpost which ‘had no girls at all’; ‘I don’t know how it came about but I found myself and another girl carrying a zinc bath full of food from Reis’s Chambers across to the GPO with our heads bent to the ground.’ This meant crossing Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street), one of the widest in Europe, and a free fire zone for the British troops posted by O’Connell Bridge: ‘we did this at least twice.’
Some of Rose McNamara’s women comrades in the distillery acted as loaders for the riflemen, and elsewhere women became full combatants. Markievicz was the most flamboyant, but her comrade on St Stephen’s Green, Margaret Skinnider, was equally determined. ‘It was dark there’ (in the College of Surgeons), she wrote, ‘full of smoke and the dirt of firing, but it was good to be in action.’ Going out on a sortie, she was hit by three bullets, which incapacitated her – and just as bad in her view, ruined her beautiful new Citizen Army greatcoat. Women played an even bigger role in the ICA force that nearly captured Dublin Castle. Helena Molony was there, revolver in hand, when the policeman at the Castle gate was shot dead, and the rebels might have rushed into the yard, but did not. ‘In a flash, the gates were closed’ – but she, like others, could not quite understand the reasons for the fatal hesitation. The rebels occupied City Hall instead, and when their commander was killed on its roof, he was succeeded by Kathleen Lynn, one of Ireland’s pioneering female doctors.
Women’s experiences reflected the oddly improvisatory nature of the rebel dispositions, despite the months of planning that had gone on. Molly Reynolds, for instance, was with the forces on St Stephen’s Green when Margaret Skinnider came up ‘and said there were no women in the GPO and she had been sent to look for volunteers for that post.’ Reynolds and another Cumann na mBan walked there, to be met by one of the legendary figures of the Volunteer movement, The O’Rahilly, who took them all around the huge building ‘to select the most suitable place for a casualty station’ – something that could well have been done in advance. They settled on ‘a big open space at the back of the main hall’ where they set up their station ‘using immense basket skips for beds.’ At last some men arrived to take over the medical post, immediately relegating Reynolds herself to auxiliary duty, while other women ‘took up duty in the kitchen while others acted as despatch carriers’.
The commitment of these women was beyond question. Reynolds met several other Cumann na mBan who had come across from Liverpool to get in on the action, and even ‘three or four girls who had walked in from Milltown’ to enter the thick of the battle – these ‘belonged to no organization but were anxious to help’. She records the surprisingly limited scale of the rebel casualties in the GPO, considering the length and intensity of the bombardment its garrison endured (culminating, of course, in the spectacular gutting of the building by incendiary shellfire). One man shot himself in the toe while breaking down a door, another was wounded when a homemade grenade exploded (the rebels’ homemade munitions were notoriously ineffective, though mercifully rarely so dangerous to their users). The most serious wound was suffered by a man on the roof, who was shot in the head and eventually lost an eye; the most famous casualty was James Connolly, who was brought in from a sortie with ‘one-and-a-half to two inches of his shinbone shattered’. This was a fearsome challenge for his amateur nurses, and for the medical student who had to care for Connolly – there being no qualified doctor in the GPO garrison – as he was carried (on a door) out into the bullet-swept back streets during the final evacuation of the GPO.
Like all memory, the testimonies that have come down to us are naturally uneven. Some writers coped better than others with the inevitable effects of the lapse of time since the formative dramas of their youth (most were under thirty in 1916); some statements are plainly unreliable, but very few fail to cast some light on the texture of life at the time. They help to provide answers to some of the key questions that have been repeatedly asked since 1916: what was the plan of the rebellion, for instance, and how many people were in the know? Here, as elsewhere, testimony could be inconsistent or even contradictory, but a surprising number professed to have been in the dark about such plans as there were. Many recorded that their officers had dropped heavy hints that the Easter Day manoeuvres – the Volunteers’ annual ‘field day’ – would be more than a mere exercise. Others were taken by surprise. What seems beyond doubt is that the ethos of soldiership – heartily evoked in Kearney’s rather old-fashioned song – had gone quite deep in the movement’s bare two years of life. The great majority were ready to obey orders and risk their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.
Though it was never likely that the release of these statements would fundamentally change our understanding of the Rising, they do enrich our understanding of some key issues. One of these is the inner conflict within the Volunteer leadership over the issue of insurrection: the question whether the Volunteers should seize the initiative, or wait until the government moved against them. The result of this conflict was the ‘countermanding order’ that cancelled the Easter Day manoeuvres and drove the ‘military committee’ to postpone the rebellion until Monday. The witness statements show more clearly than was previously understood the impact of this delay. Most histories of the Rising portray that Sunday as a day of despairing inaction, but it is now clear that the scale of the mobilization that day was impressive, in spite of the ‘countermanding order’. There can be no doubt that if the Rising had gone ahead as planned that evening, it would have been a much more substantial nationwide event than it finally turned out to be. According to one IRB investigation, outside Dublin no more than twenty-five per cent of ordinary Volunteers turned out to fight on Monday, and they mostly drifted away as their leaders dithered, seemingly confused by conflicting instructions – though as one of the women who carried messages from Dublin to Cork sharply told the commander who complained that he had only twenty men, ‘You can start something with that many’. In Dublin the turnout was much higher, though even there the mobilization plans broke down. The statements show how many individuals followed strange trajectories as they traversed the city trying to work out what to do, sometimes ending up fighting with units they had never known. Dozens gravitated to the GPO building, a post that the rebel leaders never intended should house (as it eventually did) the biggest of all the republican contingents.
For some, who never came under attack, the week turned out to be dull or frustrating; for others – above all in the GPO – it was exhausting and exhilarating. In brief, it was war, a war deliberately embraced by a small group of dedicated men and women. The testimony of these ordinary rebels remind us, if we need reminding, that the decision to risk and take life can emerge, not from pathological hatred, but from simple idealism.
Charles Townshend is Professor of Modern History at Keele University. He is author of Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (Penguin, £8.99)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology