'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.

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