Saturday 22 October 2016

Widows and children of 1916 rebels carried on the struggle


Kathleen Clarke and her family shortly after The Rising
Kathleen Clarke and her family shortly after The Rising

Kathleen Clarke became pregnant shortly before her husband Tom went off to fight in the Easter Rising. When they met for the final time in Kilmainham Gaol, she decided not to tell him about their unborn child.

A few months later she miscarried and had a near-death experience, during which she saw Tom ordering her to go back as there was important work for her to do.

Like so many relatives of the 1916 leaders, Kathleen carried on fighting her husband's battle. She was a founder member of Cumann na mBan, a Fianna Fail TD and the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin.

For the remaining 56 years of her life she preferred to be addressed by her married name - Mrs Tom Clarke.


When it comes to the widows and children left behind after 1916, there are no easy generalisations. Some came from strong republican traditions, others from Protestant families with unionist connections.

Some had known about the Rising all along, others were kept in the dark until it was too late to argue. Some were happy to become public figures in their own right, others preferred to fade into the background.

The one thing they all had in common was that each had suffered a terrible trauma. They could not even bury their loved ones, since the British had hastily interred the bodies in a mass grave at Arbour Hill.

On a more practical level, the families all lost their main breadwinners at a time when there was no social welfare safety net.

Of the seven men who signed the 1916 Proclamation, only two died single. Patrick Pearse was a bachelor and may have been gay - although there is no conclusive evidence either way.

Sean MacDermott had a steady girlfriend, Min Ryan, who later married the Civil War commander and Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy.

Aine Ceannt, widow of Eamonn, threw herself into charity work. She was particularly active in the White Cross, an organisation set up to help nationalist families who had been bereaved in 1916.

She also stayed active in republican politics and often sheltered Michael Collins in her Ranelagh home when he was on the run.

Two of the 1916 widows were siblings. Grave Gifford famously married the terminally ill Joseph Plunkett in prison shortly before he was shot.

Her middle-class parents strongly disapproved, while her new in-laws refused to honour Joseph's will and left her with long-term money problems.

Grace's sister Muriel, wife of Thomas MacDonagh, outlived him by barely a year. She drowned in 1917 while swimming in the sea off Skerries.

Lillie Connolly obeyed the wish of her dying husband James and converted to Catholicism.

For the most part, however, she was happy to let their children take up his cause.

Nora Connolly, who had cooked breakfast for the Rising leaders in Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday, went on a lecture tour of the US and was a republican activist all her life.

Roddy Connolly, who at the age of 15 fought alongside his father in the GPO, later founded the Irish Communist Party.


Other 1916 children found their parents' legacy a heavy burden to carry. Ronan Ceannt wrote after his mother's death: "For years past, I have wondered if mammy was disappointed in me for not having shown myself to be as fine a man as my father... she may, deep down, have felt I was a bit of a failure."

When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921, almost all of the Rising relatives condemned it as a betrayal of their loved ones.

Some also had their houses raided during the Civil War on suspicion of harbouring anti-Treaty gunmen.

Aine Ceannt even recognised one raider as a man who had served in her husband's battalion in 1916.

Long after the Irish state was established, Kathleen kept defending Tom's honour. She resigned from her Fianna Fail cumann over the sexist references in Eamon de Valera's constitution, pointing out that the 1916 Proclamation had given women equal rights.

As Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1939 she removed a portrait of Queen Victoria from the Mansion House, saying she could not sleep there until that woman was gone.

The Easter Rising leaders are being celebrated this year as heroic martyrs. Their wives and children, however, also made a huge sacrifice - and they deserve to be remembered too.

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