Tuesday 28 January 2020

'Women in 1916 were not first aiders - they did military work'


Constance Markievicz
Constance Markievicz
Louise Gavan Duffy
Margaret Skinnider
The Abbey's first leading lady, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh

Many events almost derailed the Easter Rising. But while the Aud being scuttled off Kerry, with its doomed supply of arms, is as well-known as Eoin MacNeill's countermanding order, one final potential derailment is rarely mentioned.

When the seven leaders of the Rising gathered under the roof of Jane Wyse Power, one signatory initially declined to sign The Proclamation. Tom Clarke's widow refused to disclose who it was, but she was open about the reason behind his vehement objection.

Only after intense persuasion did he finally sign up to the pledge that Ireland's future government would be "elected by the suffrages of all her men and women".

His reluctance stemmed from an abhorrence of the notion that women should be granted the vote and that this right would not be restricted according to age or property ownership.


It would be easy to dismiss him as a Neanderthal misogynist, but he was probably more representative of the average man of his time than his six colleagues around the table were. The Proclamation's aspiration to equality seems so self-evident now that it is hard to remember how this was among its more radical provisions.

It was 1918 before women over 30, who owned property, were allowed to vote in Britain. Only in 1928 was the age restriction lowered to 21. Likewise, only in 1920 did women receive the right to vote in America.

Therefore many women participating in Easter Week were engaged in two separate but interconnected struggles - not just to become citizens of an independent nation but to be treated as equal citizens.

In the same way as Connolly let the cause of labour be swallowed up by merging the fate of the Citizen's Army with the IRB, many radical women found that this struggle for women's rights was quickly buried under the juggernaut of nationalism.

These women played an active role in that Rising, but the emerging state offered them a choice of only two positions - on their backs or on their knees - in the marital bed or the church pew respectively.

Successive governments began to obliterate the memory of how radical a role women had played in shaping the political movements that achieved independence. For example, a decade after the Rising, Minister for Justice, Kevin O'Higgins, excluded women from serving on criminal case juries.

The morality of this male-dominated Ireland was summed up by the acquittal of a medical doctor and a former Garda superintendent for the brutal murder of a prostitute, Honor Bright.

Their defence counsel blithely told the all-male jury that they had just succumbed "to the two things men have fallen victim to from the beginning of time - wine and woman."

Few women who fought in Easter Week envisaged the Ireland their actions helped to usher in. But, there again, everything was new about female military involvement.

As Helena Moloney remarked: "Even before the Russian Army had women soldiers, the Citizen Army had them...the women of the Citizen Army were not first-aiders, but did military work, except where it suited them to be first aiders."

Although we tend to see the 1916 women as a single group, they were differences. Citizen Army women like Margaret Skinnider openly fought alongside men and were wounded.

While Cumann na mBan members were also radical, there was more ambiguity about their role. A stated aim of their constitution was "to assist in arming and equipping a body of Irishmen for the defence of Ireland".

As historian Lucy McDiarmid points out, this word "assist" puts women in a secondary position. Both the rebel leaders and the British military were unsure of what to do with them.

Twenty-year-old Catherine Byrne had to break into the GPO by jumping through a window, after being refused entry by Volunteers. Her audacity summed up some of the obstacles facing women in finding a role.

When Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh turned up at Thomas MacDonagh's garrison, he exclaimed: "We haven't made any provision for girls here."


However, unlike Eamon de Valera - who set down a marker for his future Ireland by banning all women from Boland's Mills - MacDonagh made the "girls" welcome.

British officers accepting the surrender at Jacob's Biscuit Factory were equally perplexed.

One asked, "We are not taking women, are we?", which caused Louise Gavan Duffy to exclaim: "The cheek of him anyway - not taking women."

But social niceties about the treatment of women were soon forgotten, with their imprisonment, hunger strikes and force feeding continuing until the Civil War ended.

Afterwards men were quick to write about their Rising experiences, but few women were encouraged to do so.

In later years, through their unpublished diaries, witness statements and applications for military service pensions (which rarely equalled what the men who fought received) we can start to piece together their full role.

We see not only the trauma they endured during the fighting but also the one final tragic role that was forced upon them.

They were unable to display any human weakness when, watched by soldiers at all times, they made final visits to their husbands, brothers and loved ones about to be executed.

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