Tuesday 28 January 2020

Young, single and working class - the female fighters


Countess Markievicz
Countess Markievicz
Margaret Skinnider

Women fighters played a prominent and highly unconventional role in the 1916 Rising.

Some 160 women participated in the uprising, 77 of whom were arrested, with five women eventually deported.

A small number of women played key commanding roles, such as Countess Markievicz, who acted as second-in-command to Michael Mallin in the St Stephen's Green garrison, and Dr Kathleen Lynn, who was a senior officer in the occupation of City Hall.

But women were active in all rebel garrisons during Easter Week, with the exception of Boland's Mill, where Commandant Eamon de Valera refused to allow women to fight under his command.

While their role during the rebellion was significant, few women were allowed to perform the same duties as their male counterparts - not least in terms of the use of weapons against British troops.

Female contributions were generally limited to providing first-aid, carrying dispatches, making food and acting in various other supporting roles.

Nonetheless, with parts of the city engulfed in a raging inferno, the prevalence of British snipers, and the notorious ill-discipline of the British troops, these roles demanded immense physical courage and strength of character.

Most women who fought were relatively young and almost all were unmarried. Most were working-class girls who often fought alongside their brothers or 'sweethearts' from the Irish Volunteers or Irish Citizen Army, and were keen to make the same sacrifices as their male counterparts.

The women who participated belonged to two main organisations. Cumann na mBan provided the largest number of fighters, who fought alongside the female fighters of the Irish Citizen Army.

Cumann na mBan was founded in Wynn's Hotel in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin, in April 1914. It saw its main role as that of an auxiliary support group to the Irish Volunteers.

The organisation's primary pre-occupation in the lead up to the Rebellion was training in first-aid, fundraising and the promotion of Irish nationalism through social events - such as ceilis and Irish language classes.


Around 50 women of the Irish Citizen Army participated in Easter Week. The Citizen Army took a different approach to the role of female members than the Volunteers. In theory, women joined the organisation on the same terms as men.

In reality, however, women's' roles within those Citizen Army mirrored that within Cumann na mBan. While Countess Markievicz's senior role in the organisation was remarkable, it was also an exception.

The women fighters of the Citizen Army differed from Cumann na mBan in that they tended to be from working class backgrounds in the north inner city, leading to the tendency among some members of Cumann na mBan to look down their noses at their less affluent comrades.

The female fighters of Easter Week included many remarkable characters whose contribution to the creation of the Irish State has often been overlooked.

Among them was Margaret Skinnider, a schoolteacher whose parents had emigrated from Monaghan and who was involved in organising Cumann na mBan in her native Glasgow.

Disguised as a man, she travelled to Ireland determined to take part in the Rising, joining the Citizen Army garrison in St Stephen's Green. She later recalled: "We were convinced of the justice of our cause, convinced that even dying was a small matter compared to the privilege that we shared of fighting for that cause."

Skinnider was regarded as a crack shot with a rifle and she survived Easter Week despite receiving several gunshot wounds. She escaped to New York in its aftermath and later became a trade union leader.

Countess Markievicz was born as Georgina Gore-Booth in London, the daughter of landlord Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell, Co Sligo.

Converted to the cause of militant labour by the dire poverty she encountered in the Dublin slums, she was prominent during the 1913 Lockout, setting up food kitchens and helping stricken families.

After serving as Michael Mallin's deputy in the Stephen's Green Garrison she was subsequently jailed and deported. She later became the first woman MP elected to Westminster, in the 1918 election, as well as the first woman in the world to hold a Cabinet position - as Minster for Labour in Dáil Éireann in 1919.

In the aftermath of the Rebellion, many of the women who participated lived lives of relative obscurity and most had to fight for several decades before their contribution was recognised by the Military Pensions Board.

In the aftermath of Easter Week, it was the mothers and wives of fallen Volunteers - such as Margaret Pearse, the mother of Patrick and William Pearse, and Kathleen Clarke, the wife of leader Thomas Clarke - rather than the female fighters themselves, who came to public attention.


The women who fought in Easter Week were no mere appendage to their male counterparts in the Volunteers, however, and many women fighters held independent and progressive political ideas.

Their ideas and hopes for a new Ireland deserve to be heard today. Helena Molony, who fought in City Hall with the Citizen Army, wrote in 1909: "A great many, if not all, the various pressing social problems could be much more effectively dealt with by women than by men.

"The squalor and misery of the towns, with the poverty and dullness of the rural parts of Ireland, surely need some attention, and we believe women could relieve much of this distressing state of affairs without legislation or any kind of outside help."

Dr Conor McNamara is 1916 Scholar-in-Residence at NUI Galway

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