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Speech at an Event to Commemorate the Role of Women in the 1916 Easter Rising

Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, 8th March 2016

A Ardmhéara,

A Tháiniste, 

A Aire, 

A Chomhaltaí den Oireachtas, agus a hIonadaithe ban ach go háirithe,

A Dhaoine Uaisle, 

Is mór an pléisiúir dom é an deis seo a bheith agam aitheantas poiblí a thabhairt don méid a rinne mná na hÉireann le linn Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916 agus do ghlúiseacht na réabhlóide i gcoitinne. Agus sinn ag teacht le chéile ar an lá speisialta seo,  Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan, is ceart agus is comhair dúinn gach iarracht a dhéanamh cuimhniú ar an ról a bhí ag na mná sin i mbunú na hÉireann ina bhfuilimid inár gcónaí anois. Is ceart chomh maith go ndéanaimid macnamh, le chéile, ar an méid atá le baint amach againn fós le Éire níos cóire, níos cúramí agus níos cothraimí a thógháil.

As President of Ireland, it is my very great pleasure to have this opportunity to acknowledge publicly the great contribution of Irish women to the Easter Rising of 1916 and to the revolutionary movement at large.

May I start by paying tribute to those historians who have so diligently documented the vital part that women played in the struggle for Irish freedom, thus ensuring that those who were long described as “the forgotten women of 1916” are not forgotten any more.

We now know the names of the 300 women who were “out” in the Rising, and we should never miss an opportunity to say those names. We know that those women had different political convictions and ideas about the future of Ireland. We know that they came from all over Ireland – a few had even been born and raised abroad – and from all social classes. Some of them had university degrees, others were teenagers from working class families; some were born into Fenian families, others were of unionist stock. There were shop assistants, nurses, factory workers, artists, trade unionists, teachers, mothers and a doctor among them.

All this new knowledge has thoroughly reshaped our grasp of the period, giving it more texture, accuracy and complexity. Drawing on recently released archival sources – most notably the military pension files and the witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History as it sought to record “the history of the movement for Independence” – recent scholarship has also widened the lens of our understanding to include the vibrancy of the pre-revolutionary period – the new ideas, intellectual debates, cultural movements and political struggles with which the women engaged – as well as the often disappointing realities of independent Ireland.

Today, as we come together to honour the women of 1916, it is appropriate that we recall as fully as possible the part that they played in laying the foundations of the Ireland in which we live, and that we reflect, together, on all that remains to be done if we are to live up to the dreams of equality and justice that animated those women from our past.

As we look at the breadth and significance of their contribution to the Easter Rising, we must, unfortunately, start by acknowledging the many obstacles that the women had to overcome as they sought to join in the rebellion, some of them individually, most of them as members of constituted groups, primarily Cumann na mBan, but also the Irish Citizen Army, the Clan na Gaedhal Girl Scouts and the Hibernian Rifles.

That the women were not easily granted access to the revolutionary space is illustrated, quite literally, by the story of Catherine Byrne, who, just after noon on Easter Monday, had to jump into the GPO through one of its windows after she had been refused access at the door. Although weapons’ training was an integral part of Cumann na mBan’s activities, many of the Volunteers, for all their separatist radicalism, believed that if women were to play a direct part in the Rising, they should do so in the kitchen or the first aid ward, not the firing line.

As with so much else, the leaders disagreed on this important issue. While James Connolly, Helena Molony recalled, “gave out revolvers to our girls”,[1] Eamon de Valera notoriously refused to allow them into Boland’s Mills, and they found it easier to negotiate access to Jacob’s biscuit factory, commanded by Thomas McDonagh.

The Irish Citizen Army, then, proved the exception, in its mixed membership and egalitarian outlook. Dr Kathleen Lynn, for example, was second in command at City Hall, while Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider did play a prominent combatant role at St. Stephen’s Green. Yet most of the ICA women were not armed, and Margaret Skinnider had to cite the Proclamation to insist on her right to throw a grenade into the Shelbourne Hotel.

Preoccupation with the roles that women were denied should not, however, detract from the important contribution that they did make, not just through the essential provision of food and first aid, but also, for example, as despatch carriers. The women repeatedly risked their lives, braving military checkpoints and sniper fire to maintain rebel communications. They carried weapons, ammunitions, and other supplies hidden in the hems and folds of their clothes. Talking their way through the cordons that began tightening around the rebel positions by midweek, they scouted the streets to facilitate the movement of Volunteers.

After the surrender, the 77 women who were taken into custody again had to insist, in order to be arrested, that this was their right. As Helena Molony subsequently complained to Seán O’Faolain, Countess Markievicz’s biographer:

"It is a curious thing that many men seem to be unable to believe that any woman can embrace an ideal – accept it intellectually, feel it as a profound emotion, and then calmly decide to make a vocation of working for its realisation."[2]

The surrender did not, of course, put an end to the women's involvement in the struggle for independence, and they continued to play a huge part throughout the revolutionary period. The women were instrumental, in particular, in reorganising Cumann na mBan's and Volunteers' communications networks after the Rising, as well as undertaking fundraising to replenish the stocks of weapons and ammunition and collecting and distributing money on behalf of the Prisoners' Dependents' Fund (the INAAVDF).

The women's role as advocates, and even propagandists, for the independence movement was also crucial. Some of them, such as Kathleen Clarke and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, were ambassadors on the lecture circuit in America. Many travelled to England and Wales, bringing home news of how the prisoner-rebels were being treated. They produced pamphlets, drawings – and also, in the case of Grace Gifford, cartoons – in support of the nationalist cause. They published commemorative cards and organised memorial masses. All those actions greatly contributed to the turn of Irish public opinion in favour of the rebels.

Throughout the War of Independence and the Civil War, the women were, again, essential as communication conduits. They carried out intelligence work for the IRA and transported weapons around the country, often undertaking their mission after curfew at night, and on their own. The women also played an important role in assisting "men on the run", collecting wounded men from unsafe hospitals and organising safe houses.

Importantly, we should never forget how, throughout those heady days of revolutionary activity, many women still had to look after their household. They had to be mother and father, carer and provider, to their children. It is also important to remember that at least two of the wives of the leaders who were executed immediately after the Rising – Agnes Mallin and Kathleen Clarke – were pregnant, and the latter suffered a miscarriage and a near-death experience shortly after the executions of her husband and brother.[3]

The songs composed by Simon O'Connor, which we will hear later on, connect us to that more intimate and personal dimension of the women’s experiences, recalling for us the remarkable courage they demonstrated throughout their struggles. Their stories of affliction and fortitude connect us back to the human dimension of the Rising, beyond the purely military, and we must ensure that the voices of all those women who lost a husband, a brother, a sweetheart or a son in the rebellion, and whose lives were scarred ever after, remain central to the overall narrative of the Easter Rising.

The voices of the women also bring home to us the complexity of the revolutionary era and the many cruel twists of fate that followed the Easter rebellion. Áine Ceannt, wife of Eamon, for example, related in her witness statement to the Bureau of Military History how her house was raided three times by the British military forces during the War of Independence, before it was stormed, in February 1923, by the troops of the Free State. She described how she was most upset by the Free State's soldiers' destruction of a photograph of Eamon which even the British military and auxiliaries had left untouched during previous raids.

The life story of Brigid Lyons Thornton, who had served in the Four Courts garrison in April 1916, also recalls for us the immense tragedy of the Civil War, which turned friends and members of the same family, against one another. While a majority of the women who had been "out" in the Rising sided with the anti-Treaty forces during the years 1922-23, Brigid Lyons became the first female army officer in the Free State. As the medical officer in charge of Kilmainham Gaol, she thus found herself looking after the anti-Treaty female prisoners there, many of whom were former friends (and alongside whom she had been held in the very same prison just a few years earlier).

As we recall the women of 1916, it is essential, in my view, that we also do justice to those thousands of women who, although they did not take a direct part in the insurrection in Dublin, Galway, Enniscorthy and elsewhere, were nevertheless directly affected by the Rising.

Indeed one of the most striking aspects of the witnesses' accounts of what happened during that fateful Easter Week, is the fierce resistance the Volunteers faced from women on the streets. Many of those women, in particular those from Dublin inner-city tenements, which were closest to the fighting sites, were clearly enraged by the danger placed on their families and homes. Nor should we forget that many children were wounded and killed in the crossfire.

The rebels also attributed the women’s anger to the fact that many of them were married or related to soldiers fighting in the British Army on the Western Front and in the Middle East – "ladies of the separation allowance", as they called them, a term that is somewhat unfair in light of the extreme poverty and parcity of economic options open to the working-class people of Dublin at the time.

St John Ervine, who was then director of the Abbey Theatre, and who spent much of Easter Monday walking through the city, related how he heard “the strongest expressions of hatred” against the rebels. He described the furious response of some women from the tenements who had gathered at the edge of St. Stephen’s Green when a man suggested that they bury a dead rebel lying inside the park:

“One of them, when she heard what he said, rushed at him and beat him with her fists and swore at him horribly. 'No, you’ll not get him out', she yelled. 'Let him lie there and rot, like the poor soldiers!'”[4]

We are of course indebted to Séan O’Casey, who illustrated for us the grief, the horror, that is to any mother the loss of a son to war.

Our accounts of the Rising must always, I strongly believe, be grounded on an awareness of this wider context. They must include not just the leaders and their wives, but make space for all those who suffered, so many who were too poor, too marginalised and too disenfranchised to be heard. Thus when we recall the 485 men, women and children who died in Dublin that week, we should also remember the families of those soldiers, so many of them from the tenements, who were among the 580 Irishmen killed on the Western Front in that same week, in a clash between the world’s most powerful and insatiable empires.

As we reflect, in hindsight, on the contribution of the women of the Irish revolutionary movement, the irony of their subsequent marginalisation in the first five decades of our independence appears more starkly. Those restrictions placed on the participation of women in the public life of the state were all the more disappointing as the rights of women was a cause that a significant number of the women of 1916 had espoused with passion.

Indeed alongside the nationalist and socialist strands, there was an important feminist strand to Ireland's independence movement. Already before the Rising, organisations such as the Ladies Land League and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, by offering a way for women to work together, had raised the feminist consciousness of many women.

As for the activists of the Irish Women's Franchise League, established in 1908, they did not relish resorting to physical action in their campaigns for women's suffrage. The vindication of women’s rights, and in particular their right to vote, which is one of the most remarkable features of the 1916 Proclamation, was also embraced by Cumann na mBan in their 1918 manifesto, which committed, I quote:

“To follow the policies of the Republican Proclamation by seeing that women take up their proper position in the life of the nation.”

Given the context of early 20th century Ireland, a time infused by cultural and social ideals of “domesticity and respectability” for women,[5] when the conventional path for them was to tend to the affairs of the home, not public ones, those women from our past were, truly, boundary-breakers.

Is réabhlóidithe tríd is tríd a bhí iontu, bhí siad gafa ní hamháin leis an  neamhspleáchas phoilitiúil ach le hathraithe sóisialta i gcoitinne. [They were revolutionaries in the full sense of the term, preoccupied not just with political independence, but with social change at large.]

The work of the women of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, for example, in delivering education as a vehicle of emancipation and empowerment for the children of Dublin inner-city tenements; the foundation by Kathleen Lynn of St Ultan's Hospital for Sick Infants at a time when the care of infants was not given high priority by the medical profession; her work with the soup kitchens during the Lockout of 1913 – all this is testament to the great social awareness of the women of 1916.

It is also important to note that a number of those women were not just radical in their political outlook, they also made quite radical choices about their personal lives. Dr Kathleen Lynn, whom I have just mentioned, was an officer of the ICA during the Rising and she shared a prison cell with her lifelong partner, Madeleine fFrench Mullen, after the surrender. The two of them lived and worked together for decades afterwards. Elizabeth O’Farrell, who brought the order to surrender to rebel garrisons across Dublin, and her life partner, Julia Glenon, are buried in the same grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The atmosphere of excitement and open possibilities which had brought together young men and women, often unchaperoned, around a common project, that youthful revolution, then, came to an abrupt end in the subsequent period. The underlying conservatism of Irish society a hundred years ago was manifested, among so many other things, through the pastoral letter from October 1922 in which the Catholic bishops urged all Irish women to desist from revolutionary activities.

As you know, in the Ireland of the late 1920s, and throughout the 1930s, legislation was enacted that limited female employment in the civil service and industry, restricted access to contraceptives, and sought to control the lives of women in many different ways. Women, who during the War of Independence had been judges in Dáil courts, were not, as men were, automatically called for jury service; they could not collect their children’s allowance; they could not get a barring order against a violent partner; they were institutionalised when considered "deviant" and their children taken from them.

All those limitations, which, to some degree, were found in other Western countries at the time, did not, however, force the women into public inaction. Excluded from full participation in the public space, many revolutionary women continued their work for greater equality and social justice by channelling their energy into social and community work.

Examples abound of the great achievements of so many of those women, in the fields of social housing, education, healthcare, trade-unionism – from Leslie Price's "Freedom from Hunger" campaign, later known as Gorta,[6] to Kathleen's Browne lobbying for the rights of farmers' wives and Margaret Skinnider's campaign, as a member, and then President of the INTO, for the rights of female and single men teachers. Nor should we forget the action, at home and abroad, of so many nuns at a time when Irish women's access to education and professional careers was so limited.

Sa lá atá inniu ann is féidir linn a bheith bródúil as, agus ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar dhul chun cinn na mban i sochaí na hÉireann. Gan amhras, is é dea-scéal olltoghchán na seachtaine seo caite ná gur toghadh níos mó mná ina Teachtaí Dála na riamh cheana, 35 ban ina iomlán. Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, táim go mór faoi choimín ag an beirt bhan a raibh ina réamhtheachtaithe san oifig seo - na hIar-Uachtaráin Máire Mhic Róibín agus Máire Mhic Ghiolla Íosa. 

[Today, we can rightly rejoice and take pride in the great progress of the position of women in Irish society. The good news of last week's general election is undoubtedly that the new Dáil comprises a record number of women representatives, with 35 women elected as TDs. I, as President of Ireland, am deeply indebted to the great work of my two female predecessors in this office – former Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.]

So many obstacles to the participation of women in the political and economic life of our country have been removed. Over the last few decades, we have witnessed spectacular gains in the educational attainment of women and girls and a steady increase of the number of women engaged in paid work.

Yet, as is widely acknowledged, there too often remains a glass ceiling blocking women's access to decision-making positions. Furthermore, while salaried work is important, it is also essential that we fully recognise the contribution of women to a variety of care activities. Can we find a compass that recognises the salience of care, love and other activities deployed outside of the formal market sector as goods of public significance? These are, I believe, fundamental questions as we reflect on what we, as a society, recognise as ‘good work’, and how we measure ‘value’.

Taking stock of what we have achieved, we must relentlessly seek to complete our collective journey towards the full enjoyment of women’s rights, in Ireland and beyond. Indeed the rights of women run to the heart of the political, socio-economic and cultural challenges of our contemporary world, none of which can be understood without recognising the gendered nature of inequality and injustice.

On this International Women’s Day, may I say, once again, how delighted I am that we have this opportunity to honour the revolutionary women of our nation. The actions of those women, who were our mothers and grandmothers, our aunts and grandaunts, our neighbours and our teachers, are an inextinguishable source of inspiration as we continue the work of building, together, a more just, a more caring and a more equal Ireland.

I very much look forward to the rest of today's programme, whose numerous strands and participants show that, in making the story of 1916, we draw from a rich tapestry, with colours we might have missed before coming to light. There is no single narrative of 1916, no monopoly over the interpretation of our history.

May I congratulate the 77 women who made the quilt in memory of the 77 women who were detained in Richmond Barracks after the Rising. As a beautiful work of the mind and the hand, the intertwined layers of this quilt symbolise the ongoing conversation between the Irish women of today and those from the past – our living tradition.  I also look forward to the theatre performance by the women of Inchicore, who have entitled their piece "Flames not flowers" in honour of the defiant spirit of the women of the Easter Rising, who sang in unison as they were marched from each of their garrison across Dublin city.

It is indeed greatly uplifting to see so many of our citizens engage creatively with our past, bringing out its resonance with our contemporary concerns and aspirations, and turning it into a wellspring of inspiration for the future. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur said:

"The past is not only what is bygone – that which has taken place and can no longer be changed – it also lives in the memory thanks to arrows of futurity which have not been fired or whose trajectory has been interrupted. The unfulfilled future of the past forms perhaps the richest part of a tradition."

Arrows and flames – a hundred years on, the energy of the women of 1916 continue to orient our present and illuminate our future.


[1] “Even before the Russian Army had women soldiers”, Molony proudly declared, “the Citizen Army had them.”

[2] Bureau of Military History, Witness Statement no.391, Helena Molony.

[3] In her book At Home in the Revolution, Lucy McDiarmid, relates how, according to Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, her sister-in-law, Grace Gifford Plunkett, was also pregnant. McDiarmid describes, too, how Nancy O’Rahilly, wife of the O’Rahilly, who was killed during the fighting, was also pregnant, as was Phyllis Morkan, wife of Volunteer Eamon Morkan, who did not see his baby son until he returned home from Reading Gaol. Sinéad de Valera was pregnant with the future archaeologist Rúaidhrí; and Una Brennan, wife of Robert, was pregnant with the future New Yorker writer Maeve. Both Una Brennan and Phyllis Morkan, although pregnant, were “out” during the Rising.

[4] This scene is recounted in Fearghal McGarry. 2010 [Centenary edition: 2016]. The Rising. Ireland: Easter 1916. Oxford University Press.

[5] Cf. Mary McAuliffe. “Equality was a Cornerstone of Proclamation”. Irish Independent 1916 Collection, 4th February 2016.

[6] Leslie Price (Four Courts garrison) organised care for children orphaned by WWII. She became chairman of the Irish Red Cross and then of Gorta. In the late 1950s, she helped set up the Voluntary Health Insurance (VHI) and did great work on behalf of women and those with mental issues. She received the Henri Dunant medal from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1978. See Liz Gillis. Women of the Irish Revolution 1913-1923. Mercier Press.