The past three days, I have devoted myself to writing an essay on the 1916 Easter Rising. I’m done with school, but I entered an essay contest as part of the Columbus Feis because I was feeling disenchanted with my dancing. I haven’t been able to increase my endurance, perform my steps without error, or even motivate myself to care. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I get a little demoralized when I don’t win. Culture, history, and my own nostalgia don’t need a fancy dress, a big wig, or even a fake tan for validation, but they feel a lot more pride when they’re rewarded with a trophy.
In short, I saw that there was an essay contest, that the prompt was women’s involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising, and I thought, “That prize is mine.” Later, when I saw that I was the only one entered, I was even happier. I was going to do some quality work, and someone was going to say “Good job!” (That doesn’t happen enough in the world. To everyone who is doing work out there–any work–great job, keep it up, you matter.) Anyway, long story short, the deadline was yesterday. All I had was the skeleton of an outline and a choice. I wasn’t that invested. It was only a $7 entry fee. I could always just quit…or I could do the research, learn something awesome about my heritage, and try to submit it anyway.
I chose the latter, and I learned a valuable lesson. Irish women were seriously awesome. What’s more, I learned I don’t really care about the commendation…at least not as much as I appreciate the opportunity to research and know these incredible people. I woke up this morning, I watched some TV, did some gardening, and then sat down to write. Four hours later, viola. Without further ado: my words.
Hitch Your Wagon to a Star:
Women in the 1916 Easter Rising
by Jen Graham
“Hitch your wagon to a star. Do not work for the right to share in the government of that nation that holds Ireland enslaved, but work to procure for our sex the rights of free citizenship in an independent Ireland.”
- Bean na hEireann, 1900s
On Easter Monday in 1916, the city of Dublin was engulfed in a week-long revolt for Irish independence. The Irish Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers set up garrisons at posts around the city, including the General Post Office, Stephen’s Green, and City Hall. Over the course of one week, shots were fired, arrests were made, and the lives of Irish women were changed forever. In 1917, when Margaret Skinnider published her memoir of the 1916 Easter Rising in the United States, she lamented that “when the revolt of a people that feels itself oppressed is successful, it is written down in history as a revolution…when it fails, it is called an insurrection—as in Ireland in 1916. Those who conquer usually write the history of the conquest.” In the historic memory of the world, the events of Easter Week have gone down for nearly a century as a failed rebellion. It is possible, however, to push Skinnider’s idea one step further: because those who write the history of the conquest are usually men, the 1916 uprising has been recorded as a decidedly male movement.
The Fianna Eireann—the boys of Ireland—are more often associated with the rebellion than the nation’s daughters. Yet it was a woman, Constance Markievicz, who founded the organization and recruited those boys, teaching them the history and language of their country and how to shoot a gun. Typical historical narrative closely associates masculinity with violence and femininity with pacifism. However, historian Gerardine Meaney argues that “women are not…essentially more peaceable, less dogmatic, uninfected by blood-thirsty political ideologies. Women have been actively involved in every possible variant of both nationalism and Unionism…Women have supported and carried out violent actions. They have gained and lost from their involvement. If patriarchal history has portrayed us as bystanders to the political process, it has lied.” The 1916 Easter Rising engaged hundreds of Irish women, uniting disparate strands of feminism, bringing them out of the narrow confines of domesticity, and opening the door to fight for a greater role in Irish society. Far from impartial observers, Irish women were active participants in the struggle for independence, before, during, and after the events of 1916.
Before 1913, women’s attitudes in Ireland were divided along ideological lines. Members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), founded by Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in 1908, considered universal suffrage the top feminist priority in the nation. According to Janine Booth, Irish suffragists felt that women should not simply champion the cause of Irish independence if, in an independent Ireland, they would still be disenfranchised, second-class citizens. Suffrage women believed only the vote could save them from the lives of “mere camp-followers and parasites of public life.” The nationalist women of the Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Erin) believed differently.
The Daughters of Erin were founded in 1908 by Maud Gonne for women who “resented being excluded, as women, from national organizations.” They believed that universal suffrage could not protect Ireland from the tyranny of the British. Securing the vote for women while Ireland was still under British rule would not liberate Irish women, but would make them participants in a government whose legitimacy they did not recognize. The Bean na hEireann, a publication of the Daughters of Erin advocating “militancy, Irish separatism, and feminism,” emphasized this idea when it urged women to take action. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” it advised. “Do not work for the right to share in the government of that nation that holds Ireland enslaved, but work to procure for our sex the rights of free citizenship in an independent Ireland.”
Divided, the feminist movement in Ireland could not live up to its potential. Both suffragist and nationalist feminists needed a cause to unite them, and that cause soon revealed itself in the form of labor and socialism. Politically active women like Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider witnessed the poverty of the Irish first hand. Walking through Ash Street in Dublin, Skinnider remembered the decrepit living conditions. “The fallen houses look like corpses,” she wrote, “the others like cripples leaning on crutches…They were built by rich Irishmen for their homes. Today they are tenements for the poorest Irish people…the poor among the ruins of grandeur.” Markievicz, too, found her firm convictions wavering in the face of poverty. “What was the best way to tackle the problems of huge unemployment, exhausted workers, wages, and poor accommodation?” she asked in 1910. “Nationalism alone may not be the answer.”
In addition to experiencing poverty, activist women were becoming disillusioned with the political process in the early 1900s. Sinn Fein, a nationalist organization founded in 1908, was not actively anti-feminist, but the group was slow to react to women’s demands. Socialist James Connolly, on the other hand, believed in the ability of women to successfully power social movements. Connolly identified with the feminist cause, writing that “the worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” Thus, Connolly actively recruited women to join a strike known as the 1913 Dublin Lock Out. The strike centered around a dispute between Irish workers and their employers over the right to unionize against poor working conditions and low wages. As a result of the strike, employers locked their employees out of the workplace and hired scab workers from Britain and other cities in Ireland instead. For seven months, Irish workers, the poorest in the United Kingdom, were forced to live off what charity they could find for their families.
The events of 1913 effectively brought the causes of labor and feminism closer together. Women who disagreed on the priorities of nationalism and suffrage involved themselves in the fight for justice. Constance Markievicz was known for working day and night, “collecting funds and serving meals in the food kitchen. Her home [had] become a sort of refugee camp for all those who had got into trouble with the police.” Actress and activist Helena Molony described Markievicz as “working as a man might have worked for the freedom of Ireland.” Of her own experience, Constance Markievicz wrote: “My first realization of tyranny came from some chance words spoken in favour of women’s suffrage…That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom, and I soon got on to the other freedoms, freedom to the nation, freedom to the worker.” The women who participated in the 1913 action learned that freedom was multifaceted. Neither nationalism, socialism, nor suffrage alone could solve the nation’s problems. It was only through a unification of ideologies that Irish women could free their country from tyranny.
In 1916, the time seemed ripe for a political upheaval. Britain had declared war with Germany in 1914, and the pride of the Irish had been rising for decades. Through plays, stories, and poems, the Irish people had learned of their ancient culture and history. What was called the Celtic Revival had shown Ireland what was, and what could be once more. “The refusal to do or say or think in the Anglicized way,” wrote Margaret Skinnider, “held in it a loyalty to something fine and free, the existence of which we believed in because we had read of it in the history of Ireland in our sagas. We were not a people struggling up into an untried experience, but a people regaining our kingdom.” Capitalizing on the birth of a national conscience and the distraction of the British Army, James Connolly and his Irish Citizen Army (ICA) planned and executed an Irish rebellion on Easter Week in 1916.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, also known as the Easter Proclamation, was read aloud on the steps of the General Post Office under the new flag of the republic at the beginning of the uprising. The Proclamation was signed by activist leaders James Connolly, Padraic Pearse, and Joseph Plunkett, and made official the rising’s commitment to women’s rights. The Proclamation addressed “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” claimed “the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman,” and declared the intention to establish a national Government for the Republic of Ireland, “representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women.” As Margaret Skinnider noted in her memoirs, “For the first time in history…a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.” Where Sinn Fein had dawdled, James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army followed through on granting equality to women.
Not every organization involved in the rising agreed with the Proclamation. The Irish Volunteers, a militant counterpart to the ICA, did not accept women into its ranks. The group had “a macho ethos” it did not want disturbed, and so it created a subgroup for sisters, wives, and sweethearts of the Volunteers to join called the Cumann na mBan. The women of the Cumann na mBan initially played a background (and thus more “feminine”) role than other female participants. They were cooks, nurses, and fundraisers, and they were given no say in the management of the organization. Constance Markievicz saw women’s exclusion from the Irish Volunteers as a joke, “depriving women of initiative and independence,” and instead became involved in the Irish Citizen Army. It wasn’t until later that the Cumann na mBan changed its tune and took on a more active militant role in the Easter Rising and its aftermath.
In contrast, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army opened its ranks to any woman who wished to join. Although the Irish Times considered it “deplorable that amongst the rebels, working their insensate folly, women were found doing unwomanly work,” the female participants in the 1916 rising were outfitted in the green ICA uniforms, given weapons, and even promised positions in the new government should the revolt succeed. Women of all classes joined the ICA to fight for Irish freedom; however, it was largely upper class women like Constance Markievicz and Dr. Kathleen Lynn who were able to devote the most to the cause. Where working class women were constrained by family responsibilities and the desperate situation of their employment, members of the upper class could choose where to invest their time and money, and these women were involved at every turn. Markievicz was a member of the Army Council. Dr. Kathleen Lynn held the rank of lieutenant and was in charge of the medical section. When the Irish Citizen Army hoisted the Irish flag over Liberty Hall, it was raised by Mollie O’Reilly. Margaret Skinnider made reconnaissance missions to British barracks, transported explosives from the continent, and bravely rode her bike between garrisons, carrying dispatches and ammunition. When Skinnider was denied the opportunity to join a mission to bomb a building, she reminded her commandant that “we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish republic, women were on an equality with men.”
Even after the fighting had ended and the cause was lost, women continued their bravery. Dr. Kathleen Lynn, when the British decided not to arrest her based on her status as a Red Cross doctor, insisted upon her own seizure, describing herself as “a red cross doctor and a belligerent.” A woman named Chris Caffery, who had been a bicycle dispatcher like Margaret Skinnider, was apprehended, stripped, and searched by the British soldiers, “but she had eaten her dispatch before they dragged her off the streets.” Constance Markievicz spent more time in prison than any other woman who was arrested. She had originally been sentenced to death, but after having executed all the signatories of the Proclamation and even Irish leaders who were not involved with the uprising, the British government reconsidered her sentence.
In addition to imprisonment, women carried the burden of perseverance. With nearly the entire male leadership of the rebellion executed or in prison, only the women remained free to carry the torch and pass it to the next generation. The survival of the movement depended on their commitment, and they delivered. As Margaret Skinnider lay injured in hospital, women of the movement visited her and told her “stories of heroism and stories of disaster…each strengthening my belief that the courage and honor of the heroic days of Ireland were still alive in our hearts.” The Cumann na mBan organized masses for the dead rebels and held after-mass political meetings. They taught their children of the heroism of 1916, and raised the next generation of Irish republicans. Women of the ICA even took the message of Irish resistance abroad to the United States, where they met with government officials, gave lectures, and published political tracts. Inspired by the work of her peers and the rise of women in Ireland, Margaret Skinnider wrote in her memoirs, “Perhaps it is for this we should love our enemies: when they cleave with their swords the heart of a brave man, they lay bare the truth of life.”
The 1916 Easter Rising brought together socialist, nationalist, and, in its devotion to equal rights, feminist ideologies. However, for the women involved, there was an intense backlash in its aftermath. Involvement in the struggle for freedom had opened the possibility for women to step beyond the domestic sphere. As these women became increasingly involved in public affairs, they entered into a world that had previously been dominated by men. Rather than honored for their contribution to the nationalist cause, women were ridiculed for “acting like men.” Women were increasingly shut out from the politics of the post-1916 movement. Eventually their heroism became invisible even to history. Nevertheless, just as women were intrinsic to the movement for Irish independence, so too was the nationalist fight significant in the development of female political consciences in Ireland. The 1916 Easter Uprising engaged women in new and exciting ways. For the future of feminism in Ireland, it is important to reclaim women’s place in national memory.