The British Empire once spanned all inhabited continents of the world, conquering all but 22 countries. But despite its far flung (and for the most part detrimental) impact on the world, we in Britain remain largely unaware of these histories. Our curriculum fails to pay any significant attention to arguably one of the most important topics to shape not only the world around us, but our own lives on a daily basis. To begin to listen to stories which have previously been buried from public view can only serve to broaden our understanding of the modern world and how we are able to operate as better citizens within it.
One of these ‘lost’ (at least in Britain) histories is that of Ireland, despite its proximity to, and close ties with, Britain. Britain’s occupation of Ireland began in the 1140s, and ties were not completely cut until as late as 1949 when the Republic of Ireland was founded. What came in between were, as the saying goes, ‘800 years of oppression’. Though our secondary school history lessons may have skirted over Cromwell and other big figures, their actions in Ireland are rarely mentioned. The name Cromwell is more likely to resurface the deeply buried phrase “the man who banned Christmas” from the Horrible Histories sketch in the mind of the average millennial Briton than anything else. What is decidedly omitted from those lessons (and is subsequently absent from our knowledge of Irish and British history now) is what he is notoriously villainous in Ireland for; the brutal suppression of a Catholic rebellion from 1649. His actions in Ireland resulted in “famine, plague, the violence of continued guerrilla war, ethnic cleansing, and deportation” and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. You see, throughout those 800 years the people of Ireland did not remain passive recipients of British rule. Like the Catholic rebellion that preceded Cromwell’s invasion, there were several key moments in which the Irish fought back against their colonial oppressor; most famously the 1798 Rebellion (widely believed to have been led by the almost mythologic Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen) and the 1916 Easter Rising. Arguably the most influential of these in turning public opinion firmly against British rule was the latter; at the heart and backbone of which were women.
Women’s participation in nationalist activism was not a new concept in 1916. Women most certainly played some kind of role in every rebellion in Ireland’s history, and made their allegiance clear through political writing and organisation. There is evidence that there was a woman’s organisation entitled the United Irishwomen which ran alongside their male counterparts (though they probably acted in a more supportive than active role, raising funds for the cause). Later on during the Land War of the 1870s (led by nationalists and socialists to protest absentee British landowners charging extortionate rent), Anna and Fanny Parnell of the Ladies’ Land League all but took over Land League activities once its leaders had been imprisoned. Irish women activists also had a rich history of literary tradition draw from; from Mary Ann McCracken’s writings on social justice and the nationalist situation around the 1798 Rebellion, to women’s political journals such as Shan Van Vocht founded in 1896 and the Irish Citizen – the mouthpiece of the Irish Women’s Franchise League. We see then that in the years preceding the Rising, women had been formidably vocal when it came to matters of nationhood and were deeply situated within anti-imperial discourse.
The 1916 Easter Rising came about as a plot to seize control from Britain by the socialist-led Irish Citizen’s Army and brought together an estimated 300 activist women working on varying causes across the city of Dublin and indeed across the whole of Ireland. The fight in the capital began on Easter Sunday (24th April) 1916, when members of the Irish Citizen Army took control of the General Post Office and read out a proclamation declaring Ireland an independent Republic. Though generally unsupported by the people of Ireland at the time, once fighting ended on the 29th and the perpetrators were captured and sentenced to immediate execution without trial, the public was reminded once again of the brutality of British rule and opinion shifted in support of the rebels. Suffragette and socialist women were all documented as being involved in the struggle alongside nationalists in the women’s nationalist organisation Cumann na mBan, both actively fighting and acting as messengers and spies on behalf of the nationalist cause. There are 3 women we can look at who encompass the breadth of roles women enacted during Easter Week to bring home the importance of women in the anti-imperial fight; Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, and Nora Connolly.
Thanks to recent commemorations of 1916, Constance Markievicz is now synonymous with the event, and she is hailed as a great titan of revolutionary politics during this period. Growing up on her family’s estate in Sligo, she was family friends with poet Yeats who introduced her to nationalism. She later renounced her upbringing and committed her entire life to Irish freedom. She was a founding member of Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann (a nationalist youth organisation), and was a prominent member of the Irish Citizen Army (a paramilitary republican group formed by unionists and led by James Connolly). Markievicz is an example of how women were able to take on active leadership roles in the movement and make a significant mark; establishing successful nationalist organisations, galvanising young people towards the cause through lectures across the country (urging a group of young women to join the fight and “leave [their] jewels in the bank and buy a revolver”) and taking a leadership role in combat when the Rising came. During Easter Week she acted as second in command on St Stephen’s Green; a position which reflected women’s influential standing within the movement.
Hannah Sheehy Skeffington is a wonderful example of women coming from a vast breadth of political backgrounds in order to support the Easter Rising and anti-imperialism. This was not uncommon at the time; many activists of all genders who fought for social causes were linked by their Republican views and fought alongside the nationalists. As the founder of the Irish Citizen, the solidarity between activist causes at this time is encompassed by a quote from 1919 stating “the Irish Citizen was founded in May 1912 to further the cause of Woman Suffrage and Feminism in Ireland…. In addition it had stood for the rights of Labour, especially for the rights of women workers… we stand for the self-determination of Ireland”. Hence, the Irish Citizen became an incredibly important paper through which women could establish themselves as vocal supporters of the nationalist, feminist, and socialist movements. Although Hanna and her husband, Frank Sheehy Skeffington, did not fight during the Rising due to their pacifist views, the two brought food and messages to various outposts to aid rebels. Frank also attempted to form a Citizens Militia to prevent looting and uphold the reputation of the cause, but was captured, shot, and killed whilst in police custody (the men responsible were never prosecuted). After his death, Hanna mobilised. She toured America with a lecture entitled “British Militarism As I Have Known It” to bring attention to his murder and the brutality of British rule in Ireland and to raise funds for nationalist groups back home. In 1918 she joined other women activists in opposing conscription in Ireland, a war many Irish people felt was inherently imperial and opposed fighting on behalf of their oppressor.
Nora Connolly O’Brien also played a crucial role in the nationalist movement, as well as elevating voices of women within it. As the daughter of James Connolly, head of the Irish Citizen Army and renowned trade unionist, she had a very political upbringing and had attended her father’s public meetings from as early as age 8. This undoubtedly had an influence on informing her political views, although she made her own mark on the political landscape early on. By her late teenage years she was a founding member of the Young Republican Party, the girl’s branch of Fianna Éireann, and the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan. Nora was present for many historically important moments in Republican history, for example in 1914 when the nationalist movement began to arm themselves, she and her sister Ina were responsible for collecting and shipping the arms to hiding places all over Dublin. Additionally during the Rising she was sent across Ireland to deliver important messages between leaders in Belfast and Dublin, liaising directly with key members of the Military Council who planned the Rising. Like many other women who performed important tasks such as these, which enabled communication and the physical means (arms) to fight which were integral to the Rising taking place, her story has been buried for a long time.
As it stands there are many more women’s stories to be uncovered who participated in anti-imperialist activism, but hopefully these 3 women’s stories give a small insight into the varying but integral roles that women played in the fight for Irish freedom. With an increasing academic interest in the matter, especially since centenary celebrations in 2016, hopefully we will gradually learn more about the women who opposed British colonial rule in Ireland, and a traditionally male centred narrative will be adapted in order to acknowledge the women who were unashamedly active in their opposition to British rule. Through bringing attention to the histories of oppressed people fighting against their oppressor, especially within the country that perpetrated that oppression, we can begin to understand how these dynamics have shaped the world we now live in, and begin to act and behave within that world with informed agency.
Senia Pašeta, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Sinead McCoole, No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years, 1900-1923 (O’Brien Press, 2003)
Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (Pluto Press, 1983)
Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, ‘Divided Sisterhood? Nationalist Feminism and Feminist Militancy in England and Ireland’, Contemporary British History (2018)