I’m back from vacation and this is both my belated St Patrick’s Day post and, of course a Women’s History Month post as well.
The Easter Rising in 1916 was the first stage of the eventually successful revolution of the Irish against the British for their freedom. The Rising failed and many of the participants were killed or imprisoned, but it is the iconic event of Irish history in the 20th century. Even revolutions make their women disappear.
Constance Markievicz was second in command at the rebels’ St. Stephen’s Green outpost in Dublin. Credit National Library of Ireland
Quotes are from a brilliant article by Sadhbh Walshe in the New York Times. She’s writing about the Sisterhood of the Easter Rising.
AROUND 12:45 p.m. on April 29, 1916, Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell left 15 Moore Street in Dublin to deliver the surrender message that would end the Easter Rising. Inside the house, where the division of Irish rebels under the command of Padraig Pearse had retreated, her comrades in arms watched her walk away through the bullet-riddled streets, fearing she would be shot down. But as she neared the British military outpost, the firing eased and Ms. O’Farrell accomplished her mission without injury.
Ms. O’Farrell’s act of bravery has become one of the iconic moments of the Rising, not so much for the act itself, but for how it was documented. In a photo of the surrender taken later with Pearse and two British officers, only Ms. O’Farrell’s boots were visible. When the photo was first published in a British newspaper, even the boots had disappeared.
Ms. O’Farrell claimed later that she deliberately stepped out of sight. But rightly or wrongly, “that photo” has come to symbolize the airbrushing — or “Eire-brushing,” as some have said — of women out of Ireland’s history. Now, as the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising get underway, a determined effort is being made to reinsert the lost stories of female heroism into the male-dominated narrative of the struggle for Irish independence. As these stories come into focus, the doctored image could be said to represent something more that has consequences to this day: the removal of women from a public role in the republic they helped bring into being.
Aside from a few stars like Constance Markievicz, who was second in command at the rebels’ St. Stephen’s Green outpost in Dublin, or the schoolteacher turned sniper Margaret Skinnider, most of the estimated 260 women who took part in the 1916 insurrection never found their way into the history books. In recent decades, several historians, mostly women, have worked to change that. Among them, as part of a government-funded commemorative effort, Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis have unearthed a wealth of information on the 77 women who were imprisoned for their role in the uprising.
The picture emerging from this research is one of women who were not just committed nationalists willing to die for Ireland, but also longtime campaigners for social justice who had been fighting inequality on many fronts: land reform, labor battles and women’s suffrage. These women wanted a fairer society in which they would have an equal say. In 1916, they had reason to believe that the republic they chose to fight for was the surest means to that end….
Most of the women who took part in the 1916 insurrection never found their way into the history books. In recent decades, several historians, mostly women, have worked to change that.
Here are some of the women who chose to fight for an Irish republic and a fairer society.
Kathleen Lynn (1874 – 1955)
Kathleen Lynn, a doctor, gave medical training to recruits to the Irish Citizen Army, a paramilitary organization, and allowed her home to be used as a munitions store. She served as the Chief Medical Officer during the Rising, famously describing herself as “a Red Cross doctor and a belligerent” when arrested. Ms. Lynn went on to co-found St. Ultan’s Hospital for Infants.
Margaret Skinnider (1892 – 1971)
Scottish schoolteacher Margaret Skinnider quit her job in the spring of 1916 to take part in the rebellion. (On an earlier trip to Ireland, in 1915, she reportedly smuggled detonators under her hat.)
During the Rising Ms. Skinnider, a member of a shooting club in Scotland, served as a sniper — in the same garrison as the Countess Markievicz — and was shot three times. When she recovered she returned to work as a teacher and campaigner for women’s rights. She is buried in Dublin next to Countess Markievicz.
The Countess Markievicz (1868 -1927)
Born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Countess Markievicz was the only woman sentenced to death for her role in the Rising. Her sentence was later commuted to life in prison because of her gender and she was ultimately released in an amnesty in 1917.
In 1918 she was the first woman elected to the British Parliament, but refused to take her seat; instead she became the only woman to hold a cabinet position, as Minister of Labor, in the first Irish Assembly. The countess died, virtually penniless, in 1927.
Rosie Hackett (1892 – 1976)
Born into a working class Dublin family, Rosie Hackett co-founded the Irish Women Workers Union to combat the deplorable conditions endured by the female employees of Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. She was part of the group that produced the first print of the Proclamation of an Irish Republic.
These women’s disappearance easily took place in the 20th century world of popular media, film, newspapers, photographs. Looking back before this historically, it’s a miracle we know anything. In the 21st century, women’s achievement continues to be discredited, devalued and disappeared. We are very grateful to the many feminist historians who salvage our pasts.
Note: The way that women are trolled on the internet is part of this same process.