The women of 1916

MARIA-DANIELLA DICK. 

A Scottish academic explores the role of women which emerges from the newly published book Scotland and the Easter Rising: Fresh Perspectives on 1916, ed. by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley with an Afterword by Owen Dudley Edwards is published by Edinburgh, Luath, 2016. 

In this, the centenary year of the Easter Rising, reappraisals and recollections are taking place.  Among the acts of commemoration is this volume – to which I, among 26 others, am a contributor – the mission of which is twofold. The first aim of the editors is to foreground the Celtic connections between Scotland and Ireland in which the Rising was forged and thus to draw attention to its ‘Scottish dimension’. Chief among these is the figure of James Connolly; a leader of the rebellion and one of the seven signatories to the Proclamation, Connolly was born in the Cowgate in Edinburgh, then known as ‘Little Ireland’, to Irish parents who had emigrated from Co. Monaghan.

The other purpose of this volume is to insist that any consideration of the Rising is incomplete without an understanding of the tripartite claims of socialism, feminism and nationalism that were inscribed within it, even on a literal level: the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read by Patrick Pearse outside the GPO on Sackville Street at the instigation of the Rising enshrined among its principles the rights of gender equality and universal suffrage. In 1897 James Connolly famously wrote that, were nationalism not to be socialist in its aims, the new Ireland would remain in chains to England through the hold of its capitalist institutions upon the country, averring that ‘[i]f you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain’.[1]

This socialist republic would however not be achieved without recognising the place of feminism within it, and its necessity to the emancipation of man as well as woman. In chapter VI of his pamphlet The Re-Conquest of Ireland, entitled ‘Woman’, Connolly makes a statement that is prescient not only at the time of its writing in 1915, but that remains so more than a century later in 2016, when he writes that ‘[t]he worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave’.[2]  If, as Connolly claimed, the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland that of labour, and the two cannot be separated, he equally held that ‘[i]n Ireland the women’s cause is felt by all Labour men and women as their cause’ (The Re-Conquest of Ireland), placing the three into indivisible relation.

All of the contributors to this volume emphasise that the Easter Rising and its subsequent events must be seen in the wider radical contexts of international socialism and suffrage movements; inflected by them, it serves in turn to occupy a point in the historical continuum of labour rights and feminism. There were more than 100 female participants in the Easter Rising, a number which does not take into account those who participated indirectly. Their role had, until relatively recently, been obscured and written out of the histories of 1916, and as Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley observe, the work of recovery remains incomplete though ‘[n]ot only was the Easter Rising an attempt at declaring Irish independence from Britain, it was also a statement of equality and equal suffrage for women and the first attempt to assert a Socialist Republic’ by rebels who included women among their ranks. The editors of this volume contribute significantly to the ongoing recuperation of their voices; its contributions highlight the multi-faceted roles played by women in the events of 1916, among them Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; Constance Markievicz; Margaret Skinnider; Nora Connolly; Kathleen Behan, who was to become the mother of Brendan and Dominic Behan; and Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, Lady Aberdeen.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was the wife of Francis Skeffington. A suffragist and pacifist, he took her name upon marriage and was murdered during Easter week by the British army while attempting to stop looting. A republican and feminist, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington participated in the Rising, taking supplies to the leaders in the GPO. In its aftermath, she travelled to America to conduct a tour highlighting the cause of Irish self-determination and publicising the murder of her husband at the hands of the British forces; she was not allowed legally to return to Ireland and stowed away to Dublin, where she was arrested and sent to be jailed in England alongside Constance Markievicz at Holloway Prison. She was released after going on hunger strike, whereupon she managed to avoid being re-imprisoned and returned to Ireland. Sheehy-Skeffington’s story emphasises, as do those of others, a thread that runs throughout female rebel histories of 1916: as the socialism of the Rising was inextricable from its feminism, the event itself was a catalyst for further, and long, political struggle.

As Alison O’Malley Younger points out in her contribution to the collection, Countess Constance Markievicz was ‘an unlikely rebel’ due to her patrician upbringing, but a suffragette and republican who believed in national self-determination as ‘a driver for political change that would lead to recognition of the rights of the Irish people’. Having been active during the Dublin lock-out of 1913, Countess Markievicz held St Stephen’s Green in Easter week and was spared execution on account of her gender, instead spending more than a year in jail.  In 1918 she was elected the first female MP to the House of Commons, a seat she refused to occupy in line with Sinn Féin policy; she would later be elected to the Dáil.

It was at the invitation of Markievicz that a young Coatbridge school teacher named Margaret Skinnider would travel to Dublin in 1915 as a member of the Glasgow branch of Cumann na nBan, (the League of Women) in order to smuggle bomb-making equipment in preparation for the Rising. Skinnider had a history of feminist political activism in Scotland; she was known to police as a suffragette, and had participated in protests outside Perth prison in 1914 at the treatment of suffragette hunger strikers. Skinnider joined Cumann na mBan after having first become involved with the Irish Volunteers in Glasgow. It was also in Glasgow that she joined a rifle club, and Lusk observes that it was on that trip to Dublin to meet Markievicz that she also met Thomas MacDonagh, who was to gift her the revolver she would later use in her role as a dispatch rider and sniper during the Rising.  Skinnider fought alongside Markievicz on St Stephen’s Green and was shot three times while attempting to burn down houses, surviving and being allowed by special permit to leave Ireland and return to Scotland on account, as Lusk observes, of her Scottish accent.  From there, she would travel alongside Nora Connolly O’Brien, her close friend and fellow participant in the Rising, to New York.  Like Sheehy-Skeffington, they participated in raising awareness of the Irish cause on American soil.  

Nora Connolly O’Brien, the daughter of James, had also been active in the Rising, and Lusk notes that ‘[l]ike Skinnider, it was her connection with Scotland that allowed O’Brien to leave Ireland’.  Also like Skinnider and her father James, Nora Connolly O’Brien was an embodiment of that Scottish-Irish hybridity that is now being examined in accounts of the Rising. While in America, both she and Skinnider wrote their memoirs of Easter week, resulting in The Unbroken Tradition (1918) and Doing My Bit For Ireland (1917) respectively.

The Easter Rising was not the end of Skinnider’s political trajectory but a catalyst within it: during the Civil War she would become the Paymaster General of the Irish Republican Army in 1922 before being arrested and imprisoned in 1923. Although she applied for a military pension in 1925, she was refused it owing to her gender and would not be granted the award until 1938. Margaret Skinnider died in 1971 and was buried alongside Constance Markievicz in Glasnevin Cemetery.

In their introduction to this volume, Lusk and Maley write that ‘[n]ot only was the Easter Rising an attempt at declaring Irish independence from Britain, it was also a statement of equality and equal suffrage for women and the first attempt to assert a Socialist Republic’. The disappointment of one was bound up in the disappointment of the others, the Anglo-Irish Treaty installing a new order that saw James Connolly’s earlier statement endorsed. However, as the editors state in their introduction, a consideration of the Easter Rising in its centenary year allows us also to reflect upon current political situations across both Scotland and Ireland, offering ‘the prospect once more of radical change and new connections and conversations’. Inextricable from these is that of the position of women in the political and national spheres, then and now.

Dr Maria-Daniella Dick is a lecturer in Irish and Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.

[1] James Connolly, ‘Socialism and Nationalism’ (1897), from Shan Van Vocht at www.marxists.org

[2] James Conolly, chapter VI, ‘Woman’, in The Re-Conquest of Ireland, www.marxists.org

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