Celebrating women of the Easter Rising; my review of We Were There 77 Women of the Easter Rising

richmond barracks

Today is the actual day of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin when revolutionaries tried to kick the British government out of Ireland. Not an anniversary that the Irish government really wants to celebrate properly; it might give opposition forces such as the trade unionists, the anti-war charge campaign, the People Before Profit Alliance and the pro-choice groups a few ideas. On this side of the water it might remind people of the heroic history of Irish people in making this country a better place to live in.

easter rising

It is always worrying when the mouthpiece of the British establishment, the BBC, spends hours championing revolutionary events and this is what has happened over the last few weeks in many television and radio programmes, with some dodgy characters including Bob Geldof, retelling the story of the Rising.

But maybe it reflects the latest phase in the relationship of the two countries. Northern Ireland is now a devolved state, albeit with the British still in control of the puppet strings while the Republic is a place which the Royal family can happily visit with few people raising the issue of  a united Ireland.

Over on this side of the water the Irish community is in decline and with it any radical organisation that would give an alternative view to the events of the Rising. Instead we have nostalgic celebrations of the Rising, mostly funded by the Irish government,  reflecting the smug self satisfied response of  the well-to-do Irish listening to academics churning over the Rising,  but with no engagement either  with the present day issues of the Irish diaspora or  with the state of the island of Ireland.

Breaking this complacency is this new book; Richmond Barracks 1916; We Were There 77 Women of the Easter Rising by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gilles. This seminal  book reminds us of the important role that women played in the politics of Ireland in the years before, during  and after the Rising.

The title refers to  77 women who had taken part in the Rising, surrendered alongside their male comrades, and were then taken to the Richmond Barracks in Dublin. There were other women who took part in the Rising, some of whom who had travelled over from Britain,  and theirs is a story that still needs to be written.

The book  reminds us of the importance of the trade union movement during this period which politicised a whole new generation of women. Many of the women involved in the Rising were working class and represented the new wave of women’s public activity,  not just in trade unions but also in the campaign for the vote.  Many were young and unmarried and were  aged 16-30 years. They came from the working class urban neighbourhoods and were linked together by family and kinship ties.  Their leaders were generally older with an  average age of 30-40.

“These seventy-seven women are representative of an important minority, a group of women politicised through feminism, nationalism and trade unionism, who were determined to have their say and their place in the shaping of the future of the country.”

About 280 women in total took part in the Rising: the majority in Dublin, with others in Galway, Enniscorthy and Ashbourne. But the chaos of the Rising with its mobilisation being countermanded meant that some women did not take part on either  on the Sunday or on the Monday.

The women who did take part  marched,  assembled and worked alongside their male comrades at the main positions of the garrison. What did they do?  They took part in the fighting, delivered important dispatches whilst dodging bullets as the city turned into a war zone. Some of the women ran first aid posts or  kept the  rebel  army  going by cooking meals.

women in rising 1

Women from organisations as diverse as the Irish Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and  Clan na nGaedheal Girl Scouts were there alongside their male comrades in the major outposts of the Dublin Rising.

What I really liked about this book, apart from the fascinating and in depth research and its readability, is that most of it is given over to the biographies of the 77 women. As a Republican I know quite a lot about the politics of the Rising, but I was fascinated by the stories of some of the less known women activists.

Annie Norgrove came from a Protestant nationalist family in Dublin. Her father, mother and sister were involved in trade union politics and the Rising. At the time of the Rising Annie was 17, representing that group of women who had become politicised by the 1913 Lockout. She joined the IWWU and was in the women’s section of the Irish Citizen Army. After imprisonment she carried on her revolutionary politics supporting the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War.

women at richmond barracks

For me, being a second generation Irish activist, there is a big gap in the book  because of the absence of the names and stories of women who went over from the cities such as Liverpool and Manchester where they were members of Cumann na mBan.  In 2014 there was a celebratory event for the Liverpool Cumann na mBan women who took part in the Rising. They were Nora Thornton, Kathy Doran, Francis Downey, Peggy Downey, Kathleen Fleming, Anastasia MacLoughlin, Kathleen Murphy and Rose Ann Murphy. Perhaps off the back of the recent Rising events someone may follow these women up so that we can know their stories.

liverpool cmban

Liverpool Cumann na mBan

We are living through what Bertolt Brecht called the “dark times” and the Left, including trade unions and progressive organisations, are on their knees. And it’s not just on this side of the water.  But books such as this are important in reminding us of the tremendous commitment of women in particular to Irish revolutionary politics from 1913-23.  It is a history that can only encourage and inspire a new generation of activists and let us hope that the book can get beyond the usual academic circles and reach out to the new generations of women fighting in their trade unions and anti-cuts groups and show them that they are part of a rich radical tradition of working class history.

About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in anti-cuts, book review, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, working class history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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