My review of “On Dangerous Ground A Memoir of the Irish Revolution” by Maire Comerford. Edited by Hilary Dully

on dangerous ground

Maire  Comerford  (1893-1982) was an Irish revolutionary:   this book  is her story of her life until the age of 27 years,  recording  her role in the turbulent politics of Ireland from 1916 to 1927. Her editor Hilary Dully, a family member, completes her life story using Maire’s  own  archive.

Maire  was born into a privileged family in Wexford., but her life turned upside down when she witnessed the 1916 Rising when for  six days an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland took place in Dublin. Several Republican groups including the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and the women’s organisation Cumann na mBan took part. A proclamation of Irish  independence from Britain was read and circulated around the city. After the Rising was defeated,  the British executed 14 of the leaders,  while a further  1400  imprisoned.

Maire, like many others,  was inspired by these events:

“It was not death but the call to freedom, and the new illustration of its meaning, which captured us; a flag on a pole, a proclamation that spoke the truth, and men deciding themselves how best to die, if die they must – these were the things that suddenly counted more than anything else in Ireland.”

She went on to become  active in Cumann na mBan , the Republican  political party Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League which promoted the Irish language. Moving to Dublin in 1919 she threw herself into the politics of the War of Independence.

Her memoir is written from the standpoint of an activist and this is what gives it   legitimacy. Maire  was an intelligent and dynamic person,  using  a bicycle in her political work. She  zoomed  around the country moving arms, transporting dispatches, investigating the destruction of homes,  and taking part in all aspects of the politics of the era.

What also stands out is also the way that  Maire  gives prominence to the activities of the women involved in the Republican movement – which would have been rare when she wrote this memoir in the 1940s and 1950s.

Cumann na mBan (The Irish Women’s Council)  was set up on  2nd April  1914 in response to women’s exclusion  from the all-male Irish National Volunteers. Over the years 10,000 women, from all classes,  took part in the struggle for independence,  but their role has until recently been marginalised in most  histories of the fight for the independence of Ireland.

In 1917 it was Maire’s  job to organise Cumann na mBan branches in every parish in north Wexford. “Evening and night hours were spent bicycling uncounted miles over the little roads where once the 1798 men had marched. With that soil under one’s feet, and a job to be done, it was heaven to be young.”

Máire_Comerford 3

Maire (centre) with Cumann na mBan comrades in 1940s.

By 1919 Marie is working for Alice Stopford Green, a historian and Republican ,  and living in the heart of the  politics of revolution.  She describes the struggle at a street level. “The women selling apples and flowers on the sidewalk, with their capricious aprons ever ready to catch a smoking revolver, a packet, or an un-discharged bomb “Drop it here,  son” – from a man in a tight corner.”

Marie has some interesting insights into the relationships between men and women in the Republican movement. “There were those who worked easily and naturally with women, in full trust and confidence: and then there the ‘mystery men’ who only wanted us to do what we were told and ask no questions.”

But it is the women of Cumann na mBan after the  end of the War of Independence  whom she condemns. “Why did Cumann na mBan let down the feminist cause down when the war was over?”  and “It  never occurred to me to doubt that the Republican Government, when we put it in power, would do justice to both sexes equally and, of course, to all of the people.”

In 1921 negotiations took place between the Republican government  and the British government. Michael Collins, Sinn Fein MP for Cork, and military strategist for the Irish Republican Army took the lead and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed. The Partition of the island was written into law, Ireland remained within the British Empire while  the new government would have to swear an oath to the King.

Opposition to the Treaty led to the Irish Civil War with Collins’ former ally,  Eamon de Valera,   leading the anti-Treaty forces, which Maire joined.  She refused to accept that  “Ireland was required to bow to the sovereignty of England. She must abandon the Republic. Any servant of the Republic must now consent to an oath to the British King George… all we knew was that the Republic of Easter Week and the First Dáil was betrayed.”

During the 1922 election Maire was active,  and,  although she was not entitled to a vote (being a woman under  30),  she did so anyway.   “I knew I had earned the right to vote, and was determined to have my say.” She impersonated a dead woman and voted.

Playing a  full part in the Civil War she was arrested and imprisoned and only released after 27  days on a hunger strike. Maire  was then sent by De Valera to the U.S.A. to  raise funds and promote the Republican cause. Returning home after nine months she experienced poverty and loneliness when  living on a small poultry farm.

Her memoir is a reminder of the important role that many women have played,  and continue to play,  in their commitment to a united Ireland free of British rule. Sadly, like the biographies of  many activist women, it was not published until after her death.

She ends her story thus.  “We were from various strata of society but we were rank-and-file Republicans in love with the new freedom that we hoped to make secure. I have written the story of our efforts as I knew them and to explain how, in the end, we were driven underground, pushed down by the pressure of a soul-destroying political defeat, which followed the forcible partition of our island all those years ago.”

marie comerford 2

Maire in her later years.

In 1973 as part of his documentary “Curious Journey” Kenneth Griffiths interviewed Marie. You can  watch it here

Buy it here


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
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2 Responses to My review of “On Dangerous Ground A Memoir of the Irish Revolution” by Maire Comerford. Edited by Hilary Dully

  1. Peter Billington says:

    Great stuff, thank you.

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