By Catriona Kennedy
That the rebellions of 1798 and 1803 provided the men of 1916 with a set of heroic exemplars is well documented. Figures like Theobald Wolfe Tone could be harnessed to the different political visions of the rising’s leaders: his death a model of republican sacrifice for Pearse, his appeal to the ‘men of no property’ evidence of a native proto-socialism for Connolly, his negotiation of foreign military intervention an inspiration for Casement. Those schooled at St Enda’s had it forcefully impressed upon them that within its grounds Robert Emmet and Sarah Curran had conducted their doomed love affair. When the Bureau of Military Witness Statements began collecting testimonies from veterans of the Rising in the 1930s one of the questions they were specifically asked was how far Robert Emmet and the 1803 rising had influenced their national ideals. But if the men of 1916 found in the United Irish leaders and the pike-wielding rebels of 1798 models of nationalist theory and action, what about the women of 1916? To paraphrase Yeats’ September 1913 – what were the names from 1798 that stilled her childish play?
The most obvious candidates were the ‘wives and sweethearts’ of the three leading United Irish martyrs – Matilda, wife of Theobald Wolfe Tone; Pamela, wife of Edward Fitzgerald; and Sarah Curran, the ‘broken-hearted’ lover of Robert Emmet. Over the course of the nineteenth century all three women figured prominently in their husbands’ tragic narratives. Richard Robert Madden devoted several chapters to them in his monumental collective biography of the United Irishmen first published in 1842. The Young Ireland press presented Matilda Tone a model of feminine republican fortitude in a series of articles published in the lead up to the 1848 rebellion. Pamela Fitzgerald was granted equal billing with her husband in Gerald Campbell’s 1904 biography Edward and Pamela in which she exemplified the glamour and romance of the Franco-Irish revolutionary alliance. But above all, it was Sarah Curran, pining to death for the loss of her lover as immortalized in Thomas Moore’s She is Far From the Land and countless other ballads and stories, who loomed largest in the imaginary of the revolutionary generation. In the decades preceding the rising, all three would be brought to life on the stage in political melodramas such as J.W. Whitebread’s Lord Edward, or ’98 (1894) and Wolfe Tone (1898), their presence underlining their husbands’ and lover’s tragic sacrifice. While the 1898 centenary was predominantly concerned with commemorating male involvement in the rebellion, the United Irish widows could also be called upon to sanction female nationalist activity: the Ladies’ Auxiliary committee, established to raise funds for a monument to Wolfe Tone, included branches named after Pamela Fitzgerald, Sarah Curran and Matilda Tone.
Yet if the memory of Tone, Fitzgerald and Emmet fired the imaginations and shaped the ideals of the men of 1916, their widows seemed to present less inspirational role models for female nationalists. In a speech on the future of Irishwomen in 1915, Constance Markievicz lamented the frustratingly limited template for female action the United Irish wives and sweethearts provided. Surveying her countrywomen’s role in the nation’s political past, Marckievicz dismissed the ‘women of 1798’ as essentially passive, reserving her particular scorn for ‘weak Sarah Curran, who drifted to madness of Emmet’s death.’[i][ii] In dismissing the ‘women of 98’ Markievicz accepted perhaps too readily the received image of these women. Though nineteenth-century writers from Thomas Moore to R.R. Madden had sought to abstract the wives of the United Irish leaders from the world of revolutionary politics, depicting them as dutiful helpmeets whose commitment to the national cause stemmed entirely from their relationships with men, there is evidence to suggest that they engaged more actively with radical politics both before and after 1798. Fifty years after her husband’s death, Matilda Tone remained committed to the republican cause eagerly following and celebrating the European Revolutions of 1848.[iii] The version of Sarah Curran with which Markievicz would have been familiar was a delicate, ethereal and largely mute figure (except when warbling a mournful air to her dead lover). However, in 1803 the British Home Secretary had claimed that Curran’s letters to Emmet, many of which had been destroyed upon his arrest, showed her to be a true pupil of Mary Woolstonecraft [sic]’.[iv]
The widows of ’98 may have proved disappointing foremothers for the women of 1916, but the impulse to find usable heroines from 1798 remained. With this objective in mind, Markievicz researched and presented a series of lectures on the ‘Women of ‘98’ in 1915 that were published in the Irish Citizen the same year. ‘I thought’, Markievicz began, ‘I should have found it difficult to gather sufficient material among the histories and memoirs that I have access to, to write a paper on the women of ’98. But all through the records of the struggle for independence allusions to deeds done by women and girls drift, giving us an idea of the place taken by the women of Ireland in the national struggle.’[v] Markievicz divided her account into those women whose involvement in 1798 had been ‘passive’ – suffering British military brutality, sacrificing their husbands and sons to the rebel cause – and those who had taken a more ‘active’ and to her mind, more inspirational, role as combatants. Amongst the women whose ‘heroic greatness’ she declared ‘may be a light in the path to us women of today’ were Molly Weston, who had joined the insurgents at Tara attired in a green habit and riding a ‘spirited grey pony’ – a figure who must have appealed to a skilled horsewoman with a fondness for dressing up such as Markievicz. There was Mary Doyle, the heroine of the battle of New Ross, who had refused to abandon the rebels’ cannon. And there was Betsy Gray, the heroine of the Ulster rebellion, who had ridden to the battle of Ballinahinch with her brother and sweetheart and was shot and killed by the Yeomanry. For Markievicz it was clearly preferable for heroines to die of a bullet wound than of a broken heart.
Markievicz’s audience would likely have already been familiar with many of the women she mentioned. Mary Doyle ‘the Irish Joan of Arc’ had been the subject of popular ballads and a central character in P.J. Bourke’s 1910 play When Wexford Rose, while Betsy Gray was the central protagonist of a hugely popular historical novel by Wesley Greenhill Lyttle and of another drama by P.J. Bourke, For the Land She Loved first performed in 1915. They offered a more popular, earthy and militant version of the woman of ’98 that chimed with the centenary’s commemorative emphasis on peasant insurgents. And it seems probable these popular heroines exerted a hold on the imaginations of women who became involved with advanced nationalism in the years leading up to the rising. The only female branch of the nationalist youth organization the Fianna, organized by Ina and Nora Connolly in Belfast, was named after Betsy Gray. When Sydney Gifford attended her first meeting of Inghinidhe na hEireann in 1908 she eagerly anticipated a gathering of spirited heroines like the women of ’98 she had seen illustrated in the colour supplements of the nationalist press. She was disappointed to find a more prosaic assemblage of sensibly dressed women discussing practical issues of finance.[vi]
Given the confluence of feminist and nationalist objectives that framed many women’s involvement in 1916, it may appear surprising that the Belfast radical Mary Anne McCracken, now identified as a pioneer of Irish feminism, was not more vigorously celebrated. Yet while McCracken’s letters, in which she unfolded her feminist sympathies, were presented to Richard Robert Madden in the 1840s during his researches on the United Irishmen, the salient passages were not reproduced in either Madden’s or later nineteenth-century histories. Consequently, though Markievicz identified McCracken as one of the more ‘active’ women in 1798, she adhered to the romanticized anodyne portrait presented in male-authored histories, in which her commitment to the cause stemmed from her devotion to her brother and a secret passion for Thomas Russell.
The women of 1916 may have keenly desired a set of nationalist heroines to match those with whom their male counterparts so passionately identified, but it was a challenge to peel back the layers of myth and romance that had congealed around the women of ’98. Once the rising was defeated and the executions began, the parameters of female nationalist action reverted to a familiar pattern set by the earlier failed rebellions: the sacrificing and grieving of their menfolk. The marriage of Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett on the eve of his execution famously recalled, and may well have been inspired by, an apocryphal episode from the story of Sarah Curran and Robert Emmet. Eily O’Reilly, a member of Cumann na mBan who was based at Jacob’s factory during the rising, remembered her efforts to mask her grief as her brother, Micheál, prepared for his execution. In this moment of acute distress, the past seemed to provide a model of conduct. ‘He told us not to fret and we tried to reassure him that we would be all right’ she recalled to the Bureau of Military History, ‘the women of ’98 had had to endure that too.’[vii]
[ii] ‘The Future of Irishwomen’, Irish Citizen, 23 October, 1915.
[iii] Jane Rendall, ‘ “Friends of Liberty & Virtue”: Women Radicals and Transatlantic Correspondence’ in Caroline Bland and Máire Cross (eds), Gender and Politics in the Age of Letter Writing, 1750-1900 (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004), pp. 77-92.
[iv] Harry Sirr, Sarah Curran’s and Robert Emmet’s Letters (Dublin, 1910), p. 10.
[v] ‘The Women of ‘98’, Irish Citizen, November 1915.
[vi] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries. Women and Irish Nationalism (Pluto, London: 1989), p. 68.
[vii][vii] Eily O’Hanrahan O’Reilly, Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, no. 270.
Catriona Kennedy is a senior lecturer in the history department at York, and the author of Narratives of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars: Military and civilian experience in Britain and Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).