For six days between April 24 and 29 1916, a group of about 3,000 Irish republicans occupied landmark buildings in Dublin city, until forced to surrender as a result of heavy shelling by British forces. This was the Easter Rising, a rebellion in which about 250 women appear to have taken part.
Most were members of either Cumann na mBan (the League of Women), the female auxiliary organisation to the principal rebel force, the Irish Volunteers. Others were members of the working-class militia, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), led by James Connolly. These included Connolly’s daughters, Nora and Ina, although he ensured their safety by sending them away from the epicentre of the rebellion to mobilise volunteers in County Tyrone. Like the Connolly sisters, many women who took part in the Rising were the female relatives of rebels. Conversely, some had brothers serving alongside the British in World War I.
No women rebels were killed, but the ICA’s Margaret Skinnider was badly wounded when shot in the shoulder while leading a charge to occupy a house in Harcourt Street. During the 1920s she was denied a disability pension by the Irish government, ostensibly because women were not eligible. But her opposition to the government of the new state was a more likely explanation for the decision.
The 77 women arrested during the Easter Rising posed a dilemma for the British authorities, who had little desire to intern a large cohort of women. Most were released within weeks. Constance Markievicz, later the first female MP elected to Westminster in 1918, was the highest profile woman to serve in the rising, as a commander of the ICA garrison at St Stephen’s Green. She claimed to have inflicted a fatal gunshot wound on the police constable Michael Lahiff.
Although Markievicz was sentenced to death, her sentence was commuted and she was released on amnesty in 1917. The British government, having protested so strongly against the German execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell in October 1915, could not themselves execute a woman six months later.
Tea and sandwiches
But this combat experience was not common. The vast majority of the women who fought in the rising, particularly members of Cumann na mBan, were relegated to supporting roles. One rebel commander, Éamon de Valera, refused to allow women into his garrison. Brigid Lyons, a medical student at the time, who would later become the first woman to serve in the Irish army after independence, recalled that she “spent a lot of time making tea and sandwiches” at her post in the Four Courts – Ireland’s main court building.
Over half (54% ) of the fatalities of Easter Week were civilians, 53 of whom were female. The youngest fatality of the rising, Christina Caffrey, was two-years-old and died from a gunshot wound that had penetrated her back through her mother’s hand while being held by her mother.
The female relatives of the 16 executed leaders soon became potent symbols of republican resistance, playing a high-profile role in international publicity campaigns to highlight the cause for Irish independence after 1916. Those executed included Kathleen Clarke’s husband, Thomas, and her brother, Ned Daly, and Margaret Pearse’s two sons, Patrick and Willie. Both Clarke and Pearse were later elected as Sinn Féin members of the Irish parliament in 1921 and were among the most strident republican opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement of 1921, which granted dominion status to the 26 counties of the Irish Free State, but fell short of complete sovereignty as a republic.
The Easter proclamation, the rebels’ manifesto declaring the republic, was addressed to Irishmen and Irishwomen and guaranteed equal rights. These promises appeared to have been realised in the 1922 Irish Free State constitution, which granted universal suffrage to men and women over 21.
But for women, at least, this proved to be a false dawn. Restrictions on divorce, the availability of contraception, the right to serve on juries, and continuation in employment after marriage were introduced in the Free State in the 1920s and 1930s. The strongest exponent of women’s rights among the rebel leaders, James Connolly, who was responsible for the proclamation’s gender inclusivity, was executed for his role in the rising. Many of his compatriots who survived and who took power after independence failed to deliver on the proclamation’s promises to Irish women. Éamon de Valera, the only commandant of the rising to avoid execution, introduced a constitution in 1937 – a document which to this day prioritises the domestic role of women in Ireland.