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Dublin 1916: women and the Irish rising

By: 
Jesse McLaren

March 8, 2016

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, declaring the Irish Rising of 1916, puts equality between men and men at the heart of national liberation, a reflection of the role women played in the lead up and during the rising. 

Land, labour and women’s rights

Britain ruled Ireland like the rest of its colonies—through violence, poverty, famine and sectarian divisions—and like the rest of its colonies there were national liberation movements. The Easter Rising of 1916 lasted less than a week, involved only a couple thousand people and was brutally repressed. But it proved to be the spark for independence, and it fused three growing movements: national liberation, women’s rights and worker’s rights.

For years nationalist organizations had campaigned for Irish independence from British rule, including organizations like the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Land League. Women were excluded from many nationalist organizations, so they formed their own, from the Ladies’ Land League of 1881 to the Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Erin) of 1900. It emerged from a protest of Queen Victoria’s visit, and went on to found the first women’s newspaper in Ireland “advocating militancy, Irish separatism and feminism.” Inghinidhe merged with Cumann na mBan (Irishwomen’s council), founded in 1914 as a women’s auxiliary to the all-male Irish Volunteers (later the Irish Republican Army, IRA).

Women also fought for suffrage—including two dozen organizations by 1911—and as part of working class struggles. When women’s suffrage meetings came under attack, they received solidarity from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, organized by the socialist James Connolly. In his chapter on women’s rights in his 1915 book The Re-Conquest of Ireland, he condemned women’s oppression, from exploitation at work to unpaid labour at home:

“The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave… Wherever there is a great demand for female labour, as in Belfast, we find that the woman tends to become the chief support of the house. Driven out to work at the earliest possible age, she remains fettered to her wage-earning—a slave for life. Marriage does not mean for her a rest from outside labour, it usually means that, to the outside labour, she has added the duty of a double domestic toil. Throughout her life she remains a wage-earner; completing each day's work, she becomes the slave of the domestic needs of her family; and when at night she drops wearied upon her bed, it is with the knowledge that at the earliest morn she must find her way again into the service of the capitalist, and at the end of that coming day's service for him hasten homeward again for another round of domestic drudgery. So her whole life runs—a dreary pilgrimage from one drudgery to another; the coming of children but serving as milestones in her journey to signalise fresh increases to her burdens… Of what use to such sufferers can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish State if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood. As we have shown, the whole spirit and practice of modern Ireland, as it expresses itself through its pastors and masters, bear socially and politically, hardly upon women. That spirit and that practice had their origins in the establishment in this country of a social and political order based upon the private ownership of property, as against the older order based upon the common ownership of a related community.”

As Connolly explained, women were not just victims of oppression but fought for their own liberation, in a struggle that was intertwined with working class struggle against capitalism: “The development in Ireland of what is known as the women's movement has synchronised with the appearance of women upon the industrial field… In Ireland the women's cause is felt by all Labour men and women as their cause; the Labour cause has no more earnest and whole-hearted supporters than the militant women… None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women's army forges ahead of the militant army of Labour. But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.”

In 1911 hundreds of men and thousands of women at the Jacob’s biscuit factory in Dublin went on strike for higher wages and won. Through the process, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) was formed, which helped build solidarity during the Great Lockout of 1913 when employers tried to smash unions. To defend the strike the workers organized the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), which included women and men training and fighting side by side in the lead up to the rising.

The rising and the role of women

On Easter 1916 the “Army of the Irish Republic”—combining the ICA, Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan—took over key sections of the city and declared an Irish Republic, calling for equality for all citizens and freedom from British rule. Women were a minority in the rising, but played important roles.

Molly O’Reilly, who had worked in the kitchens during the 1913 lockout, helped smuggle weapons in the lead up to the 1916 rising, and was the one to hoist the Republican flag on Easter Sunday 1916. Constance Markiewicz wrote the training manual for the ICA and drew the maps for the rising, while Nora Connolly helped deliver messages throughout the country, as well as internationally. Dr. Kathleen Lynn was the chief medical officer, and her partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen was promoted to sergeant for her role in the fighting.

The inclusion of equal rights on the proclamation did not automatically make it so—and the leader of one garrison refused to include women, and was one of the first to go down to defeat. But women also asserted their rights through the rising, like Margaret Skinnider who was told she couldn’t take part in an armed attack: “My answer to that argument was that we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women were on an equality with men. For the first time in history, indeed, a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.”

Because there were only a couple thousand participants in the rising, and a lack of coordination, it was defeated. British forces imprisoned thousands, and executed many of the leaders including James Connolly. As Irish socialist Mary Smith explains, “The ICA was the only organization that drew together the strands of revolutionary nationalism, anti-imperialism, women’s emancipation and militant trades unionism and united them in struggle… The tragedy of the ICA is that although it punched way above its weight, it was too small to effectively build resistance to the reactionary forces that came to dominate in the aftermath of the rebellion.”

Aftermath: revolution and counter-revolution

As a leader in the rising Constance Markiewicz was also sentenced to death but her sentence was commuted. As she wrote, “We failed, but not until we had seen regimen after regimen run form our few guns. Our effort will inspire the people who come after us, and will give them hope and courage. If we failed to win, so did the English. They slaughtered and imprisoned, only to arouse the nation to a passion of love and loyalty, loyalty to Ireland and hatred of foreign rule. Once they see clearly that the English rule us still, only with a new personnel of traitors and new uniforms, they will finish the work begun by the men and women of Easter Week.”

This renewed revolutionary wave exploded in 1918, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. There was mass opposition to conscription, which Cumann na mBan helped organize. There was an electoral challenge with a landslide victory for Sinn Fein (including Markiewicz and others elected while in prison), which refused to attend British Parliament and instead set up their own (the Dail) in Dublin. There was also solidarity with the Russian Revolution, from mass rallies to the refusal to load ships carrying weapons for the counter-revolution. 

In 1920 a strike wave briefly saw the emergence of workers councils, as the Manchester Guardian described: “It is particularly interesting to note the rise of the Workers Councils in the country towns. The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these councils, which were formed not on a local but class basis. In most cases the police abdicated and the maintenance of order was taken over by the Workers Councils.”

Like the defeat of so many national liberation movements, the British responded with brutal violence, partitioned the country and supported conservative elites who severed national independence from social struggles. While women won the right the vote, the new “Free State” banned Cumann na mBan, opened up a jail for revolutionary women, banned divorce and restricted reproductive choice.

As James Connolly had warned, “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”

But a century later, the same struggles are re-emerging in Ireland—from mass protests against austerity and water privatization, to support for equal marriage and abortion rights.

On March 13 join the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Toronto.

On April 22 join the meeting “The Easter Rising: Dublin 1916,” with Sid Ryan and Carolyn Egan, the opening rally for the weekend conference Ideas for Real Change. Register today at marxismconference.ca

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