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Women of 1916: 'Producers and organisers continue to assemble manels to tell us our grandmothers' stories'

300 women participated in the 1916 Rising in a variety of roles. Did we do them justice this centenary year, asks Felicity Hayes-McCoy.

Felicity Hayes-McCoy

THE EASTER RISING of 1916 took the world by surprise. It had been planned in secret and, without the knowledge of many of those who did the planning, its date was decided by an inner group of IRB infiltrators.

The women and men in the ranks of Cumann na mBan, The Citizen Army and The Irish Volunteers were also kept in the dark. You can’t organise a revolution any other way. But the inevitable outcome of secrecy is confusion about what actually happened.

Women’s legacies

And only now, a hundred years later, have we begun to assess what the legacy of that confusion meant for Irish women in the years that followed, and how it still affects Ireland today.

The Rising began on Easter Monday, April 24th and the Commander in Chief of the rebel forces, Padraig Pearse, surrendered on Saturday April 29th. On April 31st, having been taken to Dublin to receive orders from Pearse in his cell in Arbour Hill, the commander of the Enniscorthy rebels led the men, women and boys under his command out of the Athenaeum theatre there, and surrendered the town.

It was the last garrison in the country to hold out, and among the Cumann na mBan women who surrendered that day was my grandmother’s cousin, nineteen year-old Marion Stokes.

I knew Marion, both in my childhood and when I was studying history at university. But in her lifetime I never knew that she’d joined the 1916 Rising. It was long after her death that I heard her story from my mother, who simply said that Marion “hadn’t like to talk about it”. My book A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance was written as an exploration of why that should have been so.

Airbrushing the women out 

Mna 1916 - Women 1916 opening Women look at a photograph c1915 of Irish revolutionary Countess Markiewicz as they attend the opening of Mna 1916 - Women 1916 at Dublin Castle. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Many Irish women have been asking that question this year. Why were the women who fought for Ireland’s independence, suffered with their fellow countrymen in the Civil War and, in some cases, played an active part in Irish politics for the rest of their lives, simply airbrushed out of our history? How could their stories have been forgotten? And to what extent has that airbrushing contributed to the misogyny that still characterises Irish life?

Among academics, in the media, and at local level, these issues have been repeatedly raised and discussed during this year’s centenary commemorations. Which can only be good. But, as the year has progressed, an air of smugness has also begun to appear.

Women linking current feminism with the aspirations of their rebel grandmothers are repeatedly trolled on the internet and told that the link is irrelevant. Media commentators tell us that, where 1916 is concerned, women have been dealt with and now we should move on.

Elsewhere producers and organisers continue to assemble manels to tell us our mothers’ and grandmothers’ stories, apparently unaware of how ludicrous that is.

So here’s another story

On Saturday May 13th 1916, the first coverage produced by a reporter who had travelled to Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising appeared in a British newspaper. It was commissioned by Sylvia Pankhurst for The Women’s Dreadnought and written by twenty-two year old Patricia Lynch, who made the journey disguised as a schoolgirl and smuggled her notes back to London between the pages of a novelette.

Those of us who grew up in Ireland in the 1960s may remember Patricia Lynch as a children’s author whose Brogeen The Leprechaun books were dramatised by RTÉ as a puppet serial. Both her books and the programmes were lovely.

But why did we grow up knowing that she wrote about leprechauns and not about her work with Sylvia Pankhurst? Or her involvement with the work of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Constance Markievicz? Or the fact that in 1932 she was writing to the papers demanding acknowledgement of Maud Gonne MacBride’s work on behalf of political prisoners? And does it matter?

I think it does. Ireland needs to explore, understand and move on from our toxic double inheritance of misogyny and silence. And, as the year ends, it’s clear to me that the work has only begun.

Felicity Hayes-McCoy has been a professional writer all her working life and she is a founding member of the UK’s Women’s Equality Party. http://felicityhayes-mccoy.blogspot.ie/. ‘A Woven Silence’ is on a Christmas offer with free delivery worldwide: http://www.kennys.ie/a-woven-silence-memory-history-and-remembrance.html.

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Felicity Hayes-McCoy

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