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This Irish rebel smuggled bomb detonators under her coat and often dressed as a boy

Margaret Skinnider played a play a key role in the struggle for independence in 1916.

Image: Wikipedia

WHEN I MOVED to Glasgow I rented a flat on Mingarry Street, not far from the Botanic Gardens.

On nearby Kersland Street a young Coatbridge schoolteacher named Margaret Skinnider had lodged in the months leading up to 1916.

Skinnider, who was born in 1892 and would go on to become the only woman injured in active service in the Easter Rising, chose the West End deliberately as it was then, as now, a ‘part of the city not under suspicion – there were not many Irish people living in the place.’

Skinnider, with family from Emyvale in County Monaghan, became an integral part of the local branch of Cumann na mBan, a women’s organisation founded in Dublin in 1914 that would play a key role in the struggle for independence. Soon she was smuggling weapons to Dublin, sailing for Ireland ahead of the rebellion with ‘detonators for bombs and the wires […] under my coat.’

The 1916 Easter Rising The ruins of the General Post Office viewed from the top of Nelson's Column in 1916. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

That line comes from Skinnider’s own account of the Rising, published just a year after the event in the United States. The folksy title – Doing My Bit for Ireland – betrays something of its rheumy-eyed style, but the book is not without charm.

Literary magazine The Dial remarked approvingly that Skinnider’s text ‘makes the Irish revolutionaries live for us, especially their executed leaders, so that the Irish question presents itself as an essentially human problem, and the rights of small nations changes from a battle cry to a demand for constructive thought.’

Even by the standards of Easter 1916, Skinnider was a sui generis rebel. She learned to shoot in Scotland – such was her proficiency that Fianna youth came to watch the bespectacled ‘Glasgow boy’ take aim.

Source: Coatbridge RFB/YouTube

 

She began Easter week in Rathmines, in the bohemian digs of Constance Markievicz, ‘the Countess’ before proceeding to the frontline. Around 2am on the Thursday morning, Skinnider was shot three times while attempting to burn down properties on Harcourt Street (‘My disappointment at not being able to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel was what made me unhappy,’ she wrote.)

After treatment at the Royal College of Surgeons and then St. Vincent’s Hospital, Skinnider was arrested amid the embers of the Rising and brought to Bridewell Police Station.

Skinnider eventually made it back to Scotland, and then on to the United States where Doing My Bit for Ireland formed a small part of a much wider campaign to appeal to Irish Americans for support in the burgeoning War of Independence. The dead men of the Rising – all the female fatalities were civilians – were already on the road to martyrdom.

Skinnider, unlike many of her contemporaries, was no reactionary Irish nationalist. In 1914, she attended protests outside Perth Prison. Suffragettes incarcerated inside were suffering appalling force-feeding. She would later take part in a hunger strike herself in Mountjoy, in February 1923, in opposition to the signing of the Treaty.

Margaret Skinnider never appeared in the history books that I devoured as a lank-haired teenager in Longford. I had never heard her name until I started going to Coatbridge in 2014, ahead of the independence referendum.

The 1916 Easter Rising A view from Nelson's Column showing ruins in the city of Dublin in 1916. Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

 

I was drawn to ‘Little Ireland’ and its unselfconscious Irishness, its GAA teams and Irish dancing schools. One bright summer’s afternoon, a few weeks before the referendum, I visited the headquarters of the local chapter of Cairde na hÉireann, the largest Irish republican organisation in Scotland. The green, white and gold of the Irish Tricolour hung above a small storefront. Metal bars ran across the windows. Margaret Skinnider’s name appeared over the door.

Margaret Skinnider spent the vast majority of her adult life in Dublin. Despite her affinity for Monaghan, she seems to have been a city girl at heart. In many ways her post-1916 life was even more remarkable than her footnote in that historic Easter week. After initially being denied a military pension because the Army Pensions Act was adjudged to be ‘only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’ she returned to teaching.

Skinnider became a moving spirit in the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), agitating in particular for wage parity for female teachers. Despite her war wounds, she lived to 79.

In 1971, Skinnider was buried in the republican plot at Glasnevin cemetery.

My mother’s parents, who lived most of their married life just behind the graveyard, are also there. Next time I visit them, I’ll look out for Margaret Skinnider’s gravestone, too.

This is an extract, written by Peter Geoghegan, for the new book, Scotland and The Easter Rising, edited by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley.  The book is published by Luath Press Ltd and is available now.

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About the author:

Peter Geoghegan

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