As the centenary year of the Easter Rising beckons, author Liz Gillis has produced a truly engaging account of brave patriots who have been too often overlooked in the national account of Ireland’s struggle for freedom and independence. This is a work of ‘herstory’, explicitly dedicated to claiming women’s space in the Irish revolutionary narrative.
The book is a visual feast of photographs drawn from the Kilmainham Gaol archives, the National Library of Ireland and numerous other collections. Striking images of militancy and political radicalism are set side by side with personal and intimate portraits. Delia Larkin – Big Jim’s ‘little sister’– and her Irish Women Workers Union stare out at the reader with looks of steely determination while a young and lovely Sighle Humphreys lights up the page with her smile.
The book is not a heavy, scholarly tome but it is no less a faithful account of these women’s lives for that. Each biography is crafted to capture the essential elements of the person’s story, of her life and times.
Whether running messages, tending to the wounded, wielding weapons or feeding the destitute, the revolutionary aims were consistent: freedom and social justice
The women’s personal journeys are the mechanism for telling the wider story of the years 1900-1923. Women played their part through organizations like Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan, but equally as volunteers in the Irish Citizen Army standing shoulder to shoulder with their male comrades during the Easter Rising. Subsequently women were ‘vital cogs’ in the IRA revolutionary machine throughout the Tan War – the War of Independence. As the common cause of independence gave way to the bitter divisions of Civil War, women were amongst the most stridently ‘anti-treaty’. The unshakeable commitment to their revolutionary mission marked many of the women out as the ‘most unmanageable of revolutionaries’.
The domestic, family and, in some cases, romantic lives of the women are interwoven with their revolutionary endeavours and the full human experience is revealed. Gillis notes the commitment of our heroines not just to freedom from British imperial rule but to freedom from poverty and repression. The women struggled for the realization of the Republic, not merely rhetorical or symbolic but real and tangible. Whether running messages, tending to the wounded, wielding weapons or feeding the destitute, the revolutionary aims were consistent: freedom and social justice.
Gillis’s admiration for her subjects is evident throughout. The intermingling of household names – Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington – with lesser-known patriots – Kathleen Davin from Tipperary and Nora Brosnan from Kerry – along with anonymous smiling girls and women makes this truly a who’s who of Irish Republican heroes. I enjoyed every story and every page – bainigí taitneamh as
Mary Lou McDonald is Vice-President of Sinn Féin and a TD for Dublin Central.