Sisters at war

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

Traditionally, the role of women in Ireland’s revolutionary years was overlooked, but in recent times we have become more informed about the fearless women who helped shape our history

The Decade of Centenaries has provided an opportunity to focus on the complex period of our history from 1912-1923. Events that took place during this time include the foundation of the Irish Volunteers, the Home Rule and Land Bills, the 1913 Lockout, the 1916 Rising, the suffrage movement, the first sitting of the Dáil, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Foundation of the State and Partition. With the release of a wealth of documentation, historians have been building a more complete version of our history. As a result, there is a greater awareness of the role of the women who were very actively involved in the struggle for Irish freedom and the foundation of the new State.

Several hundred women took part in the 1916 Rising, not only carrying dispatches and providing medical care but also fighting beside their male comrades. Most of these women belonged to organisations such as Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army. Inghinidhe na hÉireann was an Irish nationalist women’s organisation founded by Maud Gonne in 1900. It merged with the new Cumann na mBan, set up in 1914 so that women could assist the Irish Volunteers in their fight for the freedom of Ireland.

Kathleen Clarke, who chaired the first meeting of Cumann na mBan in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, urged the women present to get to work and declared, ‘let us show our enemy what we women can do’. It was women who undertook the administration of the Volunteers Dependents’ Fund which was set up for the welfare of the families of those who had been killed or interned. They organised fundraising, contributed to the propaganda machine, participated in elections and provided safe houses for rebels who had escaped arrest. Many of the same women later assisted in the distribution of funds raised by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland through the Irish White Cross. Women were at the fore of the anti-conscription campaign which resisted the British government’s imposition of a military draft in Ireland during the First World War.

This year, we take a look back at the events of 1921, one of the most violent periods in the Irish War of Independence. In the eight months before the truce was called in July 1921, guerrilla war was at its most intense and the violence and death toll escalated. With many of the men imprisoned, women filled the void. New information available from the Military Archives pension records shows how vital and how extensive their role was in the continued fight for Irish independence.

‘In the eight months before the truce was called in July 1921, guerrilla war was at its most intense and the violence and death toll escalated’

Their work included hiding and moving arms, administering medical aid, fundraising, keeping contact with prisoners and acting as spies and couriers. They faced regular interrogation and often brutal raids of their homes by the British forces.

During this period, there were many families from across disparate social, economic and geographic divides who wished to seek Irish independence. Some followed Wolfe Tone’s strong ideals of republicanism and had ancestors who had fought in rebellions over the centuries. Others were non-political but were drawn to radical nationalism through the cultural revival in Irish sports, language, drama, dance and other cultural activities.

The diversity of the families involved in radical nationalism is told here in the stories of some of the brave sisters who played an enormous part in the fight for Irish independence, sisters at war, who were willing to give their lives for their country. They endured imprisonment, hunger strike and separation from their families and friends for their beliefs.

Left: Lily, Eileen and Anne Cooney. Right: Anne Cooney in Cumann na mBan uniform. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.18PC-1B56-03. 

The Cooneys

16 Upper Basin Street, Dublin

The Cooney family had a long tradition of nationalism; their grandfather took part in the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Their home was used to store ammunition and Con Colbert, one of the leaders, had stayed with the Cooneys in the lead up to the 1916 Rising. At just sixteen-years-old, Eileen served in the Marrowbone Lane garrison with her sisters Lily aged eighteen and Anne, twenty. A younger brother, Thomas, was used as a runner. All three sisters were arrested and sent to Richmond Barracks initially and then on to Kilmainham Gaol. Their father was arrested when he visited the garrison to bring the girls a change of clothing.

Before he was executed, Colbert wrote a letter to Anne and Lily, which said, ‘You girls give us courage and may God grant you Freedom soon in the fullest sense’.

The three sisters continued their involvement through the Irish War of Independence, running ammunition, arms and dispatches. Anne Cooney was one of the few women arrested during this time, serving a sentence in Mountjoy Gaol.

On the Saturday night before Bloody Sunday, they were approached by a member of the Fourth Battalion to be ready at the University Church at six o’clock the next morning, as there was a big job on. Anne recounted, ‘after waiting during what seemed to us an eternity, the three fellows came along walking pretty smartly and handed over their guns to us, one each, in a laneway between the church and Harcourt Steet corner. We put the guns in our pockets and proceeded home’.

During the Irish Civil War they took the anti-Treaty side, which resulted in constant raids on their home that Anne described as ‘much worse than those of the Tans’.

The Daly family in 1901. Front row (left to right) Aileen, Kathleen, Madge, Ned. Back row (left to right) Nora, Annie, Agnes, Carrie, Laura

The Dalys

26 Frederick Street (now O’Curry Street), Limerick

Edward and Catherine Daly had ten children, nine daughters and one son. The family was steeped in republican tradition, with both Edward and his brother John having taken part in the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Collectively the Daly sisters were the driving force behind the Limerick City branch of Cumann na mBan. Madge, Laura, Kathleen, Agnes, Carrie and Nora were all heavily involved. Their only brother Ned and Kathleen’s husband Thomas Clarke were executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

While living in Dublin, Kathleen went on to establish the Volunteers’ Dependants’ Fund and during the War of Independence, sheltered men and women on the run. In May 1918 she was arrested and spent nine months in Holloway Prison in London. It was claimed that she was involved in the ‘German plot’, which was an alleged alliance between the Germans and Sinn Féin, who were opposed to introducing conscription in Ireland.

She was elected as a Sinn Féin TD in 1921 and was opposed to the Treaty. In 1926, she became a founder member of Fianna Fáil and subsequently served as a TD and Senator. In 1937, she objected to the content of Éamon de Valera’s draft of the new Constitution and resigned from the Fianna Fáil Cumann named after her husband. She felt several of the articles compromised the rights of women. She was the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin (1939–1941).

From about 1920, the three unmarried sisters, Madge, Agnes and Carrie, moved with their mother to Ardeevin, on the Ennis Road, Limerick, where they were constantly raided during the War of Independence. In one particularly brutal attack, when Agnes and Carrie were alone, Agnes was dragged out of the house where her assailants cut her hair and slashed her hand with a razor, severing an artery. Then, in 1921, the contents of the house were piled out on to the street and burned by the Black and Tans.

In June 1921, on the morning of the execution of Volunteer Thomas Keane, Laura Daly led members of Cumann na mBan in a procession to the walls of the New Barracks on Lord Edward Street (now Sarsfield Barracks), Limerick. She carried a banner she had borrowed from Fr Hennessy of the Augustinian Church. Several of the women were badly beaten by members of the Crown forces.

Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Kate O’Callaghan and Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence who died on hunger strike attending the Treaty debates, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin
Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Funeral of George Clancy and Michael O’Callaghan (husband of Kate), the two murdered Mayors of Limerick, 1921

The Murphys

Crossmahon, Macroom, Cork

Cornelius and Julia Murphy had fourteen children, eleven of whom survived into adulthood. The family valued education and Kate, Máire and Bríd obtained degrees from the Royal University, followed by teacher training in Cambridge. Elsie qualified as a doctor from University College, Cork.

Máire took up a post as Professor of the Methods of Teaching at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick in 1903. When she married in 1909, her sister Kate replaced her in the position. Kate held the post until 1914 when she married Michael O’Callaghan. At that point another sister, Éilis, took up the post.

The sisters were close and together they joined the Gaelic League and were very active in the suffragette movement and Cumann na mBan.

Michael O’Callaghan became Mayor of Limerick in 1920, a public figure representing the view of the by then proscribed Dáil Éireann, which became an underground government. Following his attendance at the funeral of the murdered Mayor of Cork, Thomas MacCurtain, he began to receive letters threatening his life. On Monday 7 March 1921, the O’Callaghan home was raided, and Kate witnessed the murder of her husband. She spoke publicly about it and wrote a pamphlet titled ‘The Case of Michael O’Callaghan’ to counter propaganda and misinformation about his murder. Later that year she was elected to Dáil Éireann.

She opposed the Treaty in 1922 and was interned in Kilmainham Gaol where she went on hunger strike for nineteen days. Her sister Elsie was also imprisoned in Kilmainham at this time.

On 23rd May 1937, Kate wrote to Éamon de Valera, pointing out why she would not vote for the acceptance of the Draft Constitution.

‘The articles relating to the status of women were a great disappointment to me, as they must have been to the many who hoped for the “equal rights and equal opportunities” which the Proclamation of the Republic in 1916 guaranteed to all its citizens.’

She particularly objected to Article 45.4.2, ‘as it charges the Creator with afflicting half the race with “inadequate strength” or with éagcumas, which surely means the lack of some power which they ought to have.’

 The wording of this Article was changed due to the many objections from women’s organisations and individual women, who considered the phrase very offensive.

Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Helen Ruth ‘Nellie’ Gifford, Boston 1917. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.2012.0143
Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Grace Gifford Plunkett, Maeve Donnelly, and Katherine Gifford Wilson. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW KMGLM.2012.0146.

The Giffords

97 Palmerston Road, Rathmines, Dublin

Frederick Gifford, a Catholic solicitor, and his wife, Isabella Burton, daughter of a Church of Ireland rector, had twelve children, six daughters and six sons. Isabella’s father died in her infancy and she was raised by her uncle, the painter Frederic William Burton, whose painting Hellelil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs features on the cover of this issue.

Nellie Gifford was a founder member of the Irish Citizens Army. She posed as Jim Larkin’s niece to gain him entry to the Imperial Hotel, where his speech from a balcony resulted in the lockout of 1913. She was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol following the 1916 Rising where she wrote her name on her cell wall; the inscription can still be seen there.

Grace married Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol hours before his execution on 4 May 1916. In the aftermath of the Rising, their story was a contributing factor in turning the tide of public opinion to one of sympathy. Grace was elected to the Sinn Féin executive in 1917 and during the War of Independence she used her artistic skills for propaganda purposes.

Along with the other 1916 widows, she opposed the Treaty and was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol during the Civil War, where her sister, Katherine was a fellow inmate.

During Katherine’s time in prison, she was made a commanding officer on the Cumann na mBan Prisoner’s Council. She was also involved in the Irish White Cross.

Muriel Gifford was married to Thomas McDonagh, one of the signatories of the Proclamation in 1916, and was active in the Women’s Franchise League and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She was drowned while on holiday with the other 1916 widows and orphans in Skerries, County Dublin on 9 July 1917, leaving a young son and daughter orphaned.

Sidney Gifford was a member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan and was on the executive council of Sinn Féin. While living in America, she and her sister Nellie founded the American branch of Cumann na mBan and also worked with the Irish Americans in Clann na nGael and the Irish Progressive League. Sidney returned to Ireland in 1922 and joined the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League, an organisation that helped with aid for republican prisoners during the Civil War.

The seven Plunkett children

The Plunketts

26 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, Dublin

Count George Noble and Countess Josephine Plunkett had seven children. Their eldest son, Joseph, was a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation and was executed for his part in the Rising. Their two other sons George and Jack were sentenced to death but had their sentences commuted to ten years penal servitude.

Although Countess Plunkett was not political, she allowed the Volunteers to train on the grounds of two of the family properties. She was arrested in the aftermath of the Rising when out searching for her sons.

Philomena (Mimi) was a member of Cumann na mBan. Before the Rising, she travelled to America, serving as a courier between the IRB military council and the Clan na Gael leaders in New York. On her return, she resumed her work with Cumann na mBan.

Geraldine cared for her brother Joseph, who was very ill, and was also his aide-de-camp. She wanted to serve in the GPO, but Joseph ordered her home to manufacture explosives with her husband, Thomas Dillon, who was a professor of chemistry at University College Dublin.

The Dillon home was frequently raided and in 1921 Geraldine was arrested and separated from her three small children when literature on the White Cross was discovered. Her daughter, Eilís Dillon wrote of the event, ‘… a party of soldiers broke into the house, upset the furniture, threw the books down from the shelves, lifted the floor-boards in their search for hidden guns, and finished by taking my mother away with them on their lorry, surrounded by fixed bayonets … My older sister, then four years old, knew just what was afoot because on another occasion, not long before, she had been compelled by a party of Black and Tans to lead them out into the garden where my mother was so that they could kill her. My mother argued them out of their intention then, saying that it would be objected to in England if they were to shoot down a young woman in the presence of her child. But now they had gone off with our mother, and my sister understood that we would never see her again.’

Fiona, the youngest of the Plunkett sisters, worked as a secretary at Cumann na mBan headquarters and was a section commander during the War of Independence. In her later years, she remained an active republican. In 1976, she was prosecuted for her participation in a banned commemoration of the 1916 Rising at the GPO.

Ryan Family (1910 approx.).  Back (left to right) Jim, Chris, Jack, Kit, Michael, Nell, Min. Middle (left to right) Liz, Martin, Eliza Sutton, John Ryan, Josie, Kate Ryan (aunt). Front (left to right) Agnes, Phyllis. Courtesy of Richard Mulcahy.

The Ryans

Tomcoole, Wexford

The Ryan sisters played an active part in Ireland’s revolutionary years. John and Eliza Ryan had a family of eight girls and four boys. The girls were educated in Loreto College, Gorey before going to university in Dublin. Three of the sisters, Min, Kit and Phyllis, shared a house in Ranelagh while attending university. Their house became a centre of IRB activity and Min was a founding member of Cumann na mBan in 1914.

During the 1916 Rising, Phyllis and Min brought food and messages to the GPO, where their brother, Jim, a medical student and Min’s friend Seán MacDiarmada were stationed. Jim attended James Connolly when his ankle was shattered by gunfire. Although Nell (who remained on the family farm in Wexford) and Kit Ryan had not taken part in the Rising, they were both sent to prison.

The Civil War was to cause a split in the Ryan family. Min married General Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA and they both supported the Treaty. Mulcahy went on to become Commander-
in-Chief of the Irish Army. He was appointed Minister for Defence from 1922–24 and earned notoriety through his order that anti-Treaty activists captured carrying arms were liable for execution. He was leader of Fine Gael from 1944 to 1959.

Kit married Seán T. O’Kelly, a founding member of the Volunteers. They both opposed the Treaty and he later became vice-president of the executive council of Fianna Fáil. Nell and Phyllis Ryan and their brother Jim also opposed the Treaty. Kit died in 1934 and two years later, O’Kelly married her younger sister, Phyllis.

Seán T. O’Kelly became the second President of Ireland on 25 June 1945.

Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Anna Rahilly
Women during Ireland’s revolutionary years
Sighle Rahilly in Cumann na mBan uniform

The Rahillys

Ballylongford, Kerry

Nell and Anna Rahilly were sisters of Michael, also known as The O’Rahilly, the only leader of the 1916 Rising to be killed in action. Their father had died in 1896, leaving the family extremely well off. Following his death, Anna moved with their mother to Ardnacrusha in County Clare.

Anna was a member of the Gaelic League and was involved in Sinn Féin. In April 1914 she was one of a small group of women present at the founding of Cumann na mBan in Wynne’s Hotel, Dublin. She and her sister Nell were both arrested in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.

Nell married David Humphrys, an eye surgeon from Limerick in 1895, who died just eight years later. She and her three young children moved to Ardnacrusha to live with her mother and sister. In 1909 Anna, Nell and the children moved to Dublin. Nell’s son, Dick, served in the GPO with his uncle, The O’Rahilly. Her daughter Sighle joined Cumann na mBan in 1919 at the age of twenty. She was involved in looking after the wounded, distributing propaganda and finding safe houses for those on the run during the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Anna contributed large amounts of money to various nationalist causes and also provided the first money to be handled by Dáil Éireann in 1919, a loan for £2000. During the Civil War, all members of the household opposed the Treaty. In 1922, Ernie O’Malley was captured in the Humphry’s home. Nell and her daughter, Sighle were imprisoned. Anna, who was accidentally shot during the raid, was sent to hospital and once recovered, was imprisoned for the rest of the Civil War, and was on hunger strike in October–November 1923.

Sinéad McCoole is a member of the government’s Expert Advisory Group on the Decade of Centenaries and was Historical Advisor to the 2016 National Commemoration Programme. She is the author of many books which provide more extensive information on the subject of this article, including: Guns and Chiffon: Women Revolutionaries and Kilmainham Gaol 1916-1923; No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years, 1900-1923; Easter Widows, the Untold Story of the Wives of the Executed Leaders.

For assistance in securing images, a sincere thanks to Patricia Haselbeck Flynn, Órla McKeown, Honor O’Brolchain, Dr. Mark Humphrys, Richard Mulcahy, Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW, Special Collections and Archives at University of Limerick.

  • ‘Sisters at war’ is published in Anthology Volume 15. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
  • Browse more in culture.
  • If you were inspired by this feature, we’d love it if you would share it!