Some of the most unlikely rebels were women who grew up in Protestant Unionist households, in other words part of the Anglo Irish elite
.They went to private schools, socialized with those of their own class, lived in large Georgian houses in the same neighborhoods as their peers, supposedly sharing the same values and ideals.
The lines were strictly drawn and it was considered scandalous for women to speak up against establishment, write editorials, or do almost anything outside of homemaking. In fact, after the Easter Rising, Nellie Gifford was thrown out of her mother’s house. So how did these women become rebels in Ireland?
As children, many had limited contact with one or both parents. Some were from mixed marriages with one parent being Protestant and the other Catholic. Religion was a major political division in Ireland.
The Catholic parent would have exposed them to priests and other clergy, a clergy with bitter history of Penal Laws and forever yearning to regain power in the Catholic Church.
Maria Perolz, one of three daughters born in Limerick, attended the Presentation Convent School. She spoke of being introduced to nationalist politics from Sister Bonaventure who she said, “made a rebel out of me.” Other things affected Maria such as the centenary commemorations of the 1798 rebellion she witnessed in Dublin.
After the famine and beginning with the land wars, many who lost their homes immigrated to Dublin, bringing wit them tales of hardship and the Irish language. Social contact was never allowed between the classes but children were another matter entirely as children are naturally curious and were not yet prejudiced. Many boys and girls were friendly with servants and the feelings were mutual.
An Irish governess was a common thing in the upper classes and many of the children loved their Irish nanny.
Nellie Gifford was one child who grew very close to her governess, Bridget. One Christmas Bridget gave her a special gift to be opened in private. It was a large yellow handkerchief and in each corner of the handkerchief was printed a question and its answer. The words were from a poem written by Thomas Davis, a leader of the Young Irelanders and its subject was that of Red Hugh O’Neil, one of the last Gaelic Chieftains and hero of the Nine years War against Elizabeth I. this was just one subtle way Bridget taught her young charges Irish History, something forbidden in upper class Dublin schools.
Taken out of school at a young age, Nellie was sent to the west of Ireland where she learned a good deal about cooking from the cottagers who ran a cooking school of sorts. Here she would have heard stories and Irish songs. She must have witnessed first hand the deplorable conditions of peasant living and heard stories of famine and evictions. She must have gained pride in her own Irish culture too.
Forbidden in the men’s groups, women formed their own organizations to foster nationhood. Notable were Cumann na mBan, Inghinidhe na hEireann, and even a girl scout group called Clan na Gael formed in Dublin in 1910 similar to the boy’s group of na Fianna Eireann. During the Easter Rising of 1916 they carried dispatches, transported guns, fed the rebel army, and cared for the sick and wounded. The Rising was not popular with Dubliners.
Beside the fact that these rebels were women they were blamed along with the men for countless deaths among the public. During the Rising twenty eight children died as well.
These women were brave. When told to go home after the surrender after the Easter Rising or what the British termed the Sinn Fein Rebellion, they refused. They preferred to march behind their male heroes, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) later to become the IRA, knowing they could face death sentences or penal servitude themselves.
It must have been hard for some of the women to let go of those old codes of conduct. At a meeting of Cumann na mBann in 1914, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s hackles were raised and she was not about to let things slide. She was furious that…………..
the Irish Citizen had been printing articles for quite some time ridiculing the nationalist women such as calling them “Nationalist Slave Women.” An all out ruckus commenced with shouts and name calling.
According to the papers which publicized the meeting, not every woman and several men who had been invited as speakers were in agreement with Hanna.
Agnes O’Farrelly wrote to the paper castigating Hanna on the grounds the Irish Women’s Council was about nationhood and should not be exploited for someone else’s personal gain. This only fueled Hanna to write her own letters. saying …..
“Any society of women, which proposes to act merely as a collection box for men, cannot have the sympathy of any self respecting woman.”
I would say Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was ahead of her time!
To read more about Women’s roles in Ireland go here.
To learn more Irish History read, 100 Things You Didn’t Know About Ireland
The following is from the new book, Petticoat Rebels of 1916 to be published soon. For a FREE Review copy leave a comment.