Helena Molony: a revolutionary life

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Volume 21

Members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. Helena Molony is seated third from left, second row, beside Maud Gonne (holding the banner). ‘I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit.’

Members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. Helena Molony is seated third from left, second row, beside Maud Gonne (holding the banner). ‘I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit.’

Born in 1883, the daughter of a Dublin grocer, Helena Molony experienced an unhappy, if comfortable, childhood; orphaned in early life, she did not get on with her stepmother. As in many republican autobiographical narratives, she could identify a moment of political awakening: ‘I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit.’ Like many of her generation, the cultural revival played an important role. ‘I had been reading Douglas Hyde—his history and legends. She gathered all this up and made it real for me.’ Following this epiphany, Molony joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), one of the few organisations to facilitate political engagement by women, who were denied the vote and excluded from most political and cultural organisations.

Inghinidhe na hÉireann
Although radical in terms of its commitment to feminism, separatism and (at least rhetorically) physical force, the gendered nature of Inghinidhe’s activities reflected the social conservatism of the times. The organisation had emerged from a campaign to organise a ‘patriotic children’s treat’ for children who boycotted the festivities marking Queen Victoria’s 1900 visit to Ireland. Focusing its efforts on women and children, Inghinidhe organised Irish classes for poor children, campaigned for the extension of school meals to Ireland, alerted girls to the dangers of consorting with British soldiers, pressured shops to stock Irish goods and discouraged British army recruitment. Molony later recalled how she evaded the authorities—‘we were young and swift, and the police were hampered by heavy long overcoats’—and ignored the disapproval of friends: the ‘suffragette movement had not been heard of and women and girls were still living in a semi-sheltered Victorianism’.

A committed agitator and effective speaker, Molony was elected secretary of Inghinidhe. In 1908 she established Bean na hÉireann as a monthly ‘woman’s paper advocating militancy, separatism and feminism’. It was distinguished not only by its militant republicanism but also by its feminism. The only Irish newspaper to advocate physical-force republicanism at that time, it provided an influential propaganda outlet during a period of separatist malaise: ‘It was a funny hotch-potch of blood and thunder, high thinking, and home-made bread. We were the object of much good-natured chaff. Friendly newsagents would say “Bean na hEireann? That’s the woman’s paper that all the young men buy”.’

Members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, c. 1914. Helena Molony is seated third from left, front row, beside Delia Larkin. ‘I knew little of Labour ideas. But I was always on the side of the underdog.’ During the Lockout she worked in Liberty Hall’s food kitchen and addressed strike meetings. (National Archives)

Members of the Irish Women Workers’ Union, c. 1914. Helena Molony is seated third from left, front row, beside Delia Larkin. ‘I knew little of Labour ideas. But I was always on the side of the underdog.’ During the Lockout she worked in Liberty Hall’s food kitchen and addressed strike meetings. (National Archives)

editor Molony exercised considerable influence, soliciting contributions from leading nationalists. Constance Markievicz ‘came into national things through our paper’, Molony recalled: ‘I was more or less political mentor to the countess at that time’. Markievicz’s scouting organisation, Na Fianna Éireann, was planned in the Sherrard Street home of Molony’s brother Frank: ‘Every Sunday evening, we had a few friends in. A good deal of things were hatched there.’ Molony helped to drill the boys although, like Markievicz, she had to contend with their ungrateful attempts to expel her on the grounds that ‘a physical force organization is no place for women’. Dr Kathleen Lynn also attributed her politicisation to the influence of Molony, who had stayed at her Belgrave Road home following an illness: ‘We used to have long talks and she converted me to the national movement. She was a very clever and attractive girl with a tremendous power of making friends.’

By 1911 Molony’s activism had shifted from propaganda to agitation, reflecting her belief in the power of direct action to effect change. She became the first Irish female political prisoner of her generation after smashing an illuminated portrait of George V during the monarch’s visit to Ireland. Although embarrassed by her arrest—‘no one but rowdies went to the police station’—she was appalled to discover that her bail had been paid by Anna Parnell. As Áine Ceannt noted of her brief, if historic, incarceration: ‘She was let out—as a matter of fact she was put out’. At a demonstration following her release, Molony was thrilled when she was rearrested for denouncing George V as a scoundrel: ‘That was marvellous; I felt myself in the same company as Wolfe Tone’.

Drawn to socialism
By then Molony felt increasingly drawn to socialism: ‘I knew little of Labour ideas. But I was always on the side of the underdog’. Her column, ‘Labour Notes’, had brought her to the attention of James Connolly, whose ideas increasingly influenced her outlook: ‘I was fumbling at the idea of a junction between labour and nationalism’, she explained; ‘Labour and the Nation were really one’. She was attracted by Connolly’s egalitarianism, particularly given the labour movement’s ambivalence about women workers’ rights: ‘Connolly—staunch feminist that he was—was more than anxious to welcome women into the ranks on equal terms with men’. This left-wing trajectory was reinforced by her involvement in the Lockout, when she worked in Liberty Hall’s food kitchen and addressed strike meetings. An Abbey actor, she drew on her theatrical experience to outwit the police, disguising Jim Larkin as an elderly clergyman to facilitate his famous appearance on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel. The Lockout, Molony believed, ‘profoundly affected the whole country’, producing ‘a sort of social and intellectual revolution’. It also contributed to a personal breakdown, leading her to spend 1914 convalescing in France with Maud Gonne.

On her return to Ireland she became more involved with Connolly: she ran the workers’ co-operative store adjoining Liberty Hall, succeeded Delia Larkin as general secretary of the beleaguered Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) and became proprietor of Connolly’s Workers’ Republic. She also drilled ‘the girls as a unit of the Citizen Army’. She regarded the Citizen Army as more radical than the Irish Volunteers owing to Eoin MacNeill’s reluctance to commit to insurrection, and dismissed the Fenians as ‘old maids’. She was also critical of Cumann na mBan (a ‘Ladies Auxiliary’), emphasising—more than was justified—the Citizen Army’s egalitarianism: ‘even before the Russian army had women soldiers, the Citizen Army had them’. Her own willingness to use violence for political ends—‘I always carried a revolver’—was not in doubt. The printer Christopher Brady recorded how he watched ‘through a little door with two spy holes’ as Molony helped prevent a police raid on her co-op shortly before the Rising: ‘[James] Connolly came down quickly, walked quietly to the counter with drawn gun in his hand. A few feet away Miss Molony was already covering the police with her automatic. Connolly looked sternly at the police and gave his command to them: “Drop these papers or I will drop you” . . . With this they beat a quick retreat.’

Easter Rising

Helena Molony walking her dog in the 1950s. In her later years she lived in relative poverty, relying on friends for support and accommodation. (M.J. Neary)

Helena Molony walking her dog in the 1950s. In her later years she lived in relative poverty, relying on friends for support and accommodation. (M.J. Neary)

Liberty Hall remained under armed guard: ‘the atmosphere’, Molony recalled, ‘was like a simmering pot’. Unwilling to miss out on the rebellion which, Connolly had hinted, was imminent, she spent the fortnight before Easter ‘sleeping at night on a pile of men’s coats in the back of the shop’. As Brady’s account makes clear, Molony was intimately involved in the preparations by the military council, which used the IWWU’s premises as a front for their activities: ‘When the printing of the Proclamation was completed I made up two parcels of the printed copies, 1,250 in each, and brought them to Miss Helena Molony who was lying on a couch in the co-op shop room in Liberty Hall. She told me to put them under her pillow. She was armed with a revolver.’

She soon got the opportunity to use it. Like many rebels, Molony recalled the insurrection in euphoric terms: ‘When we walked out that Easter Monday morning we felt in a very real sense that we were walking with Ireland into the sun’. Molony and nine other women were involved in the Citizen Army’s dramatic raid on Dublin Castle, which resulted in the death of an unarmed policeman, Constable James O’Brien. A 1935 account by the socialist journalist R.M. Fox, based on his interview with Molony, emphasised both the rebels’ restraint and the momentous consequences of their actions: ‘[Seán] Connolly insisted and warned him . . . But this blind tool of imperialism could not believe that the Irish people were demanding their own. Connolly shot him dead, and that bullet destroyed the status quo in Ireland.’ Molony’s subsequent Bureau of Military History witness statement was more equivocal, and humane: ‘When Connolly went to go past him, the sergeant put out his arm; and Connolly shot him dead’, she recalled. ‘I did not like to think of the policeman dead . . . The police did not think the Citizen Army were serious.’

Molony’s rebellion was short-lived. Captured in City Hall, she spent Easter week imprisoned in a filthy room in Ship Street barracks. After the Rising she was moved to equally squalid conditions at Kilmainham, where she was shaken by the executions: ‘Pearse and Plunkett were shot dead. Connolly was dragged out, unable to stand, and murdered. After that life seemed to come to an end for me.’ Following a spirited if unsuccessful attempt to burrow her way out of Kilmainham with a spoon, Molony became one of only five women to join over 2,500 male internees in England. She continued to cause problems for the authorities at the grim Victorian jail at Aylesbury, using her links with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Suffrage Federation to publicise her conditions there.

Proclamation the high point
Throughout her life, Molony regarded the Rising—particularly its idealistic and egalitarian Proclamation—as the highpoint of the struggle for liberty. Her lengthy witness statement detailed her life before 1916, relegating the revolutionary years that followed to a short postscript. Returning to Liberty Hall in 1917, she described how Connolly’s execution resulted in a shift away from insurrectionary republicanism: ‘The union was in the hands of Larkin’s section. The Hall was in their hands too. We knew we had unsympathetic members in the back, and enemies in the front.’ She returned to the weakened ranks of the Citizen Army and used her position on the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, an increasingly moderate body, to advocate support for the sporadic efforts of workers to establish revolutionary soviets. She remained active in prisoners’ campaigns, rendering her a frequent target of arrests and raids by the British—and, later, Free State—authorities.

After the revolution she campaigned against the undermining of the principle of equal citizenship enshrined in the Proclamation, opposing the drive to return women to the home. She noted bitterly in 1930 how, despite winning the vote, Irish women retained ‘their inferior status, their lower pay for equal work, their exclusion from juries and certain branches of the civil service, their slum dwellings and crowded, cold and unsanitary schools for their children’. Her radical campaigns won little support from the Labour Party, whose pro-treaty politics she condemned, and a male-dominated trade union movement. ‘Woman is the queen of our hearts and of our homes’, declared one TUC delegate faced by Molony’s motion against the discriminatory Conditions of Employment Bill, ‘and, for God’s sake, let us try to keep her there.’

‘Patron saint of lost causes’

Helena Molony (bottom left) and Taoiseach Seán Lemass at the unveiling of a plaque in 1966 to commemorate the Abbey Theatre’s 1916 rebels. She died a year later. (James Hardiman Library, NUIG)

Helena Molony (bottom left) and Taoiseach Seán Lemass at the unveiling of a plaque in 1966 to commemorate the Abbey Theatre’s 1916 rebels. She died a year later. (James Hardiman Library, NUIG)

A ‘patron saint of lost causes’, Molony’s criticism of the Vatican, support for the IRA and defence of the Soviet Union (which she visited) reinforced her marginalisation. Although elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1937, the second woman to hold this office, she was forced to retire from the IWWU in 1941. Although her retirement was attributed to poor health, her alcoholism, depression and embarrassing links with the wartime IRA had also played a role. She lived in relative poverty, relying on friends for support and accommodation. Her relationship with psychiatrist Evelyn O’Brien, with whom she lived until her death in 1967, has led some to claim Molony as a member of an influential network of lesbians prominent in overlapping feminist, socialist, trade union and republican circles whose sexuality has remained largely hidden from history. She has also been linked romantically to Bulmer Hobson and Seán Connolly. Well founded or not, such speculation highlights the relationship between gender, sexuality and power in post-revolutionary Ireland, and the troubling status of independent unmarried females in a society which valued women as mothers rather than as citizens.

The cause of Irish republicanism may have triumphed after 1916 but the conservative state that emerged from Sinn Féin’s revolution fell short of the vision for which Molony had struggled, one that encompassed social and economic as well as political liberty. Marginalised by class, gender, religion and nationalism, awkward women like Molony were long excluded from the narrative of the independence struggle. Given the present political context, there could be worse ways of commemorating Ireland’s revolution than restoring these forgotten women, and the lost ideals that inspired them, to prominence. HI

Fearghal McGarry lectures in history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Read More : Helena Molony – The advantages of biography

Further reading
A. Matthews, Renegades: Irish republican women 1900–1922 (Dublin, 2010).
N. Regan, ‘Helena Molony’, in M. Cullen and M. Luddy (eds), Female activists. Irish women and change 1900–1960 (Dublin, 2000).
M. Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (Dingle, 1983).

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