At home in the revolution: what women said and did in 1916

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Royal Irish Academy
ISBN 9731908996749

Reviewed by: Mary McAuliffe


In this beautifully produced book Lucy McDiarmid, using memories, letters, diaries, archival sources and personal accounts, writes, with clarity and rigour, on the thoughts, ideals and actions of women during the 1916 Rising. She begins with the wonderful story of young Cumann na mBan woman Catherine Byrne. Just twenty years old when the Rising began on Easter Monday, Byrne ‘just after twelve noon … jumped into the General Post Office in Dublin’—a great opening line for any book, but especially for a history of the Rising; the attention of the reader is immediately grabbed and, to McDiarmid’s credit, is held throughout the book. Of course, what the Byrne story demonstrates is the myriad of obstacles that women faced when trying to be part of the Rising, and the many ways in which they overcame these obstacles. Byrne, urged by her mother to follow her brother into action, followed a company of Irish Volunteers to the GPO but was prevented by Volunteer Captain Michael Staines from entering through the front door with his men. Obviously not a woman who was put off by male authority, Byrne found another, more dramatic way into the building. ‘The side windows [of the GPO] had not yet been broken … I kicked in the glass of the window. I jumped in and landed on Joe Gahan.’ Once inside, Byrne spent the week of the Rising attending to the wounded and operating as a courier between the GPO and the Four Courts.

The book focuses deliberately on the small behaviours, the intimate and the domestic. It is an interrogation of gender, authority, behaviour, the concerns of everyday life (even in revolution) and the question of whose histories get to be remembered. The author also looks at different viewpoints, opinions and memoirs from sources that are rarely used. The diary of Elsie Mahaffy, daughter of the provost of Trinity College, provides an up-close, personalised, clear-eyed view of the Rising from right at the centre of action in the Provost’s House. Mahaffy, who, as McDiarmid notes, ‘carefully framed her narrative to dramatize the Rising as a disruption of routine’, provides a view of the events of Easter Week that rarely makes it into the grand narratives of the Rising—the view of a woman and a unionist. For women like Mahaffy, daily life continued but was also transformed by what was going on. In another part of the city Mrs Mary Martin was also writing a diary, one she began as soon as she heard that her son, Charlie, was missing in action on the Western Front. Kept to remind him, if and when he returned, of what he had missed in his absence, the Martin diary also shows that juxtaposition of the normalcy and intimacy of daily life and extraordinary news from the outside world of violence and death. On 28 April 1916, Mrs Martin noted in her diary that ‘Connolly & Countess Markievicz & Sheehy Skeffington have been shot. The boys marked out the tennis court so I presume play will now begin for the season.’

Moving to the experiences of women who were part of the Rising, McDiarmid looks at the relationships between the women, between the women and the men and the gendered negotiations the women had with male authority. In Ship Street Barracks and Kilmainham Jail, where many women were kept in close, unhygienic quarters for days, several issues come through in their memories of that time. The closeness and protectiveness the women felt for each other, the harassment from the soldiers, which bordered on sexual harassment at times, and the discomforts of dealing with bodily functions are recalled. This discomfort, as McDiarmid notes, ‘inflicted by an all-male British authority inspired a temporary sisterhood among the women’. And it was not just the male British authority with whom the women of 1916 had to negotiate; they also had negotiations with Irish Volunteers, Irish rebel commandants and Irish priests. Negotiating entry to outposts was fraught for the women, and famously they were turned away from one outpost, at Boland’s Mill. Even suffrage supporter and rebel commandant at Jacob’s factory Thomas MacDonagh was initially uneasy about accepting women into his outpost. An extraordinary negotiation, which McDiarmid brings vividly to life, is that which some women had with priests. Women, like Cumann na mBan member Leslie Price, who engaged in such negotiations (with Father Flanagan in this case) were ‘fully conscious they were taking on a patriarchy’. Price, sent to the pro-cathedral to bring back a priest to the GPO, had to deal with a difficult man who condemned her comrades in the GPO; she later noted that she thought the priest was ‘an ignorant little monkey’.
This work—rigorous, scholarly, accessible and highly readable—allows the reader a view of the nature of a society in the processes of transformation, especially the transformations of gender relations and accepted gendered behaviours. Dealing with the ways in which women negotiated their domestic and public lives, their emotional lives and what McDiarmid refers to as their ‘emotional labour’—that is, the job of keeping the spirits of themselves and the men up at times of intense stress and trauma—this work reveals a new way of understanding the participation, contributions and activities of the women of 1916. In particular, it demonstrates the transforming gender relations of a young generation, at times highly resisted, at times liberating. With over 100 pages of notes, short biographies (which help the reader to relate to the huge cast of characters) and an extensive bibliography, this work is an exemplar of how to do and write women’s history. Although bookshelves may be groaning with the weight of 1916-themed books, this is one book that no one interested in the 1916 Rising can be without.

Mary McAuliffe lectures on Irish women’s and gender history in the School of Social Justice, University College Dublin.


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