Mollie Gill, 1891–1977: a woman of Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), News, News, Volume 13

Mollie Gill, often known as Maire, was born on 24 March 1891, one of four girls in a family of seven. Her father was a shoemaker and the family lived in a cottage in Murphystown, Co. Dublin, but from the age of 11 Mollie had been exposed to a different world when her older sister Jane went to work at the newly formed Dún Emer Industries, an arts and crafts cooperative established by Evelyn Gleeson near Dundrum village, which employed only women. In 1908, when Jane Gill left Dún Emer to get married, Mollie, then 17, went to work there. While Jane had worked with Lily Yeats in the embroidery section, Mollie became a printer under the tutelage of her sister Elizabeth (known as Lolly), a landscape painter who was famed as a teacher and had written manuals on brushwork for painters.
The year Mollie came to work at Dún Emer, the Yeats sisters left to set up their own enterprise, which they named Cuala Industries. Mollie was now at the centre of the Cultural Revival, and in later years she recalled:

‘The Yeats’ mothered and fathered the girls, sent us to the Abbey and the opera. They arranged Irish classes for us.’

Susan Mitchell was their Irish teacher and the Fay brothers came to lecture them on drama. Mollie was now in the Yeats circle, meeting W.B. Yeats and his friend Maud Gonne, who in 1900 had formed a women’s organisation, Inghinidhe na hÉireann.
Mollie, along with her fellow-worker Maire Walker (better know by her stage name Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh), became members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the ‘politico-cultural society for young women’. While Mollie took part in the tableaux vivants staged by the organisation, she did not go on to become one of the Abbey actresses. Mollie’s participation in the organisation had a different emphasis—her future was political activism, and she was to become one of the first members of Cumann na mBan.
Many of the members of Cumann na mBan were also involved in the new sport for women, camogie, using it as a cover for their revolutionary activities. Mollie was a member of Croke’s Football and Hurling Club. Like Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the camogie organisation called for the promotion of Irish dance, music, song and other aspects of Irish culture. By 1915 the nationalist ethos was embraced by larger numbers, and a Dublin Board of Cumann Camógaíocht na nGael was established so that a deputation could march at the O’Donovan Rossa funeral. Mollie was a member of this board and was at the funeral to witness P.H. Pearse give his rousing speech, which signalled the desire for an armed rising against British rule in Ireland.
Her role in the 1916 Rising has not been documented, but it is known that in the aftermath she became a key member of the Cumann na mBan organisation in the Dublin Mountains. Mollie was on the executive committee of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependant Fund, which was responsible for the distribution of funds to prisoners’ families. She took part in the War of Independence and was later awarded a medal. Like many others who were politicised in this era, Mollie led a dual life. Many of the patrons of Cuala were from the establishment; Lord and Lady Aberdeen came on a weekly basis to view the girls at work. In later years Mollie recalled meeting Michael Collins at Cuala, saying that at her workplace she met ‘all the top people’.
She opposed the Treaty that was negotiated in December 1921 and in doing so she remained with Cumann na mBan, which was the first organisation to come out against the articles of agreement. In the Civil War that followed the rejection of the Treaty the new Irish Free State government knew the key activists, and from the winter of 1922 women began to be arrested in a bid to break the Republican organisation. Mollie was arrested at Cuala in May 1923, along with Essie Ryan. Elizabeth Yeats wrote to an American friend:

‘We had another upset, my two printing girls were arrested—the two silly girls belong to Cumann na mBan, the women’s Republican Society’.

Mollie and Essie were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol for a number of months. When they returned, Lily wrote that they appeared to be ‘none the worse for their experience’ and seemed to have had ‘a very good time in prison’. Mollie and Essie were on the losing side in the Civil War and now had to live in the Irish Free State they opposed, but, unlike many of their fellow inmates, they were not forced to emigrate because of their Republican stance and were accepted back to work at Cuala. Mollie maintained her allegiance to Cumann na mBan and is recorded as a member into the 1950s.
In 1923 Mollie was elected as the first president (ardchomhairle) of Cumann Camógaíocht na nGael, camogie’s ruling body.  Mollie had risen through the ranks during the organisation’s formative years and now she took the leadership during a period of continued growth in the new Free State. She represented camogie on the organising committee of the Tailteann Games. In 1928 she won a gold medal as captain of the Leinster team at the games. In 1932 she was captain of the Leinster team when they won the first All-Ireland championships. In 1941, when her presidency ended, Mollie had served for eighteen years, a record for the organisation.
Meanwhile Mollie’s work continued with Cuala Industries, where the workers were still called ‘the Cuala girls’ even though they had moved from youth to middle age. By the 1930s Mollie was no longer an assistant to Lolly Yeats or Essie Ryan; she became the principal compositor, described by Lolly Yeats in 1937 as ‘our skilled compositor’ and known to others simply as ‘the Pressman’. In 1940 Lolly Yeats died but Cuala continued to publish. Eleven volumes and countless pamphlets, cards and prints would be produced under Mollie’s stewardship. In 1942 ‘the family firm’ moved to Palmerstown Road, the home of W.B. Yeats’s widow, George, who continued to oversee the working of the press. The embroidery had ceased when Lily died in 1949. From 1946 the production of cards and prints kept the press in existence. The employees had outlived their original employers; as George had written some years before, ‘three of the four workers have been at Cuala for over 30 years and to throw them out of employment would cause them great hardship’. During the 1950s, one by one the staff of Cuala, now advancing in age, stopped work. In 1961 Essie Ryan died, leaving Mollie as the sole employee. Mollie continued the work downstairs in 46 Palmerston Road in a room alongside the kitchen. In August 1968 it was Mollie who found George dead on the sofa in her sitting room when she went to collect her weekly salary. Mollie worked on, but in 1969, when Michael and Ann Yeats decided to resume printing books with the assistance of Liam Miller, a male printer was employed.
The survival of Mollie’s papers, the most extensive collection recorded belonging to a ‘rank-and-file’ member during Ireland’s revolutionary period, allows the telling of her story from childhood to death. It highlights her contribution to the sporting, political and cultural life of Ireland—her role as a revolutionary—as well as her role as a worker, as a printer, in the celebrated Cuala Industries for over 60 years. Mollie refused to apply for a pension for her services to Ireland. Like so many of her generation who made up Ireland’s silent army, she did not seek fame or recognition, but through the preservation of mementoes of her political activities, samples of her work, pictures and letters Mollie’s story has been recorded. She will be remembered by another generation.

Sinéad McCoole is author of Guns and chiffon: women revolutionaries and Kilmainham Gaol (Government Publications, 1997) and No ordinary women: Irish female activists in the revolutionary years 1900–1923 (O’Brien Press, 2003).

The author wishes to acknowledge the generosity of Loretta Clarke Murray for allowing access to her Mollie Gill collection.

Mollie (right) became principal compositor of the Cuala Press in 1937, when this picture was taken at its Baggot Street premises. (Loretta Clarke Murray)

Mollie (right) became principal compositor of the Cuala Press in 1937, when this picture was taken at its Baggot Street premises. (Loretta Clarke Murray)




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