Historian Ann Matthews, author of “Renegades: Irish Republican Women 1900-1922,” understands intimately the kind of working-class background that helped fuel the republican movement a century ago. Born in 1948, she grew up in Dublin’s North Strand, and left school at 14, something not unusual in working-class families in Ireland before 1970. She went back to school decades later to earn several degrees, including a Ph.D. in history.
Matthew’s mother, Jane Byrne, was raised in a tenement in Marlborough Street, a few blocks from the GPO, and married fisherman John Matthews, from Annagassan, County Louth. It was her mother’s experience as a child that inspired Matthews to look more closely at women in the seminal republican movement, and the turmoil of that era. “She was 7 and had very vivid memories of [the Easter Rising] because she thought she was going to die,” says Matthews. “I grew up listening to my mother’s childhood memories of war from 1916 to 1923.”
Matthews, a Kildare resident, teaches at NUI Maynooth. She spoke to The Wild Geese’s Gerry Regan about her new book, “Dissidents: Irish Republican Women 1923-1941,“ and the experience of women republicans in the first half of the 20th century. In these companion titles, she says, she explores why women effectively disappeared from Irish politics from 1941 till the 1970s.
The Wild Geese: I’m intrigued by what seems to be the women’s roles in the Irish enterprise. You have the lofty ideals of gender equality in the Proclamation during the Easter Rising, followed by the War of Independence and the tragedy of the Civil War and then it seems women were thrust back into the more repressed, traditional, stereotypical roles that the Church came to define for women. What happened to the bold, assertive women who seemed to be sharing the pinnacle of political power in 1916 to 1921, they seem to have receded back into domesticity after this? Would that be a fair observation?
Ann Matthews (left): No, what happened was that these women were socially conservative, they believed in the home, they believed in domesticity for women, they had servants, they could go out and do the work. The Catholic Church is sometimes blamed for things they didn’t do, just as de Valera is sometimes blamed for pushing women out of politics, something he didn’t do either. From 1916 the movement turned toward a spirituality that was Catholic, this Catholic spirituality had been growing intensely from the late 1800s. These women came from a society where they absorbed Catholic social teaching, mixed with the mores of the Victorian ethos of respectability, with their mother’s milk. This is who these women were. They became involved with the first Sinn Féin party, founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905. This party was open to women, something very unusual in its day, possibly the first party in these islands that allowed female participation at an equal level. So from 1905 you have women becoming involved in Sinn Féin as a political party, then they become involved with the Volunteer movement by becoming involved with Cumann na mBán, they become involved with the Irish Citizen Army, too. But they still hold on to the essence of their Catholic culture that they have with them from birth. It’s a complex picture, sometimes it’s represented as a black-and-white picture, but it’s not.
The Wild Geese: I gather that Constance Markievicz was not very religious, but then perhaps she was not typical?
Matthews: No, Countess de Markievicz (below right), I always call her de Markievicz, as that’s how she signed her name, her family were Church of Ireland. She was exposed to Catholic spirituality in the College of Surgeons because during 1916 -- one of the coping mechanisms used by the insurgents to deal with their fear was to pray. They said the Rosary every day, sometimes twice a day, or more. She was exposed to this in the College of Surgeons, later she wrote a poem about it and converted to Catholicism, her experience in the College of Surgeons was the basis of her conversion. But I also think she did this to make herself appear more of an Irish nationalist. There was no spiritual philosophy behind what she did.
The Wild Geese: During the Civil War, dividing comrade from comrade, many who had fought together for the Irish Republic, did this kind of wrenching division seize the women’s movement, too?
Matthews: Yes, the women’s movement was splintered. What happened with the men’s movements is mirrored in the women’s. The best way to explain it is to look at how [historian and IRA intelligence officer] Florence O’Donoghue described the IRA at the time of the Civil War. There was a three-way split in the Irish Volunteers; there were those who were for the Treaty, those who were against the Treaty, and those who remained neutral. The biggest group of the three were the men who remained neutral. Cumann na mBán split in exactly the same way. There were those who were anti-Treaty; they were the rump. There were those who were pro-Treaty; they formed another organization. And then there were the women who were neutral, and they just walked away. So it went from thousands of women being involved up to the truce of 1921, and then within eight months they were down to a few hundred members.
The Wild Geese: Tell us about the new book – what can the reader expect to find in it?
Matthews: Well, the new book starts at the Civil War. The first one [“Renegades”] ends just as they make decisions on acceptance or non-acceptance of the Treaty, the last chapter of it discusses the split in the IRA and Cumann na mBán. Book Two [“Dissidents”] picks up on that and discusses it briefly in the first chapter to put in context for anyone who has not read the first book. I don’t explain the Civil War in detail because other historians have done that to great effect and that is not what my work was about, but I do discuss the role of women in the Civil War and the kind of activities they were involved in. There are three chapters on women in internment -- the reason for this is that there were 645 women in internment, to put that in context, over 16,000 men were interned. The 645 women who were interned were not all held together, nor all interned at the same time. Some were held for a day or two, some for a month or two, a handful were held for a full year. As the numbers of women internees increased, the government was hard pressed to find places to hold them, so they ended up using Mountjoy Prison very briefly; Kilmainham Gaol, which is now a museum; and they used a place called the North Dublin Union. It had been an old workhouse, and in 1918 it was taken over by compulsory order by the British army because their Linen Hall barracks had been lost to fire during 1916. They closed down the workhouse and reopened it as a barracks. When the British left Ireland, they handed the North Dublin Union buildings over to the Irish Department of Defence, so part of this North Dublin Union building was then used as an internment camp to hold about half of the 645 women. So, because it would otherwise be very confusing, I have devoted three chapters to the women in internment by the prisons in which they were interned. So, one chapter deals with the women in Mountjoy, another on those in Kilmainham and the third on those in the North Dublin Union.
The Wild Geese: After these chapters, where does the narrative go?
Matthews: After these chapters, the narrative deals with the regrouping after the Civil War, how they tried to find their feet to see where they could go from there. It also discusses something I call the Republican Triad. There is a general idea that Sinn Féin were involved with the Civil War -- the Sinn Féin party was not involved in the Civil War. After the split due to the Treaty, Seán T. O’Kelly founded a political party called Cumann na Poblachta. It became the political arm of the anti-Treaty group. The IRA and Cumann na mBán were the military arm of that anti-Treaty group. I call them the Republican Triad because it makes it easier to discuss what they were doing. They were the people who were fighting against the Free State.
The Wild Geese: After the Civil War, did this ‘Republican Triad’ remain a viable presence on the political scene?
Matthews: Only for a short time. After the Civil War, it collapsed because de Valera decided to take the Sinn Féin name and form a new party because the Sinn Féin party had lapsed and the pro-Treaty party had decided not to use the Sinn Féin name, so it was available for de Valera to take it up.
The Wild Geese: Why did you stop the book at 1941? Was this a watershed date?
Matthews: Okay, I’ll leapfrog to that. What happened was that after the Civil War, the republican movement constantly fragmented. After Fianna Fáil was founded, it fragmented; there were multiples of organizations, all claiming to be republican. So, by the time we come to the 1930s, Cumann na mBán is involved constantly in all these splits. By 1934, de Valera is now in power and there is a division created in the IRA by those who believed Ireland should become socialist and those who believed it shouldn’t. Cumann na mBán was sucked into that argument. By 1937, when de Valera brought in his Constitution, the women’s’ voice had dissipated to such a degree that they had no united voice with which to stand up to de Valera and say ‘This is what we don’t like about your Constitution’; the female voice was completely lost. The whole thing fizzled out to an end by 1941. In 1941, the president of Cumann na mBán, Eithne Coyle, who had been president since de Markievicz had resigned in 1925, resigned. The numbers in the organization had become so small that they even stopped holding executive meetings. My book also discusses the development of the Easter lily as a republican symbol, and it discusses the Flanders poppy and the whole process of conflict and commemoration in which the republican women were deeply involved.
The Wild Geese: Would you think then, that the term ‘dissidents’ could be rightfully applied to Cumann na mBán, because they were always outsiders in the new Ireland?
Matthews: Yes, they put themselves on the outside all the time, after the split with de Valera, Sinn Féin put themselves on the outside, so the women of Sinn Féin put themselves on the outside, too.
The Wild Geese: Do you follow a handful of women throughout the narrative?
Matthews: No, I look at a lot of women’s stories and I weave them into the narrative at different points but there is no one woman’s story I follow from beginning to end because there are so many splits and divisions that to follow just one story line would have made the narrative chaotic. My work will provide a foundation from which other historians will be able to concentrate on the stories of individual women in the future, using my work as the context. When I started my work this context was not available.
The Wild Geese: From all your research for your dissertation in these two books, which woman did you find most admirable?
Matthews: Jennie Wyse Power. She started out in 1881 [at age 23], she built up a business, she had leadership qualities. She disappeared from history because she took the pro-Treaty side. She was dismissed by women historians because a lot of Irish feminist history is republican, as well. So, Jennie Wyse Power is not discussed after about 1922. She went on to become a senator in Dáil Eireann, she was a manager of Dublin City Corporation at one stage. She had been a guardian of the Poor Law Unions before 1916. She was very active in Sinn Féin. She was the first president of Cumann na mBán. She was on the executive of the first Sinn Féin party, the one founded by Arthur Griffith. She was a co-founder of [Maud Gonne’s revolutionary party] Inghinidhe na hÉireann. [Gonne is seen above right.] A member of the Gaelic League. She was totally immersed in all that and even earlier in her career, she had been secretary of the Irish Land League. Her life from 1881 to 1941 was dedicated to doing what she could for Ireland and all the while keeping her family alive and educating them by running her own business. She was something else.
The Wild Geese: Whom would you consider the most tragic figure of the women you write about in your new book?
Matthews: I think the tragedy, is the collective tragedy, of all the hope that was lost because of the splits after the Civil War. It’s collective, there is no one woman who is tragic in this whole story, but there is the tragedy of the loss of the female voice in Irish politics. That is the tragedy.
The Wild Geese: Do you feel that the dissidents that you write about, did they ultimately disappear?
Matthews: Yes, they disappeared in a welter of rows, and they left the generations who came after them without a foothold because women did not get a foothold in Irish politics until the ‘70s, and we still suffer a deficit of women in politics in Ireland.
The Wild Geese: Do you think that when these women looked back on their lives they would have seen them as nobly lived or did any of them go on record to express regret for chances lost?
Matthews: Many of them went on to marry, many did not marry. Many were disillusioned as the years went by, in the sense that they would have looked back and asked ‘What was it all for’ because their lives did not change at all, nothing changed for them. But then again, for most of the population nothing changed. The only thing that changed in Ireland after the years of revolution was a change in the elite. The rest of society didn’t change. We had a new elite.
The Wild Geese: Elite in terms of wealth?
Matthews: A new political elite that, incidentally, became wealthy as time went by but I’m not talking about wealth, I’m not talking about a societal change, I mean a change in the political elite, those who were in government. WG