Monica Patterson & Ruth Agnew

Peacebuilders / co-founders of Women Together

In June 1970, Ruth Agnew, a Protestant woman, had a dream; in it, she said, Jesus told her to ‘get all the women together and work for peace.’ She had this dream persistently until one day she saw a notice in the newspaper from Rev. Desmond Mock which invited anyone who needed help to contact him. She did and told him of her dreams. He asked her if she would be willing to speak to a Catholic woman, and she said she would, so he sent Monica Patterson to see her.  Patterson was born in England to a Cork father and Wexford mother. She spent twenty years working as a teacher in London before moving with her husband to Belfast in about 1966.

From the moment she arrived in Northern Ireland, Patterson was against violence. As a strong Catholic woman, peace was important to her, and she quickly became involved with PACE (Protestant and Catholic Encounter). One day, while looking out her window, she noticed a gang of youths ‘in an entry. One of them had a gun and they were obviously waiting for an Army foot patrol.’ Despite protests from her family, Patterson went out to the group and invited them to ‘shoot me.’ Of course, the boys didn’t, but they did wander off thanks to her presence.

On 8 September 1970, PACE organised a meeting – called ‘Women Together’ – encouraging women from Belfast trouble spots ‘to discuss ways in which women could bring their influence to bear for better community relations.’ It was one of  a few tentative meetings run with the help of Patterson and Agnew, set up to raise morale and make women feel ‘that they have a contribution to make.’ On 27 October, Women Together was formed in its own right, as a group of women working locally for peace in Northern Ireland. At a meeting on 15 December, Patterson was elected chairman, and Agnew vice-chairman.

‘Every man, youth or child who goes out causing riots in the streets has come from a home, and it is round the women that the homes revolve […] The time has come when we must stop feeling useless or worthless or hopeless, and realise that if it all starts in individual homes, this is where our influence starts.’ - Patterson

By February 1971 there were five local groups of Women Together working across Belfast, and a meeting on 18 February saw upwards of five hundred women in attendance. Women from the group (and subsequent branches across Northern Ireland) were a constant on the streets stopping rowdyism and vandalism between gangs of youths and removing burnt out cars as well as publicly supporting peace and victims of intimidation. It was a full-time job.

On 30 March 1972, Martha Crawford, a 39-year-old Catholic woman and mother of ten, was shot during a gun battle between the IRA and British Army in her estate in Andersonstown. She died and was buried on 3 April. A peace meeting was held that evening by her neighbours and a few members of local Women Together groups. It is estimated that up to one hundred female supporters of the IRA also attended the meeting and pelted the women with eggs while waving placards and allegedly tearing up Women Together leaflets. Patterson, who only ever attended such meetings upon invitation, was called twice and asked to come down to address the meeting. The coverage of the meeting catapulted both Patterson and Women Together into the limelight for some time.

On 17 January 1973, Patterson resigned from her position as chairman of Women Together stating her reason for leaving as that she had ‘become a cause of contention’ within the ranks of the committee.  She refused to elaborate further at the time because she believed there was ‘enough public quarrelling in Northern Ireland’ however, a few years later in 1978 she explained that ‘the democratic necessity of a committee inevitably means that one’s vision and one’s dreams are watered down,’ something she found difficult to get over. As well as that, she felt that her Englishness and middle-class image made her a ‘lone figure’ within the organisation.

Following her resignation, Patterson continued to write and speak publicly, however not to the same extent as she did within Women Together. She left Northern Ireland and returned to England in 1978 with the understanding that ‘I had much to offer but […] it was not wanted.’ She died in Cheltenham in September 1983 after a long illness. Agnew remained President of Women Together for the rest of her life and died on 3 June 1996, aged eighty-five.

‘Peace won’t be the end of the movement – more likely the beginning.’ - Patterson

While little is known of their specific work during the early years of the Troubles, both Patterson and Agnew founded a cross-community group that would go on to play a vital role in the peacebuilding process in Northern Ireland. Not only peacebuilding, but eventually they instituted new initiatives to help people move on past the violence following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It was a group that encouraged women from every walk of life to take an active role across all communities, in order to achieve peace together.


Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to



Belfast Telegraph, 9 Sept. 1970.

Belfast Telegraph, 16 Dec. 1970.

Belfast Telegraph, 23 Dec. 1971.

Belfast Telegraph, 4 April 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 5 April 1978.

Dr Mo Mowlam

Mo Mowlam.jpg

Peacemaker / Politician / First Female Secretary of State in Northern Ireland


Marjorie ‘Mo’ Mowlam was born on 18 September 1949 in Hertfordshire, England but grew up in Coventry. She studied sociology and anthropology at Trevelyan College, Durham University and joined the Labour Party in her first year there in 1969. In 1973, following her graduation, Mowlam moved to America, where she completed a PhD in Political Science at the University of Iowa. In 1977 she lectured in Politics at both the University of Wisconsin and Florida State University.

Whilst living in Florida, Mowlam had a terrifying experience when a man, who had apparently been stalking her, broke into her apartment while she was there. She escaped unhurt but just weeks later Ted Bundy murdered two female students on the nearby campus, and for the rest of her life Mowlam remained convinced that it had been him in her house that day.

Mowlam returned to England to lecture Politics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1979. In 1987, she became Labour MP for Redcar, North Yorkshire, a position she would hold until 2001. In 1994 she began to help Tony Blair with his leadership bid and in August of that year he made her the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  A year later, Mowlam married Jon Norton, and the two enjoyed family life with Jon’s two children from a previous marriage, Freddie and Henrietta.

‘All I can do is bring people together. All I can do is create a situation to encourage people to work together.’

Mowlam was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour in January 1997 and chose to privately undergo radiotherapy and steroid treatment as a precaution. As a result, she gained weight and lost her hair, which the media mocked her for. However, Mowlam did not let the negative attention get in the way of her work, and she only announced the treatment in the weeks leading up to the May 1997 General Election, teaching some journalists ‘to think before we speak.’ When Labour won the elections, Mowlam was made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and her main priority was finding a solution to the troubles there.

‘I don’t take to heart the very negative and I don’t take to heart the very positive. You’d go mad if you did. I go through the middle, registering what’s happening but not engulfing it.’

She was faced with early criticism just two months into her new role, when in July 1997, she allowed an Orange march to take place on the Garvaghy Road, much to the anger of nationalists. It was a difficult decision and she would have lost support regardless of which conclusion she came to, however, it was the apparent ‘double-crossing’ in relation to when the decision was made, which became a point of contention for local nationalists living on the Garvaghy road. They had been told the decision was made on the eve of the march, but a leaked document threw up the possibility that it had been decided as early as 20 June. The event led many to believe that Mowlam was ‘in danger of becoming a ‘lame duck’ […] just a few months after her appointment.’ It also suggested that the IRA ceasefire, which Mowlam had been eager to achieve in order to permit them to take part in the all-party peace talks, would now be even further out of reach, however, British Officials speaking on behalf of British PM, Tony Blair, praised Mowlam for the way she handled the situation and said ‘nobody could have done more to get an accommodation, she could not have done more and she will continue to try.’

‘What keeps me going and helps me deal with the stress is the fact that over the previous twenty years lots of people in Northern Ireland have given year after year of their life to try and get a peaceful settlement. They so desperately want it […] and I just think – I’m in this position, the least I can do for those who don’t have the power that I have is to do everything I can to get a settlement, and I think I’m doing everything I can…’

On 25 June, both the British and Irish government gave the IRA five weeks to call a complete cessation to all military operations in order to be allowed to join the talks due to resume in September, and a month later, Gerry Adams and John Hume issued a joint statement calling on the IRA to renew their 1994 ceasefire by midday on 20 July 1997. On 29 August, Mowlam accepted the ceasefire as genuine and invited Sinn Fein to enter into the multi-party talks.

Towards the end of 1997, negotiations in Northern Ireland ‘had reached an impasse.’ So, on 9 January 1998, Mowlam took ‘an audacious gamble’ and entered the Maze prison to address loyalist prisoners, in an attempt to get them to reverse their opposition to the peace process. Some thought the move was foolish and insensitive to those who had been victim to terrorist attacks, but most – particularly in the months that followed - commended Mowlam’s bravery. Of the visit Mowlam said ‘putting my case face-to-face, arguing it through with them, I thought, was the best way of doing it, so I’m here. No gun, no metaphorical gun, just a very constructive, informed debate.’ Following her visit, the representatives of the prisoners announced that they would re-join talks. It wasn’t completely smooth sailing from there, but on 10 April 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Mowlam was considered a hero by many, and she won a standing ovation ‘in the middle of the Prime Minister’s speech at Labour’s 1998 party conference.’

‘It is so easy in Northern Irish politics to always look at the downside and say ‘this is a problem…that could happen…’ so we deal with every problem head on. What is important is to believe and be determined […] to show the determination, courage and confidence that we can do it.’

An increasingly difficult relationship with Unionist parties in the months that followed saw Mowlam replaced as Northern Ireland Secretary in late 1999 and moved to the position of Cabinet Office Minister, which she resented. She retired from parliament at the 2001 election and set up a charity – MoMo Helps – to assist in the rehabilitation of (ex-)drug users, and to provide support for parents and carers of children with disabilities.

Mo Mowlam died, aged fifty-five, on 19 August 2005 of cancer.  She is remembered as having been inclusive of all communities, often taking the time to involve ordinary people, victims and women in peace talks; groups that were and are fundamental in the upkeep of the Good Friday Agreement to this day. She was remembered on the twentieth anniversary of the 1998 Agreement by The Irish Times as having ‘injected a much-needed interruption of procedure’ in Northern Irish politics. She wasn’t always popular, but she ‘heightened appeal, she opened people’s minds, and she inserted a “get on with it” attitude into talks that were saturated with the weight of deep historical divisions.’


Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to


Bios, History, online at [accessed 27 May 2019].

Sunday Independent, 20 Apr. 1997.

Wexford People, 9 July 1997.

Irish Independent, 8 July 1997.

Bios, History, online at [accessed 27 May 2019].

The Guardian, 10 Jan, 1998.

Irish Independent, 10 Jan. 1998.

The Guardian, 19 Aug. 2005.

The Irish Times, 5 Apr. 2018.

The Irish Times, 5 Apr. 2018.

Inez McCormack


Trade Unionist / Human Rights Activist / Feminist


Inez McCormack (nee Murphy) was born on 28 September 1943 into a Protestant loyalist family in county Down. Of her somewhat sheltered childhood, she commented:

‘I was a puzzled young Prod – until I was 17, I hadn't knowingly met a Catholic. I was a young Protestant girl who didn't understand that there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society. It wasn't that Protestants didn't suffer deprivation, but there was systematic discrimination against Catholics.’

McCormack attended Magee College in Derry from 1964-66 and then Trinity College, Dublin from 1966-68. She met her future husband, Vincent ‘Vinny’ McCormack, a Catholic Derry man, in London shortly after her graduation in 1968 and the two married shortly after. The pair very quickly became involved in the civil rights movement in the North and took part in the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry in 1969 which was attacked by loyalists. After training for three years, McCormack took up employment as a social worker in Ballymurphy in 1972, an incredibly deprived area at the time due, in part, to the Troubles. She worked here ‘amid gunfights and extreme deprivation’ and when an attempt was made to close down the office, she and her co-workers refused to leave because they knew how much their services were needed there. She contacted the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and subsequently became the shop steward. They won their case and McCormack shortly after began working part-time for the union in 1974.

Just two years later, in 1976, McCormack became the first full-time female official of NUPE and was given ‘the unprecedented task of recruiting 1,000 members within her first five months of employment.’ McCormack almost immediately identified that part-time women workers were usually not unionised as they were seen to be too hard to organise. She set out to change this and was very successful. She went on to represent Bronagh Hinds, who is also featured as one of our Northern Ireland Heroines, in her case of unfair dismissal against the NI Consumer Council in 1980. McCormack’s career within the trade union movement continued, and she became the first woman to chair the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in 1984, and from 1999-2001 she served as the first female president of ICTU. Her dedication to childcare issues saw her ridiculed within the highly male dominated sphere of trade union circles and she was ‘booed from the platform’ on at least one occasion.

‘I hope the election of one woman to an executive of 20 is not taken as an argument to say women have arrived. My job will be to ensure my election is used for the benefit of the majority of women in Ireland, North and South, who have had to face obstacles in trying to gain their basic rights. I will go on to the executive and do a job of work, but I do not want to be used as a token woman. I managed to get elected in spite of the attitude of the existing executive council in cancelling a creche already arranged for this conference.’

As far back as 1980, McCormack was pressing for a reform in the laws surrounding abortion and homosexuality and called for Northern Irish laws to be brought into line with the rest of Britain regarding such matters. Her determination regarding women’s equality spanned the length of her career, and she often spoke out on the disappointing lack of female politicians despite a female prime minister, the underrepresentation of women and particularly, the disregard shown for the importance of childcare for working families.  

‘Women don’t need to prove their ability, what they need is access and confidence – and division of labour behind the front door.’

McCormack, along with others, argued for ‘strong, inclusive equality and human rights provisions’ to be contained within in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. She was also a signatory of the MacBride Principles which is a ‘corporate code of conduct’ for US states doing business with Northern Ireland. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of these codes for Northern Ireland was that it ‘harnessed the power of US investment against the practice of religious discrimination in employment.’

McCormack continued to campaign for the implementation of the provisions set out in the Good Friday Agreement, with a specific focus on the communities who had been most traumatised by the conflict and which were still some of the most ‘socially deprived and unequal’ in Northern Ireland. In the early 2000s she was a founding member of the Washington-based Vital Voices Global Partnership which tries to equip emerging women leaders from around the world with the tools and knowledge necessary to harness their potential to bring about peace and prosperity in their communities. In 2006 she founded Participations and Practice of Rights (PPR), a human rights organisation that supports marginalised groups, and still runs today. Some of their successes include:

‘the establishment of a new appointment system for mental health patients attending A&E across Northern Ireland, re-housing families from run-down tower blocks, and re-negotiation of regeneration plans from which residents have been excluded.’

McCormack won numerous awards for her years of dedicated work including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from New York City in 1997, the Aisling Person of the Year Community Award in 2001, and the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Award in 2008. In 2002 she was described as ‘probably the best known and most experienced human rights campaigner in this country.’ Her career was featured in a 2010 documentary play titled Seven, in which she was portrayed by Meryl Streep, who thought very highly of McCormack, saying, ‘I’m an actress and she is the real deal.’ An additional documentary,  Inez McCormack: A Challenging Woman, was produced and narrated by Susan McKay (another woman who is featured in our Northern Ireland Heroines project). It won best short documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2014.

After a decade long battle with cancer, Inez McCormack died on 21 January 2013, and is survived by her husband and daughter. Among those who paid tribute to her were Michael D Higgins, former President Mary Robinson, and Hillary Clinton. Of her Clinton said:

‘She travelled the world encouraging young women to be agents of change in their communities and countries. We have come so far in part because of her insistence on a seat at the table for women and others who have been marginalised.’

Shortly before her death, when asked why she did the work that she did, McCormack replied that ‘at the heart of everything, I desire to see the glint in a woman’s eye who thought she was nobody, when she realised she was somebody.’


Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to


Dowd, Ruth (14 April 2011), ‘The Woman Who Shakes The World,’ County Down Spectator, Bangor.

‘Inez McCormack: A Life,’ online at, [accessed 12 July 2019].

Belfast Telegraph, 17 Apr. 1980.

Belfast Telegraph, 4 July 1980.

Belfast Telegraph, 10 Jan. 1981.

The Guardian, 1 Feb. 2013.

The Independent, 23 Jan. 2013.

Sunday Tribune, 15 Sept. 2002.

Saidie Patterson



Trade Unionist / Women’s rights advocate / Peacemaker

Sarah ‘Saidie’ Patterson was born on 5 November 1904 to William, a blacksmith, and Sarah Patterson (neé McKinley Moore*). She was the second of three children born to the couple, and the young Methodist family lived in the Shankill area of Belfast, Northern Ireland. After a very short illness, Saidie’s father died in July 1907, leaving her mother, Sarah, with a new-born baby and another two children under four. Her home became somewhat of a lodging house thereafter in order to provide income for the family. On 2 July 1913 Sarah married Thomas Gracey, a clerk, himself a widower and father of six**. Tragedy struck again just one day before Saidie’s tenth birthday in November 1914 when the youngest of the Patterson children, Mary, died aged just seven years old. To add further woe to the lives of the struggling family, Gracey’s health ‘rapidly declined until he was made physically helpless by a nervous complaint’ over the years that followed, and the responsibilities of income fell to Sarah and the eldest children during a time already made tough by the First World War. The family became so poor that they could not afford the doctor’s fees to attend Sarah who was in childbirth on 13 December 1918, and she died of shock and post-partum haemorrhage. Of the tragedy, Saidie said that initially she was bitter because she knew medical attention could have saved her mother. But she would later recall:

‘As I stood in my dear mother’s blood, I didn’t shed a tear, but I felt a Cross being put on my back and, at the same time, I felt a strange warmth coming into the room. Looking back now, I’m convinced it was the Holy Spirit. From that day on I put my hand to doing what I could for what was right […] that night I became an adult.’

This experience would drive Saidie’s passion for workers’ rights in the coming years. About this same time, she got a job in Ewart’s Mill as a weaver. Despite leaving school at a very young age to join the workforce, Saidie retained a thirst for learning and for twenty years she was very involved with different branches of the Belfast Girls’ Club Union whose members were, for the most part, girls employed in various factories, who were taught arts, crafts and other skills through the Club which they would ‘not otherwise have learned.’ The depression of the 1930s saw over 100,000 people unemployed in Belfast alone and anyone who had work in the factories faced long hours and very low pay. Of the time, Saidie remarked ‘…if you spoke out of turn when you saw injustice done you were out. There were a dozen women waiting outside for your job.’

‘The closer you get to the big and pompous the smaller they look.’

It was around this time that Saidie met Robert ‘Bob’ Getgood, a politician and trade unionist. In 1938, Bob, along with Ernest Bevin, one of the founding members of the Transport and General Workers Union (one of the largest trade unions in Britain for a time) arrived at Saidie’s house in Woodvale Street to try to persuade her to organise the textile workers. ‘He said the job would be as big as a mountain,’ Saidie later recalled, ‘and I would only have a spoon to use to move it. He said I would have to fight with truth and justice.’ A few months later, in January 1940, the staff of Ewart’s Linen Mill, most of them women, engaged in a strike which would last seven long weeks. They were striking because

‘the working conditions were terrible – the dust was thick, and the humidity needed to produce the linen made many of the workers consumptive. Women would have babies and be back in the factory 48 hours later […] we were supposed to be earning 24s a week but because we were on piece work, we hardly ever got it. Work would be held up and we would lose our money […] we had two days off at Easter and two at Christmas and a week for the 12th July – all without pay…’

Throughout the course of the strike the women subsisted on 12s per week (£33.31 by 2019 standards): ‘we were hungry all the time and we lived on bread and potatoes. We went through hell mentally and physically, but we got support from all over the world…’ Saidie’s untiring work, along with the work of others such as Betty Sinclair of the Revolutionary Worker’s Party, managed to accomplish a lot, from better wages and improved working conditions to holiday pay and tea-breaks.

Saidie became known as a ‘tough negotiator’ in her permanent role as a trade unionist in Bevin’s Amalgamated Transport and General Worker’s Union. During one negotiation she ‘swept a whole tableful of papers onto the floor’ and couldn’t bring herself to apologise. She arranged another meeting with him and there said to him ‘do you know, you are a very difficult man. You were 99% wrong at the last meeting but I was 1% wrong. I should not have done what I did.’ At this, the man nearly fell from his chair in disbelief at her unexpected apology. ‘I can truthfully say that it was the beginning of a tremendous change,’ Saidie explained, and from whence took a more peaceful approach to conflict.

‘Peace can never come through violence. You need a superior idea in your head and love in your heart.’

Alongside her trade unionism, Saidie also got involved in the Moral Re-Armament cause, which had begun in 1938 and sought to show that military re-armament alone would not solve anything, but rather that  ‘[t]he nations must re-arm morally. Moral recovery is essentially the forerunner of economic recovery. Moral recovery creates not crisis but confidence and unity in every phase of life.’ In 1945 she attended a conference regarding such notions in Switzerland, which further solidified her belief that ‘you have to get rid of hate and bitterness before you can build a better world.’

In 1953, Saidie was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for her work with trade unionism and for the next twenty years she would travel the world talking about trade unionism and Moral Re-armament, having on one occasion got an invitation to India by Gandhi’s grandson, but the Troubles in Northern Ireland would have her back in Belfast trying to arrange a ‘unity […] that people would come from all ends of the earth to see.’

‘My aim is to build bridges – not barriers.’

After a strenuous illness, Saidie retired from her position in the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union in 1960 however she continued her roles as honorary treasurer of the Standing Conference of Women’s Organisations, chairman of the Old Girl’s Association of the Belfast Girls Club, on the executive of the Labour Party, on the board of the White Abbey Training School for Girls, and a committee member of the Belfast Business and Professional Women’s Club throughout the sixties.

‘I believe that the women of Ulster will create a society in which ignorance, fear and hate shall give place to liberty, justice and peace.’

In early 1973, Saidie became the chairman of the Women Together group, set up in 1970 to bring Catholic and Protestant women together to stand in solidarity against violence in Northern Ireland. Members of Women Together often roamed the streets stopping rowdyism among youths, removing burnt out cars, and supporting the victims of sectarianism. In 1974 she took on the role of chairman on the 14-strong steering committee behind the more gender-neutral group – People Together – which saw over 1,000 people attend its launch in September of that year. The idea was to ‘get peace work moving among ordinary people, before asking for direct intervention from politicians.’ People Together groups were set up across the province of Ulster and by October 1974 over 50,000 people had signed their petition for peace. This petition, calling for ‘peace, partnership and reconciliation,’ eventually signed by 130,000 people, was handed over to secretary of state, Mr Merlyn Rees, at Stormont in April 1975 by members of the People Together group, which included Saidie. Like Women Together, People Together organised inter-denominational religious services, carol services, exhibitions, and fundraising events in order to bridge the divide between communities, and also to help alleviate the suffering the people in these communities were facing on a daily basis. 

‘It’s not about who’s right, but what’s right.’

Saidie stepped down from her post as chairman of Women Together in 1976 and was succeeded by Leslie Haslett who stated, ‘nobody who succeeds Saidie Patterson would claim to be able to make any improvements.’ It is no wonder then, that Saidie was made lifetime Vice-President that year, allowing her continued involvement with the organisation into the 1980s. In 1978, aged seventy-four, she was presented with the first World Methodist Peace Award, and $1,000 in prize money. She later donated the money to the Northern Ireland branch of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council, where she was elected to the council’s steering committee. In 1980, a biography written by her friend, David Bleakley, was published detailing Saidie’s life and was so popular that it warranted a second edition re-print. Journalist Alf McCreary, upon reviewing the book, wrote of Saidie that it was people like her ‘with hope in their hearts and the initiative to erect bridges, however tiny, who are the real heroes of our time.’ He continued:

‘Their work alone will not bring peace, but by pointing to the better way they make the work of warmongers more difficult. The true worth of peacemakers cannot be quantified while the din of battle is still rising above reason, but God only knows how much worse it might have been without their challenging influence.’

That winter, Saidie received 2,509 Christmas cards from all over the world including the UK, Sweden, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, to name but a few. None went to waste either, as she distributed a portion of them to special care schools ‘for the children to use in making Christmas cards for 1981,’ and others she gave to the elderly ‘who were not fortunate enough to receive any cards.’

‘When I die, I’ll go up there and organise the angels, starting with St. Peter.’

Saidie Patterson died in 1985.

On International Women’s Day - 8 March - 2018, she was honoured with a blue plaque, unveiled by Baroness May Blood, at the Shankill Road Methodist Church, sparking renewed interest in ‘this local woman who has played such a prominent role in our history.’


Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to

*Sarah’s maiden name is either McKinley or Moore or both. In some records she is recorded as McKinley, and in others Moore. On her first marriage record she states her father is Hugh Moore, and on the second she records it as Charles McKinley.

**The youngest Gracey child, Sarah D Gracey, born just a few months before her mother’s death, was adopted shortly thereafter by her maternal aunt, and therefore did not live with the Patterson family.


Roger Sawyer, We are but women: Women in Ireland’s history, (London, 1993), p. 152.

Mervyn Jess, ‘Shankill Saidie’ earns blue plaque’, BBC News, 9 Mar 2018, online at: (accessed 20 May 2019).

Belfast Telegraph, 5 June 1980.

Belfast Telegraph, 30 Mar 1956.

‘A Century of women – 1930s’, A Century of Women, online at [accessed 20 May 2019].

Belfast Telegraph, 24 June 1963.

Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.

Figure found using conversion calculator on [accessed 20 May 2019].

Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.

Frank N.D., Buchman, Remaking the World (London, 1955), p. 46.

Belfast Telegraph, 3 Mar 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 26 May 1960.

Belfast Telegraph, 24 Jun 1963.

Belfast Telegraph, 12 Sept. 1974.

Belfast Telegraph, 21 Apr. 1975.

In December 1974 between 7,000-10,000 people attended the People Together Christmas Service. See: Belfast Telegraph, 23 Dec. 1974.

Children from across Northern Ireland were invited to draw posters showing how they saw the province’s hopes for new prosperity, and a selection were shown in an exhibition. See Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 1975.

Belfast Telegraph, 8 Mar. 1976.

Belfast Telegraph, 5 June 1980.

Belfast Telegraph, 12 Jan. 1981.

The Irish Times, 9 Mar. 2018.

Herstory by Katelyn Hanna.

Derry Peace Women

Mary Barr / Kathleen Doherty / Margaret Doherty / Harriet Hipsley / Eileen Semple

Derry Peace Women.jpg

Co-founders of ‘Derry peace women’ (no official title)

In January 1972 a Civil Rights protest march against internment through the Bogside in Derry was cut short when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians, all of whom were Catholic. 13 people died outright, and another died a few months later due to his injuries. It became known as Bloody Sunday. On 21 May, a 19-year old Catholic British Army man named William Best, originally from the Creggan area in Derry, was picked up by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) and shot dead.

These two events helped to inspire five women - Eileen Semple, Margaret Doherty, Mary Barr, Kathleen Doherty, and Hariett Hipsley - who all lived in the Bogside and Creggan areas - to found the Derry peace women (as they were known), after meeting at a protest held the day after Best’s death. M. Doherty, whose brother had been killed on Bloody Sunday, was determined to not have his death be used as the motive for further violence.

This protest reportedly led to a guarantee from the OIRA ‘that shooting would stop, except in defence.’ On the 23, the Derry peace women demanded a similar guarantee from the Provisional IRA and met with them, however no concrete guarantee could be secured. On 24 May, they met with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in a meeting that lasted 40-minutes. They told him that ‘most of the 35,000 people living around [their] home were behind [them]’ and that ‘the very least [they] wanted was a ceasefire for a time.’ To prove their point, the women organised a petition for peace and managed to get upwards of 20,000 signatures. Whitelaw was impressed with the women and encouraged them to continue in their fight for peace. The Belfast Telegraph credited them with having ‘played an important part in the moves for an end to violence’ before the ceasefire of 29 May and stated that ‘without the women’s peace movement, Mr Whitelaw’s task of obtaining a ceasefire would have been impossible.’

In June, the women travelled to Dublin with the hope of meeting Sinn Fein President Rory Brady or chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA, Seán MacStíofáin. While in the Dáil, they met, at his request, with boxer Muhammad Ali, well known for his civil rights campaigns. Over the coming months they continued on their mission for peace by trying to encourage better community relations. They moved throughout Ireland, lobbying politicians from both the North and South, consulting military chiefs and ‘putting the cause of peace to militant republicans.’ They even met with Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in November 1972 to express their concerns to him.  Their determined activism for an end to all violence earned them the approbation of many but also the resentment of others.

‘Fear is the main problem we have to cope with in our community but all it takes is just one person to […] say, ‘I won’t stand for this.’’ – Semple

By September, all five peace women were receiving threats and intimidation. M. Doherty and her family were forced out of their home ‘after a nail bomb was planted outside their house.’ It was reported that ‘certain individuals and small groups’ had started ‘a propaganda campaign’ which ‘aimed at discrediting [the women]’. They fought back in a statement which read that ‘they do not take sides with the Army or the IRA’ and that ‘everyone who agrees with us should be able to express their views freely and should do so without fear.’ They urged their community and church leaders to ‘let their voices be heard strongly against all the wrongs in [their] society, wherever they spring from.’ John Hume, MP, also came to their defence by stating that ‘the objective that these ladies sought was an honourable one…’

Peace March

Peace March

‘The peace women have never taken any political stand and all our efforts over the past year have been directed solely against violence.’ – M. Doherty

The women also tried to help the young men from Derry who had fled over the border by making arrangements for some to be employed in the Republic.  The Derry Journal credits M. Doherty with meeting regularly with police and army officers to try and establish better community relations in the city. When young people were arrested, she was often able, when no one else could, to make arrangements for their parents to visit them. In August 1976 the peace women organised buses to join Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams in Belfast for their historic Peace People rally and on 4 September they organised a similar rally to be held on the Craigavon Bridge. Both Corrigan and Williams were in attendance and principal speakers. Records of the five Derry peace women specifically become even more scarce around this time – it is quite likely that they became amalgamated with the Peace People movement to a large extent, as M. Doherty particularly became very involved in setting up the Derry branch of the Peace People with a woman named Joyce Kelly.

‘… my family are behind me. The only thing that will stop me is a bullet.’ – M. Doherty

It was around this time that M. Doherty’s son was slashed with a knife as he walked home from work one evening. The letters IRA were cut into his leg and hand. M. Doherty, however, was not put off her fight for peace and stated that she had the support of her family behind her still. In 1977 she left the Peace People movement, believing that its leaders in Belfast had lost touch with the grassroots supporters, a common belief held by many. She continued her fight on a community level up until a few weeks before her death in 1981.

‘I will continue to speak out when I feel it is necessary to do so. Intimidation cannot change my views.’ – Semple

In 1978 Semple, helped to found the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association ‘to help with various community work in the areas.’ She continued to speak out against murders in her area and on the eve of 20 April 1982 her car was burned out in front of her terraced home in retaliation. The very next night, gangs of youths returned and set it alight again. Soon after, she received a phone call from a man warning her that ‘we got your car, now we are going to get your house.’ In the early hours of the 24 April, ‘a gang of three or four youths’ threw stones through the glass-panelled door of Semple’s house, waking her neighbours and leaving Semple shaken but undeterred. A similar attack happened less than a fortnight later on 3 May with a cement block being thrown through her door. In mid-June, following a statement by the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association condemning the murder of a policeman who died from an IRA booby-trap bomb, Semple’s car was once again burned out. It had been a new second-hand car, bought for her by her five daughters after her first had been destroyed. Despite this, Semple announced that:

‘I will continue to speak again and again and will go on condemning such murders in our city. I feel sorry for the people who set fire to my car. They feel they have to take revenge on me for speaking the truth. But I will go on airing my views and attacks like this won’t stop me.’

Semple died in July 2001. Unfortunately, little record could be found regarding the other three peace women.

Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to



Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 25 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 28 June 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 19 Sept. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 17 Nov. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 31 Aug. 1976.

Derry Journal, July 1981.

Derry Journal, 7 June 2016.

Special thanks to Caoimhin O Dochartaigh and his family for providing newspaper clippings, photos and other records of their mother Margaret Doherty.

Edith Nesbit / Author / Poet

Edith Nesbit / Author / Poet

1858 - 1924

E Nesbit.png

When Edith Nesbit was four years old, she lost her father, John Nesbit, to tuberculosis. Her mother, Sarah, twice widowed by her mid-forties, tried valiantly to run the progressive agricultural college in Kennington, London where her husband had been Principal. Overwhelmed and desperately concerned by the appearance of symptoms of tuberculosis in her second daughter, Mary, Sarah sold the college and, with it, Edith’s idylic childhood home.

During the decade that followed, Edith, Mary, her half sister, Saretta, and their mother, travelled through Britain and France in an effort to find a climate that would allow Mary to recover. Edith’s brothers, Alfred and Harry, were sent to boarding schools in England. This transient lifestyle disrupted her education woefully, although she learned to speak French proficiently and she never lost her passion for reading.

Bittersweet contentment was found after Mary died, aged just twenty, and Sarah took her remaining children to live in the tranquil Kent village of Halstead. Edith was fourteen by then and had ambitions to be a poet. She celebrated the lush beauty of the Kent countryside in the hundreds of poems, stories and novels she wrote during her lifetime. In her late teens, she moved to London with her mother but she returned to the countryside, which she missed desperately, as often as she could. Aged twenty-one and seven months pregnant, Edith married the flamboyant but serially unfaithful Hubert Bland. Both took lovers throughout their marriage and Edith, a vibrant, beautiful woman, had romantic liaisons with several younger men. Poverty provoked resourcefulness and she kept her little household afloat by designing greeting cards and writing stories for children. It was this experience of hardship and a strong belief in social justice that drove Edith and Hubert to help found the Fabian Society, a reforming socialist organisation that exists to this day.

Edith’s talent and determination brought well-deserved rewards and she moved her growing family into increasingly larger rented homes in the south east of London. By the time she could afford to rent a beautiful, rambling house in Well Hall, Eltham, she was rearing three children of her own alongside two more born to her best friend, Alice, who was having an affair with Hubert. It was in Well Hall, where she spent 22 years surrounded by orchards, farmland, and beautiful gardens that Edith began to write the wonderful stories for children that became her literary legacy. Drawing on incidents from her own childhood and the lives of her children she wrote The Story of The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It and many others, including her beloved classic The Railway Children. She also wrote poetry, novels for adults and chilling horror stories.

An extravagant, generous, gregarious woman, Edith threw lavish parties at Well Hall; her guests included H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and other literary luminaries. She also organised parties and performances for the poor schoolchildren of Deptford, providing them with desperately needed toys, food and clothing. She was enormously successful for a time but wartime and the death of her husband, Hubert, coincided with a falling away of her popularity. Managing her vast house became increasingly difficult so she sold flowers, eggs and vegetables, and took in paying guests to make ends meet. In 1917, she married for a second time. Shortly afterwards, she and her new husband, a marine engineer named Tommy Tucker, moved to two refurbished army huts at St Mary’s Bay in Dymchurch in Kent. She died there in May 1924, her second husband and her children by her side.

To read more about E. Nesbit’;s extraordinary life look out for a copy of The Life and Loves of E Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimons (Duckworth, 2019). All are welcome to attend the launch in Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin, on Thursday 10 October at 6pm

Thanks to Eleanor Fitzsimons for this herstory.

Zandra (Josephine Alexandra) Mitchell / First professional female saxophonist



Zandra (Josephine Alexandra) Mitchell was the first professional female saxophonist in Ireland. Born in 1903 in Phibsborough, into a very musical family, she was surrounded by music from birth. From a very young age, Zandra learned to play a wide range of instruments, including the violin, the cello and later the saxophone. She became an excellent sight-reader, playing in bands accompanying the films at the Rotunda Cinema.

When Zandra went to London with her brother, Eddie, to play sax with his band, she was spotted by an agent, who invited her on a tour of Switzerland with a jazz band. Zandra accepted the invitation and went on tour - against the wishes of her parents, who threatened to disown her. She traveled for years with many different jazz bands - including her own ‘Baby Mitchell’s Queens of Jazz’ - and during her career played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of the twentieth century, including Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins.

Zandra eventually settled in Berlin and was one of only very few Irish citizens living there during World War II. She witnessed Hitler’s rise to power from an incredibly dangerous perspective. Jazz was seen as ‘degenerate art’ and a threat to the Nazis’ control, so to be a jazz musician in that place and time was a huge risk. According to friends who knew her in later life, Zandra witnessed Kristallnacht on her way home from a gig, arrived at her jazz club to find it had been bombed, stowed away aboard a Nazi troop train... so many stories!

When she finally came back to Ireland in the late 1940’s, she continued to play music but it seems she struggled to adjust to life after Berlin. People often did not believe her when she told them stories of her past. She spent the later years of her life living in her family’s holiday home in Rossnowlagh, County Donegal. Her brother, Eddie, visited often and the two remained close. Zandra also had a very dear friend called Michael in Rossnowlagh, who helped her as she grew older and shared her love of music and dogs. Zandra died in 1995 and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetary.

A radio documentary, ‘A Sentimental Journey’ was made about Zandra’s life in 2015, directed by Marc McMenamin for Lyric FM.

In November 2019, a play based on her story, ‘Zandra, Queen of Jazz’ by Roseanne Lynch and Darn Skippy Productions, premieres at Smock Alley Boys’ School Theatre. For tickets and more info see:

Thanks to Roseanne Lynch for this bibliography.

Mary Kane / Revolutionary / Possibly the youngest member of Cumann na mBan


Mary Kane was born on 22 May 1907 to Sean Kane and Margaret Reynolds in Ballyshannon, Donegal. The third of six children, Mary and her family occupied a 2nd class, five-bedroom house in East Port, Ballyshannon. Mary’s father, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, was a general dealer, and later specialized in marine dealing.

Tragedy struck the family in January 1908 when the eldest Kane child, Margaret, died of whooping cough at just four years old. She had been suffering from the highly contagious illness for over a month but had finally succumbed to it following ten days of pneumonia and five days of a serious infection in her lungs. No doubt the atmosphere in the house during this time was one of fear for the health not only of Margaret, but also for the toddlers Daniel and Mary, whose immune systems would have been delicate at such a young age.

In 1917, when Mary was just ten years old and attending school, she joined her local Cumann na mBan with her mother (who had just given birth to the youngest Kane child, Winifred, in January 1917). Her father was Captain of the local Ballyshannon Company. One of Mary’s earliest memories of her involvement in the campaign for Ireland’s independence was being attacked at Finner Camp by British forces after she and her parents had come from a republican meeting in Bundoran, around this time. It would not be the last time she was roughed up by hostile opposition.

In January 1919, Ireland’s war of independence began against British forces in Ireland. By this time, Mary and her mother had attended first aid training and lectures on numerous occasions, organised within their branch of Cumann na mBan, and Mary was already the principal dispatch carrier for the local Company.

Their home in East Port quickly became the dumping place for the Company arms and Mary, now twelve years old, was often tasked with carrying guns and ammunition from her home, past the Barracks, to the outskirts of town where she would meet the local Volunteers, whenever they needed arms. She did this almost every night of the week for some time, and the guns she carried included the bulky (at least for a small girl) Mauser rifle.

Mary and her mother were continuously attending parades, demonstrations and training days with their fellow Cumann na mBan comrades, as well as raising funds and further equipping Cumann na mBan by crafting First Aid equipment. Not only did they hide guns in their home, but they also opened it to any IRA man who needed a place to stay, or who was passing through the district and needed food. It became regarded as the connecting centre between Sligo and the rest of Donegal county, and Derry. Mary attended to these men with her mother, cooking meals and preparing make-shift beds almost every other night.

The following winter was particularly gruelling for Mary. For several months toward the end of 1920 and into 1921, three IRA men – Maguire, Kilfeather and Munday – were hiding out in a hay loft near her home. They had previously been given 24 hours to leave the country, or risk being ‘shot on sight.’ Almost every night, for several months, Mary waded across the Erne river in order to bring food to these men. On one occasion, while engaged in this errand, she was shot at by Black and Tans. The bullet splintered a brick and the flying fragments hit Mary in the face, causing serious damage to her eye, but still, she managed to successfully reach the boys to give them their food and various messages that night.

In the early hours of 5 December 1920, a man named Thomas Rooney, was shot by British Forces. It was reported that a large number of people had come into Ballyshannon that night to witness an eviction that was happening, causing some commotion in their wake. When the British Forces arrived, they cautioned those present to put their hands in the air. Tommy Rooney allegedly ignored this warning and began to run away. He was told to halt and was subsequently shot through the groin just after midnight, when he continued to run. He then staggered into Mary’s house where both Mary and her mother tried to save him. Mary left the house on her own to find the necessary First Aid supplies and Tommy’s brother Patrick would later state that ‘Mary and her mother […] done all they could to comfort him in every way’ but despite their efforts, Tommy died of his wounds at about 2am. According to Margaret, his body then lay in the hall of her house for two days pending an inquest. The inquest found that ‘the bullet which caused his death was fired by the military in the execution of their duty; that no blame is attached to any individual other than the deceased for his death.'(i) Tommy was twenty-six.

The hardships continued for Mary and her family into 1921 when the raids on her home became more numerous and frequent. For nine months, they had no panes of glass on their house windows, after they had been smashed by British Forces from Finner Camp during one particular raid. Due to these raids, Mary’s father could no longer stay in the home, and so Margaret was forced to provide for five young children on her own for months at a time. Mary was, on several occasions, bribed by British officers in an attempt to get information on the whereabouts of her her father. Every time this happened, Mary – then fourteen – ‘refused flatly’ to cooperate, and this was met with ‘rough treatment at the hands of the British.’

The War of Independence came to an end in July 1921. Like many women across Ireland, Mary and her mother probably attended a Cumann na mBan meeting to discuss what stance they would take regarding the Treaty.

They remained anti-Treaty, and so in the minority in Donegal.

Things didn’t stop with the ceasefire however, and during the Truce period, Mary was engaged constantly with taking messages and ammunition to and from Cliff House in Beleek, where republican forces were stationed for three months, to the Battery in Belleek, where fighting was in progress. In May and June 1922, the Battery was under shell fire from British Military forces, in what has become known as the Battle of Belleek. Local historian Liam O Duibhir has highlighted the significance of this period in the struggle for Ireland’s independence as ‘the only place in Ireland where the IRA engaged with British forces in a stand-up fight with a defined battle line.’ (ii) It was to be the last time that Anti- and Pro-Treaty forces fought alongside each other before the outbreak of Civil War.

When Civil War broke out in June 1922, their home was subjected to further raids, only this time the raiding was being done, no doubt, by people they knew. President of the Ballyshannon branch of Cumann na mBan, N. Rogers, would later state that Mary ‘was frequently questioned and threatened but refused to disclose any information even on peril of her own life.’

In September 1922, the Provisional Government decided to crack down on Cumann na mBan activities across the country.

Eithne Coyle, a well-known Donegal Cumann na mBan woman, was arrested and kept in Ballyshannon. It must have been here that Mary got in touch with Eithne and hence began protesting her internment. Others would later say that Mary was ‘prominent among those who put up posters protesting the detention of Miss Coyle’ and both she and her mother attended prisoner protest meetings and began to send parcels of food to prisoners in jail.

Mary herself was forced to go on the run during this time. She had become so well known, and the information she would have had was so important (by now, Mary was travelling up to 40 miles to give messages), that she would have been a valuable person to target, even at fifteen years old. Mary would later claim that ‘the whole town was on the run’ during which time she was unable to do anything but ‘save her neck from jail.’ When she could, she continued to carry arms to Tullaghan Camp which she procured in Ballyshannon, Belleek and other such places from Volunteers.

Mary’s last act as a republican at this time was to carry one last dispatch in February of 1923. The Civil War came to an end in May 1923, with the Anti-Treaty side losing.

Mary was just ten years old when she joined Cumann na mBan, and two days after her sixteenth birthday, the fighting came to an end. In 1935, at twenty-eight, she applied for a Military Pension. The man who interviewed her during this time was skeptical that ‘a girl of twelve should be engaged almost every night in carrying arms’ and wrote that ‘a lot of what she states about her early service may be taken with a grain of salt.’ However, the personal testimonies from those who knew Mary, and those who worked alongside her, would lead one to believe that everything she said she did was true. The president of her branch of Cumann na mBan would go on to state that despite the frequent raids on Mary’s home, the raids, ‘instead of deterring her, increased her zeal for patriotic work.’ Edward Munday – one of the men Mary brought food to in the hay loft – said that Mary ‘was very active throughout the whole period of the trouble and assisted the local Coy of the volunteers in every way possible.’ E. Harkin, captain of the G Coy stated that she ‘was always known as an ardent worker in the movement and ever ready to do a girls’ part.’ Michael Loughlin, 1st Lieut. of the Bundoran Company, was of the opinion that ‘there is no worthier applicant for a [Military] Pension in county Donegal’ than Mary. Bernard Brady, 3rd Batt. I officer, even went so far as to say that Mary ‘is deserving of the full amount available.’

Mary was eventually awarded 2 1/4 years of service in 1942. Both her mother and father were also granted pensions. She married PJ Gallagher on St. Patrick’s Day – 17 March – 1929 and lived her later years in Bundoran. She died on 3 March 1974, aged sixty-seven.

Herstory by Katelyn Hanna.



Mary Gallagher, file MSP34REF34890, online at Military Archives,

(i) Londonderry Sentinel, 9 Dec. 1920.

(ii) Irish Independent, 3 June 2012.

Helena Hegarty / Revolutionary / Captain of Schull Cumann na mBan


Although her birth certificate would suggest that Ellen (or as she came to be called, ‘Helena’) Hegarty was born on 3 December 1879, as her baptismal cert is dated 13 November 1879, it is much more likely that she was born in early November of that year. The seventh of eight children born to Jeremiah Hegarty and Honora Sullivan in Schull, Co. Cork, Helena was still just a young child when four of her eldest siblings, Mary Anne, Bridget, Kate and Timothy, emigrated to the U.S.A in 1887.

By 1901, Helena was twenty years old and working as a seamstress. She was living with her retired parents, her brother Patrick, and his young family. Following a scandal in 1908 among the employees of the local workhouse, Helena became the head matron in about 1909, possibly helped or encouraged by her brother who was a member of the Board of Guardians and Rural District council. For £36 per year, it was Helena’s job to act as the deputy to the Master of the house, as well as oversee matters relating to the women, children and domestic arrangements of the house.

It is unknown when exactly Helena began getting involved in the fight for Ireland’s independence, or how she came to be involved, but she was made the captain of the Schull branch of Cumann na mBan and remained in that position until after the Civil war. In January 1921, the local IRA arrested a man named Robert Lenehan who they suspected was a British spy (they found envelopes addressed to the auxiliaries on his person), and asked Helena to keep him in one of the rooms of the workhouse until further notice. The windows and doors to the room were barricaded and he remained there for six to eight weeks under the sole charge of Helena herself, who used to push a plate of her own food under the door to him. This was an extremely risky job to pull off as there were inmates of the workhouse in the premises at the time, and if caught, Helena would have faced jail time and certain dismissal from her position. It was for a similar reason – allowing other than inmates to remain inside the workhouse for periods of time – that had seen the last matron fired, but what Helena was doing – keeping a British spy barricaded against his will – would have been dealt with far more severely.

After a few weeks, Lenehan was blindfolded and removed from the workhouse by the IRA and transferred to the Calves Islands, five miles away from Schull. However, he managed to escape and ‘judging from the confined area he had travelled in the interval’ and ‘being there so long listening to the bells etc’ suspicion fell on the workhouse as the place in which he had been imprisoned. He returned to the workhouse as a Black and Tan (according to Helena, he ‘returned in their uniform’) with 15-20 lorries of Black and Tans and a female searcher. Helena was then told by the officer in charge that she was to be arrested for keeping Lenehan imprisoned but she ‘knew the spy immediately and what he had come for,’ and she could think quick on her feet. She proceeded to take the spy to the wrong part of the building until the spy said that it was there that he had been held. Through ‘luck and coolness’ Helena succeeded in ‘making the spy contradict himself and finally got him so confused that the O/C really believed that the spy was mistaken.’

She was not arrested.

Throughout this time, Helena also supplied the IRA with £30 worth of blankets ‘knowing full well that if ever the auditor audited the books again, the shortage in [her] stock would be instant dismissal besides being responsible for the value through [her] own securities.’ With other members of the Schull branch, Helena raised £60 through money collections for the cause and in order to buy first aid equipment. Due to ‘things getting very hot’ at this time, and because military were often coming and going from a close by Marine station, many of the Cumann na mBan meetings were held ‘out along the country roads.’ At these meetings, among other things such as crafting haversacks and knitting socks and scarves, Helena had a fellow member who happened to be a nurse, teach the other girls how to administer first aid. She then had that nurse travel to other branches around the locality to instruct the officers there so that they, in turn, could teach their own members. Helena appointed two girls to attend each local hospital house (of which there were three in Schull) as well as supply them with sheets, shirts, socks, towels and a supply of first aid equipment.

Helena states that the workhouse infirmary was also a place in which she allowed convalescing and injured IRA men to stay, some for as long as six months. One man, suspected to be Frank Neville, stayed in the hospital wing under an assumed name and was taken away again by his men after only one night as there was a fear that he would be arrested. Indeed, it was not uncommon for the workhouse to be raided by the British military from time to time.

In June 1921, it was rumored that  the military were to be billeted into the workhouse. To prevent this from happening, the IRA decided to burn it to the ground. Helena was made aware of their plan the night prior so that she could ‘get things in readiness … as much as possible without creating suspicion.’ She did this by ‘removing clothes etc. for the inmates use whilst they were being sheltered in a neighbouring farmer’s outhouse where [she] assisted in removing them’ the night of the burning. The marine station was attacked at the same time so as to act as a distraction. Helena remained awake the entire night so as ‘to be ready for anything that could be done’ and was, towards the end, ‘under rifle or machine fire.’

During the Truce period, usual Cumann na mBan meetings were held, and members were appointed to attend the convention in Dublin to discuss the Treaty. They decided ‘on our representatives working against it.’ Helena also attended a Division meeting upon the request of the District officer which was held in the IRA military barracks in Skibbereen. Amongst matters discussed was ‘the attitude of Cumann na mBan in case of Civil War, where it was decided to go on as heretofore.’

With the burning of the workhouse, Helena was left homeless and without a job. She moved to a house on the main street of Schull and started her own business there, probably as a seamstress, which she said was badly affected by her ‘well known activities on the Republican side’ during the years which followed.

On 28 June 1922, civil war broke out and Helena remained on the Republican side. Sometime later, Free State troops were billeted in the house of a man named Alfred Cocks, right next door to Helena. He used to provide her with any information he could gather regarding raids and it was her opinion that because he was Protestant, they never suspected that he was the one giving her the information. At one point, he told her that a raid was due to take place on her own brother’s house where the troops had learned three IRA men were staying. As he was giving her this information, her nephew Jerome (son of said brother) walked through the door and told her that her father was dying. Helena immediately sent Jerome back home to warn the men of the impending raid while she prepared to make the trip herself to see her dad. Whilst cycling there, she was stopped by the military who were marching and searching the countryside ahead of her and was not allowed to proceed because the officer in charge feared that she ‘was going to give word of their movements.’ She explained to them the situation with her father but still, they would not let her go. Fortunately, her father lived for another few months, and the three IRA men made their escape.

Helena often sent messages of warning to various members of the Active Service Units (ASU) during this time, saving them from arrest. On one particular night she cycled to Ballydehob (8.2km outside Schull) to give word of Free State troops’ movements. On her return trip, the troops ‘held [her] up’ and ‘told [her] not to come into Ballydehob anymore and threatened to seize [her] bicycle.’ Helena took no heed to this warning and continued to carry out her business in Ballydehob when she needed to but left her bike outside the town before re-entry each time.

Helena’s work in the Schull Cumann na mBan cannot be understated. The level of trust she must have had from the IRA around her to be given the task of imprisoning a British spy for over a month was obviously very great. She was clearly a very intelligent and practical woman who could think on her feet and get things done. Her commitment to the cause, to sacrifice her home and job in one night, is admirable. She was one who knew her worth and voiced her disappointment at being granted less than she deserved by the Military Pensions Board.

Helena knew the risks, and she took the risks, for an independent Ireland.

She died on 22 March 1962 at the age of eighty.


 Herstory by Katelyn Hanna.



Military Service Pensions Collection, Helena Hegarty MSP34REF28143 online at

Agnes Gallagher / Revolutionary / Musician / Teacher


… I gladly testify to the wholehearted and devoted service of Miss Agnes Gallagher and her two sisters […] from 1915 onwards. They organised concerts, carried out National Aid work, assisted in organising activities and at a later stage rendered the greatest service to the West Mayo flying column through the provision of clothing and supplies, the maintenance of communications and supplying information. […] Miss Gallagher’s enthusiasm, devotion and unselfishness were always a fountain of inspiration and encouragement for the young men and women of the Westport district. The moral support given to us at all times by herself and her family was of the greatest value and must be reckoned with the financial aid and the practical assistance which they gave in a wide range of cultural, and political, as well as military, activities over a long period of years. Miss Gallagher’s services in the national movement cannot be sufficiently appreciated by those who had not personal knowledge of her work and of the intimate relations of trust which existed between her family and the local Volunteer and IRA organisations.’

-Thomas Derrig (Commandent of the West Mayo Brigade of the Irish Volunteers)

Early Life

Agnes Gallagher was born on 19 November 1863 in Westport, Mayo to Patrick Gallagher and Margaret Gill. She was the sixth of ten children born to the couple and had a further two older half siblings through her father. One of these, Martin Gallagher was a ‘conspicuous figure in Irish national affairs’ as a fenian and had to flee the country for America in the late 1860s after being labelled a ‘marked man’, when Agnes was still a small child. (i) Likewise, the Gill branch of her family tree were highly active in seeking Ireland’s independence. Her first cousin Major John MacBride would end up as one of the leaders shot in 1916 and his brother Joseph would be elected to represent south Mayo in 1918.

The Gallagher family were quite well-off and both Agnes and her sister Kathleen were trained instrumental musicians on the violin. By 1880 Agnes was playing at local concerts.

Involvement in the Gaelic Revival

Both Agnes and her sister are recorded as ‘music teachers’ in the 1901 census. It is understood that the women taught from home, in what Agnes called an ‘academy’, with young female students attending their house for lessons.

In 1904 Agnes was on the instrumental music judging panel at the Mayo Feis which ran for three days and proved that the Gaelic movement had taken ‘great hold’ in the West (i). The feis promoted Irish singing, dancing and story-telling, as well as Irish crafts and agriculture. President of the Gaelic League (and later, the first president of Ireland) Douglas Hyde was also in attendance representing the League, as well as Patrick Pearse and Agnes O’Farrelly, who would be one of the founding members of Cumann na mBan in 1914.

Early Activity

In 1915, at the age of fifty-two, Agnes helped to found the Mayo branch of Cumann na mBan. Little is known of her early activities but on 24 April 1916 (Easter Monday), she organised a concert to help raise funds for the Volunteers.

She organised concerts frequently in order to raise money for both the Volunteers and Fianna Eireann, as she had an orchestra of her own, of twenty-four people whom she taught. She stated in her pension application file that during this particular concert they heard of ‘this thing in Dublin’ and that all the artists were then taken away and the police arrived. (ii) In the months that followed, Agnes would on occasion hire artists from Dublin to come to Mayo to play at these concerts in order to draw in a bigger crowd, and she would pay them out of her own pocket.

Agnes was also involved in organising financial support for dependents of volunteers in prison, as well as anti-recruiting against British Forces.

In September 1917 she was sent as a delegate to Thomas Ashe’s funeral in Dublin. Ashe had been a member of the IRB, Gaelic League and a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. Upon being arrested and refused ‘prisoner of war’ status, he went on hunger strike and died after being force fed. 30,000 attended the procession to Glasnevin cemetery where Michael Collins gave a eulogy. The event is seen by many as a turning point in the attitudes of the Irish public towards the ideal of an Irish Republic.

In 1918, while continuing her fund raising, Agnes campaigned heavily for the election of her cousin Joseph MacBride as Sinn Fein MP for the Mayo West constituency. No doubt she spearheaded a lot of his campaign for him, as he was imprisoned at the time, having been arrested in May of that year. She herself referred to it as an ‘intensive canvas’ and stated that by that time, she was organising concerts to take place every Sunday. (ii) The two cousins appear to have been very close, as Agnes even acted as his seconder when it came to candidate nominations in early December 1918.

Sinn Fein won 73 out of 105 possible Irish seats, Joseph taking one of them, by mid-December. Just one month later, on 21 January 1919, Sinn Fein MP’s refused to recognise the UK Parliament and instead established a revolutionary parliament they named Dail Eireann in the Mansion House, Dublin, on the exact same day that the Irish War of Independence began.

War of Independence (1919-1921)

From April of that year, Agnes began to provide accommodation for the Courts of Dail Eireann, which was declared illegal by the British in September 1919. Her house on Bridge Street, Westport had already been established as a meeting place for the IRB before Easter Week 1916, so it was no surprise that she hosted the likes of Arthur Griffith, Thomas Derrig and Michael Kilroy during the War of Independence. She also canvassed for, and collected, subscriptions for the Internal loan of the Dail Eireann at this time.

Between 1919 and 1920, searches were constantly being carried out on Agnes’ young female students to the extent that her Academy had to be closed because ‘the children were afraid to come in.’ (ii) The British forces also conducted many raids on her house, one in particular was in search of a gun they believed to be hidden there. In fact, a Thompson machine gun was in the house at the time, but Agnes managed to conceal it well enough that it was never found. On another occasion, she got word that her house was to be burned out, so she cleared the building of almost all the furniture. The house was saved when the Black and Tans ran out of petrol a few doors down from her home.

Of these raids, Agnes said:

…They would come in the middle of the night too and raid us. Nothing but r…. and raids. That was the Tan time. They wanted to take over our house from us. The Auxiliaries came and demanded the house.

Sometime in autumn 1920, ‘strangers’ to the locality came to Agnes’ front door. They were Tans ‘with revolvers in their hands’ and they ‘inquired for Miss Agnes Gallagher.’ (ii) In order to evade arrest, she was forced to leave her house and go on the run. She went to Islandmore and Clew Bay and ‘organised the girls’ there. She trained them to conduct scouting work ‘to see when the boats were coming.’ (ii)

Returning to her house by Christmas, Agnes and her two sisters, Nora and Kathleen, set up a communication station and received despatches from Newport and Louisburg and from other surrounding areas. Rarely trusting anyone else to deliver the messages to the boys, Agnes often went herself, two or three times a week.

On 19 May 1921, six IRA men were killed and seven wounded in what is now known as the Kilmeena Ambush. In her pension application, Agnes states that she forwarded information she got regarding the attack on Kilmeena, which turned out to be correct. Her information would have been vital, for it has been said that ‘it was a crucial week in the survival of the column because they were attacked from the rear at Kilmeena and could have been wiped out during this action.’ (iii)

Truce period

On 11 July 1921, a truce was called. From 12 July, Agnes began to give her house up again for conferences and billeting of senior officers of the IRA. It was also used as a liaison office to debate over the terms of the Truce being offered.  This must have been a very difficult time for Agnes, who remained fiercely anti-Treaty and republican, as among everything else, her close ally and cousin, Joseph MacBride, went pro-Treaty. Of the split in their party, Agnes said ‘I  could not prevent them. I did my best to keep them back.’ (ii) In spite of the turmoil in her own home, Agnes continued to raise funds for the IRA and actively campaigned for them during the Truce period with her grand-niece Eileen Dineen (daughter of Francis Dineen, fourth president of the GAA) who she seemed to have raised with her sisters.

Civil War (1922-1923)

On 28 June 1922, civil war broke out. The anti-Treaty Irish Republicans were on one side, and the pro-Treaty Irish nationalists on the other. About this time, Agnes began to procure rifles and ammunition for the IRA. She did this by having another person negotiate with Free State forces over the Barracks walls. These men were selling boots, clothes and ammunition which Agnes took advantage of through her negotiator. She got about eight or nine rifles this way and then would leave them in a prearranged place for the IRA to pick up, or else transport them through the bread van. She also purchased leggings and other small items from a shopkeeper in Westport who had refused to sell the stuff to the IRA members. They did however, sell it to Agnes, who was forced to pay the bills accumulated herself.

On two occasions, Agnes traveled to Dublin for Cumann na mBan related business. She attended a meeting at 6 Harcourt Street where she liaised with Nancy ‘Nannie’ O’Rahilly and Mrs Mary Kate O’Kelly (successful academic in her own right and first wife of Sean T. O’Kelly, second President of Ireland).  She had planned the trips in order to get more equipment for the IRA in her locality, but as they didn’t have enough for themselves in Dublin, she failed to attain anything of any use.

Agnes helped to re-organise an Intelligence service in Westport around this time in order to forward warnings of impending attacks to the local boys. This was done through a network of Cumann na mBan women stationed in different parts of the surrounding areas, as well as information obtained from Free State soldiers or their friends. In late October, her house was fired on by Free State troops, she being nearly shot herself. Of the terrifying experience, she had the following to say:

They shot a very valuable dog on us. The house was raided three times that night. We never went to bed. It was the night they were coming back from the raid on Clifden. They expected the boys would be coming back from there and kept raiding all night.

On 22 November 1922, Agnes got word of an ambush organised for the next day in north Mayo, where she knew Michael Kilroy and his column where. She said that she got this information from a friend of hers, Joseph Ruddy, who she had known from her time in the Sinn Fein club, and who was now a captain in the national forces. He had visited her that morning and of the visit she said:

… they were getting ready in the barracks, for a raid. I sent them word there was a detachment going down. I could infer they were going from what he said.

Agnes went personally to give this information to Michael Kilroy. Of the night she said:

I was walking – you could not cycle on the road; it was patrolled. One would be held up. They had outposts everywhere. It was about nine o clock at night. I had to go across the fields – I dare not go on the road. I passed the outpost, and they followed me. I got in under the railway bridge, and they kept firing but did not know where I was. I knew all the cross-cuts and I got out on the Newport road. I got a girl out there to go down with the dispatch to Kilroy. I knew there was a Brigade meeting on. They were surrounded the next morning.

Michael Kilroy was wounded and captured the next day. Agnes’ friend, Joseph Ruddy, was killed.

Prison Time and Hunger Strikes

On 21 April 1923, at fifty-nine years old, Agnes was arrested by Claremorris troops and sent to Galway prison without trial. Her arrest was not unusual in the area, where it was reported in March of that year that ‘it is almost an every-day sight to see prisoners being marched by a strong military guard to the station on the way to internment.’ (iv) Upon arrival she was described as a 5ft 5 3/4in woman with grey hair, blue eyes and fresh complexion.

On 21 May she was transferred to Kilmainham jail in Dublin, and despite the Civil War coming to an end three days later on 24 May, Agnes remained incarcerated. Here, she would have lived in poor conditions. One Minnie Lenihan, a Galway girl who spent time in Kilmainham, said that thirty women were expected to live in a dormitory no bigger than 30 by 20 feet. (v) During her time here, Agnes went on two hunger strikes, one which resulted in her losing her sight. After striking for ten days in one instance, Agnes said:

…we were pretty weak and were not able to go out in the air for recreation, and we opened one of the windows to get fresh air. There was a soldier in the Crows Nest, and he always shot at the prisoners when he saw them at the windows. I did not know this. They shouted to me that he was going to fire. I stumbled back and fell, and broke two ribs, and my eye came against the table with the result I was never able to teach music since I came home or take up any position.

Even with the injuries she sustained, Agnes was not released from prison. Instead, on 28 September she was transferred again, this time to North Dublin Union. One woman described the NDU as follows:

… the condition of the place was filthy beyond description, the treatment was worse, the diet was worse, and altogether, in every respect, it was the worst period of [her] confinement.

On 13 October, with no release in sight and under worsening conditions in the prisons, a mass hunger strike was announced by Michael Kilroy. Within days, there were over 7,000 Republicans in prisons around the country on hunger strike, and fifty of those were women in the North Dublin Union, including Agnes.

Later Life

Eventually, on 27 October 1923, Agnes was released from prison and sent back to Mayo. At almost sixty years old, and suffering from spending four months in terrible conditions in prison, during which time she underwent three separate hunger strikes, Agnes’ health was very poor. Now blind, Agnes was unable to resume her music teaching and could not take up a new position. She was primarily supported financially by her brother Edward. In September 1934 she began the process of applying for a military pension, but it wasn’t until 1942 that she would finally be granted one of Grade E status, £17 10s per annum. She appealed the decision as she felt that she deserved a higher grade than one of the lowest possible, however, her appeal was denied. One of those who wrote her a reference in her favour, was cousin, Joseph MacBride.

Agnes died at her home on 19 June 1946, after a ten-day illness, at the age of 82. Talented musician, teacher and revolutionary, Agnes was a brave and determined woman whose efforts were colossal in fighting for Ireland’s independence.

Herstory by Katelyn Hanna, Researcher and Project Manager, Herstory.



(i) Connaught Telegraph, 3 Aug. 1901.

(ii) Military Service Pensions Collection (MSPC), MSP34REF3344: Agnes Gallagher, online at Military Archives, (accessed 20 Mar. 2018).


(iv) Connacht Tribune, 10 Mar. 1923.

(v) Connacht Tribune, 15 Sept. 1923.

SR DR MAURA LYNCH / Medical missionary

Image Source: Fistula Care Plus

Image Source: Fistula Care Plus

Sr Dr Maura Lynch, 1938–2017

Medical missionary

In Uganda on 9 December 2017, a celebration was planned for the golden jubilee of the arrival in Africa of Youghal-born Sr Dr Maura Lynch, who devoted her life to improving the lives of African women. Sadly, she died suddenly in Kampala on that very day.

Maura was the fourth of the nine children of a teacher and a post office employee, and the family moved frequently. She joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary at the age of 17. She studied medicine in UCD and came in the top three in her graduating class in 1965, and received a gold medal for surgery. She completed a Diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in London in 1966 and a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Public Health in Lisbon in 1967. She would return to Dublin in 1985 to train as a surgeon.

Having completed her medical training, she left for Chiulo Mission Hospital in Angola, where she had to work across the range of medicine, surgery, obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics, and work as a lecturer and examiner in the Nurses Training School. She and only one other medical Sister had the care of 200 patients, many of whom suffered from TB, leprosy, or injuries sustained during the Angolan civil war. She and her colleagues risked their lives travelling the rough terrain of southern Angola by bicycle, sheltering in the undergrowth as aerial bombings pummelled the ground around them.

In 1987, she was assigned to Kitovu Mission Hospital in Uganda as a consultant surgeon, obstetrician and gynaecologist. There, she conducted her pioneering obstetric fistula repair work, performing over 1,000 procedures between 1993 and 2007. In the words of Professor Bill Powderly, former Dean of UCD School of Medicine, it is ‘an astonishing record that one can confidently say will never be bettered’.

Sr Dr Maura found her vocation in obstetrics, and developed a love of Uganda and its people. It must have been hugely gratifying to her, then, to receive a unique Certificate of Residency for Life from the Ugandan government in recognition of her work. She was a founding member of the Association of Surgeons of East Africa, and pioneered innovative training programmes in obstetric fistula repair. She fundraised for a centre of excellence in the treatment of obstetric fistula in St Joseph’s Hospital, Kitovu; it opened in April 2005.

Her accolades were many. In 2009, she was nominated by the United Nations Population Fund (Uganda) as a leader in the fight against fistula; in 2013, she received an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology; and in 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Council of Europe’s North–South Prize. She called for better education of girls and of medical staff to help the estimated 50–100,000 women affected annually by obstetric fistula, which is also linked to obstructed labour, reducing perinatal deaths. The 28-bed unit and dedicated operating theatre she established performs 250 operations per year; women are treated for free and, should they go on to become mothers, are offered free antenatal care and caesarean delivery.

Those who knew her spoke of her sense of fun, and her boundless energy; in 2013, she participated in a six-mile run to raise €5,000 for an overhead lamp for the operating theatre. Her position as a champion of African women’s healthcare is best expressed in the name given to her by her Ugandan patients: ‘Nakimuli’, meaning ‘Beautiful Flower’.

Sources: Joanna Lyall, ‘Maura Lynch: Fistula Fighter and Nun’, British Medical Journal, 360 (23 Mar. 2018); Irish Times, 23 Dec. 2017; ‘Sr. & Dr. Maura Lynch (1938–2017)’,;‘Sr Dr Maura Lynch (1938–2017): Nakimuli–Beautiful Flower’,

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Amy ‘Amma’ Carmichael,1867–1951


Amy Carmichael was born into a prosperous, middle-class Ulster Presbyterian family, but when her father died in 1885, her education came to an abrupt halt. From an early age she was involved in holding Bible meetings for children, and organised classes for ‘shawlies’, the mill-girls of Belfast. These were so successful that as a result, The Welcome hall, built by donations, opened in January 1889.

Amy and her mother were invited to continue their charitable work in Manchester in 1889, but this was cut short due to Amy’s ill-health. Later,she recalled: ‘I was deep in slums when I was 17. ’Amy was strongly influenced by the Quaker Robert Wilson, who she met in Belfast in 1887. They shared a commitment to religion and missionary work, and had an unusual relationship: she took the place of his deceased daughter, while Amy referred to him as ‘Fatherie’. She lived at his home in Cumberland, helping with his religious work, leading the weekly Scripture Union, and writing her first book, Bright Words.

Amy experienced a ‘call’ to missionary work, and in March 1893, she left with the Evangelistic Band to spend just over a year in Japan, where she struggled greatly to learn the language, but convinced her fellow missionaries to adopt traditional Japanese dress. She left Japan for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) due to illness in July 1894, but quickly returned to England after receiving news that ‘Fatherie’ had had a stroke.

In spring 1895, she applied to the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society. Although not an Anglican, she was accepted, and sailed for India in October, taking leave of ‘Fatherie’ for the last time. She arrived in India suffering from dengue fever, but threw herself into studying Tamil. She formed her own group of mission sisters who spent seven years travelling around southern India before settling at Dohnavur, where Amy would remain for the next six decades.

At Dohnavur, she established a Christian community focused on reforming the Hindu practice of devadasis, the ceremonial marriage of young girls to a temple deity. After forty years, the community had 800 residents, served by nurseries, schools, a hospital, and a house of prayer. It was modelled on a familial structure, and missionaries contributed to teaching, nursing, engineering and farming. She insisted that Dohnavur workers should not expect a salary since the organisation never actively fund-raised.

Amy’s ideal was that ‘Indian and European, men and women, live and work together [...] each contributing what each has for the help of all.’ She expressed some sensitivity to Hindu traditions, but occasionally paternalistically attempted to control the lives of adult residents and workers. She avoided providing sex education to the young people in her care, seemingly in an attempt to prevent ‘arousal’. For Carmichael, no material improvement in living conditions was worth having if not attended by Christianity.

Amy published 38 books, mostly relating to Dohnavur, many of which were translated into other languages. She was unconventional, passionately committed to her work, and wore Indian dress. In 1919, she was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for Public Service in India. Devadasis was finally outlawed with the passage of a 1947 act by the Madras state parliament. The work at Dohnavur continues, however, to protect vulnerable children. Today, all fellowship members are Indian nationals, and the hospital treats patients of all faiths and classes.

Sources: Elisabeth Elliot, A Chance to Die:The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael (Fleming H. Revell, 1987);Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Margaret Wilkinson, I Remember Amy Carmichael ([for the author],1996); Amy Carmichael,The Widow of the Jewels( [1928] SPCK, 1950)

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Image Source: Virtual Museum of Canada

Image Source: Virtual Museum of Canada

Hariot Georgina Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lady Dufferin, 1843–1936

Philanthropist, author, vicereine of India

Scattered around Myanmar, India and Pakistan stood a series of hospitals bearing the name of Lady Dufferin, an Anglo-Irish heiress who married, at the age of just 19, a man who became one of Britain’s most senior diplomats, governor-general in Canada, and viceroy in India. So much more than a diplomatic wife, Lady Dufferin left a particular legacy in India through her National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, better known as the Dufferin Fund.

The Dufferins arrived in India as viceroy and vicereine in December 1884, having previously lived in Canada and in St Petersburg, where they witnessed the anarchist terror campaign and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Dufferin quickly established a busy routine in India, taking lessons in Hindustani and in photography, and devoting much time to the establishment and running of her Fund. Her letters to her mother reveal her appreciation for the extent of the undertaking, and her trepidation on the occasion of the public launch: ‘I don’t in the least mind the work, but I sometimes shudder over the publicity and wish it were a quieter little affair.’ She gently but persistently pressed for funds at every opportunity, accepting donations from the Maharajas of Kashmir and Jeypore, holding a sports day and a Jubilee collection that elicited 400 pledges. The Fund doubtlessly saved lives and achieved its stated aim of alleviating the suffering of Indian women through childbirth and illness. However, it was not immune from criticism. Contemporary campaigners for equality for female doctors highlighted the Fund’s focus on zenana women to the detriment of non-zenana women, particularly lower-caste and working-class Indian women (who could not observe purdah due to the economic necessity of working outside the home).

Zenana women occupied the greater place in the minds of Victorian philanthropists and medical missionaries, who focused on the seclusion that denied them access to doctors and hospitals; Dufferin hospital boards debated issues like enclosing the buildings so that zenana women could move around freely inside without compromising their seclusion by being visible through a window, for example. Dufferin, during her time in India, remained assured of the necessity of the work by the testimony of Indian leaders who described to her the strict requirements of purdah: ‘in the harems in Scinde not even a man’s picture is admitted, much less a live doctor [...].’

She was disappointed when her husband was recalled to London, and described her tearful leave-taking on the steps of their residence. In 1907, its 23rd year, the Fund had 12 provincial branches, 140 local and district associations, and 260 hospital wards and dispensaries officered by women, who delivered care to over 2 million women and children. Working for the Fund were 48 ‘lady doctors with British qualifications,’ 90 assistant surgeons, and ‘311 hospital assistants with Indian qualifications.’ Subscriptions and donations in that year, to the UK branch alone, totalled over £4000. The Fund was very popular with colonial administrators, fundraised successfully in both India and the UK, and was popular among the Indian conservative elite.

Another important legacy of Dufferin’s initiative was its role in helping British and Irish women enter the medical profession. Zenana hospitals, for all their ethical problems, were in their early years an important source of employment for British women, who had few other opportunities to practice. The first woman to both train and qualify at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dr Mary Josephine Hannan, worked at the Dufferin Hospitals in Ulwar and Shikarpur in the 1890s.

Sources: Marchioness of Dufferin & Ava,Our Viceregal Life in India: Selections from my Journal( 2 vols, John Murray, 1889); ‘India’, British Medical Journal, 2, no. 2494 (29 Aug. 1908), 625; Samiksha Sehrawat, ‘Feminising Empire: the Association of Medical Women in India and the Campaign to Found a Women's Medical Service’,Social Scientist, 41,no. 5/6 (May–June 2013), 65–81 .

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

ELIZABETH GURLY FLYNN / Activist, president of the American Communist Party

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1890–1964

Activist, president of American Communist Party

While Mother Jones started her activist life approaching 60 years of age, Gurley Flynn started hers as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, calling on American workers to rise in front of a red flag on a makeshift stage on a New York street corner. Quickly becoming a ‘jawsmith’ (orator) for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), she was devoted to women, the working class, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism. Gurley Flynn was dedicated to women’s rights but saw feminism as bourgeois. She was a key figure in a generation of activists who saw class-based organization as key to the emancipation of women. She believed that women could never be free under capitalism; that only socialism could eradicate poverty and women’s economic dependence on men. She exemplifies intersectional feminism, recognising that the universal category of woman did not acknowledge the additional struggles faced by African American women, for example.

Gurley Flynn’s Irish parents were committed socialists and atheists, who imbued their children with a hatred of capitalism and empire. Annie Gurley encouraged her daughters to aspire to meaningful careers; she continued to work as a seamstress after marriage, at times supporting the household. While Gurley Flynn married at nineteen and had a son, this never defined her and she was determined to be financially self-sufficient (except during her ten-year relationship with the physician, Dr Marie Equi, when she rarely left their Portland home).

As a single parent, with the support of her mother and sister, she maintained her political commitments and gruelling schedule of US-wide public talks. When she started her career with the IWW (or ‘Wobblies’), workplace disputes commonly involved violence, long-drawn-out strikes, and lockouts. She was a brilliant strategist who pioneered new tactics, such as getting workers to sit idle at their machines, which eliminated ‘scab’ labour and prevented lockouts.

By 1910, she was the leading woman in the IWW. She also began to publicly advocate for women’s access to birth control, when it was still illegal to advertise such products in the press. In 1936, after a ten-year hiatus in Portland, Gurley Flynn returned to New York and joined the Communist Party, rising rapidly through its ranks. During the Cold War, communists were harassed and imprisoned as ‘un-American’. Gurley Flynn was one of over 100 communists imprisoned for their views in the 1950s, spending 28 months in the maximum-security wing of Alderson Female Penitentiary, West Virginia, in 1955–7. She had been in a similar position in 1917, when she and other members of the IWW were charged with ‘seditious conspiracy’, a charge next to treason.

American anti-communism only made Gurley Flynn more resolute in her commitment to freedom of speech and political association. She supported deportees who, under the 1918 Immigration Act, were summarily expelled as ‘alien anarchists’ without warning, and without their families. World War II gave American communists a brief reprieve, thanks to the alliance between the USA and the USSR. Gurley Flynn used this time to build a national platform and a wide support base, and to pursue feminist goals.

Her aims as director of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party included the representation of women at all levels within the Party ‘against all concepts of male superiority’, and the full enfranchisement of African Americans and poorer women. Fascism, as she saw it, placed women in a subordinate position, so she framed gender equality as anti-fascist against the backdrop of millions of ‘Rosie the Riveters’ filling vacant jobs in factories. By 1943, 50% of the Party’s membership was female.

In 1961, she became the first woman elected head of the American Communist Party. She died on her second visit to Moscow in 1964. Lauded as a heroine in the USSR, she was given a full state funeral and Nina Khrushcheva was one of her pallbearers. Half of her ashes were buried by the Kremlin walls; the other half were conveyed to Chicago. Perhaps too-willing to believe that the ideals to which she had committed her life had been realised in the USSR, she never questioned Soviet propaganda about the quality of women’s lives under communism.

Sources: Lara Vapnek, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (Westview Press, 2015); Obituary, New York Times, 6 Sept. 1964.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

MABEL ESMONDE CAHILL / US Open tennis champion, writer, actor

Image source: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Image source: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Mabel Esmonde Cahill, 1863–1905

US Open tennis champion, writer, actor

Mabel was twelfth of the thirteen children of landowner and barrister Michael Cahill of Ballyconra House, Ballyragget and his wife, Margaret Mangan. Margaret died in c.1875, and Michael married Elizabeth Netterville a year later. According to Michael’s will, Elizabeth had ‘shamefully deserted’ him by 1877. When Mabel and her siblings were orphaned, she and at least two others were attending Roscrea School; three older brothers had previously emigrated to California.

By 1886, Mabel had moved to Dublin and was actively involved in the genteel sport of lawn tennis. Twenty-six-year-old Mabel arrived in New York City in October 1889. Shortly afterwards, she joined the city tennis club, and quickly gained notice. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle stated, ‘the severity of her play is the terror of opponents of her own sex.’ In 1891, she entered the US Open tennis championship, but lost the final to the defending champion, Ellen Roosevelt. She was vindicated in the following year, when she became the first non-American–and the only Irish person ever–to win a US Open title. She also became the first player ever to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in the same year, and was described as‘the foremost racquet wielder in America.’

Tennis fans may have been disappointed that she did not defend her titles in the 1893 US Open and that, by 1896, she had ‘dropped tennis entirely for equestrianism’. It is not clear how Cahill supported herself financially. While she may have had a stipend from her father’s estate, this cannot have been substantial due to the size of the family. Her writing may, therefore, have been a response to financial need. In 1891, she published a romantic novel, Her Playthings, Men, followed a year later by the shorter works Carved in Marble( 1892) and Purple Sparkling (1892). Playthings was light and insubstantial, and its commercial failure may have disappointed her. She had little more success as a journalist, publishing articles on‘The Art of Playing Good Tennis’ and ‘Arranging a Tennis Tournament’ in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1893.

In 1896, she took a lawsuit against a New York police officer who refused to take seriously her complaints about repeated harassment and physical assaults by gangs of small boys. In evidence, the defendant said that ‘the boys called her a new woman [...] and that she wore a striking costume.’ Whether due to poverty or illness, Mabel spent the final years of her life in a manner very different to her genteel upbringing. A woman of the same name and similar age is recorded in various English workhouses in 1897, 1900, and 1905.

Attempting to support herself, she continued to publish occasionally in magazines, and acted on the London stage, taking a case against a theatre manager over earnings. A woman of her name, age, and occupation (journalist) died in the workhouse at Ormskirk, Lancashire, of phthisis laryngeal (tuberculosis of the larynx), on 2 February 1905. When, in 1936, the Irish Lawn Tennis Association placed an advertisement in the national press requesting that she, or a representative, claim a gold medallion struck in her honour, it took three months for a family member to come forward. The medal was never struck. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1976. Despite her standard-setting record,her life story was, until recently, shrouded in mystery.

Sources: Early California Wills (The California Society, 1952), I, 78, transcribed at Cal Data Nook, SF Genealogy,; Mark Ryan ‘Mabel Cahill’,; Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition;Wright & Ditson's Lawn Tennis Guide (1892), 173–4;Irish Independent, 1 Aug. 1936;Kilkenny People, 5 June 1937; International Tennis Hallof Fame, ‘Mabel Cahill’,

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

FANNY ISABEL PARNELL / Poet, Irish nationalist


Fanny Isabel Parnell, 1848–1882

Poet, Irish nationalist

Fanny’s memory–and that of her sister, Anna – has been overshadowed by brother Charles, but she was a trailblazer in her own right. Her poetry was celebrated by Irish nationalists and her activism helped to bring many Irish and Irish-American women into politics. However, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin castigated the Ladies’ Land League for inducing women to ‘forget the modesty of their sex and the high dignity of their woman hood.’ More generally, Irish nationalist men did not concern themselves with women’s rights.

Fanny was born in a country suffering the ravages of famine, disease and emigration – events that would shape her early Fenianism. The eleven Parnell children were educated at home by private governesses and masters until their father’s death in 1859. In 1865, aged 17, Fanny accompanied her American mother, Delia, to Paris, where they lived with her uncle until 1874. His death prompted Fanny, Anna and Delia to move to the Stewart family estate in New Jersey. Their dependence on extended family support is a stark reminder that even elite women were denied independent incomes.

Fanny, Charles and Anna held ardent nationalist views, developed through independent reading and personal experience. In 1864, Fanny’s nationalist poetry first appeared, under the pen-name Aleria, in the Fenian newspaper, the Irish People; within six months, twelve more of her poems were published. While living in Paris, Fanny published scathing descriptions of elite social life in the American Register. She and Delia also volunteered with the American Ambulance during the Franco-Prussian War. This voluntary service probably prepared her for her later work on behalf of the Irish poor.

In America, Fanny gave full vent to her commitment to Irish nationalism and social justice, at first by volunteering 10 hours per day in the New York headquarters of the Irish Famine Relief Fund; 1879 saw the fourth successive failure of the potato crop. The Ladies’ Land League (LLL) was formed as an offshoot of Michael Davitt’s Land League, which was founded in 1879 with the aim of reforming landholding in Ireland, but the League’s male leadership were disabled by imprisonment. It was thought that a Ladies’ Land League would be immune from prosecution. The LLL was established in New York on 15 October 1880, with Fanny, Delia and Anna at the helm. Branches quickly sprang up all over the USA and Canada, and Fanny undertook an exhausting lecture tour, raising thousands of dollars for famine relief.

In January 1881, the Irish LLL was established under Anna’s leadership, giving Irish women their first opportunity to participate in a political movement. It was a massive undertaking, and members endured police harassment. Fanny promoted awareness of the plight of the Irish poor through her writing. Her pamphlet The Hovels of Ireland (1880) went through several editions, with profits going to famine relief. Her poetry, published in newspapers in Ireland, Britain and the USA, harnessed powerful, emotive language and was criticised as ‘unfeminine’. Her best-known poem, ‘Hold the Harvest’ was hailed by Michael Davitt as ‘the Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’, and made her the heroine of the Land League movement.

Despite her early Fenianism, by 1879 Fanny advocated peaceful resistance. ‘Hold the Harvest’ appealed to the Irish poor: ‘Hold your peace and hold your hands–not a finger on them lay, boys! / Let the pike and rifle stand–we have found a better way, boys.’

Fanny died, suddenly and prematurely, in her thirty-third year. Her funeral procession was witnessed by thousands, and her grave in Mount Auburn cemetery, Massachusetts, was a pilgrimage site for many years. Sadly, the devotion she and Anna showed to the cause of social justice was still not enough to make Irish men see women as political equals.

Sources:Jane McL. Côté,Fanny and Anna Parnell(Macmillan, 1991);Oxford Dictionary of National Biographyonlineedition; Margaret Ward,Unmanageable Revolutionaries([1989] Pluto Press, 1995).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

LOLA RIDGE / Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

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Lola Ridge, 1873–1941

Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

Rose Emily Ridge was born in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin in 1873. Her medical student father died when she was three, so her mother emigrated to Australia, before moving on to New Zealand. Her mother remarried in 1880 to a Scottish miner and the family lived in a three-roomed shack on the Hokitikagold fields, among Maori and European and Chinese immigrants.

At 22, Ridge married a gold-mine manager in Kanieri, Hokitika. Their first son, born in 1896, died of bronchitis in infancy; their second, Keith, was born in 1900. In 1901 and 1902, under the name ‘Lola’, she published her first poems, ‘A Deserted Diggings, Maoriland’ and ‘Driving the Cattle Home’ in Bulletin and Otago Witness. This was a crossroads moment, when she decided to break with social convention to become an artist.

In 1903, she left her husband and took her son to her mother in Sydney, where she studied art at the Académie Julienne and wrote her first book, Verses. In 1907, her mother and stepfather both died, and she left for San Francisco. Her biographer, Daniel Tobin, understands her many migrations–from Ireland to Australia, to New Zealand, to Australia, to San Francisco, to New York City–as the means by which she reinvented herself. Before leaving San Francisco for New York in 1908, she left her son in an orphanage.

The move to New York saw the birth of Lola Ridge, modernist poet, utopian anarchist and labour activist, claiming to be ten years younger than she was. To support herself, she worked as an illustrator, factory worker, poet, and model. Her first book of American poems,The Ghetto and Other Poems, was published in 1918, and in the following year she gave a series of lectures around the Mid-West on‘Women and the Creative Will’. Throughout the 1920s, she published radical poetry in support of communism and the Soviet Union, including the poem ‘Bolshiviki’ in The New York Post Literary Review (1922), and the book Red Flag (1927). She followed her own maxim: ‘Write anything that burns you.’

Her reputation as a poet developed, and she was twice awarded the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1935, 1936) and was awarded a Guggenheim Poetry Fellowship (1935). In 1927, she was arrested in Boston for protesting the execution of two anarchists. She was devoted to radical politics, and dedicated one of her poems to the Irish labour leader, James Larkin. She published five books of poems that, as a whole, deal with representing the harsh realities of life on the New Zealand goldfields and in the immigrant neighbourhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, while also attempting to reconcile her own radical politics and spirituality. This reflects her own life story, her political radicalism, and the ethereal image she shaped for herself.

A well-recognised feminist poet and modernist in her own lifetime, she has since been largely forgotten, possibly in part due to the inhospitality of mid-twentieth century America towards socialists and communists. Despite this neglect, she remains significant for the courage with which she addressed social issues in her writing and for her pivotal position among the modernist and women writers of twentieth-century America.

Sources:To the Many: Collected Early Works by Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Little Island Press, 2018);Light in Hand:Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Quale Press, 2007); Terese Svoboda, Anything that Burns You:The Dialect of Modernism (Scheffer Press, 2016).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

CYNTHIA LONGFIELD / Entomologist, world traveller


Cynthia Longfield, 1896–1991

Entomologist and world traveller

Cynthia Longfield, ‘Madam Dragonfly’, was born in London in 1896 to Anglo-Irish parents. The family divided their time between London and the ancestral home in Cloyne, Co. Cork, where she enjoyed roaming the countryside. Her early love of nature and insects grew into a lifelong passion, and she became a leading authority on dragonflies and damselflies. Longfield’s interest in the sciences was fostered in childhood, with her mother’s encouragement. She was inspired at an early age by reading about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and his Beaglevoyage of 1831–6. She later wrote, ‘I went on the St George expedition to follow Darwin’s footsteps–and I got there!’ She absorbed the importance of fieldwork and travel, both of which played important roles in her life and in her scientific work.

It was in 1921, during her first overseas tour–taking in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Panama,Jamaica and Cuba–that her passion for entomology blossomed. In 1924, she participated in the St George scientific expedition, an 18-month-long re-enactment of Darwin’s Beaglevoyage, taking in Coiba, Cocos Island, the Galapogos, the Marquesas, the Tuamotu Archipelago and Tahiti. During the expedition, Longfield collected moths, beetles and butterflies for the Natural History Museum in London. Following this, she worked, unpaid, as a cataloguer at the museum, where she had responsibility for the dragonfly collection. Her personal circumstances freed her from the need for paid employment. She would remain in this post for 30 years, but continued to travel the world in search of specimens.

In 1927, she participated in a six-month-long scientific expedition in the Mato Grosso, Brazil, where she collected 38 species of dragonfly, three of which were new species. She went on to make scientific expeditions to south-east Asia in 1929, where she collected hundreds of moths and butterflies; to Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa in 1934, where she travelled alone and identified six new species of butterfly and dragonfly; and to Cape Town and Zimbabwe in 1937.

She was forced to return to London when she contracted malaria in 1937, and was prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of World War II. During the war, she volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service in London. She had previously worked with the Royal Army Service Corps and in an aeroplane factory during World War I. Longfield did not limit herself to quietly cataloguing species in the museum. She regularly published her findings, sat on museum committees, and was a member of the Entomological Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the London Natural History Society.

In 1937, she published the sell-out The Dragonflies of the British Isles, which became the standard handbook on the topic. She retired from London’s Natural History Museum in 1956 and returned to Cloyne, but never stopped travelling or studying entomology. Two dragonfly species were named in her honour: Corphaeschnalongfieldae (Brazil) and Agrionopter insignis cynthiae (Tanimbar Islands). She donated her personal archive and library, some 500 volumes, to the Royal Irish Academy in 1979, and her Irish specimen collection to the Natural History Museum in Dublin.

Sources:Jane Hayter-Hames,Madam Dragonfly: The Life and Times of Cynthia Longfield( Pentland Press, 1991);Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition; Royal Irish Academy Longfield Collection.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

PROFESSOR DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE / X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

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Professor Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, 1903–1971

X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

Kathleen Yardley was born in Co. Kildare in 1903, the youngest of ten children. Her Scottish mother and Irish father had an unhappy marriage; the family was wretchedly poor, four of the ten children died, and their postmaster father abused alcohol. By 1908, her parents separated, and Kathleen and her surviving siblings were brought to Essex by their mother.

Kathleen excelled through elementary and high school. She entered Bedford College, University of London aged 16, where she chose to read physics because, like Kay McNulty, she was worried that the only career open to women maths graduates was teaching–something she did not wish to do. In 1922, she achieved the highest grades in the BSc exams that had been seen at University of London for ten years and, as a result, was invited to join Nobel physicist Professor William Bragg’s research school. The post brought an income of £180 per year, with which Kathleen helped her family. She was the only woman in a group of international researchers. She collaborated with international scientists to produce theI nternational Tablesor ‘crystallographer’s bible’, comprehensive tables for determining crystalstructure.

In 1927, Kathleen married Thomas Lonsdale. Contrary to her expectation that he might wish her to assume a traditional domestic role, he encouraged her to continue her scientific research. In 1929, she made her first major discovery, solving an important question that scientists had been arguing over for sixty years: she demonstrated conclusively that the benzene ring was flat. Her later contributions to science included important investigations into natural and synthetic diamonds.

By 1931, Kathleen and Thomas had two children. She worked on calculations at home for a time, until Sir William Bragg intervened to secure her return to professional research by creating a position for her at the Royal Institution, including provision for childcare. She worked there for 15 years. In the 1940s, she gained the recognition she so richly reserved. In May 1945, she became one of the first two women elected Fellow of the Royal Society, 300 years after the Society’s foundation. A year later, she was appointed reader in crystallography at University College London, and in 1949, she became the first woman professor at the university. She was also the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography.

During this time, she developed interests outside of the sciences. A Quaker by convincement, she conscientiously objected to registering for civil defence service during World War II and, refusing on principle to pay a fine of £2, she spent a month in Holloway Prison. Her husband later reflected that prison was the single most formative experience of her life, fostering a lifelong interest in penal reform. She became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and published many articles on pacifism. Her 1957 book, Is Peace Possible? cites Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement, and–as co-founder of the Pugwash Movement and the Atomic Scientists’ Association–warns of the danger of nuclear weapons and the problems presented by the disposal of nuclear waste. She was a witty person. When, in 1966, a rare form of hexagonal diamond was named lonsdaleite in her honour, she wrote: ‘It makes me feel both proud and rather humble [...]the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities... and it is generally rather mixed up!’

Lonsdale made important scientific contributions, published prolifically, and worked tirelessly for humanitarian goals. She advocated for women in science, publishing instructions on the topic in 1970–her first piece of advice was to choose a supportive husband, as she had.

Sources:Dorothy M.C. Hodgkin, ‘Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903–1 April 1971,Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 21 (Nov. 1975), 447–84; Peter Childs and Anne Mac Lellan, ‘The Stuff of Diamonds in Lab Coats and Lace,ed.Mary Mulvilhill (WITS, 2009), 145–155; Kathleen Lonsdale, ‘Is Peace Possible?’, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing,ed.Angela Bourke (Cork University Press, 2002), IV, 648–52.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

ALEEN ISABEL CUST / First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain & Ireland


Aleen Isabel Cust, 1868–1937

First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland

Aleen Cust was the daughter of a baronet, but a life of ease was not for her. When her father died in 1878, her new guardians–also aristocrats–encouraged her independent streak, and supported her decision to become a veterinary surgeon, despite her mother’s disapproval.

In 1894, enabled by a modest private income, she enrolled in the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh aged 26. She was an excellent student, coming top of her class in her first year. She completed her training in 1900, but was barred by gender from using the title ‘veterinary surgeon’. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) maintained that in their regulations, the word ‘student’ implied male student. She had excellent references, however, and was offered a position as assistant to William Byrne’s veterinary practice in Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

As Byrne’s assistant, Cust gained the respect of the people of Roscommon and east Galway. In 1905,when a vacancy arose for the position of veterinary inspector for Mountbellew District, she was elected by 14 council votes to 10, against two male candidates. Her appointment was contested by the Department of Agriculture on the basis that a woman could not be a member of the RCVS and therefore, she did not meet the requirements of the position. Galway County Council argued that no other trained and experienced veterinarian lived in the region, and in June 1906, her appointment was finally sanctioned by the Department.

Cust was hardworking and determined, but still needed the support of male allies who fought on her behalf. On the evening of her selection, Councillor J.C. McDonnell said, in response to the question of her qualifications, that the RCVS ‘would have to change their opinion and adopt later day ideas (hear hear).’ Despite these noble sentiments on the injustice of Cust’s disbarment from the RCVS, the irony went unremarked that they were 24 men voting on the professional fate of a woman. Not everyone agreed on ‘later day ideas’. The Western News editorialised: ‘The county council have made an appointment in the horse and brute kingdom which appears to us at least disgusting, if not absolutely indecent ... We can understand women educating themselves to tend women–but horses! Heavens!’

William Byrne died in 1910, and Cust took over his practice. In 1915, she took a leave of absence from her Galway County Council and drove her own car to Abbeville, France, to volunteer as veterinary to the tens of thousands of horses on the Western Front. The passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 forbade the exclusion of women from professions, and meant that the RCVS were now obliged to consider Cust’s membership. She was finally awarded her diploma in December 1922. From the 1920s, Cust found the Irish Free State no longer congenial, stating: ‘things became so unsettled that I had to leave. When one has the house raided and half a dozen revolvers are pointed at one’s head, it seems time to come home. But they were rather polite.’ She retired to the New Forest, England, where she devoted herself to breeding spaniels, but continued to attend Veterinary Medical Society meetings.

She died on 29 January 1937 while visiting friends in Jamaica, and was buried there. She left a fortune of almost £30,000, from which £5,000 was endowed for a scholarship in veterinary research (with a preference for female candidates), and £100 for a kennel at the RCVS in memory of her spaniels. An obituary published in The Times stated that Cust was ‘as much a pioneer in her particular sphere as, for example, Mrs Pankhurst, of women’s suffrage fame, was in hers, and the opposition encountered was as great in the one as it was in the other.’

Sources:Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Belfast News-Letter, 3 Feb. 1937;Western People, 23 June 1906;Western News, 4 Nov. 1905;Irish Times, 5 Feb. 2018;Skibbereen Eagle, 27 Feb. 1915;Freeman’s Journal, 22 Dec. 1922;The Times, 8 Feb. 1937;will of Aleen Cust, quoted in Irish Examiner, 19 Apr. 1937.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.