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 http://www.militaryarchives.ie/en/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923/search-the-collection