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, http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/detail.aspx?parentpriref=
(i) Londonderry Sentinel, 9 Dec. 1920.
(ii) Irish Independent, 3 June 2012.