irish

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

1907-1974

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.

 

Sources:

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.

Helena Hegarty / Revolutionary / Captain of Schull Cumann na mBan

1879-1962

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.

 

Sources:

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

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.