irishhistory

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

HARIOT GEORGINA HAMILTON-TEMPLE-BLACKWOOD, LADY DUFFERIN / Philanthropist, author, vicereine of India

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.

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

aleen.jpg

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.