A couple of months ago we received an email from a reader, Stephen Poleon. He informed us that his 13 year old daughter, Shannon and a schoolfriend were researching for a project on the discrimination of Irish female revolutionaries. Working on the Women’s Museum of Ireland project, we passionately believe in encouraging young people to engage with history, particularly rediscovering women’s history, especially at a junior cycle level. So we are thrilled to share with you the results of her project examining why Irish Female Revolutionaries have been ‘airbrushed’ from history. This is our first guest blog post!
My name is Shannon Poleon. I am 13 years old and I attend Montgomery High School in Blackpool, England. I am currently doing a project about rights and wrongs in history. The topic I have chosen is discrimination against Irish female revolutionaries from the Easter Rising and War of Independence. Due to my Irish heritage I have a high interest in Irish history. I am very proud to be Irish. I am also proud that my Great Grandfather Christopher Poleon fought in the Irish Civil War on Michael Collins side and was a member of A Company (Dunboyne) 1st Eastern Division IRA during the War of Independence and received a Military Service Pension for his actions. Women also gave service during this war and the Easter Rising but did not get the same pensions that men received. The Proclamation of the Republic read out during the Easter Rising gave women equal rights, but they were still treated unfairly when applying for a military pension.
The process of applying for a military service pension included giving a sworn statement before an advisory committee and providing references. Applicants both male and female would be asked a series of questions about their activities in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Women were treated very unfairly in this process. An official decided that women were not to be treated equally when applying for pensions. This male official said that women’s activities had to be of a military nature. Some women took part in gathering military intelligence, buying and delivering guns and ammunition and raising funds for volunteer dependants and buying guns.
Women applying for military service pensions were frequently told that those were not military activities. How do you fight a war without guns and ammunition? How do you fight a war without knowing what your enemy is doing? How do you fight a war without money? Michael Collins was in charge of intelligence gathering, buying and transporting guns and ammunitions. He was also a paid secretary of the organisation set up to look after the dependants of imprisoned volunteers. What about the women who risked their lives doing all those activities in a volunteer role? Should they not be recognised for their work? In applying for a pension military service for women meant taking part actual fighting. Did women actually fight in that way? Yes!! Margaret Skinnider from Glasgow was one such woman.
Margaret Skinnider was a maths teacher and member of Glasgow Cumman Na mBan. She had a love of Irish culture and nationalism. Margaret was also a skilled markswoman and bomb maker. She smuggled bombs and bomb making equipment to Surrey House in Dublin, which was the home of Countess Markievicz. Along with the Countess, affectionately known as Madame Margaret taught Fianna boys as young as 12 how to fire guns and make bombs in preparation for the Easter Rising. During the Rising itself Margaret was amongst 14 women at the College of Surgeons near St Stephens Green in Dublin. She acted as a sniper and as a despatch rider carrying messages across the city. Being a despatch rider was extremely dangerous, machine gun bullets were flying everywhere, snipers were on every corner, and Margaret could have been shot at the speed of light. She did indeed get shot leading a bombing mission. Receiving severe injuries that affected her for the rest of her life Margaret’s life was in grave danger. In 1925 she applied for a ‘Wound Pension’, under the Army Pensions Act 1923. She was denied. Why? Simply because she was not a man. It was almost if not just Margaret’s but all female contributions towards Irish freedom were airbrushed out of history.
One such woman who was actually airbrushed out of history is Elizabeth O’Farrell. One of 40 women in the GPO, headquarters of the Provisional Government she provided first aid to wounded volunteers. After a week of heaving fighting Padraig Pearse decided to evacuate all the women from the GPO for their own safety. They refused to leave arguing they had as much right to be there as the men. The majority did eventually accept their orders and left but Elizabeth O Farrell, Julia Grennan and Winnie Carney stayed behind to help with first aid. Due to heaving bombing and fire the building was falling down. It was deteriorating by the minute and so it was decided to evacuate the GPO. They fled to some houses on Moore Street, it was here to save more damage to Dublin and innocent people dying that Pearse decided to surrender. Elizabeth O’Farrell was chosen to deliver the surrender to the British. They needed someone who was calm and strong. Venturing out into the dangerous streets with nothing but a white flag for protection she could have quite easily been shot. Luckily she finished her mission and reached General Lowe who was in command of the British forces. General Lowe told Elizabeth to come back with Padraig Pearse to surrender.
At that surrender one of the most iconic photographs of Irish history was taken. An anonymous photographer appeared to capture this historic event. Before the picture was taken Elizabeth took a step backwards and only her feet could be seen in the photograph. Ten days later this photograph appeared in the Daily Sketch newspaper. Elizabeth O' Farrell was nowhere to be seen. Pearse was standing alone surrendering to two British officers. She had been completely air brushed out of history. Elizabeth O’Farrell’s contribution just like other Irish women had been air brushed out of history. It is almost like women’s fight for Irish freedom did not exist. Learning that this had actually happened to Irish women in the past makes me feel disgusted. These women are not just normal women; they are people who made history. They fought not just for Irish freedom but for equal rights for women. Their contribution has been ignored, forgotten and almost completely air brushed out of history. Should we stand for this? What do you think we should do about it? Are we just going to stand by and let that happen? I know what I want to do.
What about you?
(Note: You can see the photograph Shannon refers to here.)
Related: Nurse ‘sorry she hid’ in iconic image, Irish Independent, 1 December 2012