The Forgotten Rebels

It is right and just to commemorate the women who fought alongside their male comrades during Ireland’s struggle for independence. Since 2016, the centenary year of the 1916 Rising, there have been numerous forms of celebration including theatre productions, novels, and public presentations.

However, I couldn’t help but note the inaccuracies. As a current student in Irish Studies at NUI Galway, I have always held a great interest in Irish history and a special connection to the Irish War of Independence.
As part of my Leaving Certificate History studies, I was tasked to conduct historical research using primary and secondary sources. I knew that I wanted to do something about the Irish rebellion, and that I wanted it to be about a female revolutionary, I just didn’t know who.
My teacher sent me to the back of the room, not because I was in trouble, but to flick through the countless sources she had stacked in plastic boxes. “She who you would like to write about” she said. I opened a book, ‘Michael Collin’s Rebels’ or ‘women’, which in itself is quite a condescending title, especially as the majority of the women mentioned were not in any way recognised as such.

I chose a woman called Winifred Carney. A daring woman, she entered the GPO with a webley and typewriter. I returned to my teacher who asked me, “Would you not pick someone who has more available for you to research?”. I knew then I wanted to do it. If not for my project, to find out who she was and why she was so poorly documented. That was 2013, yet there’s still a scarcity of available sources for these forgotten rebels today.

During the revolution, numerous rebels faught from both sides of the border, including Inez McCormick and Winfired Carney. Carney, from Co.Down, worked as James Connolly’s assistant and confidant before and during the Rising. However, she should also be commemorated for her time in the ITWU (Irish Textile Workers Union) and Cumann na mBan, especially in the North. She was a valuable member of the women’s rights and labour movements of her day. Her service continued after the rebellion had been put down, when she housed many rebels on the run. This in itself raised reputational questions among the newly formed Irish government. She refused the state pension and never wished to be looked upon as a heroine. A modern woman, with no time for social and political conventions, she married George McBride, a prominent Orangeman, and her a Catholic nationalist.
Carney’s life is broadly documented, but not to the extent it should be. This is similar to the experience of other female revolutionaries, and clear sexual discrimination was more than evident after the war was over, when Church and State effectively became one. But, did the border have some role to play in the forgetting of Northern Irish revolutionaries?

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Portrait of Winifred Carney

According to a 2019 article in the Irish Independent, plans for a permanent statue to commemorate Winifred Carney were changed and it was announced that the statue would only be placed at Belfast City Hall on a temporary basis. This caused dismay in the Sinn Fein party, the largest nationalist party in the North and was a perplexing decision since it followed an equality impact assessment in 2012, which criticised a lack of female nationalist representation. Two other statues were still to be placed on a permanent basis, why would Carney be any different? From my research, I could not find a definite answer other than her gender.

As Brexit is now well and truly in full effect, will we see more of these issues arising? Northern Ireland has a huge amount of cultural, social and historical baggage and we are at a crossroads now, as younger generations express a need for mutual understanding and release from the threat of a sectarian future. However, we cannot shy away from the past. This is why we should address the lack of representation for historical figures from the North – be they republican, unionist, activist, trade unionist, or feminist – so to create an inclusive environment that accepts history on both sides rather than dividing it further.

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Belfast City Hall ©William Murphy 2011

Looking to the future, we can only hope that such historical figures as these are not simply forgotten, since they too have a right to be commemorated. It should be our mission to recognise our divides, our differences, and our pain in history, but once we find common ground, maybe we can form a genuine respect for our shared history and for each other.

KathyAnn Murphy
KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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