Bullet pierced picture, 5 Belvedere Place, Easter Week 1916

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As the fighting of Easter Week raged through parts of the city, other areas, even if they did not experience heavy combat, were also affected. The streets around the Volunteers’ garrison posts were dangerous places to be, particularly for the civilian inhabitants. O’Connell Street saw much looting in the first couple of days of the week as people took the opportunity to get new clothes and luxury items such as sweets, normally out of the reach of the poorer city centre residents. In most of these city centre locations it was the tenement dwellers who were caught in the crossfire between the rebels and the British Forces. Some, such as the men and boys in North King Street, were deliberately shot in the belief they were part of that rebel force. It was clear from early on that whether Dubliners took part in the Rising or not, their lives would be changed by it.

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This framed print, depicting a glamorous Edwardian lady wearing an elaborate hat, was hanging in the home of Annie Mac Swiney at No. 5 Belvedere Place, located between Mountjoy Square and the North Circular Road. On Thursday 27th April, a bullet entered the room, barely missing Annie, piercing the picture and lodging in the wall behind it. Both picture and bullet were kept as a memento, and it was donated to the National Museum in 1941, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary.

 

 

Annie lived at 5 Belvedere Place with her sister Mary. The house was owned by Sarah Lowry who ran it as a boarding house, living in 11 rooms with her 5 lodgers. In the 1911 census her tenants included drapers’ assistants William Lane and Kathleen Murphy, Laura McGuire – a stenographer and typist who had been born in India, butcher’s assistant Patrick Sullivan and Christopher O’Conor who listed his occupation as Commissioner of New York – a wide cross-section of Dublin citizens!

5 Belvedere Place

The Mac Swiney sisters lived at 5.2, a self-contained, separate unit in the building. The sisters shared one room, in which all their household activities was carried out, from to preparing food to sleeping. In 1901 they had also been living in a single room in a nearby tenement at 20.8 Temple Street, but sharing the building with 23 other people; their situation was certainly improved in Belvedere Place.

Neither Annie nor Mary had ever married, but both women worked as stationers (sellers of books, paper and writing implements), with Annie also listed as being a relief stamper (who produced engraved or embossed designs on writing paper and envelopes). These were respectable trades for the women and would have provided them with enough to support a modest living together.

William O'Brien

Belvedere Place saw some disturbance due to its position off the North Circular Road, which had military cordons in the area. The street was also home to William O’Brien, living with his family and their boarders at No. 43. O’Brien, a tailor by trade, was also a founding member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union alongside James Larkin, was highly involved in the 1913 Lockout in Dublin and was a close associate of James Connolly. He was not involved in the 1916 Rising, but his home was used as a safe house for a member of the Connolly family during the week.

O’Brien described what happened on the street, and at his home, in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History.

‘On Wednesday 26th, a number of soldiers appeared near my residence and were, apparently, taking up positions along the North Circular Road down by Russell Street and Portland Row. At about 11.30 two men, whom I did not know came to my residence with Roderick Connolly, son of James Connolly, aged 15 years, who had been in the G.P.O. from Monday, with a request to my sister that she should look after him. At this time the soldiers appeared to be moving up Belvedere Place towards my residence and my sister and I thought that young Connolly might be safer in some other house than ours, I got my sister to cross the road to a friend’s and ask this lady if she would take Roderick Connolly. The lady agreed to do so, but reluctantly, and was apparently alarmed at the situation. In view of that I decided that it would, perhaps, be safer to keep young Connolly with us, and he remained.

While discussing with my sister the position of Roderick Connolly, I decided that if the British military searched the house, it would be undesirable to give the name of Connolly and so I arranged that he would give the name Carney with the Belfast address of Miss Winifred Carney who was in the G.P.O., so that if there was a check up on the address in Belfast it would look alright. I also coached him to say that he had come to Dublin to look for work and that he was lodging in 43 Belvedere Place and did not know me personally. A number of houses in Belvedere Place were searched, including the houses on both sides of mine, and one or two houses opposite. As soon as the soldiers had got into position, all the residents in Belvedere Place, and I presume in adjacent streets also, were told to keep all the windows completely closed and not to open any front doors. The state of affairs continued on Thursday; many of the soldiers sat on the doorsteps and on one occasion, when I opened the door, I was told immediately to keep it closed’.

 

It was on this day, Thursday, that the picture hanging on the Mac Swiney sisters’ wall was shot by the stray bullet coming into their home. Although there was no heavy fighting around this street, there was clearly some gunfire here, whether it was a deliberate shot that missed its target, a stray bullet from a neighbouring street, or if it was the nervous discharge of a weapon by an inexperienced young soldier.

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The note that came with the picture stated that the bullet narrowly missed Annie, and it must have been a frightening and distressing experience for her. But this bullet pierced picture tells us about more than Annie’s near miss. It shows us how even when the civilians of Dublin stayed in their homes taking cover from the danger on the streets it was still not safe for them – bullets and shrapnel could enter their houses through doors and windows, and many civilians were indeed killed in their own homes, such as 37 year old William Connolly who died of gunshot wound to his chest at his home at 27 Usher’s Quay, and 13 year old Margaret Veale was killed in the bedroom of her home at 103 Haddington Road, off Northumberland Road, the site of the Battle of Mount Street.

We may never know the exact number of deaths that occurred during this week, but it is estimated that about 500 people were killed, the vast majority of these were civilian casualties, numbering just under 300.

There were also about 2500 people injured. From the beginning of the week, the injured and dead were brought to various hospitals around the city. Hundreds streamed into Jervis Street, Mercer’s, Sir Patrick Dun’s, St. Vincent’s, Mater Misericordiae, Holles Street and Dublin Castle hospitals, brought in by the men of the Fire Brigade and the doctors and nurses who ventured onto the dangerous streets to help the wounded, some losing their own lives in their attempts to save others. Some of the stories of these brave men and women were told in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Surgeons and Insurgents – RCSI and the Easter Rising, a fascinating and moving exhibition curated as part of the institution’s 2016/1916 Commemorative Programme.

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As is the case with conflict that takes place in an urban area, it was the civilians – the citizens of Dublin – who suffered the greatest number of casualties during Easter Week. The loss of life, serious injury, losing family and loved ones, homes and livelihoods destroyed as their city burned; these events were to change their lives forever. Even a brief look at the Military Archives’ recently released files of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee shows the impact on the ordinary citizens of Dublin.

 

This anniversary has been distinctive in its focus in a number of ways – along with the commemoration of the Rising’s leaders and participants, it has now properly recognised the participation of women in the Rising. It has also examined its effect on the lives of the civilians, especially the children, and their violent deaths. In many cases this wish to commemorate has come from the current citizens of Ireland who want to remember all who went through this traumatic event.

Annie Mac Swiney kept this bullet-pieced picture as a reminder of that event, and donated it to the National Museum with the hope that the people of Ireland would remember how she experienced 1916.

It will be on display in the National Museum of Ireland’s new 1916 exhibition – Proclaiming a Republic, at Collins Barracks, from next week.

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The Bullet in the Brick – the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst, 1916

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet, 1916 (NMI Collection - EW.683)

The kind of objects relating to the 1916 Rising which have become part of the National Museum of Ireland’s collection over the last century are varied, and by their very nature includes the most ordinary of objects made extraordinary by the events of the time.

This half brick formed part of the wall at Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks, until April 1916. Embedded in it is a bullet fired by the firing squad which executed Francis Sheehy Skeffington on the order of British Army officer Captain John Bowen-Colthurst. It was given to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Francis’ widow, in 1935, and she donated it to the museum in 1937.

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet, 1916 (NMI Collection - EW.683)

Francis and Hannah Sheehy SkeffingtonFrancis Skeffington met Hanna Sheehy in 1896, and they married in 1903. They shared their socialist and nationalist views, and as ardent feminists, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons co-founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. Francis was a committed pacifist, and had campaigned against recruitment to the British Army regiments in 1914 at the outbreak of the war in Europe.  He had also opposed the increasing militarisation of nationalist organisations such as the Irish Citizen Army, and when the Rising broke out on 24 April 1916, he went to the city centre to appeal for calm. On the evening of Tuesday the 25th, on his way home to 11 Grosvenor Place, he was arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks. Although a search revealed nothing more than a draft form of membership of a proposed civic guard (to prevent looting in the city), and no charge was made against him, he was detained for further enquiries.

Captain John Bowen-Colthurst

At this time, Portobello Barracks was officially under the command of Colonel McCammond who was absent on sick leave, leaving the command to Major James Rosborough. The barracks was also suddenly filled with soldiers from numerous regiments who were on leave in Dublin and reported for duty to their nearest barracks when the Rising broke out. The site must have been in a state of some confusion.  Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, originally from Dripsey, Co. Cork, was a decorated officer. He had fought in the Boer War and afterwards served in India, including the 1904 British military incursion into Tibet. He had been injured while leading a disastrous attack against a German position on the western front in September 1914 and was sent back to Ireland. He was attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at Portobello Barracks when the Rising broke out.

Richard O'CarrollIt seems Colthurst became quite frenzied at the outbreak of the Rising. In the late hours of Tuesday 25 April he led about 40 soldiers out of the barracks in search of ‘Sinn Feiners’ (the Sinn Fein party were at that time mistakenly believed to be responsible for the Rising), taking Sheehy Skeffington with him as a hostage. As they headed towards the city Colthurst shot dead James Coade, a 19 year old mechanic, on the Rathmines Road. Richard O’Carroll, the Labour Party Councillor and Quartermaster of C Company, Irish Volunteers was delivering ammunition to the garrison outpost at Northumberland Road when he was pulled from his motorcycle and shot through the lungs. O’Carroll later died of his injuries on 5th May. Another man, Patrick Nolan was shot by Colthurst outside Delahunt’s Grocery shop, but brought to the hospital at Dublin Castle and survived.

When the raiding party reached Camden Street they entered the tobacconist shop of Alderman James Kelly, arrested Thomas Dickson (editor of The Eye Opener) and Patrick McIntyre (editor of The Searchlight), and brought them to Portobello Barracks. The soldiers fire-bombed the shop on Colthurst’s orders. Kelly was not present at the time and, though unconnected to the Rising, he was later arrested and interned, and released 16 days later.

Memorial wreath at the wall where the shootings took place (from Irish Volunteers.org)At the barracks, Colthurst ordered that the three civilian prisoners be taken from the detention rooms in which they were held and brought to the yard. At about 10am on the morning of Wednesday 26th he ordered a firing squad of 7 soldiers to shoot the three civilian journalists. In a moment of clarity, Colthurst reported the action to his superior, a Major James Rosborough, saying that he had shot the three prisoners on his own responsibility and that he might possibly be hanged for it. Rosborough asked him for a written report, and Colthurst was confined to barracks duties. The bodies were hastily buried in the grounds.

Irish Citizen newspaper, Memorial Number, July 1916

Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and son Owen, 1916 (Library of Congress)On Friday 29th April Hanna Sheehy Skeffington arrived at the barracks to enquire about her husband, having been told by the police that she should ask there. Colthurst denied all knowledge of her husband, and threatened her with arrest. That evening, he led a party of soldiers in a raid on her home as she was putting her son, Owen, to bed, and took a large quantity of papers and books with the intention of finding incriminating evidence to justify the shooting. One paper that was probably found in this raid and produced at Colthurst’s eventual court-martial was a copy of the widely available Secret Orders Issued to the Military (the forged ‘Castle Document’) with the claim that he found it on Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s person when he was arrested.

Bowen Colthurst arriving at Richmond Barracks for his court martial June 1916 (NMI Collection)

Major Sir Francis Vane, serving out of Portobello Barracks, had reported Colthurst’s actions to the authorities in Ireland during the week but found them not only unreceptive to the complaint, but himself relieved of his duties, and the subject of a campaign against his character. He then reported to the military authorities in London, which led to Colthurst being placed under open arrest on 6th May. He was court martialled on 6 June and found guilty of the murders, but insane. He was admitted to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for one year, after which he was found to be recovered and released. He emigrated to Canada on a military pension where he died in 1965, never returning to Ireland. His family home in Dripsey was burned down during the War of Independence as retaliation for the murders.

Sir Francis Vane found that his actions in reporting Colthurst led to the ruin of his career, being relieved of his employment in the military, and all his attempts to publish his experiences were foiled by the military censor.

Major Sir Francis Vane, photograph autographed for Owen Sheehy Skeffington (NMI Collection)

In December 1935 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who had campaigned tirelessly for justice for her husband, received a parcel containing a half brick with a .303 bullet embedded, accompanied by a letter explaining its context from F. McL. Scannell. It tells the story of how he came to have the object.

Dear Mrs Sheehy Skeffington,

The following is an account of how a half brick, in which is embedded a bullet that passed through your husband’s body, came into my possession.

I always considered that you should have it, but considered it too gruesome a souvenir to offer you.

After the three unfortunate victims had been murdered Bowen Colthurst made frantic efforts to wipe out all the traces of his crime which, in the shape of three sets of bullets in the wall, proclaimed to all and sundry who passed that way one of the first actions of ‘a Soldier and a Gentleman’ with which we became so familiar as the struggle went on.

With that object he had several bricklayers, who were working on a large building then being built for the British Government in Dublin, were taken with their tools, in basses, a kind of soft basket without cover but having two handles for carrying them by, to Portobello Barracks.

They were kept surrounded by British Soldiers with fixed bayonets, pointed at them. There were kept for a considerable time in this uncomfortable position, and then harangued at considerable length as to the consequence of divulging anything whatever of what they saw or did.

They were then marched with their ‘escort’ to the wall where the ‘executions’ had been perpetrated, still surrounded by fixed bayonets. They were then instructed to remove all the bricks with bullets in them and replace them with new ones which Colthurst had already a supply awaiting.

While this was being done the soldiers told them where each of the victims had stood. The spot being repaired by the man I knew was where your husband had been placed.

When the work had been completed the old bricks were left in a heap, obviously for the British to destroy.

The bricklayers were once again marched away and given another lecture as to what their fate would be if they breathed a word of what happened in the Barracks. They were kept surrounded by the wall of bayonets for a considerable time, evidently to ensure that their nerves were in the proper condition, before being marched to the gate where with a final caution they were sent away.

It was during this last tirade of frightfulness that the man I knew noticed that a portion of a brick was in his bass. He was too frightened to say anything about it. I met him shortly after and he told me what had happened and made me promise not to give him away. He asked me what he should do with the brick as he was afraid to keep it. I told him I would take it and he gave it to me.

I have kept it in my house ever since.

I tried through some of the ‘Boys’ to get in touch with you shortly after I got it but you were then endeavouring to reach America, and I could not do so.

Although I knew you were the one with the greatest right to it I could not bring myself to offer such a ghastly memento and so rake up wounds which will never be forgotten.

Newspaper reporting of the Bowen-Colthurst court martial, June 1916 (NMI Collection)

The findings of 1916 court martial remained controversial, and it has been asserted from that time that the military conducted a cover up in order to ensure that his commanding officers could not be held responsible for Colthurst’s actions. A conclusion of ‘Guilty, but insane’ allowed the event to be put down as the actions of an individual mad man.

But the existence of the bullet in the brick raises a question – if Colthurst was responsible for the order to replace the damaged bricks, does this imply that he was aware of what he had done and what the consequences would be, and deliberately attempted to cover the crime? Would such an action then prove compos mentis – that Colthurst was sane?

Evidence given in the court martial portrayed various sides of the officer. Some testified to his character, describing him as kindly and considerate, but more unbalanced after his return from France. Major General Bird’s testimony on made clear that Colthurst recklessly sacrificed his men during the actions around the retreat at Mons and at Aisne in 1914, remarking that when agitated and fatigued he was not responsible for his actions.

Dr Parsons had treated Colthurst on his return from the front and noted his extreme nervous exhaustion at that time. He saw him again at the time of the court martial and opined that he was close to a nervous breakdown, relating how Colthurst talked mostly about the fighting at Mons and how he spent time reading the Bible in the hours before the shooting of the journalists.

Captain E.P. Kelly testified that he witnessed Colthurst in Portobello Barracks on the day of the shootings; ‘half lying across the table with his head resting on his arm, and he looked up occasionally and stared about the room, and then fell forward again with his head on his arm’. Such evidence would suggest Colthurst was suffering from shell-shock, now known as post-traumatic disorder.

However, Colthurst was also known to occasionally commit acts of an ‘eccentric’ nature. A Major Goodman of the Curragh Camp had known Colthurst since 1904, when they were stationed in India. He told of how he shot a dog that had barked during the night. When he asked if the dog was dead Colthurst answered no, but that it was sufficiently wounded to die. This, alongside rumours of previous brutalities against prisoners and civilians, would indicate a tendency towards brutal behavior. Colthurst himself professed that he was carrying out his duty, believing he had the right to shoot rebels under the terms of martial law, and that in any other country except Ireland it would be recognized as right to kill rebels. Certainly, his raid on the Sheehy Skeffington household in an attempt to find incriminating documents would suggest that Colthurst was sane enough to determine what he needed to find to defend his actions.

There are conflicting memories surrounding the repairing of the wall in Portobello Barracks, with one claim that the military organized for the Royal Engineers to fill in the bullet holes, and another, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, saying that bricklayers were brought in by Colonel McCammond on 7 May, the day after Colthurst was placed under arrest, to replace the bloodstained bricks with new ones. The account in the letter that accompanied the brick is the only one of the three that suggests Colthurst himself organized the repair, but contains no date or other details to support this and may have been a natural assumption at the time on the part of its author.

However there is little doubt that the brick did in fact come from a bricklayer who was forced to repair the wall, and is the material evidence of the attempt to cover the murder of the three journalists in Portobello Barracks in the middle of Easter Week 1916, whether by the military authorities or by Colthurst.

Portobello Barracks brick with bullet (NMI Collection - EW.683)

The Eviction of Mrs Darcy, Coolgreany Eviction Album, Wexford, 1887

The images from the Coolgreany Eviction album, comprised of photographs of the infamous 1887 series of evictions in the Coolgreany area near Gorey in North Co. Wexford, are already fairly well known.  The National Library of Ireland acquired a copy in 1992 from the grand-niece of Fr Laurence Farrelly, who was active in the Plan of Campaign in Co. Wexford in the 1880s.  Some of the images were used in the NLI’s wonderful Notice to Quit exhibition in 2003, so are very familiar to some. A letter that came with the donation identifies a T. Mallacy as the compiler of the album (and also probably the photographer), which he gave to Fr Farrelly in 1888. The National Museum also acquired a copy of the album in 1942, compiled in the same manner and probably at the same time as the NLI’s. This copy has handwritten captions on some of the images, identifying the people and places, though we do not know who wrote these captions.

 

A particular set of photographs stood out for me; the photographs of the 80 year old Mrs Darcy, taken at her sick bed in the process of her eviction from her home in Ballyfad, Coolgreany, in July 1887. Many photographs of evictions are of the eviction scenes themselves, or depict evictees posing outside houses for the camera. The photographs of Mrs Darcy are taken inside her home, making them look quite dark and despairing, yet there is also an air of defiance in her face.

 

 

 

Mrs Darcy’s home, a five-roomed farmhouse with seven outbuildings, was situated on the Brooke Estate; lands owned by the wealthy Dubliner George Frederick Brooke, Wine Merchant, High Sheriff and Justice of the Peace. Brooke lived in Castleknock, Co. Dublin, and his estate was managed by Captain Hamilton.

 

The Plan of Campaign (where tenants withheld rent from the landlord until a rent reduction was negotiated and agreed) was adopted by the tenants on the Brooke Estate in December 1886. The terms were refused by the owner, and in February 1887 Hamilton was preparing for a series of evictions. The eviction campaign started in July of that year, and numerous families (many of whom are photographed in the album) were removed from their homes by force by Hamilton’s bailiffs and Emergency Men.

 

When Hamilton and his men came to the Darcy household, they found Mrs Darcy on her sick bed.  The photographer captures some moments inside the cottage. In one, Daniel Crilly, the Irish nationalist M.P. for North Mayo, consoles Mrs Darcy, and another shows Mrs Darcy with her daughter.

 

Despite the situation, Mrs Darcy remained strong. One image of her, with her hands clasped, is captioned ‘From the sick bed Mrs Darcy tells Captain Hamilton to evict her; her terms are ‘no surrender’.

 

 

Another photograph shows a crowd gathered outside her cottage, described by the caption writer  as ‘A council of war over Mrs Darcy’s eviction’, including friends and enemies. A crowd of onlookers are seen on higher ground, being kept back from the house.  Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, armed with rifles, can be seen to the far left. In front of them are leading nationalists Daniel Crilly M.P., John Dillon M.P. and Michael Davitt.  Captain Hamilton, the evicting agent, is seen leaning on his stick talking to Captain Slack, the magistrate in command.  In the background a group of Emergency Men are waiting for the word.  The caption also reads that Captain Hamilton receives a telegram, and postpones the eviction.

 

 

The delay to the Darcy’s eviction did not last long though, and a later photograph shows Miss Darcy gathering up her furniture after eviction for conveyance to the Campaign Cottage (cottages set up by the Plan of Campaign as shelters for evicted tenants).

 

 

The Darcy family did manage to return to their home eventually.  The 1901 census shows William, John and Catherine Darcy living in house number 2 in Ballyfad where they are running a post office and shop.  The land was still owned by George Brooke at this point, but the passing of the Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act in 1903 meant that Irish tenant farmers could now buy the title to their land, and in 1911 John Darcy is listed as the landholder, and his brother Michael owns a neighbouring house and farm.  Coincidently, the oldest son of George Frederick Brooke, a Lieutenant George Brooke of the Irish Guards (1st Battalion) and his wife Nina were also resident in Ballyfad, alongside the Darcy family in 1911.  Sadly, George was killed aged just 37 in the First World War in Northern France just a few years later in October 1914, and is buried in Soupir Communal Cemetery. 

St. Patrick’s Day Postcard, Cumann na mBan, c.1917/18

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Cumann na mBan!  This lovely colour postcard depicts the Cumann na mBan emblem of the organisation’s initials entwined with a rifle, held by ribbons in the green white and gold of the Irish flag with a spray of shamrock above. It also includes the brass button of the Irish Volunteers – the Irish harp separating the ‘I’ and the ‘V’.  This card, unused, was published by Fergus O’Connor in Dublin and probably dates from around 1917 or 1918. It came to the museum via Sean Prendergast, an Officer of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin between 1914 and 1916, and Captain in the IRA in 1921.

 

This card was probably commissioned by Cumann na mBan as part of their fundraising activities.  After the 1916 Rising and the near destruction of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army through the execution of their leaders and internment of so many members, they became highly involved in a number of activities; organizing commemorations, producing propaganda, opposing conscription and campaigning for the 1918 General Election.

Kathleen Clarke, from the Boston College University Library

 

 

Kathleen Clarke, a founder of Cumann na mBan and widow of Tom Clarke, along with Sorcha McMahon and Áine Ceannt, established the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund, which aimed to provide for the wives and children of those who died or were imprisoned after the rising.  The proceeds from the sale of cards such as these not only helped the families, but also raised funds which enabled the Republican movement to continue.

 

The card is full of symbols of the Irish nation; the tricolour dates back to the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848 (based on the French idea) and had resurged in the 1916 Rising, and the shamrock and Irish harp have been used as far back as the late 18th century. St. Patrick himself as a symbol has long been the embodiment of ‘Irishness’. He is now more associated with ‘Catholic Ireland’ and the Republic, but as far back as the Reformation he was considered by many as a Protestant saint, with claims that the church he founded had no Roman elements and was closer to that of the established Anglican Church of Ireland. One example of Patrick as a Protestant is The Benevolent Society of St. Patrick, founded in the late 18th century by a group of Irish Protestant M.P.s in British Parliament. The society was a charitable organisation whose mission was to raise funds to support the destitute Irish and their children living in London by providing schooling and training to enable them to provide for themselves. However, in the 19th century, with the increasing strength of the Liberal Protestants in English parliament and the advent of Catholic Emancipation, St. Patrick and Patrick’s Day became something that both of the dominant religions in Ireland could embrace as a symbol of nation which crossed the Catholic / Protestant divide, a shared culture, when other days of celebration such as the Williamite commemorations were increasingly seen as divisive and destructive.  The work of the Gaelic League led to the establishing of St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday in 1903. Today it is a bank holiday in both the North and South of Ireland, though the extent to which it is celebrated in the North still depends on which side of the political divide you happen to be. 

Bridie O’Mullane, Cumann na mBan, 1918

Cumann na mBan was famously founded in Wynn’s Hotel on Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, in 1914, just months after the formation of the Irish Volunteers.  Its members took part in the 1916 Rising alongside the Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, and continued its involvement in the nationalist cause throughout the War of Independence, the Civil War and beyond.

Many women dedicated their lives to the cause. One such woman is Bridie O’Mullane, pictured here at about age 25 or 26.

This photograph shows Bridie in full Cumann na mBan uniform, including a small brooch based on the Tara brooch. She was a member of the Executive Committee, an official organizer during the War of Independence and the Director of Publicity and Propaganda during the Civil War. The photograph was donated to the museum by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1937.

Sinead McCoole, in her book No Ordinary Women, gives a good account of Bridie’s activities during the period.  O’Mullane joined Cumann na mBan in 1918 after meeting Countess Plunkett, who persuaded her to establish a branch in her home town of Sligo. She was made Secretary, and was soon requested by the Cumann na mBan headquarters to set up more branches around the county.  By the end of the year she had been elected onto the Executive Committee, and made an official organizer.

Despite serving a prison sentence in 1919, she continued her recruitment activities and went on to establish branches throughout the country, often with her life in great danger.

She opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and was appointed Director of Propaganda for Republican Sinn Fein in Dublin in early 1922.  She founded the Cumann na mBan journal, and probably came to know Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in this context, as she regularly contributed to the paper. She acted as a courier during the Civil War, and in July she was charged with the role of setting up a publicity department.  Bridie, Maire McKee and Nellie Hoyne established an office in Clare Street, publishing a weekly paper called The War Bulletin. In November 1922 she was arrested by Free State Troops and imprisoned. In Kilmainham Jail she continued her political life, and became a member of the Prisoners’ Council and Commanding Officer of A Wing. She was released in late 1923, but arrested again in 1926 while campaigning against the treatment of prisoners in Maryborough Jail.  She resigned her place on the Cumann na mBan Executive in 1927, later dedicating herself to compiling the history of the organization, assisting others in their applications for military pensions, the Women’s Prisoner’s Defence League, and was a founding member of the Irish Red Cross.  She died at the age of 74, and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Bridie made two witness statements to the Bureau of Military History, which can be read here and here.

For more stories on the role women such as Bridie played in the fight for Irish independence, see the further reading section on this site for a few of the titles available.  There are also a number of biographies available which are well worth reading.