Guest Blog: “The dearest wish of our hearts is to return and end our days in our green isle…”: Irish Republican women in Britain, the forgotten exiles?’

This is a guest blog based on a paper delivered at the MBS 2021 PGR Research Showcase. 

Niamh Coffey, PhD Candidate at the University of Strathclyde.

Maire McGaleagly (or McGallogly) had lived in Glasgow for over thirty years when she applied for a military service pension from the Irish government in 1938 for her service during the Irish wars of independence. She joined Cumann na mBan, the Irish women’s republican paramilitary organisation, in 1915, and from then on was extensively involved in republican activities in Glasgow such as gun running, carrying despatches, and providing safe houses for those on the run.1 Despite her significant involvement in Republican activities, McGaleagly’s pension application was rejected numerous times. Dejectedly, McGaleagly wrote that if she had the money, she would use it to go home to Ireland, stating that this was “her greatest hunger.”2 The sentiments of exile and suffering are repeated throughout the letters of the collection. For example, Margaret Leonard, who was a member of the Liverpool branch of Cumann na mBan and later moved to Australia, wrote to the pension board that being granted a pension would help her and her husband “realise the greatest wish of [their] hearts” by enabling them to return to their “beloved green isle.”3

It is intriguing that these women invoke the image of the emigrant exile in their pension applications. Indeed, the Irish emigrant is certainly a pervasive figure in both Irish history and popular culture who has continually evolved since the 1840s, however, this figure has generally been imagined as male. While there are countless songs and poems about Irish men leaving their sweethearts behind while they toil in a foreign country, there are fewer ballads about the women who left their homeland to become domestic servants in America, or nurses in post-war Britain. This lacuna is intriguing, because throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gender ratios for Irish migration were roughly equal.4 Therefore, the military service pension applications of McGaleagly and others offer an interesting glimpse into how these women viewed their experiences through the commonly thought of male lens of exile, and how this intersected with their republican activities. Indeed, the women who made these applications invoke images of hardship and involuntary exile, but also draw on gendered ideas of maternal sacrifice, raising questions about the gendered image of the Irish migrant and republic experience during this period.

The military service pensions are somewhat unique, as they were based on active service, and consequently, the collection offers detailed sources on women’s republican activities and valuable insight into their lives after this period. The applications reveal that women’s and men’s roles in republican organisations in Britain increasingly overlapped during this period, as women became involved in IRA operations such as arms smuggling and carrying despatches. Many of these women had also been involved in other Irish political and cultural organisations such as Gaelic League and the Irish Self-determination League before getting involved in republican paramilitary organisations. They stress the hardships they endured, emphasising the dangers of being part of a paramilitary organisation in the country of the enemy. Although most of these women lived in cities with large Irish communities, the applications reflect that they were viewed with hostility by the city’s wider populations. Consequently, themes such as ostracism and suffering for their beliefs arise in their correspondence. Jean Quinn, who owned a furniture shop in Glasgow, had to shut down her business and move in with her mother after her arrest and heavily publicised trial for possessing Sinn Féin literature and revolver cartridges.5 Kathleen Talty and Margaret Sexton, who were both teachers based in Manchester, stated that their activities saw them passed over for promotions, while Maire Manning was dismissed from her job as a post office clerk for her involvement in Cumann na mBan in London.6

These experiences fit in with the wider narrative of the emigrant exile. As Kerby Miller has argued in his study on Irish trans-Atlantic emigration, the struggles of the Irish abroad fuelled nationalism in diasporic communities from the mid-nineteenth century. Despite some emigrants finding material comfort and happiness in their newfound communities, this image of exile was still a powerful tool in the Irish nationalist imagination.7 Therefore, these women draw on established tropes of emigrant experiences which the assessors of their pensions would surely recognise when granting their pension awards. Some of the applicants even went so far as stating that their experiences were more challenging than their counterparts in Ireland, owing to the hostility they faced in a foreign country. Kate Lee of Glasgow stated cryptically after her pension was rejected that “we were in a foreign country… there was very little stuff in some parts of Ireland depending on what came across the water and it was a very risky thing to do to store up stuff til it was dispatched.”8

These women drew on gendered imagery in addition to the established emigrant exile experience. The correspondence between these women, their references, and the Irish pension board stress their roles as proud Irish mothers and wives, who had watched their loved ones suffer as a result of their commitment to Irish republicanism. This is reflective of how the female relatives of executed republican men in Ireland were perceived during and after the Revolutionary period. Indeed, activist women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Mary MacSwiney and Margaret Pearse used their elevated status as the wives, sisters, and mothers of martyred republicans to further the cause for Irish independence and were often a staple on speaking tours across the diaspora. Even though these women were republican activists in their own right, their relation to martyred male republicans gave them currency and they used this to their advantage, invoking the names of their deceased relatives in their speeches and writing.9

Irish republican women in Britain also stressed their roles as mothers, sisters, and wives, realising the influence these roles could have in gaining recognition for their services. Maire McGaleagly wrote despairingly to the pension board when her application for a widow’s pension was originally rejected as the board stipulated that her husband’s death was unattributable to his service in the IRA, despite the fact that he died from a stomach ulcer as a result of his time in prison after the Easter Rising. In her appeal, McGaleagly emphasised her husband’s role in the Rising, and stated that all the suffering her family endured would be worthwhile if only his service were recognised, stating that “the whole thing is bewildering to me- people who I know never had a scratch getting recognition whilst he was through everything and I haven’t even a paper to show his part in the struggle.”

Referees attesting to Republican women’s services in these applications also drew on the imagery of caregiving and suffering for women who were unmarried and had no children. For example, Fr. John Fahy, who was the O/C of the Dundee IRA, emphasised the role his former IRA member Lena McDonald was currently playing as a caregiver for her elderly mother.10 Fahy stresses that McDonald could no longer live in Dundee due to her previous activities and was living in poverty while trying to provide for her other. Fahy also stressed that pensions should not be awarded depending on the applicant’s position on the waiting list, but rather on their service and their current financial position, echoing McGaleagly’s sceptical thoughts about who this money was being awarded to. Similarly, references attested to the generosity and care given by Mary Egan, who was a member of the North Unit IRA, who was infamous for sharing her home with IRA members who were trying to evade the authorities. Michael O’Brien of Cork No.2 Brigade wrote that she was “outstanding in her care of IRA members… her name is known in every county for this.”11 Bridget Flanagan, who was a member of the IRA in Glasgow, was affectionately nicknamed ‘Mother Flanagan’ by the men who used her home as a safe house. One of her references, Henry Forbes, takes it upon himself as a ‘gentleman’ to write to the pension board as her reference and ask for a form for her to fill out, reflecting a sense of chivalry. Flanagan’s other references attest to her generosity and care and stipulate that the Irish government should return the favour now that she was advanced in her years.12

The applications of republican women in Britain offer a glimpse into how the narrative of emigration, exile, and nationalism could be used be by Irish women, despite the perseverance of emigrant figure as male. They highlight that themes such as sacrifice and ostracism, were experiences of both Irish men and women, and how these intersected with nationalist sentiment. However, the language of maternalism and the emphasis on care giving reflects that these women drew on gendered language and imagery in portraying their experiences of republicanism in a foreign land, in a similar way to prominent republican activist women whose male relatives had been executed for their beliefs.

1 Military Service Pensions Collection, MSPREF3458062, Marie McGaleagly.

2 Ibid.

3 MSPC, MSP34REF45593, Margaret Leonard.

4 Nancy L. Green, ‘Changing paradigms in migration studies: from men to women to gender’ in Donna Gabbacia and Mary Jo Maynes’ Gender History Across Epistemologies (Oxford, 2013), pp.262-278.

5 MSPC, MSP34REF783, Jean Gillespie (nee Quinn).

6 MSPC, MSP34REF50666, Kathleen Talty; MSPC, MSP34REF59330, Margaret Sexton; MSPC, MSP34REF35954,
Maire Keyes (nee Manning).

7 Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (Oxford, 1985).

8 MSPC, MSP34REF59950, Kate Lee. 

9 Claire McGing, ‘Women’s political representation in Dáil Éireann in revolutionary and post-revolutionary
Ireland’ in Linda Connolly’s Women and the Irish Revolution: Feminism, Activism, Violence (Newbridge, 2020), pp.113-129. 

10 MSPC, MSP34REF56964, Lena McDonald. 

11 MSPC, MSP34REF55889, Mary Egan. 

12 MSPC, MSP34REF55614, Bridget Flanagan.

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