Patrick Pearse. Eamon de Valera. Michael Collins. You often see these names associated with the Anglo-Irish War. The Anglo-Irish War brought us the free Ireland we know today. While Irish freedom would not have happened had it not been for these men, we often exclude the contributions made by women. I wanted to talk about four feisty Irish women and how they contributed to the fight for freedom near the turn of the 20th century.
Countess Constance Markievicz (1868–1927)
Countess Constance Markievicz was a strong woman figure in Irish nationalism. She played an active role in defining events like the 1916 Easter Rising. In 1909, Markievicz helped establish Na Fianna Éireann, a nationalist youth organization. This organization taught mythology to give boys and girls warrior role models to prepare them to fight for Ireland. At Na Fianna Éireann, children received a freedom-focused education along with learning military skills. Markievicz recruited many members of this organization to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising along with her.
Markievicz wrote an introduction for The Fianna Handbook (1914), where she advocated teaching these skills. She argued that learning these skills made the Irish akin to characters like Finn mac Cumhaill and Cúchulainn. She advocated that Irish men and women who showed these attributes would not shy away from death for the cause of Ireland. She was also an author who wrote about what she termed the "rising young woman." The "rising young woman" played an integral role in the building of the new Irish nation.
During the 1916 Rising, Countess Markievicz displayed exceptional courage and leadership. The New York Times highlighted her efforts in the aftermath of the Rising. Markievicz also became the subject of a few of W.B. Yeats's poems. While Yeats did not always agree with her methods, he admired her passion for Irish freedom.
Eva Gore-Booth (1870–1926)
Eva Gore-Booth was the sister of Countess Constance Markievicz and a prominent author. She advocated for Irish nationalism, feminism, and socialism. Even though both she and Constance were born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, Gore-Booth renounced her privileged upbringing. She made it her life goal to become a political activist for socialist and feminist ideals.
Eva Gore-Booth was particularly renowned for her poetry but also wrote plays. She intertwined nature with her concept of feminism, and she also renounced hyper-masculinity. This was in contrast to many of the Irish ideals of the time. However, her commitment to seeing an equal, just, and free Irish nation led her to proclaim a brand of feminism ahead of her time.
Gore-Booth, though she stayed off the battlefield, supported her sister. When Countess Markievicz went to prison for her role in the 1916 Easter Rising, Gore-Booth wrote the moving poem, "Comrades." In this poem, she states,
"The peaceful night that round me flows,/Breaks through your iron prison doors,/Free through the world your spirit goes,/Forbidden hands are clasping yours."
Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932)
Lady Augusta Gregory was a leading Irish nationalist author of her time. She married into a land-owning Anglo-Irish family. However, after her husband died, she turned her efforts to promoting Irish nationalism and helping the Irish freedom cause. As a close friend of W.B. Yeats, the pair co-wrote many plays, including the very influential Cathleen ni Houlihan. This play is sometimes attributed as the inspiration for the 1916 Easter Rising. She and Yeats also opened up the Irish National Theatre, now the Abbey Theatre, to give Irish voices access to a public stage.
In the past, only British imperialist plays were on display. She allowed and advocated for ground-breaking stories that went against the status-quo to make provoking statements. Aside from her work with W.B. Yeats, Gregory sought to bring new life to old Irish folklore, hoping to inspire a renewed sense of nationalism and culture in Ireland. She took inspiration from the Irish living in and around the Galway area. Gregory published many folklore anthologies, as well as reworked old stories into revitalized plays. She acted as a bridge between the land-owning upper class and the Gaelic Irish, many of whom were impoverished or part of the Dublin middle-class.
Lady Gregory played a profound and active role in inspiring many Irish nationalists and freedom fighters in the years leading up to the Anglo-Irish War. She showed them heroic nationalism and giving them a means for their voices to be heard.
Maud Gonne (1866–1953)
Maud Gonne, another close friend (ahem, lover) of Yeats, was remarkably dedicated to seeing Irish freedom prevail through the arts. She played an active role in the Irish National Theatre, even bringing life to Cathleen ni Houlihan in Yeats's and Gregory's influential play. Gonne played an integral part in the construction of Cathleen ni Houlihan. She even got Yeats and Gregory to change the ending to display a more nationalist vibe. She was passionate about the Irish cause and wanted to see the Anglo-Irish war come to fruition.
As an author herself, Maud Gonne sought to portray Ireland as capable of ruling itself without any British oversight. She would marry the Irish revolutionary John MacBride in 1903. MacBride was later executed for the role he played in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Maud Gonne founded the Daughters of Ireland in 1900, since women were often barred from joining other nationalist organizations. This female organization sought to promote nationalist ideas through the arts. Maud Gonne also played a role in the establishment the Sinn Féin political party, the party responsible for leading the Irish through the Anglo-Irish War. Maud Gonne remained an outspoken nationalist throughout her life, whether it be in political or literary circles.
While these four women made fantastic contributions to Irish nationalism, it is also imperative that we point out the countless women who namelessly fought for Ireland's freedom. These nameless women many times put themselves in dire situations. There are stories upon stories of Irish women who acted as spies against the British and played a paramount role in transporting and collecting information that led to Irish freedom.
We have many stories about women on the frontlines of the 1916 Easter Rising, delivering news, bringing provisions, and providing medical help because they weren't as suspicious to the British soldiers. Constance Markievicz, Eva Gore-Booth, Lady Gregory, and Maud Gonne played a colossal role in promoting Irish nationalism through political and artistic movements. Yet, the contributions of their female comrades lost to history should not be downplayed.
Both famous and civilian women are responsible for the success of the formation of the Irish Free State. This Women's History Month, we should remember and honor them.
Constructions of the Irish Child in the Independence Period, 1900–1940 edited by Ciara Boylan and Ciara Gallagher
“Padraic Colum: Patriot Propagandist for the Poets’ Revolution” by Damien Murray in Éire-Ireland, vol. 51, no. 3 & 4
“Reading between the Lines: Hyde’s Writings, 1916” by Máire Nic an Bhaird in Éire-Ireland, vol. 53, no. 1 & 2
Handbook of the Irish Revival edited by Declan Kiberd and P.J. Mathews
“Yeats, Eva, and Con” by Denis Donoghue in The Hopkins Review, vol. 10, no. 4
“‘Keepin’ a home together’: Performing Domestic Security in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’” by Amanda Clarke in The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, vol. 38, no. 1/2
“Artistic Liminality: Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan and Purgatory” by Stephanie J. Pocock in New Hibernia Review, vol. 12, no. 3
“Nationalism and Feminism in Lady Gregory’s Kincora, Dervorgilla, and Grania” by Noelle Bowles in New Hibernia Review, vol. 3, no. 3
About the Author - Delaney Reddell
Delaney Reddell is a Celtic Literature and History Educator with a Master’s Degree from the University of Edinburgh. She runs a fun book blog called Cups of Tea in Wonderland and loves all things fantasy. When she isn’t reading or researching, you can find her doing yoga, ballet, or cuddling up with her white Jack Russell Terrier.