Muriel MacSwiney … An Unlikely Revolutionary!

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival will contain an interview with Anne Twomey, teacher and historian on the life of Muriel MacSwiney. This will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday, November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.

Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee through the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival has attempted over the past decade to research and promote the cause of women, especially strong independent women whose life stories have sometimes been ignored, silenced or deleted from the public discourse. In the following article Muriel MacSwiney … an Unlikely Revolutionary, we take a brief look at her eventful path through life.

Mary Harris and Muriel Murphy were both born on the north side of Cork City, but unlike the poverty of Mary Harris, Muriel Murphy was born to wealth and privilege at Carrigmore in Montenotte, a future heiress to the huge riches of the Cork merchant prince and unionist supporting Murphy family.

In Muriel’s statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) dated December 1951 she wrote “My family, of course, were completely imperialist, conservative, capitalist and roman catholic”.

The youngest in a family of six, she complained of being kept isolated from the “common people” and claimed to have left her snobbish convent at seventeen where she had “learned literally nothing”. Muriel received little formal education and author Angela Clifford in Letters to Angela Clifford suggested that as a result “her originality was left unfettered, she thought and then she did what her thinking suggested”.

Instead of a well-trodden pathway whereby she could have kept her head down and along with many former unionist families who simply blended into the new Free State then in its birth pangs through violent revolution, Muriel took a different path and boldly embraced the early Republican cause and later married Cork Volunteer leader Terence MacSwiney in 1917.

It was the ultimate love story of the beautiful girl sacrificing everything for a poor imprisoned playwright, poet and revolutionary. Her small wedding at Bromyard in Herefordshire on 9th June 1917, on her twenty fifth birthday was conducted through the Irish language at an open prison where the groom wore his military uniform was highly unusual.

Muriel and Terence’s Wedding.

Her forty months of married life was interrupted regularly by the absence of her husband either through his organizing work for the Irish Volunteers or as a result of his harassment or imprisonment by the British authorities. Terence’s later role as Teachta Dāla (TD) in the new Dāil Eireann or his position as Lord Mayor of Cork City could not save him from the harsh treatment of the British which in effect also victimised their families.

Terence was in jail when Muriel gave birth to Māire and his first meeting with their two month old baby daughter, involved Muriel making the long journey to a prison in Belfast in August 1918 and staying in that city for several weeks. The newly married couple had just a few months of normality together in places such as Ballingeary and Youghal in Co Cork.

Muriel with Máire and Terence. (Possibly in Ballingeary).

Muriel too endured the pain of the ceaseless attempts to break her husband’s spirit. She did not agree with hunger strikes, but supported her husband to the very end of his strike. In the full glare of worldwide publicity on 25th October 1920, Cork Lord Mayor, Terence MacSwiney died. His death caused a massive growth of support for the Irish Republican cause, but it also mortally wounded the resolve of the British establishment to enforce it’s rule in Ireland.

The Funeral of Terence MacSwiney in London in 1920. (Notice how close the London policemen are to the coffin).

Very few observers subsequently considered the human trauma, stress and acute loneliness of the young widow with responsibility for a baby. Nor did they empathise with her personal reaction to her husband’s slow painful death over 74 days, the enormous impact of which was such that Muriel collapsed from sheer exhaustion and grief and was unable to attend her Terence’s funeral in Cork.

The painting of the funeral of Terence MacSwiney in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark by Sir. John Lavery.

Yet exactly a month later, Muriel boarded the Celtic in Cobh (Queenstown) along with her sister in law Mary MacSwiney and arrived in New York on 5th December to a huge welcome from thousands of supporters including some 300 women who ignoring formalities simply mobbed her.

Photo from a New York newspaper shows the mayhem which greeted Muriel in New York.

She provided searingly honest evidence at an American Commission On Conditions In Ireland hearing in Washington on 9th December.

The New York Times front page article referred in patronising terms to her as “a mere girl, with brilliant eyes and a quick engaging smile”. ‘A perfect picture of Irish beauty” gushed the New York Evening World.

Muriel spent the entire Christmas holiday period being introduced to hundreds of Irish people in political and business circles. Later on New Years Eve, New York Mayor Hylan presented her with the formal Freedom of the City at a ceremony in City Hall, the first woman to receive this honour.

Mary and Muriel MacSwiney in America.

Muriel was followed by huge crowds and by today’s terms was a media poster girl for the Irish Revolution. She was serenaded by the “Fighting Sixty Ninth” regimental band that night and the band turned up again to accompany Muriel to the New York quay as she sailed for home on New Year’s Day 1921. Sister in law, Mary MacSwiney stayed on in America until after the truce. One must wonder whether Muriel’s media role as the grieving widow of a Republican martyr was exploited by some within the increasingly powerful movement for independence.    

Portrait of Muriel MacSwiney by Sir. John Lavery.

Soon after returning from America, she headed briefly to Germany for medical treatment. 

Displaying great courage and resilience, she worked ceaselessly for the Republic in spite of health difficulties. She witnessed at close quarters the murder and mayhem around the transfer of power to her comrades and then experienced the growing bitterness between those former friends. As some revolutionaries conformed, others were marginalised. The old unity and loyalty disappeared. Muriel took the Republican side and was present at the heart of the initial fighting during the first days of the Civil War madness.

She returned to the USA in September 1922 and stayed for almost a year trying to gather financial support for the anti-treaty side. Her daughter Māire was looked after by Madame O’Rahilly as part of the O’Rahilly family in their home in Dublin. Māire in her memoir History’s Daughter (2005) described this period as “one of the happiest years of my childhood and the longest period that I spent in a family situation.”

The book covers in great detail the relationship between mother and daughter. They spent the early summer of 1924 together at the old Murphy family home at Carrigmore which seems to have been their last period together in Cork before their emigration to Germany. Māire discusses in some detail her various German schools and the long absences of Muriel in this memoir. However as Muriel gave birth in 1926 to her second daughter Alix may well have contributed to these long absences from Máire.

One may never know the full circumstances behind the sudden appearance of Māire back in Cork in the summer of 1932. Māire describes her return from Germany as voluntary if somewhat unorthodox. Muriel always contended that it was a well-planned kidnap by Mary MacSwiney and her friends in the Church and State. Her poignant description of her desperate efforts to get support in Dublin, are very raw. She spoke with Jim Larkin, Linda Kearns and many other friends and she describes how she cried tears for her child in front of Ēamon De Valera.

Māire was made a ward of court in Ireland after informing the judge that she wished to stay with her aunts in Ireland. It was argued that her aunt Mary was already her legal co-guardian. It remains unclear to this day if this legal paperwork was actually produced as the full court papers and decision have remained sealed. Maire was then raised and educated by the MacSwiney sisters, Mary and Annie at their Scoil Íte school located off Wellington Road in Cork City.

The end result was the 50 year long tragic family estrangement of Muriel and Māire who never spoke or met again. Muriel felt deeply wounded by what she felt was a total betrayal by the MacSwiney family and its cover up by the State. An immediate result was that she became quite ill with flu and pneumonia and was depressed for a period after her vain attempts to get back her daughter failed.

Muriel Image in St. Peter’s, North Main Street, Cork presented by Jeannette Collins.

https://www.corkcity.ie/en/a-city-remembers-cork-1920-to-1923/commemorative-events/muriel-macswiney/

In her BMH statement Muriel states how she left the Catholic Church as early as the outbreak of the Civil War. The Church emerged from the War of Independence as the most powerful institution in the new State (similar to the earlier post Famine period), however Muriel was beginning her break from its influence. “I consider everyone has the right to whatever religious beliefs they think right or to the freethinker ideal which is mine”. Ironically two of her sisters, Nora and Edith joined convents. A third sister Mabel married her second cousin James Murphy and lived at Ringmahon House, near Blackrock in Cork.

Ringmahon House today. Muriel often visited her sister here.

Muriel seems to have embraced European communism and socialist ideas from the mid-20s onwards and moved freely in the German and Parisian left wing circles. Her second daughter Alix was born in May 1926 following a relationship with Pierre Kaan, a writer and independent communist intellectual. Very little is known about this relationship as there is no available reference to Muriel discussing it.

Later, Kaan became a Liberation Sud Resistance leader operating in the town of Montlucon in Central France during the Nazi occupation of nearby areas. Following betrayal in 1943, he was imprisoned, tortured and locked up concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Gleina. He died soon after liberation by the Czech resistance on 18th May 1945.

Muriel left Germany in 1933, as the Nazi takeover of Germany got underway.

She initially lived in France, spent the Second World War in the UK and then moved between Brittany and the UK. Her house in Brittany was named Ty Connolly.

Muriel kept some contact with Ireland and came and went and had extensive correspondence with the Sheehy Skeffington family, while she said she had met Tom Hales in 1953/54. Earlier Māire had married Ruairí Brugha in July 1945 and Ruairi had made great efforts to build bridges to no avail.

She was very friendly with Mrs. Kathleen McDonnell of Bandon, who had German connections, knew all the parties including Mrs. Stockley and Mary MacSwiney and who attempted to organise a reconciliation between Māire and Muriel. Muriel would not agree to any meeting.

Muriel campaigned against homelessness in Dublin and actively supported the Dublin Housing Action Committee especially praising the activities of housing activist Dennis Dennehy. She expressed “complete confidence” in Dr. Noel Browne.

Her letters and writings clearly display expressions of her socialist views and she was somewhat involved in the complicated discussions and rows within the Left during that period. Her available correspondence demonstrates her sympathy on the side of the underdogs in society to the very end of her days. Muriel not alone fought bravely for the Irish Republic, but also fought against international fascism and the control of the Catholic Church in Ireland throughout her life.

Utterly fearless, she challenged the Bishop of Southwark in 1957 when he tried to raise ten thousand pounds for a MacSwiney Chapel in the cathedral where Terence’s body reposed after his death….she told the Guardian newspaper that the money would be better spent in Ireland “where children are suffering from bad conditions caused by unemployment and lack of proper health services”. This may refer to the present Chapel of St. Patrick, which lies on the southside of the cathedral and was rededicated in 1958. There is reference to the cathedral receiving with honour, the body of Terence MacSwiney, “which rested here on the 27th and 28th October 1920”.

The MacSwiney Brugha family at the dedication of the Southwark Cathedral altar to Terence MacSwiney.

In a prescient comment about Muriel, her daughter Māire contended that “one of the main reasons for her falling out with the Roman Catholic Church was its attitude to and treatment of unmarried mothers”. However, it took a further century for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Home reports to be published in the Republic of Ireland. These reports exposed to some degree in stark detail the treatment experienced by at least one hundred thousand Irish women who either gave birth to children in these institutions or who worked unpaid in the Magdalene laundries in the new State which Muriel witnessed being created in 1922.  Thousands of children died in the institutions and the whereabouts of their burial continues to be a source of controversy to the present day.

Ruairí Brugha died on 20th January 2006, while Māire MacSwiney Brugha died in May 2012. They were married for over 60 years.

Muriel later lived in England with her daughter Alix Blakelock (1926-2009), and her family at Tonbridge in Kent. Members of the family including Alix’s son Adrian (1948-2014) were active in Labour politics and Adrian supported the miners in the 1984/5 strike. On the 25th October 2020, at the commemoration outside of Brixton Prison, of the 100th anniversary of the death of Terence MacSwiney, among those who gathered were members of the Brugha family and Nigel Blakelock, grandson of Muriel MacSwiney.

Muriel died in the Oakwood Hospital Maidstone on 26th October 1982 almost 62 years to the day after Terence MacSwiney.

Angela Clifford who met and corresponded with Muriel regarded her as “a free spirit”. Cork journalist and author Mary Leyland in An Irishwoman’s Diary in the Irish Times September 2012 considered her to “have been charismatic in her own way, purposeful, original and fearless”.

From the few holidays she spent with her mother, Máire remembered her as “a warm and loving mother and I dearly loved her”. Terence MacSwiney himself, long resigned to bachelor hood expressed his intense love for this unusual, wealthy young lady who had innocently entered a closed circle of conspirators in Cork and took a shine to him.

In a chapter of Letters to Angela Clifford in 1996, Ms Clifford deals in chapter four with what she terms the “Character Assassination” of Muriel. Certainly, as Muriel had refused to play the grieving republican widow, she appears to have been largely removed from republican history and was rarely discussed openly in her native Cork. She was disappeared into the knowing silence of the new establishment.

Her refusal to bring up her child as a Catholic, her antipathy to the Church as an institution (Māire referred to it as “an obsession”) and her association with communists did not fit well with the prevailing conservative orthodoxy and double standards applied to her as a woman.

What is very apparent is that Muriel as an activist revolutionary woman/widow/ patriot was not allowed the same freedom or latitude in relation to her personal family life decisions as her male revolutionary counterparts. Nor were the doctrinaire positions of some in her republican circles commented on to the same degree as the conventional wisdom of Muriel’s perceived obduracy.

Muirgheal, (muir gheal…Irish for “bright sea”), the name by which she preferred to be known and with which she signed letters, is worthy of full inclusion as a serious Irish and international patriot, not solely as the wife/widow of Terence MacSwiney, but in her own right as a woman who took her own difficult path in a long revolutionary life.

Principles of Freedom, published in 1921.

In Principles of Freedom, originally a series of articles written in 1911, Terence MacSwiney considered womanhood; his heroic ideal woman was Matilda Tone, wife of Wolfe Tone because of her bravery. He also advised that “a man should learn to let his wife and children suffer rather than make of them willing slaves and cowards”.

In his poem The Path he acknowledged that the life of a revolutionary would place a harsh demand on any woman whom he wished to marry.

“I dreaded asking thee to take my hand lest on a path regretted it should lead, And lest thy heart in after years should bleed, if then ‘mid scenes unwelcome thou shouldn’t stand, And thou shouldst think: “It is a harsh demand this path makes on my labour””.

Muriel bravely survived these harsh demands.      

Gerard O’Mahony of the Cork Mother Jones Committee.     

The interview with Anne Twomey will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday November 25th at 8:00 pm followed by a Q&A with Anne at the Maldron Hotel.

Anne is a member of the Shandon Area History Group which recently published “Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times”

Note:

Manus O’Riordan wrote of meeting Muriel in Dublin when she visited his family home and they later exchanged correspondence.  In his last visit to the Spirit of Mother Jones Festival in August 2019, his parting words were “Never forget Muriel”. His assistance is very much appreciated.

Manus O’Riordan RIP (May 30th 1949-September 26th 2021).

Further reading:

  • Muriel MacSwiney: Letters To Angela Clifford, by Angela Clifford Athol Books 1995.
  • History’s Daughter: A Memoir From The Only Child of Terence MacSwiney, by Māire MacSwiney Brugha.
  • Enduring The Most: The Life and Death of Terence MacSwiney (1995) by Fergus J Costello.
  • Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times. The Shandon Area History Group.
  • An Irishwoman’s Diary, Irish Times, September 18th 2012 by Mary Leyland
  • Muriel MacSwiney On Ballingeary, and Her Letters To A Grandson of Ballingeary. Ballingeary & Inchigeela Historical Society 2016 by Manus O’Riordan.
Anne Twomey, Historian.

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones will present an interview with local historian and teacher Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group, in which we explore the life of Muriel MacSwiney from the available information. The interview will be shown on Cork Community TV on Thursday evening 25th November at 8:00 pm.

Tadhg Barry… “Always Keeps in the Background”.

The 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones festival will include an interview with Donal Ō Drisceoil, author of Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution. This will be shown on Cork Community Television (www.corkcommunitytv.ie) on Friday evening 26th November beginning at 7:00 pm.

Tadhg Barry…….”always keeps in the background”.

RIC Intelligence report


On Tuesday 15th November 1921, at Ballykinlar internment prison, known by some as the “World’s End Camp” close to the Co Down coast, a rifle shot suddenly split the afternoon silence. A man standing near the prison fence, waving farewell to departing friends fell backwards, mortally wounded near the heart. Unarmed, of no threat to anyone, Tadhg Barry lay dead.

Young sentry, Barrett’s single bullet ended in a shocking manner the life of man who had been 20 years in the engine room of the Irish revolution. He was the final IRA fatality of the brutal regime in this camp, in which at least eight internees died (three shot, and five from malnutrition) during 1921. These included Patrick Sloan and Joe Tormey, two friends from Moate, Co Westmeath both killed on 17th January by the same bullet.

Barry was older than most of the two thousand or so internees, a father figure in the transition of Cork from a Union Jack bedecked city at the turn of the 20th century, towards the ungovernable rebel cockpit of the War of Independence by 1921. From the strategic framework of constructing a revolution beginning with Gaelic culture and language to Gaelic games, from secret brotherhoods to Sinn Fēin, from journalism to socialist ideas, from trade union organisation and negotiation to developing the military hardware and intelligence around the dirty business of fighting a war in the streets and laneways of his native city, his fingerprints were obvious to those who knew.

Historian and author Donal Ō Drisceoil, who has constantly shone a light on Tadhg Barry describes him as “a doer”.

To observers he seemed to have been around forever, always smiling, low key, unassuming yet possessing the razor sharp wit of his native streets, his progress through the myriad groups and local activist alliances in the political ferment always gathering momentum.

Tadgh Barry front row left alongside Tomás MacCurtain. Terence McSwiney, back row, second from the right.

The Royal Irish Constabulary intelligence reports were very uncomplimentary and vindictive; Barry was variously described as “a leading Cork City extremist”, “notorious Sinn Feiner”, “in touch with all the leaders prior to the (1916) rebellion”, “mischievous, socialist, bolshevist……generally of the Napper Tandy type”. And most of all, Barry “always keeps in the background”. Tadhg Barry was a marked man!

Born in 54 Blarney Street on 25th Feb 1880 into a working class family, Barry was educated at the local Blarney Street school and the nearby North Monastery. Afterwards he worked at various jobs and then in 1903, he emigrated to London for a while.

Soon after his return, he became very active in the Gaelic Athletic Association (G.A.A.). He engaged in reorganising the GAA County Board and helping to establish the various playing competitions as well as the infrastructure of the main playing ground along the Marina known as the Cork Athletic grounds, now the home of the impressive Pāirc Uí Chaoimh stadium!

His efforts to promote hurling at his rugby playing alma mater resulted in the North Mon School becoming by 1916 established as a vital hurling nursery for the game for the future decades. He also encouraged the playing of camogie in the city and even found the time to manage a ladies team. Tadhg was especially associated with encouraging hurling in the Sundays Well, and Blarney Street areas, and was involved with the original Sundays Well/St. Vincent’s GAA Club in Cork.

A voracious reader, he worked as a journalist writing as “An Ciotóg” (a left-handed person!) for the Cork Free Press, the newspaper of the All For Ireland League (AFIL), which dominated Cork politics at the time.

Although deeply embroiled in the local rivalry in Cork between the Irish Party led by John Redmond and All For Ireland League (AFIL), led by William O’Brien who had a strong labour base in Cork, Tadhg Barry later abandoned O’Brien who had supported the British recruitment efforts at the outbreak of the First World War.

Barry spent much time strategically subverting this recruitment for the Great War effort from 1914 onwards. He had been among the first in Cork to join the Irish Volunteers and worked alongside Terence MacSwiney, Tomas MacCurtain and Sean Hegarty who were active following the split of the Volunteers from John Redmond.

As the political ferment in the city increased, his contribution to the separatist organisations along with his pleasant demeanour and approach engendered a better collective and cooperative spirit among the various activists. Following the failure of the Cork volunteers to rise in 1916, Barry refused to give up his gun and, although dismayed at events, he simply continued working for the revolution in practical ways. He openly advocated military options and his “seditious” speeches resulted in jail terms yet he kept working to reactivate a “new” Sinn Fein and organise the companies of volunteers into a fighting force.

He began to realise more and more that organised Labour provided the key element to the coming revolution. Barry had helped to arrange meetings for socialist trade union leaders such as James Larkin and James Connolly in Cork back in 1914 – 16. Now one leader had been executed after the 1916 Rising and the other was in America. Having returned to journalism, he wrote weekly for the Southern Star, newspaper under the pen name of “Neath Shandon’s Steeple”.

Tadhg’s increasingly radical left wing analytical articles for the Irish Transport & General Workers Union (ITGWU) Voice of Labour along with his urgings for independent Irish led trade unions combined with workers growing militancy across the country suggests that he was more and more exploring this avenue of potential for revolution. The effective general strike of 23rd April 1918 against conscription organised by the Labour Congress, even if that particular bus carried many passengers, clearly pointed to the latent power of organised Irish workers.

As a full time trade union organiser from 1919 in the rapidly growing ITGWU, he concentrated on organising rural and town workers and travelled throughout the county of Cork as the One Big Union enjoyed a huge growth in membership and challenged the power of the traditionally unionist business community to set wages for a once subservient and cowed workforce. Barry’s left wing views developed and he openly wrote of the day when the workers would govern Ireland in “the interests of Irish workers” but managed to reconcile this with his Catholic beliefs.

Cork ITGWU Union Banner for Tadgh Barry.

The Catholic Church actively opposed socialism and god-less communism, and Barry as a union negotiator seems to have identified with an element of the Church’s social teachings, which justified the payment of fair wages by responsible employers. However this approach by the Union and the Church sought to reduce the potential growth of awareness of class conflict and the analysis of the fundamental basis of capitalism. Whether Barry’s revolutionary language and actions would have developed or indeed survived in the new state is unclear?

In the local elections of January 1920, Barry was elected on a Sinn Fein/ITGWU slate as an Alderman to the Cork Corporation for the north west of the city, where he lived. He carried out his many work roles through 1920 as his comrades, MacCurtain and MacSwiney and others died in the bitter war between the Crown forces and Republicans in Cork. (Barry and MacSwiney were both 40 years old when they died, Barry lived just over 50 days more than his comrade.)

Tadhg Barry was arrested for the final time on 31st January 1921 and was detained at Ballykinlar Camp on the north east coast of Ireland. Each of his three extended periods in jail after 1916 were spent in appalling prison conditions. He missed out on the final months of the War of independence and was shot dead only twenty four days before all prisoners were released after the signing of the Treaty on 6th December of that year.

Following his death, the entire Sinn Fein/IRA/Trade Union/GAA/ Gaelic societies and Catholic Church united for what turned out to be the last time to provide Tadhg Barry with arguably the largest Irish funeral ever seen as his remains were transported from Co Down, through the many towns on the way and the streets of Dublin and Cork to St Finbarr’s cemetery in Cork. Photographs of the enormous funeral march from Dublin and Cork show densely packed streets everywhere.

He was then largely forgotten, except by his own family and close friends!

Tadgh Barry Grave at St. Finbarrs Cemetery (Incorrect age at death).

Tadhg was the main earner in the Blarney Street household which contained his deceased sister’s three children and he also supported his brother Patrick who had health issues. While some monies were paid out to the family following Tadhg’s death, the official military correspondence about military medals and pension penny pinching reflects poorly on the new Irish State. Tadhg’s active invisibility to those who did not know and his more vocal public socialist views were perhaps a convenient excuse for deliberate bureaucratic inertia!

Tadgh Barry Road, named in 2013.

The tragedy is that Tadhg’s voice was never heard in the independent Ireland taking shape when voices advocating social justice were so badly needed!

Dr Donal Ō Drisceoil has recently penned ‘Utter Disloyalist: Tadhg Barry and the Irish Revolution’ published by the Mercier Press which tells the full story of the life of Tadhg Barry. In 2011 he had also produced an excellent booklet Tadhg Barry (1880-1921) The Story of an Irish Revolutionary.

The Cork Mother Jones Committee will commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the death of Tadhg Barry in November 1921. Donal has provided an extended interview with committee member Ann Piggott about Tadhg Barry which will be broadcast during the 2021 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival. In addition we will show the documentary Tadhg Barry Remembered, produced in 2013 by Frameworks Films in collaboration with the Cork Council of Trade Unions.

Both films will be shown on Cork Community TV on Friday evening 26th November commencing at 7:00 pm.

It will be followed by a Q&A with Donal Ō Drisceoil for those attending at the Maldron Hotel. (subject to existing Covid-19 regulations at that date).

Author, Donal Ó Drisceoil, beneath Shandon Steeple, 2021.

From Ahawadda to Dáil Éireann… The Amazing Story of Labour Organiser, Sean Dunne.

The Revolutionary period and the subsequent creation of the Irish Free State and later the Republic has given rise to some amazing family stories. Very few can surpass the story of Sean Dunne, a Trade Union organiser, mentored by Jim Larkin and later Labour Party TD.


Filmed in West Cork, this discussion with local historian and author Diarmuid Kingston reveals the account of the Ahawadda Ambush (located on the road to Ring outside Timoleague) on 10th May1920, in which three Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) lost their lives in an ambush. This was the greatest loss of life of old RIC members in a single ambush in West Cork during the War of Independence.


Among them was Constable Edward Dunne from Co Laois. He was 32 years old, married to Bridget Coppinger, a school teacher with two children. Their young son Sean, was born in December 1918 in Timoleague. Constable Edward Dunne was buried quietly in Raheen in Co Laois.


Sean grew up in Waterford and Wicklow and in the late 30s was arrested and served time in the Curragh Internment Camp for Republican activities. He came under the influence of Jim Larkin and the Workers’ Union of Ireland and became one of the most effective union organisers in rural Ireland in the 1940s, founding the Federation of Rural Workers (FRW), which had up to 20,000 members at its height.


As its General Secretary, he organised countless strikes among rural workers and was instrumental in campaigning for and obtaining the weekly half day for his members in the early 1950s.


Later he was elected a TD for the Labour Party, when he was just 28 years old, and became one of the most colourful elected public representatives in the Dail. He had the record of being ejected from two parliaments, Dail Eireann and Stormont, as well as British Labour Party conferences.. Once labelled “an extreme communist” by Sean MacEntee,


Sean Dunne was described by one political correspondent as being “in daily conflict with Authority on cases of social justice, on the side of the lost nobodies of the world”.


His famous Leabhar Ballyfermot which he always carried contained the details of his constituents’ problems. Trade union organiser, writer, playwright, orator, Irish speaker and campaigner for social justice, this west Cork born politician died suddenly following the General Election in 1969.


His funeral at the Pro-Cathedral was attended by President Eamonn De Valera, Taoiseach Jack Lynch, Fine Gael Leader Liam Cosgrave and the Cabinet and thousands of workers.


He had travelled a very long road in life and his virtual State funeral was in stark contrast to that of his father who was buried quietly in a graveyard in Co Laois almost 50 years earlier.


In this film documentary discussion with Diarmuid Kingston, we look at the Ahawadda Ambush and we examine the subsequent life of Sean Dunne T.D, a remarkable trade union organiser.


Diarmuid is the author of Beleaguered (A History of the RIC in West Cork during the War of Independence) and has written extensively on the period.


The film will be shown during the forthcoming Spirit of Mother Jones festival and forms part of our contribution to Cork Commemoration 1920-23.


Visit www.motherjonescork.com and festival Facebook from November 23rd for the full programme as well as the links to join in the festival from Thursday 27th November to Monday 30th November.

What Did the Women Do Anyway?

This was a dismissive comment originally made to a founder of Cumann na mBan In Cork, Lil Conlon. 

Years later, the comment also annoyed members of the Shandon Area History Group. 

The result was Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times published in 2019 by the Shandon Area History Group.

This ground breaking publication reveals some of the hidden pages of the story of eleven Cork women who took part in the War of Independence and Civil War in Cork. Varying from the internationally recognised Mary MacSwiney to the almost invisible Wallace sisters, the stories of these ordinary women remained largely untold until now.

As part of the forthcoming Spirit of Mother Jones Festival, a documentary called “What did the Women do Anyway?” featuring a discussion with historian Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group about these remarkable women will be shown as part of the festival’s contribution to the Cork Commemoration 1920-1923. 


Filmed by Frameworks Films one can hear of the story of the Wallace Sisters, of the opera singer Kate ‘Birdy’ Conway  the issue of violence against women,  the failure to acknowledge the womens selfless contribution to the War of Independence and the ongoing efforts to ensure the role of other women such as Muriel Murphy and Nora O’Brein are recognised.  


Back in 1949, Tom Barry in his Guerrilla Days in Ireland stated that the women “were a splendid body of young women and their value to the IRA was well appreciated by the enemy” . One may well ask were these women ever really appreciated by the IRA or the leaders of the new Irish State?  

The discussion with Anne Twomey, What Did the Women Do Anyway will be available online during the forthcoming 2020 Spirit of Mother Jones Festival (27th-30th November). Links and the full programme of events will appear on www.motherjonescork.com. and Facebook.


Our thanks to the Shandon Area History group for their assistance and for photos. Check out their Facebook page to obtain a copy of the book, Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times.

The remarkable Wallace sisters.

Documentary on One – The Little Shop of Secrets by Bill Murphy.Saturday July 18th at 1pm on Radio 1.


In the early decades of the last century two sisters, Nora and Sheila Wallace, ran a small newsagents in the centre of Cork City. However, their customers were unaware that when they bought their Irish Times or Cork Examiner, that this small shop also traded in military secrets during the Irish War of Independence – from deciphering codes, to keeping the inventory of armaments for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, Irish Republican Army. 

Sheila and Nora Wallace grew up in rural north Cork, before coming to live and work in Cork City in the 1900s where they rented the premises on Brunswick Street (now St Augustine’s Street) in the centre of the city. On the very narrow street in the shadow of the large St Augustine’s Church, the shop sold newspapers, sweets, cigarettes, magazines and religious items such as statues and rosary beads. 


Over the shop the sisters lived in small, meagre quarters. Interested in nationalist and socialist ideals, Sheila and Nora became friendly with figures such and James Connolly and Countess Markievicz. Because of their deep-rooted sense of nationalism, they also came to know prominent local nationalist figures in Cork such as Tomás McCurtain, Terence MacSwiney, Florence O’Donoghue, Seán O’Hegarty, as well as Michael Collins.  
As the nationalist movement gained more popularity throughout Ireland, the Wallace Sisters became deeply involved with the Irish Volunteers. After the shutting down of the Cork Volunteers headquarters in Sheares Street in 1917, the Wallaces’ small shop became more than a meeting place for the leadership of the Cork Volunteers. It was essentially the Brigade headquarters where the intelligence and communications activities in the city and county were co-ordinated during the War of Independence. 


Records show that Sheila became a Staff Officer in the IRA, making her one of the highest female rank holders in the organisation at the time. Meetings of Cork No. 1 Brigade leadership were held in the kitchen at the back of the shop, where raids and ambushes were planned. Dispatches went through the shop for IRA operations. Spies in the Crown forces were recruited and handled by the Wallaces and British Army codes were deciphered by them. They also kept meticulous records of the armaments and equipment held by the Brigade, effectively acting in the role as quartermasters.


In The Little Shop of Secrets, Bill Murphy – grandnephew to Sheila and Nora Wallace – pieces together the remarkable story of two young women who placed their lives in grave danger by running an intelligence centre, safe house and spy network from their little shop in the centre of Cork City during the War of Independence, right under the noses of the Royal Irish Constabulary and British Crown forces. 
Contributors to the documentary include Dr. John Borgonovo and Gabriel Doherty from the History Department in University College Cork, local historians Anne Twomey and Gerry White, Commandant Daniel Ayiotis of the Bureau of Military History, Daniel Breen of Cork Public Museum, Bernadette Wallace – niece to Nora and Sheila Wallace, Ted Murphy – grandnephew to Nora and Sheila Wallace.


Saturday 18th July, 1pm, RTÉ Radio 1Sunday 19th July, 7pm, RTÉ Radio1 Narrated by Bill Murphy Produced by Bill Murphy and Sarah Blake www.rte.ie/doconone


Note:On 30th July 2016, Anne Twomey of the Shandon Area History Group gave a talk on “The Wallace Sisters” at the 2016 Spirit of Mother Jones Summer School before a packed audience which included Bernadette Wallace, a niece of the sisters.The remarkable story of the sisters came as a surprise to many who attended, which showed how quietly these two extraordinary women went about their business.  

The Extraordinary Wallace Sisters | The Spirit of Mother Jones Festival.

An Irishman’s Diary about about a republican newsagents in revolution-era Cork.