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Linda Connolly: Ethical Commemoration, Women and the Irish Revolution 1919-23

Thursday 27th May, 2021

I am very honoured to be present here today with Úachtarán na hÉireann and esteemed colleagues. 

My core task is to explore the ethical imperative of posing, in a moment of centennial commemoration, some of the more difficult and troubling questions about Irish women’s experience of war and revolution, in the period encompassing the Irish War of Independence, Partition and the Civil War and its aftermath.

As centennial Ireland approaches the commemoration of the Civil War and violent foundation of the new Irish State we might ask, who will be remembered

Irish society has in recent years, notably in light of inquiries into incarceral Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes, become more acutely aware of the troubled and troubling place that women have occupied in Irish culture and history. One of our greatest poets on this island, the late Eavan Boland, recalled in 2007 that as a young poet she began to see a huge rift in Ireland between ‘the past’ and ‘history’. As time went on, she said, “it was plain to me that the past was a place of whispers and shadows and vanishings, and that history was a story of heroes.”

The gulf that has existed between official history writing and women’s historical experience was and is reinforced in Ireland by the longstanding persistence of gender inequality in society, still reflected in the composition of the senior professoriate in Irish universities in which c. 87% of history professors, for instance, are men.

It is a particular privilege to speak today at the final Machnamh seminar as a Professor of Sociology, engaging the concept of Machnamh by theoretically, methodologically and ethically addressing challenging aspects of women’s role and experience in the Irish Revolution.

In agreement with Francois Thébaud, looking at the history of women and developing gender-based approaches “changes and complicates our understanding of war, both of particular wars and of the general phenomenon of war.”

The Irish Revolution is no exception. Current themes in the study of women, gender and wars internationally, including the processes that accompany the exit from war, private life in wartime and gender-based and sexual violence, have the potential to enhance and further expand the scope of Irish revolutionary studies inclusively understood – “exploring the ways in which hidden, sometimes all-but-erased stories of women’s lives can powerfully revise our sense of the past” (as Boland argues in her post-humous collection ‘The Historians’).

It must of course be acknowledged that gender-based violence is a complicated and sensitive subject, whether in the past or present. Discussing gender-based violence, for instance, means discussing issues that are often considered ‘taboo,’ and talking publicly about intimate and distressing matters. This can be particularly challenging in countries where tradition and religion play an important role in everyday life. For these reasons, only women and cases widely reported on and documented in the public sphere, both at the time and in contemporary accessible archives, are discussed in this presentation.

Shying away from discussing this in the context of Ireland’s revolutionary history is not an ethical option in the context of truthful remembering and historical accountability – despite these difficulties. Women themselves inscribed on the archive their stories of war, trauma and violence – and their quests for accountability and justice. Their experience is an important and documentable part of the story.

The narrative of the Irish Revolution as a chronology of great men and male militarism, with women presumed to have either played either a very subsidiary role or no role at all, was the predominant framework in Irish historical writing for much of the last century. Feminist scholars in the last 40 years began to independently demonstrate how women in Ireland’s revolution could no longer be considered mere victims, stooges or protected by-standers in revolutions, steered by male political leaders, heroes or militants.

Women, it is clear, actively shaped the Irish Revolution while they were also profoundly impacted by it. In terms of contribution, the women’s movement, one of the most important social movements in the history of Irish society, was a constant and critical presence in both the revolutionary period and in independent Ireland. Ongoing campaigns for women’s social and political rights after votes for women was partially achieved in 1918 continued, and women’s role as combatants and militants in other republican and labour causes has been intensely recovered in women’s history in recent decades.

What Svetlana Alexievich has termed ‘the unwomanly face of war’ is a complex issue, however. Women were clearly crucial as republican activists and combatants during both the War of Independence and the Civil War in Ireland but not in any uniform way. For example, although the internecine Irish Civil War is described as a case of ‘brother against brother’, the conflict also had a ‘sister against sister’ dimension, with pro and anti-Treaty Cumann na mBan forces coming into conflict with one another as the revolution progressed.  Likewise, it was the women representatives who were notably recalcitrant in the Treaty debates in the Dáil in 1921-22.

The tension in prioritising feminist and/or nationalist objectives was a constant challenge and ongoing source of contention among female activists despite their evident comradeship and solidarities. In a different vein, over twenty years ago, Irish sociologist Professor Louise Ryan published an early, ground-breaking article – ‘Drunken Tans‘ – in the international journal Feminist Review on the completely unspoken about violence and terror women experienced in the War of Independence. As the Oxford historian Margaret Macmillan states in her recent book, ‘War: How Conflicts Shape Us,’ “women civilians fear a particular fate in war.”

Macmillan cites examples of the pernicious nature of gender-based violence in civil wars internationally:

“You are allowed to rape,’ said the French commando leader to his men in Algeria during its war of independence, ‘just do it discreetly’.”

Did this likewise occur during Ireland’s revolution? If so, what was its scale and why was it ignored? And what is there to be gained by acknowledging this?

As Susan McKay has stated, everyone understood what the poet Seamus Heaney described this as “the exact/and tribal, intimate revenge.” The hidden and targeted violence that women are known to have experienced in other armed conflicts has only recently come to the attention of Irish historians, despite being written about in Irish sociology two decades ago.

The case for also reading across disciplines and international sources alongside archival documents to fully understand the gendered nature of violence in Ireland’s revolution is therefore compelling.

As Ireland commemorates the centennial anniversary of the foundation of the State, scholars, artists, and commentators are of course asking a range of new questions about trauma and memory in a range of spheres. A violent, and invariably traumatic, internal Civil War cast a long shadow after the State was established 1922. Yet public analysis and acknowledgement of several aspects of the trauma experienced in such a divisive conflict was met with silence for decades.

The impact of the Civil War on women was, for example, essentially ignored or dismissed as insignificant until very recently. The widespread use of forced hair cutting, in particular, a widespread form of sexual policing and gender-specific punishment practised internationally, was extensively meted out by all sides in the Irish case (crown forces and republicans). 

New cases of conflict-related sexual violence and gang rape and other violence are also being discovered. As President Higgins stated in 2019, in a speech at the commemoration of the 1st Dáil:

“Let us not look with any trepidation towards the commemorations of the coming years, lest we be tempted to avert our gaze, take refuge in evasion, or seek to ignore the difficult questions they shall raise for us all.”

A key but difficult question arising in this moment of national remembrance is - if violence cuts to the very heart of the State’s foundation, how and in what ways is this gendered? And why was the violence women experienced marginalised, minimised or negated in the official histories of this period for such a long time?

Any contention that serious sexual violence did not happen in the Irish Revolution is notably challenged by dissecting the evidence contained in women’s own personal testimonies recorded in trials, compensation claims, pension applications, personal letters, Bureau of Military History witness statements and in medical documents recording the undeniable type of internal injuries inflicted in such crimes.

There are many documented examples of forced hair cutting being implemented in several counties, in the period 1919-1923, both by crown forces and republicans during the War of Independence in particular. Newspapers reported such incidents extensively and they are also recorded in other archives, including the Military Services Pensions Collection and the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements.

Women who forged friendly or intimate relationships with British combatants or the Royal Irish constabulary were sexually policed and punished by republicans. The reasons for meting out this punishment were a combination of security concerns (passing on information to the enemy), assisting the enemy (provision of supplies, accommodation, services etc) and sexual policing (the social control of women’s intimate relationships and movements).

Women’s hair was usually cropped by groups of several masked men after she was taken to a secluded space. In May 1921, for instance, the IRA cropped the hair of Rose Logue from Menacladdy, Donegal after she laid a wreath on the grave of RIC Constable. The full report is in Belfast Telegraph 6th May 1921. Another attack on the 12th of February 1921 was more violent; it was reported in the Donegal Democrat on the 11th of September 1920, in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal:



At Ballyshannon Quarter Sessions, before Judge Cooke K.C., Ellen Gillen claimed compensation for the cutting of her hair by armed and masked men on the night of the 11th September, 1920…she was boarding in a house in Erne Street. On the night in question she was taking off her boots when a boy asked if she was in. The occupier of the house said she was, and about fifteen or twenty minutes afterwards four masked men came into the house. They covered the occupier of the house with revolvers, and then caught her and put something into her mouth and dragged her into the street. They then took her to a style and brought her into the big Meadow, and made her swear that she would not go back to the police again; they then cut off her hair with a scissors. One of them said she was a traitor to her country and religion, and she was kicked. They then allowed her to go back into the house. The occupier wanted to get her a drink, and one of its party said that water was too good for her. After the occurrence she lived in the police barracks for nine weeks…When she came back her lips were bleeding, they told her not to leave the house…Her hair was closely cropped and she was marked on the face and mouth. She appeared to be suffering from nervousness.

Crown forces also conducted hair cutting extensively, typically during frightening night raids on houses. Cumann na mBan activists, such as Kathleen’s Clarke’s sister Agnes Daly and Peg Broderick Nichols, were also subjected to this humiliating practice. Many more cases, involving varying degrees of force and violence, have been collated.

In some examples, defiance is conveyed. The Leitrim Observer reported on 4 September 1920: “Girls Hair Cut Off. Twelve armed and disguised men raided the house of a young woman in County Roscommon, says an official report from Dublin Castle, and asked her if it were true that she was keeping company with an RIC man. She replied that she was. She was then told that her hair would be cut off, and retorted ‘Cut away; this will not alter my mind.’ The raiders forced her on to a chair, and one of them held her hands while another cut off her hair. During this process the girl said – ‘Cut it nicely so that it will not be noticed.’ The constable concerned has made the necessary application to this authorities to marry the girl.”

As we engage with Dr Margaret O’Callaghan’s paper here today, including by reflecting on the history and legacy of Partition, we can also recall that women experienced life altering violence and trauma associated with the wider conflict in Ulster in this period.

In County Tyrone, for example, a member of Cumann na mBann (the women’s republican organisation formed in 1914), Eileen O’Doherty, was injured by B-Specials during a shooting spree in her village. Eileen was standing at her front door when she was shot in both legs. The military services pension application of Eileen O’Doherty details both a violent episode in Dromore village in general and the personal experience of a woman targeted by that violence. Prior to this attack, Eileen was a successful grocer in the town. She was also involved in despatches, hosted meetings of IRA members and hid artillery. After being shot, she spent 8 months in hospital, first in Omagh and then in the Richmond Hospital in Dublin. She clearly never recovered from her ordeal. A brother of Eileen, active in the IRA, was subsequently killed by British forces. Her pension application contains letters from her doctor outlining the catastrophic nature of her injuries. In an interview, also documented in the file, Eileen states that the wound she got ‘finished’ her. Eileen O’Doherty’s story remained hidden, unacknowledged and repressed in Irish military archives for years. The pension she applied for in light of her unstinting service to the cause of Irish independence and injuries suffered was declined. The designation ‘hero’ or economic provision for injuries inflicted was not extended to such women. Newspaper reports on the documented violence women in Belfast experienced in 1922 are likewise horrific and apparent – lest we ever forget.

On 2nd June 1922, the Irish Times reported “Fire. Diabolical Outrage in Belfast. Four More Deaths. The total number of deaths in Belfast yesterday was four and thirty-two people were injured, including seven of whom are suffering from burns. An inhuman outrage was committed at night when men called at a house pouring inflammable liquid over a woman and set it on fire. She was seriously burned... Shortly after nine o’clock a number of men called at the house of Dr McSorley, Donegal Pass…the servant Susan McCormack (40) was taken to hospital suffering from severe burns and shock.”

Shock and nervousness is consistently mentioned in such documentary sources including in relation to forced hair cutting and other assaults across several counties. A number of cases of wartime sexual violence, including ‘gang’ or multiple perpetrator rape, are also increasingly evident in the archives. Previously it was presumed this was not a feature of the Irish Revolution.

One of the most treacherous cases of transgressive violence associated with the conflict in the border region occurred in Dromitee as a precursor to what has been termed the Altnaveigh ‘massacre’ episode. The gang rape of the heavily pregnant publican, Mrs Unah McGuill, by three members of the B Specials, resident in a public house on the border in Dromitee near Newry, on 14 June 1922, and sexual assault of a servant Mary McKnight is submerged in local memory.

Robert Lynch (2010: 184-210) forensically detailed how this attack was embroiled in the cycle of violence in the region –women’s bodies and sexuality were targeted in the conflict. From a reconstruction of events in the early morning hours of 14 June, Lynch argues it appears that this latest visit by the Specials had as its purpose the killing of McGuill’s husband. They believed, not without justification, that McGuill had been involved in the shooting of a B Special comrade, Thomas Sheridan, in the area a week earlier, and when they arrived at the pub, they found that McGuill had already gone ‘on the run.’ His family, however, were still there, including his heavily pregnant wife Unah, her mother, and his two children (both under the age of three), joined by a female servant and a friend of the family named Mary McKnight. It is alleged that the Specials, enraged at McGuill's escape, began to smash up the pub and drank heavily after looting alcohol from behind the bar. They took cash from the till and then attempted to get the keys to the safe. When the women present resisted, McGuill's wife was dragged into a bedroom above the pub, thrown on the bed, and there subjected to a savage gang rape by three members of this group of Specials. Her ordeal ended only when the other women broke into the room. One of the servant girls, it is alleged, also suffered a serious sexual assault and a savage beating. A doctor who later examined her in Newry claimed that he had never seen so many bruises and cuts on one body before. She also had a fractured skull from repeated kicks in the head by her attackers. Mary McKnight managed to save herself from harm only by throwing herself through an upstairs window. After subjecting the family to this litany of horrors, the Specials proceeded to carry out a frenzied looting and ransacking of the pub before they left, drunk, screaming obscenities, and firing shots into the night air.

Similarly the compensation claims for the loss of life that was to follow in Altnaveigh, South Armagh (a series of killings still commemorated to this day) outlines the horror Mrs Heslip experienced witnessing her husband, John Heslip, and son, Robert, being shot in front of her by the IRA. Elizabeth Crozier was also shot in front of her young family. Interlinked trauma on both and all sides has lived on a hundred years later and atrocities are still remembered on the hills and farms and lanes of the Irish border counties and in other communities impacted in this period. Intricate analysis of newspaper reports and archives, including military and legal trials, documenting such attacks on women suggest that the interconnection of gender, sexuality and power in military conflict cannot be easily ignored as a salient issue in understanding the overall nature of violence and ‘revolution’ in this period including on what became ‘the Irish border’.

Two other examples of gang rape in the archives of the Irish Civil War include the attack on Margaret Doherty at Curinarra in Foxford, a member of Cumann na mBan, by three National Army soldiers on 27th May 1923 (poignantly, exactly 98 years ago today) and of Eileen Mary Warburton Biggs, a Protestant woman, in Dromineer, Co. Tipperary by four local IRA members in June 1922. These incidents are documented in great detail in key archives – in newspapers, a compensation claim, a pension application, the official courts and a military court of inquiry. Alleged perpetrators are named and always acquitted.

The impact of sexual violence on these women from very different backgrounds is captured in detail. In Maggie Doherty’s case, the documentation includes medical evidence that charts the trauma inflicted as well as a groundswell of support from doctors, religious leaders and members of her community. Both of these women died in ‘mental homes’ or psychiatric institutions – Maggie in Castlebar in 1928 and Eileen in St. Pat’s, Dublin in 1950. Maggie was laid to rest under the shadow of the Ox Mountains in County Mayo and I recently found Eileen in an unmarked grave in Mount Jerome, which I hope to rectify as an act of quiet commemoration.

Commemoration and remembrance that the intergenerational families and associates of such women often engage in outside of the State’s official programme is mentioned here today as a reminder of the possibility and power of local acts and healing gestures.

The power of finding and opening closed archives documenting women’s experience of the revolution cannot be underestimated either. As a consequence of this work, the detailed file on the Court 6 of Enquiry held in what was the Ballina workhouse, concerning the rape of Maggie Doherty, was retrieved and viewed in the Military Archives in 2020.

All of the above are examples of the subaltern, hidden history of women impacted by the violence of the revolution, which received no official acknowledgement in the decades after the State was formed.

These women were not killed in battle but ultimately they did die from the trauma and hidden injuries, psychological and physical, of the revolution. Others lived on, burdened with unspoken and unforgotten atrocities of the past.

Conflict-related murders of women in this period are also evident including on the border. The military services pension application that relates to Kate Connolly’s unsuccessful application under the Army Pensions Acts in respect of the death of her daughter Mary (Minnie) Connolly who died from gunshot wounds on 23 July 1922 at Edenappa, Jonesboro, County Armagh is one such source. It is noted in the death certificate enclosed in the file that the cause of death was "bullet wounds...inflicted by members of his Majesty’s forces". The applicant claimed that the deceased was supplying milk and provisions to members of the IRA at Ravensdale camp, County Louth when she was shot by British forces. It is also mentioned that the deceased was returning with the Moore girls from the camp when shot. A Margaret Moore was also killed in the incident. Typically, no provisions under the Army Pensions Acts to consider the claim was awarded.

The killing of Kate Carroll, from Aughnameena, near Scotstown, Co. Monaghan by the IRA, also on the border, is documented in a Court of Inquiry Report, 8th September 1921. Likewise, Kate Maher died in Dundrum, County Tipperary in 1920 with injuries to her body that indicated sexual assault (allegedly at the hands of a member or members of the Lancashire regiment in a secret investigation, who she had been in the company of that evening).

Women clearly experienced threat and danger throughout this period, as Margaret Macmillan reiterated, but they also sought justice and prosecution or compensation. Other cases of gender-based violence, such as the Greetiagh robbery and Tankardstown assault case in County Meath, were pursued through the courts by women. The Meath Chronicle reported on the 16th of September 1922 “Robberies in Marty District. Lady’s Jewellery Taken” that during the early hours Saturday morning a raid was made by armed and masked men on the licensed premises of Mrs. Elizabeth Finegan. On the 7th of October 1922, Dr Gavin, who stated he examined Mary Doyle, a servant girl in the employment of Mrs. Elizabeth Finegan, Tankardstown gave evidence. A very detailed report on pages 1 and 2 of the Meath Chronicle on 13th January 1923 records a large crowd in attendance at a special court in Kells and how the court was cleared to allow for the testimony of Mary Doyle. A trial subsequently was heard in Trim Circuit court where the jury elected that there was not enough evidence to prove the identity of the four men who broke into the premises. The subsequent charge of rape against two men did not proceed in the court as a consequence.

Bridget Carolan, likewise age 17, appeared in a documented public trial in Longford in September 1923 and was interrogated following an indecent assault reported to be perpetrated by two senior National Army officers in the Officer’s mess, when she was visiting a prisoner in Longford barracks.


Gender-based violence is a horrific consequence and inconvenient truth of all warfare, however large or small a conflict is.

Women in Ireland’s revolution clearly experienced such transgressive violence that is documented in archives and which is in plain sight. The long term impact of the bodily and psychological trauma and injury caused is apparent in such sources that contain the testimony of individual women. These issues also arise in more recent history – including during ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

Susan McKay in 2016 wrote that in December 1982, the Irish National Liberation Army bombed a bar during a disco, killing 17 people. Eleven of the dead were British soldiers, the primary target. However, what perhaps received less attention at the time as some of the others were young local women referred to as ‘consorts.’

In the 1970s republican paramilitaries used to tar and feather women deemed ‘soldier dolls’. The punishments inflicted and the language of ‘consorts,’ ‘collaborators’ and ‘dolls’ is not that different to the gendered assumptions about women in the revolution who engaged in ‘company keeping’ with members of the crown forces.

The IRA appear to have expended a great deal of energy policing women in the Irish War of Independence. During the Irish Revolution products like tar, dirty motor oil and paint were also doused over women considered disloyal, dangerous and of loose morals – the same method which was employed to attack two sisters in what became known as the Kenmare incident in 1922.

The nascent Irish State was fully aware of such crimes – they were interrogated by the Army Inquiry Committee of 1924 and they are reflected in Irish military archives.

Power, gender and sexuality are intertwined in all violent wars and conflicts with women’s bodies targeted to varying degrees in forgotten crimes of war. However large or small the scale of this is in a given conflict, the consequences for individual women are deleterious. As MacMillan argues: “Because women are seen as the progenitors of the nation, societies can react savagely to any hint that they might willingly consort with the enemy” (2020: 192).

In France, after the liberation women who had been in relationships with Germans also publicly had their heads shaved for ‘consorting’ sexually with the enemy. In many other contexts, women’s heads have been shaved by imperial forces or armies, as an attack on women in enemy groups.

‘Hair taking’ by States is an established weapon of war. Examples include the civil wars in Algeria, Greece and Spain and many other conflicts throughout time. The particular implementation of these practices in Ireland in the context of guerrilla warfare in the early 20th century is a further example.

Far less women than men died in the Irish revolution. Notable exceptions include the thirteen women killed in County Cork during the War of Independence, whose individual stories have been recovered by Dr Andy Bielenberg in recent research. Mary Hall, for instance, from Cork city was an only child, killed in crossfire in the Upton train ambush on 15 February 1921 on the way home to visit her parents in Castletownbere. The more common outcome for many other women touched by the violence revolution, however, was life altering injuries – psychological and physical.

Naming and recovering the lost experience of these women, that continued in the post-revolutionary period, is in itself a commemorative act of retrieval. Nervous breakdowns, mental illness, institutionalisation in asylums, emigration, loss of job opportunities and livelihoods feature prominently in numerous personal testimonies of revolutionary women and of the women named in this presentation today - Maggie Doherty, Eileen Biggs, Mary Doyle, Bridget Carolan, Unah McGuill, Mary McKnight, Mary Hall, Mrs Heslip, Elizabeth Crozier and Eileen O’Doherty.

However, it remains to be seen: will the official commemoration of the Civil War in 2022-23 find a way to ethically remember, understand and mutually honour these women, as an act of retrieval, one hundred years later? Or will the commemoration of the final stages of the revolution reproduce the gender hierarchy and power dynamic in Irish history that negated, diminished and excluded these women’s experience and contribution, in t