“The old idea that a woman can only serve her nation through her home is gone.”
—Countess Constance Markievicz, Irish social activist, revolutionary, and politician
We are currently in the middle of a big decade for Ireland. From 2012–2022, the modern Republic of Ireland celebrates the 100-year anniversaries of the some of the most important moments in her history. From 1912–1922, Ireland, through a series of demonstrations, upheavals, and bloody battles that would see families turned against one another and the streets of Irish cities reduced to rubble, was transformed from a British backwater to the independent republic she is today.
And as happens in every struggle of every people, out of the ashes of the 1913 Lockout, 1916 Easter Rising, and 1922 Irish Civil War, heroes and legends were born. But as also so often happens, many of the heroines of the struggle were left out of the story. Until now.
With Richmond Barracks 1916: “We Were There” – 77 Women of the Easter Rising, noted Irish historians Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis bring to life the stories of some of the female revolutionaries who fought alongside their brothers-in-arms to secure an Irish republic for their posterity. But readers should forget any pretense that these women fought and sacrificed only for some intangible idea of freedom, written in flowery language on the Irish Proclamation; these women fought for an Irish republic that promised them equal standing and equal citizenship, knowing full well that by fighting, they gave the women of the country a firm position from which to demand equality.
“…we were not going to leave the men we were with all the week to their fate; we decided to go along with them and be with them to the end whatever our fate might be.”
—Rose McNamara, Vice-Commandant, Inghinidhe branch, Cumann na mBan, on her arrest with the Marrowbone Lane garrison, April 1916
We Were There finds a starting point from which to give voice to the women of Ireland’s struggle for independence through the stories of seventy-seven women who were arrested and detained in Richmond Barracks — recently opened to the public as a meaningful museum — with the rest of their fellow freedom-fighters in the aftermath of the April 1916 Easter Rising.
The story begins before the Rising, during the turbulent first decade of the the twentieth century. Women in Ireland were becoming more and more politically active, pushing for Irish independence, workers’ rights, and equal status for women — the three causes of nationalism, socialism, and feminism are the overarching theme of the book, and would guide the decision-making of the leaders of the women’s movement throughout the struggle.
Chapters two and three chronicle the stories of the women — in their own words, when possible — at various battlefronts in Dublin throughout the week of the Easter Rising and into their capture and release. Here, this reader was enthralled by inspiring stories previously unknown, like that of Rose McNamara, who, with the women in her command, insisted upon being arrested with the men alongside whom they had served. (Bewildering the men, who had given the women their guns and other possessions prior to surrender, assuming that they would be going home.)
Women remained active in and dedicated to the cause in the aftermath of the Rising — several even keeping the troops mobilized from the isolation of their prison cells. From 1916, Irish women’s groups like Cumann na mBan remained faithful to the Irish republic — and continued to demand that the new government keep its word with the women of the country, to whom it had promised equal citizenship in its Proclamation. (The Proclamation is even addressed specifically to “Irishmen and Irishwomen,” right off the bat.)
Following the blow-by-blow of the Rising and its fallout, the book concludes with an in-depth (or as in-depth as historical records would allow) biography of each woman held in Richmond Barracks. These bios were an invaluable reference for this American reader, helping to keep straight the organization affiliations — many of which have Irish-language names and commonly used acronyms (IRB, IWFL, WSPU, IWWU, and more) less familiar to those without a foundation of Irish history — and the battles fought by each. Rounding out the resources was the fine collection of photographs of the women of the Rising and the battlefields on which they fought — it was admittedly chilling to see familiar Dublin landmarks like Henry Street shelled and in ruins after a week of heavy bombing.
This book is recommended for anyone looking for a deeper dive into modern Irish history — not for only those interested in the progress of women’s rights or women’s issues, although feminists of all backgrounds will find something inspiring within. Some basic pre-reading about the events of the Easter Rising will be helpful, but not necessary, for non-Irish readers. It is likely that We Were There will someday be included on the required reading list for students — and, especially, teachers — of Irish history, not to take away from the accomplishments of Messrs. Connolly, Pearse, Plunkett, et al., but rather as a supplement to give the most accurate, most comprehensive, and most inclusive possible account of the all-important events of modern Ireland’s birth.
Richmond Barracks 1916: “We Were There” – 77 Women of the Easter Rising is available from Dublin City Council and Four Courts Press and is part of the Decade of Commemorations Publications Series. Special thanks to Éadaoin Ní Chléirigh and the team at Richmond Barracks for providing a review copy of the book. Learn more about the book and support this book review series by searching it through my Amazon partner link.