Dr. Senia Paseta, Professor of Modern History, University of Oxford uses the lens of women's lives to explore themes of class, politics, grief and survival through this remarkable period in Irish history.
Lives turned upside down
Every man and woman who participated in the Easter Rising, in whatever role, experienced a suspension of normal life. Ordinary jobs and responsibilities were put aside while they joined the fight in support of a free Ireland. Very few stopped to define, let alone to explain what that might mean, yet their commitment to their comrades seemed to transcend any doubts they might privately have harboured. Louise Gavan Duffy, for example, believed that as the rebels could not possibly succeed, they should not attempt a military revolt, yet she insisted on joining her comrades and went to work in the kitchen of the GPO. Her life would never be the same, but neither would the lives of many thousands of Dubliners whose homes and jobs were ruined by the fight and who had had no say in their involvement in the events of Easter Week. Lizzie Walsh, a servant at the Metropole Hotel, lost her clothes, her job and her economic security when her hotel was damaged. Her subsequent inability to find employment fuelled her attempts to find justice through compensation for the loss of her belongings. The Easter Rising changed her life utterly, and her anxiety about her lost possessions and livelihood was no less acute for having not been a combatant herself.
Walsh had no doubt about the justice of her claim, but other women were not always as certain about what had happened, especially when they tried to recreate the events of an exceptionally busy decade many years later. Louise Gavan Duffy insisted that she had forgotten much of what she had experienced, though much of what she recalled is in fact perfectly consistent with other information we have. Her account is partial not only because of what she forgot, but because of what she did not reveal and we need to look to other sources to round out her story. Her apologetic tone belies her role at the centre of Irish political life as a founding member of Cumann na mBan and a pioneering Irish-language teacher. It also does not take account of her refusal to abandon her colleagues and even her stubborn refusal to rest. Women rarely recorded such small details of personal sacrifice.
Careful reading of the accounts left by Easter Rising veterans can reveal that while men and women recorded many common experiences, they often remembered them in quite different ways. Women were, for instance, more likely to discuss their involvement in terms of family traditions and connections, often describing how they were related to men also active in radical political circles, and providing detailed information about where their husbands, fathers or brothers had been stationed during the Rising. Some even provided testimony that was entirely about their male relatives, revealing little or nothing about their own lives or political views. Eily O’Hanrahan’s brother was executed after the Rising and his story often dominates her account. One needs to read between the lines to find important details about women’s activism which she also recorded. Hers is, for example, one of the only first-hand accounts of the split in Cumann na mBan in 1914 that we have, and her accounts of delivering messages to Wexford on the eve of the Rising provide important information about security, military organisation and communications within the Volunteer movement.
Visual sources can offer different, often more intimate insights into both the impact of the Easter Rising and the lives of the people who found themselves in the thick of it. They can also help us to connect the many networks of relationships and causes which characterised radical Ireland in the early twentieth-century. Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington, for example, prominent in Ireland’s feminist and socialist movements and co-founders of the feminist newspaper, Irish Citizen, were also pacifists and republicans. They enjoyed strong friendships with many of the Easter rebels, male and female, with whom they had worked in a variety of causes. Yet, they themselves became victims of the event. Having urged calm, Francis Sheehy Skeffington was murdered by firing squad on the order of a deranged British officer. He died wearing his Votes for Women badge and his widow, like Lizzie Walsh, began a long battle to obtain justice. Their fellow suffragist, the talented artist, Grace Gifford, lost her husband after the Rising. He was executed with the other leaders, his gift of a handgun probably offering her little consolation.
The diaries, photographs, postcards, relics and artefacts produced and collected by combatants and onlookers alike provide valuable clues not only about the way the Irish revolution unfolded in 1916, but also about the contours of Irish life during a period of unprecedented flux. Hints of the emotional and practical lives of witnesses to the event are evident in such sources which speak to us, sometimes in deeply intimate ways, of the endurance of friendships, commitment, religiosity and love amidst disorder. Above all, they provide invaluable information about the lived reality of the people at the heart of the Easter Rising, whether there willingly or not. From the diaries which recorded events as they developed to the religious to the secular relics collected in its wake, from Lizzie Walsh’s painfully exact lists of intimate and essential items lost forever to the awful simplicity of the brick in which a bullet which had travelled through the body of Francis Sheehy Skeffington is embedded; these sources allow us an unparalleled glimpse into the reality of a city under siege and of lives turned upside down in its wake.