Originally published in Irish Citizen, 6, 13, 20, 27 November & 4 December 1915
Copied with thanks from Phil Ferguson’s blog, The Irish Revolution.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
I have never read in the early history of any country so many stories of great fighting women as I read in the history of Ireland. The stories of Maeve, of Macha, of Granuaile, of Fleas, and many others, surprise one when one looks around at the Ireland of today, and sees the majority of her women so utterly indifferent to the struggle that is going on around them; caring very little for the National cause, providing they can be amused, well-fed, and prosperous to live in the same style as their friends and contemporaries. But in ’98 women suffered and saw others suffer, and lived in daily fear of brutality, torture and murder.
I thought I should have found it difficult to gather sufficient material among the histories and memoirs that I have access to, to write a paper on the women of ’98. But all through the records of the struggle for independence allusions to deeds done by women and girls drift, giving us an idea of the place taken by the women of Ireland in the national struggle. We get glimpses of them through the smoke of their burning homesteads, and the dust and din of the battlefields; and most of these glimpses show us that the women of Ireland were worthy of the country that bore them.
Of course a hundred years ago reading and writing was not so general as it is now, and very few of the educated men who either fought for Ireland, or who were prominent in any way in the struggle for Liberty, were spared to tell the tale. Writing, too, was as dangerous as fighting, when a man had only to be suspected of being a patriot – when a chance phrase from an intercepted letter was enough, and he was seized, imprisoned and subjected to all the tortures that (British) cruelty could invent, and but too often crowned with the crown of martyrdom.
Besides that it is hard to glean much of the doings and sufferings of the heroines of ’98 across years darkened by Penal Laws, when it was considered a crime to love your country, and anyone daring to teach her history, and tell of the bravery of her patriots was punished with the “utmost rigour of the law”. Still memoirs were written, and letters too, many of which have survived. Confidential papers have been examined by curious historians and their contents published. There are old ballads, too, passed on from mouth to mouth; old stories told on winter nights round the turf fire, told reverently by old men whose fathers had been able to tell them what they themselves had suffered, and had seen hap-pen in those old glorious days. I had the privilege of knowing one of these old men when I was a little girl, “Mickey Oge” they called him, though he was the oldest man in the district. His father, as a lad, had seen the battle of Colloony, or Carricknagat, as it is called down in Sligo.
There is a tale of a mysterious woman who rode into battle with the French army. Dressed in a green habit, with the tricolour and red plume in her hat, and accompanied by an old half-witted man, she rode in the front ranks of the French troops. Where she came from, or whither she went, I do not know, nor have I ever heard her given a name ... Perhaps she was killed, perhaps worse still, she fell into the hands of the English after Ballinamuck.
Everywhere we hear of women acting their parts heroically. Many of them actually fought in the ranks, and those who were not of the old martial nature, and who shrank from the clash of arms ... sent their mankind to battle with a brave word, and many earnest heart-deep prayers. The timidest of them, too, were ever ready to nurse the wounded, hide the fugitive, and to strain every nerve to serve the National cause and the Nation’s heroes.
Whether it was her lover, husband, son, father, or brother, the women of ’98 do not seem to have flinched when the moment of separation came, they sent them to battle bravely, knowing the risks, and stood by their sides in the dock or at the foot of the scaffold, supporting them with the strength that was theirs.
This, too, was a duty that might cost them much, for even old and grey-haired women were treated with scanty respect in those terrible days. I have heard a story of Mrs O’Neill, whose son was living in Geneva Barracks, condemned to finish his life in the Prussian salt mines. After many fruitless attempts she succeeded in bribing a jailer to let her see him. The farewell was so painful to her, that she could not restrain her sobs, and was overheard by the brutal soldiers. She was seized and dragged into the yard, where the soldiers made a sport of baiting her ... a grey-haired woman ... They tore her clothes off her and tossed her in a blanket, for the amusement of an idle moment. When they were weary of their sport, and she was too benumbed to afford them any further amusement, they threw a few rags to her and let her go. She was barely able to crawl, but she managed to drag herself, almost naked, to a neighbouring cabin, where she was received with all kindness and pity, but she died a few days later.
It is said that the women visiting the prisoners confined at Geneva were always subject to terrible insults and indignities. Indeed, everywhere the women were made to suffer, and often it was no protection for them that they were on the side of England, for the soldiers were in too great a hurry to wait and ask them. To be Irish and to be unprotected was sufficient.
All contemporary historians of the rebellion have tales to tell of the suffering and heroism of the women of ’98. I select a few. There was the woman of whom “Eva” of The Nation has written of as The Patriot Mother. The poem describes how a boy of 14 or 15 was taken prisoner (by the English) and promised his life and liberty if he would betray the names of the rebels by whose side he fought on the Curragh, while his refusal to speak would be punished by the gallows. The trial was conducted near his home, and his mother was dragged out to hear him tempted, the English soldiers thinking her love for him would make her wish to save his life at all costs.
But she was a woman of a grand heroic nature, who loved her son so deeply and truly that she would sooner see him dead than dishonoured, and she used the opportunity of speaking to him, to strengthen him in his high resolve, by urging him to be true to his comrades and his country.
Death sooner than dishonour was her principle, and with her support the lad was able to face the gallows-tree smiling.
The same story is told of Willie Nelson and his mother. He was hung on a tree outside his mother’s door because he refused to tell where McCracken was hiding. But though she was strong enough to support him in his heroic resolve, her strength failed her afterwards, and she never recovered the shock.
Half-hanging was a common device for trying the spirit of Irishwomen: they suffered again and again the torture of being strangled at a cart’s tail.
The most common and, I might add, humane means used to try and extort information from Irishwomen was pricking them with bayonets about the arms, neck and bosom, but most of the women remained true like Anne Devlin, who preferred to be hung to being a traitor to Robert Emmet.
To give you an idea of how the rank-and-file of Irishwomen suffered, I have copied out the following few statistics:
After the retreat from Vinegar Hill, seven women were ill-treated and murdered near Ballaghkeene by the Homperg Dragoons, four women were shot after the defeat and abandonment of Wexford, three women were bayoneted at Enniscorthy, nine women and six children were murdered between Vinegar Hill and Gorey, three women were shot by Yeos at Aughrim, four women were murdered by supplementary Yeomen between Gorey and Arklow.
But a mere catalogue of crimes is not interesting.
Miles Byrne relates of the march from Kilcavin to Vinegar Hill:
“Our column by this time became greatly encumbered by the vast numbers of poor women escaping with their children, and everything valuable they could carry off with them, from the English army and Yeomen, who were devastating the whole country we had left, going from house to house, shooting every sick or wounded man they met, and ravishing the women. When a division of our army on its way to the Wicklow Mountains came up, they saw several women lying with their bowels ripped up and young children grasped in their arms.”
All through Ireland these atrocities seem to have been common. Dr Madden tells the story of a young girl by the name of Quinn, who was shot down by the Yeomen in Antrim. After the rebels had been defeated, the Yeos for sport, brought some cannon to fire on the houses. The next house to that occupied by the Quinns was struck, upon which Mr Quinn and his daughter, a beautiful girl of 16, tried to escape through the garden. They were both shot, the soldiers having orders to kill everyone wearing coloured clothes. They were buried where they fell, but so hurriedly that the beautiful long hair of the girl was left partly uncovered, and was seen by many people waving to and fro in the wind for many a day until her brother was able to venture from his place of concealment and give the bodies a reverent burial.
Another ballad by Joyce, The Petticoat, tells a sadder tale still.
A detachment of rebels, marching towards Enniscorthy, found a young girl brutally murdered by the roadside. She was recognised as “Norah, pride of Wexford maids”, by her brother and many of her friends and neighbours who were among the band. They reverently buried the poor mutilated body, but not before her brother had taken off her petticoat and fixed it in the end of his pike, he and his comrades swearing an oath to give no quarter to any fighting on the English side. Led by this strange banner ... emblem of British ferocity ... the band moved forward, and we are told that the oath was well kept, for the men of the “Petticoat Brigade” earned the name of being the fiercest and most reckless of the men of ’98.
These women did not die in vain; their stories will be remembered in song and history whenever the tale of ’98 is told. They are the passive ones, however; of the active I shall tell in another paper.
I shall pass on now to the women who took an active part in the rebellion. Of course, as in the case of their more passive sisters, much information has been lost, but enough remains to give us an insight into their heroic greatness of these, our foremothers, which may be a light in the path to us women of today.
There was pretty Molly Weston, who rode from Fingal to Tara to join the insurgents. Mounted on a spirited grey pony, dressed in a green habit, and with the United Irishmen’s cockade in her hat, she galloped up to the insurgents, and at once joined in the battle. There being no capable leader among the rebels, this girl, a farmer’s daughter, placed herself at their head, and, with no weapon but a riding whip, led the patriots to the charge, not seeming to mind any danger, provided that she could rally the insurgents each time they were driven back, and lead them to the charge again and again. Her pony was at last killed under the dauntless girl, and she was surrounded by the English soldiers; but luckily an officer, who could not but admire her bravery, made them release her, and she ran back to her insurgent comrades. Further information about her I have not been able to find. I would be glad to know if she fought again, and if she escaped safely from all the dangers that surrounded her, and in the end married and left us daughters and grand-daughters behind her.
Mary Doyle fought at the battle of New Ross. She was the daughter of a faggot-cutter. Armed with a billhook she stationed herself in front of the rebel army, and moving about between the two armies as if she bore a charmed life, she cut the belts off the wounded and dead soldiers, and, emptying the cartouches, kept the rebels supplied with cartridges to finish the fight with. When she realised that they were hopelessly beaten and going to abandon a small cannon that they had with htem, she took her stand by it, and mounting on it, refused to go without it.
“Boys,” she said, “I will stay behind, no matter what happens to me, unless you take my dear little gun too.” So inspiring were the words of this brave woman, that her comrades in arms turned back gallantly and drove her away on her little gun, as she called it.
The story of poor Elizabeth, or Betsy Grey, who fought and died at the battle of Ballinahinch, shows us that the Northern women were not behind the women of the South in bravery and patriotism. Both Mary McCracken and Charles Teeling give her story. She left her home at Killinchy, to bring provisions to her brother at the patriots’ camp at Ednavady.
Her sweetheart was also with the rebels. She insisted on staying with them “to share their fate,” she said. So next day they found a pony for her, and taking a green flag in her hands, she rode with them into battle. On Wednesday, after the battle of Ballinahinch had ended in defeat and flight, she escaped with her two comrades, and they moved towards Hillsborough. Coming to the river, which is somewhat difficult to cross, they left her to wait and rest for a few moments while they looked for a ford. Turning suddenly, they saw Betsy in the hands of a troop of Yeomanry. It would have been quite easy for them to have escaped across the river, as the soldiers were so occupied with the girl that they had not noticed them. But they rushed to her side, urging the soldiers to let her go and shoot them instead. The only reply the soldiers vouchsafed was to shoot poor Betsy. A man called Thomas Neilson shot her through the right eye, we are told. Her brother and lover did not survive her many minutes. One of the other men who assisted in this murder was called Little, and Miss McCracken tells us that his wife was seen wearing the green petticoat and gold earrings of poor Elizabeth Grey for many a day after.
I am sure that there were many other women – forgotten, nameless heroines who fought and died on the battlefields of ’98. Sir Jonah Barrington, writing of Vinegar Hill, says: “A great many women fought with fury, several were found dead amongst the men.”
There were several women out on the mountains with Holt. In his memoirs he tells of how one of them was wounded. Anne Byrne was her name; she received a ball through the thick of her arm, but Holt dressed it for her, and she was well again in fifteen days.
His wife, too, accompanied Holt wherever she could, and a very devoted, brave woman she must have been, though Miles Byrne tells us that she was the cause of his being suspected, for her own people – the Mannings – were Orangemen. On one occasion, when they were camping in Glenmalure, her arrival occasioned such stories to be circulated – of her having made terms with the Orangemen for him – for he thought it wiser not to let her stay, and so arranged for her to go. Miles Byrne goes on to say:
“... several of those men who knew him well thought he would go away with his wife, and, in consequence, they kept a close watch round the house all night to prevent him. Holt, however, sent his wife away the next day, and so removed the cause of suspicion.”
He himself gives an account of an adventure in which they both nearly lost their lives. It was necessary to ford Glenmalure river, which was in flood at the time and very dangerous. Mrs Holt was mounted on a horse that was well fit to swim over with her, but as she was just entering the river, one of the band asked her to take him up behind her. She let him mount, and urged her horse into the torrent. The double weight was too much for the animal; directly his feet could no longer feel the bottom, and he had to swim, he was powerless; and after a few helpless struggles he rolled over, spilling his burden into the river. Holt himself plunged in to try and save his wife, but he was scarcely able to swim, and both would probably have been drowned if one of the band, a man called Miley, had not been a fine swimmer. He jumped in and rescued them both. Dripping wet, her hat gone, and one shoe lost forever, poor Mrs Holt emerged from the river; but she was none for the worse, for they all were quickly warmed and dried at the nearest cottage; and as Holt himself says, “What does a shoe matter – anyhow, it is easier to replace than a wife.”
It was greatly owing to the woman he called his “Moving Magazine” that Holt remained at large so long. Susey O’Toole was a blacksmith’s daughter, and strong as a man; she was brave and faithful, had a talent for acting and disguising herself. With a big basket stocked with gingerbread, sweets and other odds and ends, she tramped the country gathering information and sending the enemy off on the wrong scent. Most of the traffic was with the English Army, where she would render such tremendous service to Holt, by finding out their movements, and who among the soldiers were sympathetic to the Irish. She gained her nick-name from the fact that she never returned from an expedition without a load of two or three hundred cartridges, stolen from or coaxed out of the soldiers to whom she sold her wares. Here is Holt’s own account of her:
“My ‘Moving Magazine’ was about 30 years of age. She was the daughter of Phelim O’Toole, a smith, near Annamoe, who, having no son, employed Susy in handling the sledge – not a very ladylike or feminine accomplishment, it must be admitted – but it qualified her admirably for the part she had to act in my service. She was about 5′ 8″ high when she stood upright, which was not often; for, by the habit of sledging, she had acquired a stoop; but her shoulders, though round, were broad and her limbs strong and sinewy. Her face, when young, was broad as a full moon, and her nose nearly flat to her face, having been broken by a stone, which much disfigured the uniformity and beauty of her countenance, giving her very much the appearance of that of a seal. Her eyes had been both spared in the conflict, and were black and sparkling; what they would have been in a handsome face, with a decent nose between them, I will not venture to say; but where they were they had, when excited, a fiendish expression. Yet she could put on an imploring and supplicating look to admiration. The mutilation of her countenance made her look very old, and when she wished to assume the appearance of age, no-one would take her to be less than seventy.
“She had an extraordinary power of lengthening her face by dropping her jaw, which altered her whole countenance so much that she did not seem the same person. With her outside, dirty, pepper-and-salt frieze cloak, her stoop and dropped jaw, she could appear a decrepid, miserable ‘baccagh’, scarcely able to crawl; but when it was necessary to act with vigour, her powerful muscles and brawny limbs made her more than a match for many men. A blow from her clenched fist would alarm a man almost as much as a kick from a horse. She was not deficient in eloquent blarney, and had a tongue quite equal to her necessities; she was quick with expedients, and ready with a reason for all occasions.”
Mary Leadbetter, a Quaker woman, living at Ballitore, leaves two volumes of memoirs and letters, out of which we can glean many interesting details as to what women had to suffer in ’98.
Mary Leadbetter was English in her sympathies, and she deplored the Rebellion; but, being a Quaker, she was entirely against war, or physical force of any kind. She, in common with the friends, took up a neutral position, willing succour and hide fugitives from either side or to nurse the wounded, no matter who they were.
Though you can read on every page of her writings how she looked upon the English officers as her natural protectors, at the same time she frankly tells us over and over again of how the women and children were brutalised and murdered by English regiments, and of the chivalry and humanity that they met with, on almost every occasion, at the hands of the rebels. To quote her own words, “With little exception, we were kindly treated.”
But, though she experienced this kindness at the hands of the many undisciplined troops of Irish peasants fighting for their country’s freedom who visited the village, she does not speak in the same way of the Irishmen serving in the English army and taught discipline in the English school. One evening some drunken men of the Tyrone Militia forced their way into her house and began to turn everything topsy turvy. Imagine her feelings when she remembered she had left lying in her desk some comic squib or ballad issued by the rebels, making fun of the English. She knew that if it was found she would most likely be made to suffer at once with all those who were dearest to her, and that at best they would all be suspected; and at that time those suspected carried their lives in their hands, and might be taken out and tortured at the pleasure of any gang of undisciplined soldiers.
She speaks very openly of all they had to suffer from “free quarters”, and complains that not even the loyalists were safe, for the Rebellion was used as an excuse by the English soldiers to enter houses wherever they were able, and to illtreat those that they found there, and to rob them or destroy their property. It mattered little to them whether the inmates were on the Irish or the English side – no-one was safe. “Soldiers,” she says, “bending under loads of plunder” were a common sight in the street.
One loyal neighbour, Robert Bailey, was persecuted because he dared to take away his own horse, and another who had killed a pig had his bacon stolen from him on his way to Dublin to market it.
But though the Tyrone Militia were bad enough, their brutality was exceeded by the “Suffolk Fencibles” and the notorious “Ancient Britons” who came into the village a little later.
An old man, their gardener, was lying hid in some bushes near the house, when he was found by some soldiers, who would have murdered him in cold blood there and then, but his daughter Polly flew to his assistance and “seized the instrument of death that was levelled at his breast.” The soldiers’ hearts were softened by the poor child’s entreaties, and spared her father, but Polly paid for her bravery with her own health. She was a delicate girl, and never recovered the shock and horror, and was subject to fits the rest of her days.
Not so humane were the soldiers who murdered Owen Finn, a smith, after he had been tried for making pikes, and acquitted. His wife, with a baby in her arms, came up just in time to see him die, whereupon the soldiers treated her to every sort of abuse, swearing at her, striking her and threatening to kill her.
Mrs Duffy, the wife of a Yeoman, who had been killed at Kilcullen, thought that she at any rate, would be quite safe with the soldiers. But she was cruelly deceived, for her house was plundered; and her brother, son and the servant-boy were all murdered. Her little daughter died from the shock she received at witnessing these horrors, and she herself went mad. When they marched into Ballitore, some soldiers entered her kitchen. One asked her if she had any United men in the house. She told them the truth, that her house was always open to anyone in distress or flying for his life, whereupon he became most abusive and rude; calling her names that she had never heard before, and that she did not understand. He then demanded milk, and when she brought it, told her that she had poisoned it and forced her to drink some, continuing all the time to curse and abuse her. Another day a soldier, rushing into the kitchen, presented his musket at her breast. She was very frightened, “For,” says she, “he seemed to have the will, but not the power, to kill me.” She asked him not to shoot her. He appeared to be in a terrible rage, and dashed all the pans and jugs off the kitchen table, broke the windows, threatening her all the time. She at last managed to dodge him, and ran into the street, where she found two men, who came and turned him out of the house for her.
Perhaps the most interesting part of her memoirs is that which deals with Holt and the men who held out for so long on the Dublin and Wick-low Mountains. They paid many nocturnal visits to Ballitore, seeking provisions, clothes, arms, or money.
Though, of course, she is vehemently indignant at the brigands and marauders, as she calls them, for robbing her, she tells us again and again that she was never afraid of them, for she knew that they were looking for food and drink and the necessities of life, and did not intend to murder anyone.
One story she tells is, how one October evening, at 10 o’clock, on her way home from dining out, she thought she would look in and say goodnight to her friends Mary and John Doyle. As she and her husband reached the Doyles’ door, four men joined them, and entered the house with them. The men demanded provisions, and proceeded to search for valuables. Mr Leadbetter had, directly he noticed that the men were armed, gone to look for help, but could find none, so returned, but was not allowed to enter the house by the marauders – luckily, says his wife, for she was afraid of what might happen if he became angry and insulted the insurgents. The worst that happened was that one of the rebels pointed a pistol at Mary’s head. But, Mary Leadbetter says, “I saw the man uncock it first!” One of the men, she tells, was called Doyle by his comrades, and was particularly handsome. He affected to speak broken English.
The first time that they came to her own house, they took food, money and clothes, turning over every cupboard and box that attracted their attention. In breaking open a wardrobe with the butt of a pistol, the weapon went off, the bullet passing through the bedstead where one of the children lay. There was a general panic: the children screamed, the frightened servants rushed into the room, which was full of smoke. The rebel, stopping the work he was engaged in, hurried over anxiously to see if the child was hurt. She just smiled up in his face and told him not to be frightened.
Again two men came, who wanted money; her old acquaintance, Doyle, was one of them. One of the men sat down, the muzzle of his blunderbuss pointed towards her. She did not quite like this, so she asked him to turn it away, which he at once did. When she told him she had no money for them, the man who had no weapon pretended to struggle with his comrade for the blunderbuss to shoot her with. The only thing that frightened her was the idea that the blunderbuss might possibly go off by accident, for she saw quite plainly that it was only a pretence to frighten her. Soon after they said good night, and left her to visit Doyle’s.
Mary Leadbetter’s memoirs are particularly valuable as giving from an unbiased source a vivid picture of the horrors and dangers of the time, especially to women.
Among the women of ’98, the name of Mary McCracken stands foremost.
Her love of her brother and of his friend, Thomas Russell, have been the subject of many a ballad. Dr Madden, who has published a great many of her letters, says of the women of Ireland in general, and of her more especially:
“Whatever records of the lives and histories of the United Irishmen have been rescued from oblivion, the preservation of them in most instances which have come to our knowledge, have been owing to the fidelity of female friendship or affection on the part of their female relatives, the sisters and daughters of the men who were engaged in the struggle of 1798, which neither time nor obloquy, nor new ties and interests had estranged, nor had been able to extinguish.”
The name of Mary McCracken has become associated in the North with that of her beloved brother. The recollection of every act of his seems to have been stored up in her mind, as if she felt the charge of his reputation had been committed to her especial care. In that attachment there are traits to be noticed, indicative not only of singleness of heart and benevolence of disposition, but of a noble spirit of heroism, strikingly displayed in the performance of perilous duties, of services rendered at the hazard of life, at great pecuniary sacrifice, not only to that dear brother, but at a later period to his faithful friend, the unfortunate Thomas Russell.
When Henry Joy McCracken was committed to Newgate in 1796, his sister’s letters were a great consolation to him. One can see by reading their correspondence how deep she was in his confidence, and how he trusted her. When the political prisoners disagreed, more especially Henry Joy and Neilson, she did her utmost to restore harmony. To him she wrote:
“Is it not injurious to the cause of Union when two men, who, from the first went hand in hand endeavouring to promote it, are thus at variance? Would not such an example of disunion betwixt themselves, and that without any serious breach of friendship, afford a triumph to your enemies, and occasion vexation to your friends? Will they point at each of you as you pass? ‘See, there goes a promoter of union who could not agree with his bosom friend.’”
A wise saying this, that should be remembered by those who are working today. McCracken was let out on bail in time to be one of the leaders in the rebellion, and to take part in the Battle of Antrim. James Hope has left a letter telling us how, after the defeat, while they were hiding on the Black Bowhill, “Two ladies at this time arrived from Belfast, at the risk of their lives, with word that General Nugent was apprised of our intention.” That intention was to try and join the Wexford men, who were reported as marching northward. I shall give the story of Miss McCracken’s adventure in her own words:
“Some days after the Battle of Antrim, not having received any intelligence of my brother, I set out in pursuit of him, accompanied by Mrs M—, sister of John Shaw, of Belfast, who wished to get some information respecting her husband, and also a brother of Mrs Shaw. We went towards the White House, and made some enquiries in the neighbourhood. In the evening we joined J. McG at the country residence of Mr John Brown, a banker then in England, whose gardener, Cunningham, we learned, had given shelter occasionally to the wanderers.
“At nightfall this man took us to a house near the Cave Hill, belonging to John Brier, whom I knew a little, where we got a bed that night. In the morning I urged Mrs M- to return home, which she generously refused, although she had gained the information she required. She insisted on accompanying me. Her husband had got safe into Belfast disguised as a countryman with a basket of eggs, and was then safe in Shaw’s house; he had been at the Battle of Antrim also. The next day we continued our search, and at last met with Gavin Watt and another person, who promised to take us to a place in the evening where we would get intelligence. The latter took us to a smith’s house on the limestone road, leading to Antrim.
“In the back-room of this man’s house we found about eight of the fugitives in consultation as to what should be done. I recommended them strongly to separate and return to their homes, if they could with safety. They replied that there was something in view, but in the event of its not taking place, they would follow my advice. Three of the party undertook to escort us; we travelled uphill, across fields, drains and ditches for two hours; our companions were Robert Henry, a school master, William Leith and Robert Johnstone. I had never seen any of the party before except Johnstone on one occasion, and then only for a few minutes
“We had a brisk walk for two hours, when we arrived at the Bowhill, where my dear brother and six others (James Hope one of the number) were sitting on the brow of the hill. Henry seemed surprised, and rejoiced at the meeting; and, after sitting with the party for a long time, talking over their adventures and escapes, he conducted us to a house, where we were received in darkness, the woman of the house not daring to light a candle or make the fire blaze. I insisted on Mrs M— occupying the only chair for the remainder of the night, while I took a low stool and rested my head in her lap.
“My brother was to be with us at seven in the morning. We thought the night very long, but when seven o’clock came, and no Harry appeared, we became very uneasy; but still more so, when Smith, a thoughtless fellow, accompanied by the schoolmaster, arrived, and had not met with him, not having taken shelter in the same place. He came at last, having waited for the others till after 2 o’clock. When then set out on our way home, and he accompanied us a little way, wishing to see McG, whom we sent out to him. Even then they had no hopes of another movement.”
She went soon after this to see him again at David Bodles’ house, a labouring man, living near Cave Hill, and tells us how his wife and daughters used to go without rest, night after night, to watch while the fugitives took a few hours sleep in their own beds.
She tells us that it was on her own birthday, July 9, that she heard the news that her brother was taken. She went at once to Carrickfergus, and with great difficulty and danger managed to obtain an interview with him the same evening. She tried to see him again the next day, but was refused permission. However, she managed to exchange a few words with him through the window of his cell, and take from his hand a ring which, she tells us, had “a green shamrock on the outside and the words, ‘Remember Orr’ on the inside.” This ring she was to bring to her mother. After her mother’s death it became hers.
On the evening of the 16th, the day he was brought to Belfast, she and her sister at once went to try and speak with him. He was standing in the Castle Place surrounded by soldiers, and she could not get to him; so she went to Colonel Durham, and asked his permission for a short interview with her brother. Colonel Durham was standing on his doorstep when she drew near, and he only treated her most rudely and cruelly, and finally slammed the door in her face. But, nothing daunted, this brave girl went to Colonel Barber, who gave her the desired permission, and sent a young officer to see that she was admitted.
They discussed his chances and how best to conduct the defence, and at his request she rose at six next morning and drove to Lisburn to fetch two cousins, Mrs Holmes, a daughter, and Mary Toomb, a granddaughter to Henry Joy, whose evidence he thought might be of use at the trial. All day long she remained at the Exchange, sitting, she tells us, near the table.
Her brother, feeling thirsty, asked her to procure him either an orange or some wine and water, so she left the court and went home. On her way back she met a Mrs Thompson, the wife of a calico-print cutter employed by her brother, who offered – if his life were in danger – to swear she had seen him in the streets of Belfast the day of the Antrim fight. Of course, this kind woman’s proposal could not be accepted.
After the witnesses had been examined, Mary McCracken rose and stood by the table, and pointed out the discrepancies in the evidence, and urging them strongly that it was entirely insufficient to warrant them taking his life. Her brother whispered to her that “she must be prepared for a conviction”; so she hurriedly left the court again before the end of the proceedings to tell her mother, who went at once to seek an interview with General Nugent, which was refused. Mary tells us that, “all his friends could do for him was to endeavour to get his sentence commuted to banishment.” She goes on to say she had little or no hope; “... but,” says she, “I felt I had a duty to perform – to prevent misrepresentation, and to put it out of the power of his enemies to injure his character while living, or his memory when dead.”
After his conviction, she went again to the Artillery Barracks, and asked a Major Fox to allow her to see her brother; he told her to wait, but she followed him in, in time to see her brother’s cell-door opened and to hear the Major say, “You are ordered for instant execution.”
She nearly fainted at the words, and her brother caught her in his arms; but she did not lose consciousness, and she tells us that she felt “a strange sort of composure and self-possession, and in that fame of mind I continued the whole day.” She tells us how the two of them talked of his death quite composedly, looking at it as a dispensation of Providence.
Wishing to keep some of his hair as a souvenir, she asked for a pair of scissors. A young officer brought them to her, but hesitated to let her have them, till she indignantly asked him, did he think she meant to hurt her brother. The rest I will tell in her own words:
“He then gave the scissors to me, and I cut off some of Harry’s hair which curled round his neck, and folded it up in paper and put it in my bosom. Fox at that moment entered the room, and desired me to give it to him, as ‘too much use,’ he said, ‘had already been made of such things.’ I refused, saying that I would only part with it in death; when my dear brother said, ‘Oh Mary, give it to him – of what value is it?’ I felt that its possession would be a mere gratification to me, and, not wishing to discompose him by the contest, I gave it up.
“The time allowed him was now expired: he had hoped for a few days that he might give his friends an account of all the late events in which he had taken a part. About 5 p.m. he was ordered to the place of execution, where I was told it was the General’s orders that I should leave him, which I peremptorily refused. Harry begged I would go. Clasping my hands around him (I did not weep till then), I could bear anything but leaving him. Three times he kissed me, and entreated I would go; and, looking round to see some friend to put me in charge of, he beckoned to a Mr Boyd, and said, ‘He will take charge of you.’ Mr Boyd stepped forward, and fearing that any further refusal would disturb the last moment of my dearest brother, I suffered myself to be led away.”
This brave and dauntless woman, who could hope against hope, and was never at the end of her resources, bribed the executioner not to hang McCracken outright. She sent for the family doctor and apothecary to come to the house. Owing to the entreaties of the family and their friends, the body was given up to them at once unmutilated, and every effort was made to resuscitate it. They were partially successful, but the sight of a soldier looking in at the window of the outhouse, where they were working, frightened them and made them stop.
We hear of Henry Joy McCracken being helped more than once by brave women other than his sister. Early in ’98, his cousin, one of Henry Joy’s daughters, managed to warn him in time for him to escape from Belfast. Passing along the Hercules Road, he met James Hope, to whom we are indebted for the story of how he was attacked in Hercules St by some armed Yeomen, and would have been killed had not a butcher’s wife, called Hamell, come to his assistance with a large knife. When the Yeomen ran away, she led Henry Joy into her house, and passed him out in safety by a back way.
Dr Madden tells us of another woman who helped the United Irishmen in the North. He describes her as “a sister to the Sinclairs, and a young woman of great personal attractions.” She constantly met General Lake, and owing to his intense vanity and incapacity, was able to extract all the information and the orders given to him by the British Government.
Mary McCracken tells of Biddy Magee, a mere child of twelve years, and of a nervous timid temperament. One night she heard a regiment of soldiers passing by the door of the cottage where she lived, and she knew that they could only be going to pay a surprise visit to a house where some of the United men were hidden. She jumped out of bed, hastily throwing about her a few of her clothes, and ran by a lonely shortcut through the fields to the cottage. Her courage was rewarded, for she arrived in time to warn and save the rebels, and to slip home safely herself. This child was so nervous that she did not dare to fetch a bucket of water from the well alone in the dusk of the evening. Patriotism gave her courage.
Miles Byrne was blessed, like McCracken, with a sister of exceptional character. Though only 18 and of a gay, happy, light-hearted nature, she seems to have been absolutely dependable, under the most terribly trying circumstances, and to have been of the greatest assistance to her brother and to many others in evading the English troops, and finally in escaping safely. Self-possession and good sense, courage and spirit, were some of the qualities that he credits her with. She had one very narrow escape, which I will give in her brother’s own words:
“If I had not remarked a long scar on her neck, she would not have mentioned anything herself. A yeoman of the name of Wheatley, of the Gorey Corps, the day on which poor Hugh was arrested, threatened to cut her throat with his sabre if she did not tell instantly the place in which I was hiding. The cowardly villain, no doubt, would have put his threat in execution had not some of his comrades interfered to prevent him.”
There are frequent allusions to her all through the memoirs, which I have not space to retail. Her step-sister, too, and various other women, are mentioned as helping in his escape; in fact, the whole tone of the book tends to show how, in Wexford, the men were accustomed to rely on the women to keep them posted with information, supply them with food, hide them, and help them escape.
At the end of the rebellion, his sister hid him in a cave, dug out by a neighbour, whom he calls Ned Cane, behind the fireplace on the ground floor. He remained there till she could arrange for his escape. She arranged with another woman, Mrs Richards of Coolafaney, that this lady should drive to Dublin on the pretence of taking her son to school, and that Miles Byrne should be the man who drove the car for them.
The chiefs of the United Irishmen seem all to have been most fortunate in the women whom they married. I have only met with one woman who was weak enough to implore her husband to save his own life, at the cost of his friends. The husband, Tom Armstrong, who was hung at Lisburn, answered her entreaties and tears by saying,
“No, Mary, I will not save my life on such terms. Were I to do so, great numbers of wives would be left widows, and many children deprived of their chief protectors. I will leave only one widow and two children, and the God of the widow and the fatherless will take charge of them.”
Pamela was a devoted wife to Lord Edward Fitzgerald, though he says somewhere that he never discussed his plans with her, so anxious was he that she should not be put at any annoyance through having his dangerous secrets to keep.
James Hope’s wife was an exceptional woman. Many stories are told of her courage and cleverness. One anecdote is all that I have time for. I have taken it from Madden:
“She was sent to a house in the Liberty, where a quantity of ball-cartridges had been lodged, to carry them away, to prevent ruin being brought on the house and its inhabitants. She went to the house, put them into a pillowcase, and emptied the contents into the canal, at that part of it which supplies the basin.”
Putnam McCabe’s wife went by the name of Mrs Lee, and also Mrs Maxwell, in order to follow him from France to Ireland, be near him, and help him.
James Porter’s wife tried to get him reprieved by every means in her power; and we hear of her and a Miss Jackson accompanying him to the place of his execution. Mrs Neilson, Mrs O’Connor, Mrs Thomas Addis Emmet, and many other women, followed the political prisoners to Fort George, and remained to cheer and comfort them through their long, weary banishment.
One way in which the women of ’98 were able to do good service to their country was by carrying, by word of mouth, messages too dangerous to be trusted to paper and ink.
We hear of Miss Betty Palmer as being the confidential agent of Emmet and Russell. She was the daughter of old John Palmer of Cutpurse Row. Dr Madden calls her a sort of Irish Mme Roland, and tells how, when it was dangerous to be seen in the streets, it was she who carried messages between Emmet, Long, Hevey, Fitzgerald and Russell. Margaret Spaight did the same for John Sheares.
The cleverness of Mrs Bond has often been admired. She obtained permission to send provisions to the prisoners, Russell and Neilson. Among the dainties provided by her was a delicious pie. When opened, it was found to contain letters to friends, writing material, newspapers etc.
Poor Sarah Cullen’s sad story hardly comes into a lecture on ’98, but we hear of Anne Devlin in connection with some of the heroes killed in the Wicklow Mountains.
In the summer of ’99 we hear of her and Mary Dwyer, wife of Michael Dwyer, her uncle, going up with three other young women at midnight to dig up the bodies of Sam McAllister and Tom Costello, and bringing them to Kilranelagh for proper burial.
And now I have come to the end of my lecture – not because there is no more to say of the doings and the sufferings of the women of ’98, but because my lecture is already too long. When I undertook the task, I thought I should find it difficult to collect enough facts; but, on the contrary, my trouble has been to know what to select, compress or leave out.
Among the rebel ranks the abuse and murder of women seems to be absolutely unknown. Untrained and undisciplined as they were, fighting a cruel and barbarous foe, each man with a private wrong to avenge, maddened with the treatment meted out to their womenkind, their children, their priests, their leaders, desperate and hungry, as they were before the end, with homes burnt, crops and cattle destroyed, they still respected women. The future, if they escaped the rope, held but little for these men, but they never forgot they were Irishmen; while the Irish Yeomen and militia seemed to have vied with the British regiments in their treatment of those of their fellow countrywomen who fell into their power.
Times are changed, no doubt, since then, and men dare not be so openly brutal; but women still suffer under militarism today, as the weaker always suffers at the mercy of the strong.
Last updated on 25.8.2011