Radical and revolutionary women

Sally Richardson reviews No Ordinary Women: Irish female activists in the revolutionary years 1900-1923 by Sinead McCoole, O’Brien Press, £13.99 pbk

SINEAD McCOOLE began her research nearly ten years ago for an exhibition and catalogue on women in Kilmainham Gaol, where she is a guide and curator. Her endevaours have resulted in this, the first overall survey of republican women's activities during this period since Margaret Ward's book Unmanageable Revolutionaries was published in 1983.

She has amassed a huge amount of material, including interviews with surviving activists and their families and many unpublished sources, and a particular strength of her book is the attention it gives to many lesser-known names, showing how widespread and extensive women's involvement was.

The biggest chapter is devoted to the civil war, when it seemed that there were more republican activists in prison than out of it.

McCoole's detailed account of day-to-day prison life is fascinating. Morale and spirits were kept up with educational classes, sports and arts and crafts, but even valiant efforts to decorate the cells could not disguise the filthy conditions in Kilmainham.

In Mountjoy, the prisoners were at the mercy of the deputy governor, Paudeen O'Keefe, who combined buffoonery with menace.

Rebellion and active resistance to the regime continued in spite of the violent response of the authorities. At least three women died as a result of their experiences soon after being released from prison.

The second half of this book takes the shape of a biographical dictionary detailing the lives of severnty-four women, each with an oval portrait. It looks like a commemorative album. But McCoole's research is meticulous and she provides each entry with its own bibliography which should prove to be a boon to future historians. Two appendices list women prisoners in 1916 and the civil war.

O'Brien's usual high standards of book design are much in evidence with this beautifully produced book. 

The pages are studded with colour photographs of the personal belongings of many of the women involved, from Nora Connolly's Webley revolver and Kathleen Lynn's 1916 medical box to items of jewellery, as well as many sepia photographs and yellowing documents. The atmospheric vignettes of Kilmainham Gaol interiors convey the grimness of this forbidding building with perhaps undeserved picturesqueness.  

McCoole's book shows how much documentary evidence there is for women's political activity during the period, and she is one of a number of historians thanks to whose recent efforts a much fuller picture of the period is emerging. 

These women cannot be dismissed as mere supporters and auxiliaries of the movement. They were active and highly politicised participants.  No 'ordinary women' indeed!

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