On this day in 1967, Helena Mary Molony the second woman president of the Irish Trade Union Congress, lifelong labour activist, feminist, Irish republican and veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, passed away at the age of 84.
Born in 1883, Helena Molony did not enjoy a happy childhood. Her mother, Catherine McGrath, died whilst she was still a child and her father Michael Molony, a Dublin greengrocer, would subsequently marry a woman whom the young Helena would not get along with. What followed was far from a stable family, as both her father and her stepmother became alcoholics. It was an illness that would tragically come to plague Helena in later life too. For now however, Helena found a political awakening that transported her away from her difficult family situation, as she later recounted; “I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit. I had been reading Douglas Hyde, his history and legends. She gathered all this up and made it real for me.” Duly inspired, Helena joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) which, as its name suggests, was a nationalist organisation that actively sought to engage women in political debate at a time when women were still denied the vote. Given that women were mostly excluded from the vast majority of politics, and suffragist politics were barely heard of in Ireland, it’s important not to underestimate the importance of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and how controversial it was against the restrictive Victorian values expected of Ireland’s womenfolk.
The organisation had come about just three years earlier when, in a response to Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin, fifteen women, including Maud Gonne, congregated at the Celtic Literary Society Rooms on Easter Sunday. Arguing that the royal visit was essentially a propaganda ploy to encourage Irishmen to enlist in the British Army to fight in the Boer War, which had been raging for several months now. The assembled women found their sympathy lay with the Boers and, as republicans believed that no son of Ireland should join the army of their oppressors. A number of festivities had been arranged to commemorate Victoria’s visit, which naturally the republicans had chosen to boycott. In response to ‘Children’s Treat’ staged in Phoenix Park, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, now fifty-strong on the committee, staged a rival celebration entitled the ‘Patriotic Children’s Treat’. Some 30,000 children paraded from Beresford Place to Clonturk Park, where a picnic and a series of republican and anti-recruitment speakers took to the stand. With the remaining funds, Inghinidhe na hÉireann was established as a permanent organisation led by Maud Gonne. It’s aims were radical, outlining a commitment to feminism, separatism and the use of physical force to achieve their aims. However much of their work actually focused on the next generation of Irish republicans and campaigns for the extension of school meals to Ireland and the introduction of organised Irish classes for poor children proved successful.
With the notion of free school meals being very much in the news of late, it’s especially topical to consider Helena Molony and to remember her achievements. By 1908, just five years after hearing Maud Gonne’s speech that proved her political epiphany, the twenty-five-year-old Helena had established herself as a committed activist and an effective speaker for the cause and was promoted to secretary of Inghinidhe as well as editor of its the monthly newspaper, Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland) which included fashion notes (involving Irish materials and Irish-made clothes), a labour column, cookery, politics, fiction, poetry and a gardening column written by Constance Markievicz. But it was the issue of school meals that Helena proved central to; organising the supply of daily school meals to children in impoverished areas and pressuring the Dublin Corporation to provide the starving children of the city to a proper meal of meat and vegetables Monday to Thursday and rice and milk on Fridays.
As the decade wore on, Helena Molony’s activism matured from simple propaganda to full blown agitation in accordance with the aims set out by the Inghinidhe. She took great pride in recalling how she evaded the authorities who, when it came to a foot chase, were encumbered by their heavy overcoats. A keen actress and member of the Abbey Theatre, Helena even resorted to disguises raided from the costume department to outwit the police. If such boastful comments were beginning to be met with disapproval from her social circle – including her fellow actors at the Abbey Theatre – she nonetheless gained comfort from her discovery of like minds and a sisterhood within the cause. Speaking of Constance Markievicz, Helena said “I was more or less political mentor to the countess at that time”, having brought her in to the production of Bean na hÉireann and giving over her brother Frank’s Sherrard Street home to Markievicz’s Na Fianna Éireann, the nationalist youth scouts organisation she had founded with Bulmer Hobson, who would famously go on to attempt to prevent the Rising in 1916, and whom Helena would become romantically linked with for a time. Helena would help drill the boys and attempt to change their chauvinist mindset by proving that women were just as important in direct action and the physical struggle as men. In 1911, Helena’s direct action led to her becoming rhe first female political prisoner of her generation when her vandalism of a portrait of King George V during a royal visit led to her arrest. Her incarceration proved brief as her bail was promptly paid for, but she was subsequently rearrested when she vocally denounced the monarch as a scoundrel.
In 1913, Helena’s natural affinity with the underdog led her to the cause for socialism. During the Dublin Lock-out, Helena gave her efforts working in the Liberty Hall food kitchen and addressing strike committees and she was becoming more and more interested in the ideas proposed by James Connolly, whose egalitarianism of the sexes she found especially appealing. For his part, Connolly too was impressed by Helena and, on her return from a period of convalescence in France with Maud Gonne, brought about by the mental and physical exhaustion she experienced from her efforts during the lock-out, he duly promoted her to the role of secretary for the Irish Women Worker’s Union. The IWWU had been formed during the 1911 Jacob’s Biscuit Factory strike and had itself been part of the lock-out. With her familiarity of Liberty Hall, Helena managed the worker’s co-operative store, giving workers who had been blacklisted for their part in the strike employment in producing clothing to sell. She also drilled the girls there as a unit of the Citizen. Army, ensuring that Ireland had, thanks in part to her, female soldiers long before their comrades in Russia. Helena was a keen advocate of the Citizen Army, believing their stance on insurrection superior to the non-committal practices of the Irish Volunteers, whom she referred to as ‘old maids’. Her commitment to violence for political gain can be viewed in the fact that she always carried a revolver about her person.
In the run up to the Rising in 1916, Helena was deeply involved in the planning and preparations of the military council, allowing the premises of the IWWU to be used as a front. She spent the fortnight leading up to the rebellion sleeping at the back of the co-operative store on a pile of overcoats, her revolver by her side. She soon had cause to use it, being one of nine other women involved in the Citizen Army’s raid on Dublin Castle where she witnessed Sean Connolly, her commanding officer and fellow actor at the Abbey Theatre, shoot dead a police sergeant who attempted to bar their entrance to the British government’s headquarters in Ireland. She would subsequently speak of that moment as “the bullet that destroyed the status quo in Ireland” and that, though she “did not like to think of the policeman dead” she understood the necessity as “The police did not think the Citizen Army were serious.” Helena Molony’s part in the Rising was however, short-lived. Captured in City Hall, she found herself incarcerated in a squalid room of the Ship Street barracks for Easter week, with similarly squalid conditions awaiting her at Kilmainham Gaol. Though her own life was spared, she was forever shaken by the military executions exacted by the British upon her friends and comrades. Recalling in particular the death of her mentor, she said “Connolly was dragged out, unable to stand, and murdered. After that life seemed to come to an end for me”. Despite such a forlorn attitude, Helena staged a spirited but unsuccessful attempt at burrowing her way out of gaol with a spoon. She would later become one of only five women to join over 2,500 male internees in England. Finding herself in Aylesbury Gaol, she continued to rail against the British authorities and the establishment, using her connections with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Suffrage Federation to publicise her conditions there.
Upon her release from gaol, Helena returned to Dublin but found the the cause had greatly withered as a result of the Rising and the executions of key figures such as Connolly. The desire for insurrection had seemingly died with those men, leaving Helena with no option but to refocus her efforts on prisoner campaigns with the Women’s Prisoner’s Defense League and the People’s Rights Association, as well as her support for Soviet Russia. She fought these corners via her positions within the Irish Labour Party and the somewhat moderate Trade Union Congress though these activities could not of course escape the attention of the British – or indeed the Free State who would succeed them – and, identified as a radical, she was routinely arrested, her premises the subject of raids. Her commitment to feminism also saw her campaign against the undermining of the principle of equal citizenship enshrined in the Rising’s Proclamation. She vehemently opposed all steps back from the egalitarianism she and Connolly believed in and opposed the drive to return women from employment and back to the home. This brought her in direct confrontation with the male-heavy trade union movement, with one TUC delegate arguing against her motion against the Conditions of Employment Bill that “Woman is the queen of our hearts and of our homes…and for God’s Sake let us try and keep her there” Though she would of course be pleased that Irish women had won the right to vote, she believed that nothing had really changed, arguing in 1930 that “their inferior status, their lower pay for equal work, their exclusion from juries and certain branches of the civil service, their slum dwellings and crowded, cold and unsanitary schools for their children” continued.
In 1937, Helena was elected the president of the Irish Trade Union Congress – only the second woman to hold that office. However, it was an office she was forced to relinquish just four year later in 1941 when her retirement was announced due to ill health. In reality, Helena was becoming an embarrassment to the status quo; her alcoholism, an addiction inherited from her father and no doubt exacerbated by the regrets she had for the Rising, combined with her links with the IRA, her criticism of the Vatican and her unwavering defence of Soviet Russia (which she had by this stage visited) all sought to consign her to the margins. Depressed and frequently drunk, she lived in near penury, relying on help and assistance from friends. Nevertheless, she continued to work for and advocate women’s labour rights and found happiness in a relationship with psychiatrist Evelyn O’Brien, with whom she lived until her death in 1967. The exact nature of their relationship continues to fascinate to this day, with some suggesting that Helena was not only a lesbian, but a member of an influential and secret, closeted network found within feminist, socialist, trade union and republican circles. However others point to her heterosexual relationships with Bulmer Hobson, who was said to have broken her heart when he made it clear he was not interested in marriage, and even Sean Connolly, whose death- the first rebel fatality of the Rising – she saw firsthand, whispering a prayer in his ear during his final moments on the roof of City Hall.