Helena Molony: A Radical Life, 1883-1967, by Nell Regan, Arlen House, 290 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1851321650
It is hard to believe that this is the first full-length biography of Helena Molony, a woman who played such a frenetic and, at times, crucial role in the Irish revolution. It is equally surprising that the woman who wrote what was probably the best written and most consciously feminist witness statement collected by the Bureau of Military History never wrote a memoir. A journalist, an actress, a propagandist and orator, Helena Molony only wrote about herself when asked. For a militant advocate of women’s rights and workers’ rights, she could be extremely self-effacing.
There is no one better qualified to write her life than Nell Regan, who published what Senia Pašeta has described as “a pioneering biographical essay on Molony” in 2001. That was the fruit of a decade’s intermittent research and meant, crucially, that, in Nell’s own words, “I was lucky enough to be doing my initial research at a time when there were still people alive who had known her”, such as Francis Stuart, Louie Coghlan O’Brien and Finian Czira. She was writing about someone who was the proverbial handshake away and a poet’s insight made that link all the more palpable.
When I saw an early draft of Nell’s book some two years ago I realised it needed to be published and SIPTU was good enough to sponsor it, otherwise it might never have seen the light of day. I understand that UCD has commissioned another biography of Helena Molony, which is all to the good and hopefully it will appear soon.
While Helena Molony’s own natural reticence offers a partial explanation for her obscurity over the decades she suffered from other serious handicaps as a subject of serious biography in twentieth century Ireland. It was not until we had begun to throw off our own inhibitions as a society that she could be given the serious and judicious assessment she deserved. In fairness to Eamon de Valera he described her at the time of her death in 1967 as
one of the great patriotic women of our time. With James Connolly and Countess Markievicz she worked for Irish freedom, for the Irish worker and for the poor. She stood firmly for the rights of women and their political equality with men in our society. She was admired and loved by those who knew her as a noble Irishwoman who had deeply at heart the welfare of our nation and its people.
He owed her, as he did those other “noble women” of her generation. On the eve of the Sinn Féin convention that elected him president on October 25th, 1917, he called to Kathleen Lynn’s home at 9 Belgrave Road, Rathmines, Dublin, to meet the “noble women” concerned, including Molony, to seek their endorsement for his candidacy the next day. As she recalled later, de Valera described himself at that meeting as a “very modest and retiring” individual. He told the women that he was not anxious to run but felt obliged to put himself forward as “that was the decision of the boys”. Molony described how de Valera asked “would he be acceptable to our lot”. It would be many decades before a leading Irish politician would seek the endorsement of “our lot” again.
Perhaps it was the relatively radical, even bohemian, milieu of rebel Dublin before and in the immediate aftermath of the Rising that made women as progressive as Helena Molony and Kathleen Lynn so blind to the nature of the political marriage they were entering. It is not as if they had no prior warning. As Nell Regan points out, the only woman elected to Count Plunkett’s makeshift conference of radical nationalists in the Mansion House on April 19th, 1917, was his wife, Countess Josephine Plunkett. At the October conference the women, now organised in Cumann na dTeachtaire, still only managed to secure four out of twenty-four seats on the new Sinn Féin executive. The price that struggle exacted from many activists was crippling and for Helena Molony there was a constant dichotomy between total engagement and withdrawal; whether switching from acting in the theatre to political activism, to union organising, to deeply felt but rarely realised personal relationships or retreating into bouts of alcoholism. The latter was perhaps inevitable given an alcoholic father who fed her drink, then an equally inebriate stepmother. The departure of her brother Frank to America in 1910 with his young bride removed the only stabilising influence in her life.
It was Frank who first encouraged her to join Inghinidhe na hÉireann rather than pester him about politics and, as she wrote in her witness statement, it was there that she met Maud Gonne, who “epitomised Ireland – the Ireland of the poets and dreamers … and made it real for me”. To Maud Gonne, Molony was “the most gallant and bravest of my Inghinidhe girls”, and for the latter the organisation would become the place “where I was fostered”. It certainly taught her how to develop her journalistic and acting talents, editing Bean na hÉireann, receiving her first theatre role as Delia Cahill in a production of Cathleen Ní Houlihan and quickly graduating not only to the Abbey stage but to the Dublin Police Courts, when she became the first woman arrested in the twentieth century for a political offence, to whit throwing a stone at a picture of King George V on the eve of his royal visit to Ireland in 1911.
But it was through editing Bean na hÉireann that her own political ideas developed, especially through the editorials she wrote and the “Labour Notes” column. For Helena Molony there was no conflict between the struggle for national freedom, sexual liberation, gender equality and economic and social justice. She believed that if the case for female suffrage was put “logically and forcibly before our countrymen, their love of freedom and sense of justice would compel them to give to women a voice and a place in the government of their common country”.
Yet she found it “unworthy and humiliating” to seek a vote from the English parliament. She saw in the more progressive attitude of Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League to women an assurance that an Irish democracy would be a fairer one than the Westminster regime. Therefore, it was not “a question of putting Nationality before sex or sex before Nationality. The two questions do not clash at all … the feminist cause in Ireland is best served by ignoring England.” She was persuasive, and among her many political apprentices was Countess Markievicz.
Like Markievicz she had a small income in the form of a legacy from her mother. It was tiny but, at £30 a year, not insignificant in an era when a general labourer often earned less than £50 annually. It was sufficient for a young woman to experiment in life rather than be thrown instantly into the alternatives of marriage or earning a living in a factory or shop. Yet, through the “Labour Notes” column, she came to see and draw other feminists to the conclusion that the struggle for workers’ rights was part of a wider, deeper democratic struggle that deeply affected women. It was in this context that Larkin, and later Connolly, had such an enormous impact on her. Connolly’s thesis that the cause of labour and Ireland were synonymous struck a note even before she met him, through reading issues of The Harp magazine that he published in New York, primarily for an Irish-American audience. “I only wish it was in Ireland you were publishing The Harp”, she wrote to him in 1909. “There is a very great need for a workers’ journal in Ireland.”
Her hopes were soon realised when he returned to Ireland in 1910 and was given a job by Larkin as the Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). She would become one of his closest associates in the years leading up to Easter Week 1916, taking over as general secretary of the Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) in 1915, following the ITGWU’s decision to dispense with Delia Larkin’s services after the latter’s brother departed for America in 1914. The fact that the IWWU was dealt with as a branch of the ITGWU, whose general secretary could be cavalierly changed, does not appear to have struck Molony or other female activists as either inappropriate or ominous.
Nell Regan does more than justice to filling out the years covered in Helena Molony’s witness statement and shows how the battle on so many fronts morphed into one struggle propelled by an integrity and idealism that drove Molony and other radical republicans into ultimate political isolation. The reality was that revolutionary Ireland did not hijack conservative Catholic nationalist Ireland’s political agenda in 1916; rather Catholic Ireland captured the revolution, much as the military committee of the IRB kidnapped Molony’s idol James Connolly in 1916 for their attempted putsch.
Although a prolific writer, like her friends Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne, Molony was rarely reflective. The priority was always the needs of the moment, whether it was an election campaign, working as a courier or arms carrier for the IRA, fighting for prisoners’ rights, adjudicating in Dáil courts or organising women workers. In the middle of all this she returned to the Abbey stage and performed regularly as required by her contract, which appears to have been her main source of income at times. She frequently won the critics’ praise and Nell Regan cites one perceptive reviewer, William Lawrence, who described Molony as an artist with a “capacity for self-obliteration”. It was a quality she brought to all she did, having a positive aspect in ensuring things were done that needed to be done and a negative, self-destructive one that led to bouts of alcoholism and illness.
It certainly played a role in her decision to stand down as general secretary of the IWWU in favour of Louie Bennett. Although Molony continued to serve as her deputy it was Bennett’s lifelong companion Helen Chenevix who became the real second-in-command. However, this left Molony free to concentrate on organising in particularly difficult areas, among domestic servants and women who worked from home, such as bag-makers. It also gave her the freedom, when feeling low, to buy a five shilling ticket to Holyhead, where she’d have lunch and “be home again by evening feeling marvellous!” The sea always had a therapeutic effect. Much later, when she met Eveleen O’Brien, they set up house together in Sutton, near the sea.
However, that was only after fighting a long rearguard action against the counter-revolution, which began, for Molony, with the Treaty. She managed to persuade the IWWU to vote against Labour running candidates in the first Free State Dáil elections, when the issue came up for debate at a special delegate conference of the Irish Labour and Trades Union Congress (IL&TUC) in February 1922. Instead the union advocated “the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a Workers’ Commonwealth, and these can only be achieved by direct action”. It was a reiteration of old style Connollyite syndicalism, but offered no practical alternative to the “parliamentarianism” that the IWWU denounced, and was defeated. Far from resigning herself to accepting the majority decision of the IL&TUC conference she threw herself into work with the anti-Treaty IRA and was the organisation’s paymaster for a period, handling all of its central funds in the opening phases of the Civil War.
Never again would she succeed in persuading the IWWU to take such a radical stance. At times she found herself at odds with Bennett and Chenevix over their acceptance of the principle that women should be paid less for the same work as male counterparts. It was a decision based on acceptance of the reality that in a male-dominated labour movement the only way the IWWU could secure support from other trade unions for its concerns was by not challenging the primacy of the male as the family breadwinner. It was not a principle that Helena Molony was ever comfortable with or ever conceded.
One particularly telling battle involved the Magdalene laundries, which were eroding the wages and conditions of other female laundry workers by using what was effectively slave labour to undercut commercial concerns. “In the sacred name of charity, wage earning women were being deprived of their employment,” she told the 1929 LP&TUC conference. But she never seems to have questioned the nature or legitimacy of the Magdalene institutions themselves. Even the few revolutionaries as radical as Molony no more questioned the control of the Catholic church over many areas of Irish life than they did the weather.
When she did challenge the growing conservative consensus she found herself increasingly isolated, even within the IWWU, by her continued support for causes such as the Russian Revolution. In 1930 she was one of the Dublin Trades Council delegation to the Soviet Union. But on its return both the Trades Council and her own union quickly distanced themselves from the Friends of the Soviet Union society set up in its aftermath. The IWWU even refused to take copies of the delegation’s report on a sale or return basis. As Nell Regan writes, Helena Molony was furious and insisted that the executive minutes record her view “that she thought it disgraceful that the IWWU should refuse to take cognisance of the report of their own fellow workers in preference to the reports of the capitalist press”. Worse was to follow when the union’s annual convention passed a motion regretting that “certain principles of religion and liberty are not upheld by Soviet Russia” by forty votes to fifteen. Relations between the cautious, sedate, but tough general secretary Louie Bennett and her predecessor became, as the author puts it, “increasingly … fraught and complicated”. Bennett threatened to resign for “health reasons and … friction with staff”. It was Molony, characteristically, who held out the olive branch and asked her to stay. It was a decisive clash that left Bennett in charge. It came not a moment too soon, because Helena Molony’s next foray into left republican politics was to become involved in Saor Éire, the attempt in the early 1930s by elements within the IRA to enter the political arena on Fianna Fáil’s left flank. The IWWU demanded that she either resign from its executive or that of Saor Éire. She resigned from Saor Éire.
That she continued to be held in high regard within the IWWU and the Irish Trades Union Congress (ITUC), even becoming the second woman after Bennett to be elected president of the latter, was a tribute to her organisational and negotiating skills on behalf of workers. As Nell Regan points out, when organisational issues were at stake rather than policy, Molony usually secured the support of the IWWU executive, which trusted her judgement when it came to handling disputes, fundraising and other practical matters. But the main battle on the industrial front had already been lost, from her perspective, when the Labour Party and ITUC split in 1930, the same year as her visit to the Soviet Union. The decision to part company marked the end of any lingering hope that Irish Labour would follow the Connollyite model.
Even her work with other organisations such as the militant feminist and republican Women Prisoners Defence League (WPDL) did not escape scrutiny. A throwaway remark about Ireland’s “unhappy history” with the Vatican during a WPDL rally in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress, brought down the wrath of Catholic Ireland on her head. Once again the IWWU behaved shabbily, issuing a statement that Molony was “on the staff of the Union but is not an officer. The Executive has no responsibility for the personal or political views of the staff.”
And yet she continued to command respect in her own right as an executive member of the Dublin Trades Council (DTC) as “someone who would do something”. The DTC even gave her a back door admission to the ITUC executive, becoming vice-president and president in the mid-1930s, when she represented Ireland at the International Labour Organisation. Nevertheless, these were difficult years. In an article on her hero, James Connolly, she wrote about “the sorry travesty of emancipation”. Women had the
once coveted right to vote, but they still have 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 and insanitary schools for their children, as well as the lowered standard of life for workers which, in their capacity as homemakers, hits the woman full force.
If there was any doubt about the economic status of women it was soon dispelled by the Conditions of Employment Bill, which proposed to give the Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass, power to exclude women from various occupations. The IWWU found itself isolated. Neither the Labour Party nor the ITUC would back the IWWU campaign to amend the legislation. The Labour leader, William Norton, attacked Molony personally, saying that her campaign, if successful, would see women demanding to work as “carpenters and blacksmiths”. It was of course a time when capitalism was in crisis, jobs were under attack and no male trade unionist would want to see women competing for jobs traditionally regarded as the exclusive preserve of men. However, the campaign did help raise consciousness among many women and one of the indirect consequences of the controversy was the founding of Mná na hÉireann, as a successor to the long defunct Inghinidhe na hÉireann.
It is a sign of current historical fashions that far more attention is given today to Helena Molony’s battle for a military pension than her role in trade union campaigns that had far greater significance for the vast majority of women. Nevertheless, it is significant that once more she led the charge, in every sense; challenging the concept that soldiers had to be men. In this, as in so many cases, she was decades ahead of her time. In this context her dispute with Sean O’Faolain over the use to which he put statements she gave him for his biography of Countess Markievicz is deeply ironic. The O’Faolain portrait of the countess as a vain, publicit- seeking revolutionary dilettante did her reputation lasting damage and was obviously deeply hurtful to Molony, who had been one of her closest friends and political allies. Typically, she asked O’Faolain why
many men seem unable to believe that any woman can embrace an ideal – accept it intellectually, feel it as a profound emotion, and then calmly decide to make a vocation of working for its realisation. They give themselves endless pains to prove that every serious thing a woman does (outside of nursing babies or washing pots) is the result of being in love with some man, or disappointed in love of some man, or limelight, or indulging her vanity.
As the treatment of her application for a military pension, and that of other ICA members such as Jinny Shanahan, demonstrated, O’Faolain’s attitude was not only widespread but seemed to be particularly pronounced among some IRA veterans. When Molony and other women sought to go over the head of Seán Lemass, who was little more than a boy in 1916, and talk to de Valera about their concerns regarding the Conditions of Employment Bill, he had clearly forgotten his own role as a suppliant of “our lot” in 1917. While “he listened attentively he could not see that men and women could be equal”.
In later years Helena Molony’s health interfered increasingly with her capacity to return to the fray. It was an indication of how deeply she felt the loss of friends and the failure to turn back the tide of reaction that she succumbed increasingly to her bouts of alcoholism. She was unable to deliver her presidential address to the ITUC because of it and, in 1941, she resigned on health grounds.
Her subsequent involvement in a typically quixotic venture to provide safe houses for the German spy Hermann Goertz was as much a symptom of her political disorientation as it was of her unending desire to do something in any situation rather than be inactive. It also provides the student of history, thanks to Irish Army intelligence reports, with a glimpse of how her alcoholism had entered a critical stage. It was out of this unpromising situation that she first met Dr Eveleen O’Brien, who took over her medical care from Kathleen Lynn. O’Brien was also able to give Molony the love and emotional support she had lost when her brother Frank had gone to America thirty years earlier. Despite the gap of eighteen years between them, both were republicans and rebels in every sense and, even more importantly, gave stability and meaning to each other’s lives that was not dependent on the external stimuli of politics, class conflict, gender equality or other causes. Eveleen O’Brien would live on into the 1980s and it is a pity we are not told a little more of her life post-Helena, but that is a tiny criticism of a book that has done more to rehabilitate its subject than anything else written over the past half-century.
Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918,A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 and A City in Civil War.