BEAN na hEIREANN

On January 28, 1967, Helena Moloney died in Dublin.  Moloney was a great woman, born in Dublin in 1884, as a teen, she was deeply moved by a speech given by Maud Gonne and decided to join Inghinidhe na hÉireann (the Daughters of Ireland) a revolutionary women’s society founded by Maud Gonne on Easter Sunday 1900.  She went to Maud Gonne’s house to join up and arrived in the middle of a police raid.  Asked by the police if she was a member, she replied that she was and was proud to be, whereupon she was promptly arrested.  From the beginning, Helena played a prominent role in the organization and, when Maud was away Helena effectively ran it from 1903 onwards.  As organizer, Helena set up a newspaper called Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland), of which she became the editor in 1908. It advocated militancy, separatism, and feminism.  Under Helena’s editorship, the paper became quite successful and James Connolly, then in America writing his own paper, wrote encouragement.

It was Helena who recruited Constance Markievicz into the ranks of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and in 1909, with Markievicz, she became one of the founding members of Na Fianna (an Irish scout movement).  Helena joined a dramatic company and acted in plays in the Abbey Theatre, many of which were written by members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann.  She once even played the role of the mother in Cathleen Ní Houlihan, with Lady Gregory playing Cathleen. but her commitment to political and then labor activism would eventually end her acting career.  She was becoming more active in the Irish labor movement, working close with James Connolly who had returned from America.

In 1911, King George V proposed a visit to Dublin and Helena was at the forefront of the protests against the visit.  She was arrested for throwing a stone through a pro-British shop window on Grafton Street.  When she refused to pay the fine she was sentenced to one month in prison and became the first female jailed in the cause of Irish freedom since the days of the Ladies Land League some three decades earlier.  In her autobiography A Servant of the Queen, Maud Gonne wrote of the protestors: Indeed the women, including notable figures such as Helena Maloney, forced the pace in terms of organizing protest and were always in favor of the most direct action when it came to opposing the visit.  She served only 14 days because her fine was paid, unknown to her, by Anna Parnell, who wanted Helena to complete the work of editing the history of the Ladies Land League.  In 1913, Helena joined the Labor Movement and began to work more closely with James Connolly.  In 1915, Connolly asked her to become the Secretary of the Irish Women’s Workers Union.

She also joined the Irish Citizen Army and trained with them in the run up to the rising.  On one occasion, when the police were raiding Liberty Hall without a warrant, Helena held them at gunpoint until they decided to leave. After they left, an armed guard was placed on the hall to protect the printing press from seizure.  During the 1916 Rising, Helena joined Seán Connolly’s City Hall detachment as an officer.  The detachment was made up of nine women and 16 men.  In the first attack on Dublin Castle, Helena shot at a British soldier as grenades were thrown into the guardhouse.  They failed to go off and Seán Connolly ordered the detachment to occupy the building. During the ensuing battle, Connolly was shot while sniping on the roof.  Helena crawled to his fallen body and he died with his head cupped in her hands.

When City Hall fell to the British, Helena was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. A few hours later, when they went to question her, they found the lock half off the door and Helena’s fingers bleeding from trying to escape. Helena was then moved to Kilmainham Jail, where she again tried to escape by starting a tunnel with an iron spoon.  She was tried before a military court, found guilty and imprisoned in Lewis and Aylesbury Jails. She was released in December 1916.

During the Tan War, Helena worked with Constance Markievicz in the Ministry of Labor and was an aide to Michael Collins and Liam Mellows.  She also served as a District Justice in the republican courts in Rathmines.  She was f the many women who opposed the Treaty and supported the Republican side during the Civil War. She continued to work for labor and republican causes after the war.  She never abandoned the republican cause.  She was active with the Women’s Prisoner’s Defense League and the People’s Rights Association during the 1930s and  in 1931 she helped found Saor Éire, with Frank Ryan, a republican organization that was outlawed by Fianna Fáil. In 1934, when Fianna Fail started to imprison IRA men, scarcely a year after they had helped the party to power, Helena called a meeting at College Green.  Over 15,000 turned up to hear speeches from Maud Gonne, Maurice Twomey and Helena.  She was elected an urban district councilor for Rathmines and Rathgar in Dublin City and fought to re-house families living in tenement housing.  Helena subsequently, became a member of Mná na hÉireann, which sought equal rights and opportunities for women.  In 1936, she was the first woman to become president of the Irish Trade Union Congress.

Helena continued to work for the causes of socialism and republicanism that she believed in until illness forced her to retire from public life in 1946.  Despite the fact that there were some who didn’t share her beliefs, she never wavered in her commitment to a free and independent Ireland.  On 28 January 1967, 44 years ago, Helena Moloney died of pneumonia in Dublin at the age of 84.  She was buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.  She was truly a Bean na hEireann (Woman of Ireland).

Print this entry