Monday, 24 October 2016

Sorcha Nic Diarmada and the role of women in 1916

The marriage of Annie McCluskey and Patrick McDermott - Dublin 1907
Patrick's sister Sarah (Sorcha Nic Diarmada) is seated lady in round white hat on left

Something which has always interested me about Irish history is the prominent role of women in areas including literature and the arts, religious life, science, political leadership and, specifically, the early 20th century struggle for Irish independence.

Such is the influence of women in Irish history that the country itself has from ancient times been personified as female with names such as Erin, Roisin Dubh and Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Poets from Yeats to Heaney have developed the idea so successfully that it seems more powerful than being merely a traditional metaphorical representation and speaks of deeply rooted cultural and spiritual values.

Countess Markievicz was undoubtedly the most celebrated female leader of the 1916 Rising, described as a charismatic revolutionary, a politician, suffragette and socialist. Markievicz was one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position, as Minister for Labour in the Irish Republic from 1919-1922.

But we should not overlook the fact that Markievicz was the best known of many thousands of Irish (and Anglo-Irish) women who were active in the 1916 Rising and the subsequent War of Independence. I was reminded of this fact recently by a correspondent on Ancestry, a gentleman named Mike McDermott whose family settled in Yorkshire in the 1860s because Mike’s great grandfather, also Michael McDermott, had to leave Ireland under suspicion for his “Fenian activities”.

Mike’s grandfather Patrick McDermott married his grandmother Annie McCluskey in Dublin in 1907. The connection with my own ancestors was through the McCluskey family, Annie’s father Nicholas McCluskey was a close friend and political ally of my great-great grandfather John McDonnell, a blind basket maker and founding member of the League of the Blind (a trade union of blind people). McDonnell and McCluskey were both elected Poor Law Guardians in the North Dublin Union and used their position to campaign for better conditions for poor and disabled people in Dublin. Fresh information from Mike indicates that Nicholas and John were more than just lifelong friends and co-conspirators, but relatives - as there were a number of cousins named McDonnell on the wedding photograph of his grandparents, Patrick and Annie.

But how does this connect to the role of women in the 1916 Rising? The McDermott family originated from Leitrim and Mike’s family share ancestors with Sean MacDiarmada (McDermott), a signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read by Patrick Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin. But a much closer link to this momentous period of Irish history was through a sister of Mike’s grandfather, Sarah McDermott (Sorcha Nic Diarmada), a teacher born at Normanton in West Yorkshire in 1878.

Sarah was one of the ten children of Michael and Mary McDermott from Glenkeel in Leitrim. Her father had settled in the north of England shortly after the unsuccessful Fenian Rising of 1867. Neighbouring Lancashire had become a hotbed of Fenian activity in the 1860s with the infamous prison van attack in Manchester in 1867, which was followed by a prison bombing in London. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in1858 and it was reported that within a few years every city in England had IRB units. Sarah and her siblings may therefore have grown up in an area of Fenian support but also within the wider trade union culture of the industrial north of England.

After training as a teacher in Leeds, Sarah went to live and work in London where she became active in the Irish community and in the movement for Ireland’s independence. Many years later, in 1954, she provided a witness statement to the Bureau of Military History about her involvement in the Cumman na mBan, the Irish republican women’s paramilitary organisation formed in 1914 and led by Countess Markievicz.

The archive of the Bureau of Military History ( is a rich online source of personal testimonies from people who were directly involved in the history of the fight for Irish independence from 1913 to 1921. The great thing about this archive is that it is not just about ‘the usual culprits’, but includes detailed memories from ordinary citizens – the lesser known foot soldiers and activists.

Sarah McDermott’s testimony follows her involvement in cultural activities, such as organising concerts and cèilidh dances as Social Secretary of the Gaelic League in London to purchasing and smuggling arms to Ireland in preparation for the 1916 Rising. She also describes the activities of groups like the Irish Ladies’ Distress Committee who were widely involved in sewing and collecting garments for people in Ireland affected by the War of Independence.

What these memories highlight is the huge involvement in Irish independence of people in England and in particular of women. Sarah was eventually arrested in London by British detectives working in collaboration with the Government of the Irish Free State on doubtful charges of conspiracy. She was transported to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in a group of 10 female and 90 male prisoners arrested in England, most of whom were later released. During her confinement Sarah was ill-treated and assaulted by prison staff and soldiers and after her release in 1923 she was indemnified by the British Government to the figure of £600, the highest amount paid to a woman in this group of prisoners.

I wish to thank Mike McDermott for telling us about his ancestor Sarah McDermott, the radical teacher from West Yorkshire. 

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