Republican army of chiffon and guns army

Exhibition remembers de Valera's 'boldest and most unmanageable revolutionaries'
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The picture could be of housewives on an Edwardian temperance society outing. But then there are the guns. In fact the women shown here were members of the Irish republican movement, pledged to throw off the yoke of British occupation.

Rallying to the nationalist leader Countess Constance Markiewicz's call to "dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver", hundreds of Irish women, from shop girls to society beauties, entered a world which their own journal called "a mixture of guns and chiffon".

There was little glamour in membership of the Irish republican movement circa 1916. The women were vilified by Irish newspapers who depicted them as unusually ruthless fighters who habitually shot their victims in the back.

Another publication, the Irish Weekly Times, reported from the General Post Office (GPO) during the Easter Rising that "the girls serving in the dining-room were dressed in the finest clothes and wore knives and pistols in their belts [and] white, orange and green sashes."

A Red Cross nurse attached to the British Army during the Rising spoke of the women's "cool and reckless courage". The republican leader Eamon de Valera himself said the women were "at once the boldest and most unmanageable revolutionaries".

Front-line republican soldiers included the school-teacher Mary Skinnider, 23, a sniper on the roof of the Royal College of Surgeons in St Stephen's Green. She recalled: "It was dark there, full of smoke and the din of firing, but it was good to be in action ... More than once I saw the man I aimed at fall." Miss Skinnider also planted a bomb in a nearby house and was later shot in three places.

In fact, even the chiffon cited by their journal was greeted less than enthusiastically by the women's leaders, who aimed to suppress what they regarded as traditionally gentle, feminine traits.

Frothy coiffures such as the American "Gibson-Girl" top-knot and kiss- curl style were outlawed, while make-up was discouraged as something favoured by shallow English females.

Not all accepted such austerity. After one such lecture on politically correct deportment, a disbelieving working-class Dublin girl retorted to a lady superior dressed entirely in black: "Glory be to Jasus, you don't expect us to dress like you!"

The ordinary women, many still in their teens, who joined Cumann na mBan (the women's division of the Irish Volunteers) fought side-by-side with the men. Today only a handful of junior members remain, among them 98 year-old Teresa O'Connell, one of 300 Cumann na mBan women imprisoned at Kilmainham prison in Dublin in 1923.

A comrade, Katherine "Jake" Folan, a republican courier jailed there at 15 in the cell earlier occupied by Patrick Pearse before his execution, recalled her term inside as one of the happiest in her life. The historian Sinead McCoole argues that the republican sisterhood, having broken out of an Edwardian straitjacket that had held them in the background of public life, had a far-from secondary role.

"Men's experiences, as in the prisons, the 'universities of struggle', took pride of place in the public eye. But much of the political work was done by women," she says. They raised and distributed money for prisoners' dependents from prams, held masses to focus attention on the prisoners' situation, organised highly dangerous communications and moved arms and ammunition.

Ms McCoole has now organised an exhibition at Kilmainham, re-opened as a museum, on the women and their activities.

Memorabilia on show ranges from revolvers to satin ball-gowns, rifle badges to prison biscuits so hard they were used as doorstops. Women's republican newspapers, in which even the gardening tips carried the nationalist message, appear alongside the hand-gun Markiewicz kissed before surrendering as the 1916 Easter Rising collapsed.

An illustrated book, Guns and Chiffon, 1916-1923 by Sinead McCoole accompanying the exhibition is available, price pounds 5, from the Kilmainham Jail Museum, Dublin 8, Telephone Dublin (00 353 1) 4535984.