Female Spies in the Irish War of Independence
Women played a minor role in the Easter Rising of 1916. But they became crucial intelligene agents in the Anglo-Irish War.
Women struggled to find their place in the Irish revolutionary movement. Most of those who did make it into the republican garrisons during the Easter Rising of 1916 were barred from active combat. With its defeat and the execution of its leaders came the realisation that independence could not be won through traditional means. A new kind of war would require new kinds of strategies and warriors. Beginning in 1918, the Irish Republican Army officer Michael Collins embraced irregular military tactics to undermine British rule over the island, taking advantage of a population of revolutionaries largely ignored by other leaders: women. Though Countess Constance Markiewicz had counseled women in 1909 to ‘not trust to their “feminine charm” and … capacity for getting on the soft side of men’, femininity became a revolutionary woman’s most valuable weapon just a decade later. The gender stereotypes that barred women from full participation in the Rising became their greatest assets as combatants during the Anglo-Irish War, which broke out in 1919.As martial law and internment forced male revolutionaries into hiding, women carried out revolutionary tasks in plain sight. While any man with an Irish accent could be held under suspicion of collusion with the IRA, it was difficult to discern a woman’s politics from her appearance alone. Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council) member Catherine Wisely looked like any other mother taking her baby for a stroll, but smuggled ammunition in the blankets of her son’s pram. Family photographer Bridget McGrath’s camera bag was her camouflage as she carried dispatches to the Tipperary IRA’s No. 2 flying column. ‘I usually carried a camera’, she explained in her witness statement for the Bureau of Military History. ‘If held up by police or military, I was supposed to be out photographing.’ Female revolutionaries represented all ages and social classes. Brigid Lyons (later Thornton) carried messages in her notes as she attended medical classes at University College Galway. Socialite Moya Llewelyn Davies also aided the revolutionaries, her English husband a perfect foil for her politics.Male insistence on women’s weakness was also used by the revolutionaries. Several women recalled soldiers and police officers coming to their aid as they committed treason against the government. Thornton described a close call smuggling arms on the train, saying a police officer entered her cabin yet never searched her bags. The officer later told a colleague: ‘Don’t disturb the lady’s luggage.’ Nancy O’Brien shared a similar story, saying one police officer helped her unload a suitcase full of guns and ammunition from a tram, delivering it right to her front door without a second thought to its possible contents.A woman’s ability to be an active revolutionary while living a seemingly normal life was particularly valuable in espionage. Josephine Marchmont gave local IRA brigades advance warnings of raids and arrests from her post as secretary at the British Army’s 6th Division Headquarters in Cork. Post official Siobhán Creedon intercepted telegraphs, sending the information to the IRA headquarters in Dublin for dissemination to local units. Some of the most critical intelligence work was carried out within the seat of British government in Ireland: Dublin Castle. Under-Secretary James McMahon had no idea that, in her position as General Post Office clerk, Nancy O’Brien was a fervent nationalist when he put her in charge of coded messages going in and out of Dublin Castle. He was also unaware of her family connections. O’Brien made copies of the coded messages during her lunch hour, smuggling them out of the office into the hands of her cousin – Michael Collins.Family ties also brought Lily Mernin into Collins’ spy network in the castle. Upon hearing that she had been hired as a secretary, her cousin Pieras Béaslaí convinced her to begin routing information to IRA headquarters. Mernin made carbon copies of personnel lists, memos and other government documents for Collins and his Dublin Brigade and was particularly effective at turning office gossip into actionable intelligence for the IRA. Conversations with one frequent visitor, who, ‘while under the influence of drink … was liable to talk a lot’, resulted in information on planned raids on safe houses and arrests. ‘Whatever tit-bits [sic] of information I could glean … I immediately passed on to the intelligence section’, she explained.Lieutenant GThe British spoke openly in front of the secretary because she was a woman; the Irish trusted her because they believed she was a man. In an effort to protect her identity and lend credibility to the information she provided, Mernin became known as ‘Lt. G’. On 17 November 1920, Collins sent a memo to the Dublin Brigade Commandant, Dick McKee, confirming the identity of key British operatives, saying ‘arrangements should now be made about the matter. Lt. G is aware of things’. The group assassinated members of the Cairo Gang (a group of British Intelligence agents, later described by Collins as the ‘particular ones’) three days later. On what was to become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, the IRA made good on its promise to make Ireland ungovernable – few knew the entire operation had rested on the work of a secretary.Accepting the idea that women were capable actors in times of social crisis opened the door to more uncomfortable ideas, including women’s right to participate in the new nation they had helped establish. Accompanying these ideas was the unspoken fear that women could undermine the new Free State government just as they had undermined the old. The government responded by emphasising that female contributions were appreciated, but no longer necessary. The 1924 Military Service Pensions Act did not include Cumann na mBan; therefore most women were not eligible for pensions. The 1934 Act extended eligibility with a catch. Regardless of their service record, all female claims were assigned the lowest rankings and, therefore, the lowest pensions. Some women appealed these decisions in the hopes of forcing the government to acknowledge the important role they played in securing Irish independence; the majority were denied. Debates over Siobhán Creedon Lankford’s 1934 appeal dragged on for eight years, though several male veterans testified on her behalf. Adding insult to injury, government officers misspelt her last name on all her pension documents.Future participationAs female revolutionaries struggled for recognition of their past, female politicians struggled to secure participation in the nation’s future. Jenny Wyse Power, Cumann na mBan president from 1914 to 1917, was a stalwart for women’s rights in the Free State Seanad. She exposed the hypocrisy in the government’s logic during debates over the 1925 Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill, which would make women ineligible for most civil service positions. ‘When [the Executive Council] wanted messengers to go into dangerous places they did not call on members of their own sex … I regret that this has come from the men who were associated in the fight with women who played the part at a time when sex and money were not considerations.’In war, women were successful ‘playing the part’ because of the ways that society interpreted what they could and could not do. Gender stereotypes that said women must stay silent and in the background provided the perfect cover for revolutionary activity. It was not merely that women were not considered a threat, but that often they were not considered at all. Unlike the women who drilled with the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army before the Rising, female spies, couriers and arms smugglers posed no threat to the traditional spheres of manhood. They undermined social stereotypes by using them to their advantage.Being female, however, proved to be a shortcoming in peacetime. The greatest blow to women’s rights came in Article 41.2.1 of the 1937 Constitution: ‘By her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.’ With their futures confined to the home and their pasts consigned to the footnotes of Irish history, female spies and revolutionaries again faded into the background. With the 2003 opening of the Bureau of Military History Digital Archives and periodic additions to the Military Service Pension Archives, historians are beginning to extract women from the shadows. Irish independence would not have been possible without them, but most still remain hidden in plain sight.Kate Murphy Schaefer researches female participation in revolutions and wars. This article was originally publised in the August 2018 issue of History Today with the title ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’.