A Mixture Of Guns And Chiffon

On the Radical Dress of Irish Women Rebels

Countess Markievicz as Joan of Arc in suffrage pageant, Photo by Roe McMahon, 1914. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.
Countess Markievicz as Joan of Arc in a suffrage pageant. Photo by Roe McMahon, 1914. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

AROUND 1916, A WOMAN better known as Countess Constance Markievicz had her picture professionally taken by a photography firm in Dublin. Later in her life, she would become known as the first woman MP to be elected to the British Parliament in 1918, but already by the time of this photograph, her role as a political activist in Ireland was common knowledge.

1916 would prove a crucial year for Markievicz. After months of preparation, the Easter Rising – the Irish rebellion against the British which attempted to establish an Irish Republic – finally began on April 24, 1916. She would serve as a commander of the Irish Citizen Army, and it was in this uniform that she chose to be photographed.  

Today, her photograph resides in the archives of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Its corners may be faded and yellowing, but even over one hundred years later, it’s difficult to ignore the captivating majesty of her profile. Leaning on a studio prop, she gazes into the distance, her body alert, fingers gently but firmly gripping her pistol. Her uniform is in immaculate condition; her leather breeches shine, the feather plumes in her hat luxuriously spilling over the sides, a defiant gesture towards the traditional contours of feminine dress. Her contemporaries often spoke of Markievicz’s pride in her military uniform. On one occasion, fellow activist and feminist Nancy Wyse Power recalled how Markievicz took a ‘childish delight’ in showing her uniform to her friends.1 The press couldn’t have enough of her. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising and Markievicz’s surrender, The Irish Times described her figure as apparently ‘dressed entirely in green, including green shoes’ — an apparent declaration of nationalist intent. She was a larger-than-life caricature, even down to reports that she supposedly, on surrender, took out her revolver and kissed it affectionately before handing it over to the officer.2 

In 2016, Markievicz became infamous once again. Posters, wall murals and even the sides of buses bore her image, as she fast became an emblem of the centenary celebrations of the Easter Rising. But behind Markievicz are hundreds of other stories, of women not just passively silenced by male-dominated histories or a state which sought that their presence be shaped by the trope of ‘Mother Ireland,’ but women who, like Markievicz, saw the political potential of their sartorial choices, and exploited them.

This was achieved, predominantly, through two approaches: either harnessing the domesticated role of ‘mother’ – through first-aid and cooking – as a way into the all-male space of the barracks, or, by switching between modes of gendered clothing. By using both the military uniform and ordinary everyday feminine dress, women rebels were able to determine when it was politically advantageous to be either visible or invisible. As Margaret Skinnider explained, ‘the work of war can only be done by those who wear its dress.’3 

In 1900, the women’s nationalist organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’) was formed, while the first women’s newspaper Bean na hÉireann (‘Women of Ireland’) – described by editor Helena Molony as ‘a mixture of guns and chiffon’ – was created in 1904. This pattern of women’s political assertion was matched by an increasing level of activism, from the unashamedly radical Irish Women’s Franchise League to the Irish Women Workers’ Union. The formation of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 marked a further shift in women’s political consciousness, as the rise of militancy set in motion the creation of a women’s organisation that would encourage further debate and awareness about politically mobilised women. Established in 1914, Cumann na mBan was originally established as an ancillary force to the male Volunteers. Yet many women were disillusioned with a relegated place in politics. Maeve Cavanagh described how she ‘got tired’ of her Harcourt Street branch of Cumann na mBan and instead decided to leave and initiate herself fully within the ICA’s increasingly radical agenda.4 Cavanagh’s actions were indicative of a wider militaristic shift in the organisation, and within the space of a year, both the male and female members were divided into sections, with the adoption of military titles such as ‘squad commander’ and ‘section leaders.’5  This took on an increasingly visible manifestation through the creation of a militaristic uniform, which made its first appearance at the 1915 convention. For the women, this uniform consisted of a dark green heavy tweed material. Most women wore a skirt in the same colour while others, such as Markievicz, opted for the highly unconventional choice of trousers. In some instances, it was even inferred that the men and women wore the same, if not very similar, uniform, with Helena Molony describing the attire of Countess Markievicz as follows: ‘Her Citizen Army dress up to the week before the Rising consisted of a plain tweet costume with a sam browne belt and black turned up hat, similar to the men’s with a small bunch of cocks feathers. She went out to the rebellion in the uniform coat of Michael Mallin, who had got a new uniform. And he was so slim his coat fitted her perfectly.’6 

Photograph of Countess Constance Markievicz in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army, c. 1916. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum.
Countess Constance Markievicz in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army, c. 1916. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

Such political involvement soon began to include a performance element. From the ‘Suffrage Week’ in Dublin, December 1913, to the national fête of April 1914, titled ‘Daffodil Day,’ these events provided a public platform for acknowledging the contributions of women to politics and wider society. During ‘Daffodil Day’ in particular, performance was pivotal in the depiction of women’s strength, with an emphasis on the theme of ‘great women in history.’ During the fifteen individual presentations on the day, four focused on Joan of Arc, two of which were performed by Countess Markievicz. In 1936 in an article in the Irish Press, the suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington recalled Markievicz’s enthusiasm in trying to emulate Joan of Arc, revealing how years later during the Easter Rising she caught sight of Markievicz in action ‘wearing the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army.’ She continued, ‘that earlier vision of Joan flashed upon my mind’s eye. They were not so far apart.’7 

The result of these deliberately self-conscious outfit choices was an increasing analogy to soldier-status, as well as encouraging the training of arms. This correlation between historical figures and the establishment of contemporary political identity was reinforced by Markievicz’s five-part series in the Irish Citizen newspaper from 6 November to 4 December 1915, which explored the women of the United Irishman Uprising, using historical examples to inspire her readers into action.8  Previously, in October 1915, Markievicz had spoke of how ‘ancient Ireland bred warrior women,’ referring to ‘super-women’ such as the ‘Maeves’ and the ‘Machas.’9 Traditionally, Irish nationalism invoked purified images of womanhood – Ireland was often represented as either the youthful and beautiful maiden Roisin Dubh or as the motherly, elderly woman Shan Van Vocht – which meant that the political presence of women was regularly sanitised within this discourse of femininity. In reclaiming mythological figures, therefore, Irish women were able to take back some control over their public identity. Uniforms became an extended metaphor for an independent Irish femininity.  

Yet it wasn’t just a matter of reclaiming historical figures but redefining the modern parameters for Irish women’s identity. Figures such as Countess Markievicz embodied the creation of the ‘New Woman,’ as she encouraged women to reject the false standards of womanhood. She urged women to ‘escape from their domestic ruts, their feminine pens’ and instead, dress ‘suitably in short skirts and strong boots… and buy a revolver.’10 The ability to move from a role of passivity to militancy was further highlighted by Margaret Skinnider in her memoir: ‘Whenever I was called down to carry a despatch, I took off my uniform, put on my gray dress and hat and went out the side door of the college with my message. As soon as I returned, I slipped back into my uniform and joined the firing squad.’11 In another instance, when writing to her sister, Nora, Nell Humphrey admitted her disappointment with her daughter’s androgynous clothing; ‘I used to feel ashamed of Sighle as being unwomanly . . .’12 That these women were required to switch between binary roles reveals the extent to which the cultural conditioning of Irish womanhood was an obstacle. In a warzone, a military uniform had the potential to validate and legitimise the women’s presence, but at an ‘unwomanly’ cost in any other social setting. What exactly did Nell Humphrey mean when she admitted to feeling shame when greeted with her daughter’s attire? Sighle’s androgynous presentation was more a declaration of military and political sincerity, rather than a statement of anti-feminine intent. To return to Margaret Skinnider’s earlier statement that ‘the work of war can only be done by those who wear its dress,’ it’s worth evaluating the extent to which these sartorial decisions were less about political statements and more the realisation that femininity was not as rigid as the excessively womanly tropes such as ‘Mother Ireland’ suggested.

Many women were quick to capitalise on the subversion tactics granted to them by their fashion choices. One example was dressmaker Lizzie Morrin, who made waistcoats and jackets with hidden pockets so guns and weapons could be smuggled unobtrusively.13 This proved especially beneficial for the women carrying dispatches – the messages passed between the various rebel leaders stationed in a series of barracks across the city of Dublin. Dispatch carrying was without a doubt an incredibly dangerous undertaking, requiring the women to travel between the nationalist bases and the British army lines, and was a challenge unreservedly accepted by many of the women. One observer described how ‘that was a point of honour with them – to succeed or be killed.’14 Margaret Skinnider gave numerous instances of carrying dispatches yet remaining entirely unnoticed because of her gender. She described a policeman in St. Stephen’s Green who ‘paid no attention to me’’ as she was ‘only a girl on a bicycle.’15 On another occasion, Catherine Byrne was praised for her ingenuity when she rolled a note into her bun to avoid being caught.16 To the men involved, these women blended in because of these everyday roles and outfits, so much so, that they became quite literally invisible. Which explains why Marie Perolz, having dressed her little niece up in a velvet coat and bonnet, was able to fulfil her secret tasks unnoticed, despite the fact that she was also carrying a basket full of revolvers.17 

Visibility brought its own dangers. For both the British and Irish soldiers involved, there was considerable confusion, and often anger, at the presence of women in a war zone. There was a clear sense of expectation and boundaries, from nationalist rebel leader de Valera’s outright refusal to allow women combatants into Boland’s Mill, to fellow leader Thomas MacDonagh’s response to the arrival of one of the Cumann na mBan leaders, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh: ‘We haven’t made any provision for girls here.’18 In her recollections of her involvement in the Rising, the then-teenager Catherine Byrne described having to physically break into the General Post Office nationalist barracks in order to be involved, kicking in the glass of a window and jumping inside, on top of a male Volunteer. She had tried to ask beforehand, only to be greeted with a resounding no and threats that her brother would be told.19 

In her memoirs, Margaret Skinnider wrote in great detail of how she was viewed by the male combatants. Frequently she was shot at in her masculinised military uniform as she recalled how ‘soldiers on top of the Hotel Shelbourne aimed their machine-gun directly at me. Bullets struck the wooden rim of my bicycle wheels, puncturing it; others rattled on the metal rim or among the spokes.’20 Even those tending to the injured were active targets, with the British shooting at the Irish first-aid girls who ‘made excellent targets in their white dresses, with large red crosses on them… Bullets passed through one girl’s skirt, and another girl had the heel of her shoe shot off.’21

The national daily newspapers largely ignored the contributions of women, with one of the first editions of the newspapers portraying events purely in masculine terms. In one report, The Irish Times vaguely speculated as to what role the women might play, emphasising domestic duties such as working in the kitchen.22 The only woman to get any form of considerable press coverage was Countess Markievicz, but even this was in a predominantly derogatory tone, with an exaggerated and almost comical depiction of her outfits. When women did receive public acknowledgement, it rarely captured the nuances of their uniforms, instead juxtaposing delicate femininity with the uncomfortably brash imagery of violence. One press report declared that women were ‘serving in the dining room of the Post Office dressed in their finest clothes, and wore knifes and pistols in their belts. . . wearing green and white and orange sashes.’ By juxtaposing femininity and nationalism in this way, it reinforced the necessity for women to return to the domesticated shrine of ‘Mother Ireland’ that had been created for them.

1916 was not to be the year of Irish independence. Although the rebels were able to stave off encroaching British troops for six days across the city, British artillery resulted in the surrender of the General Post Office garrison and the dramatic surrender of Markievicz from the base at the Royal College of Surgeons. Of the estimated three hundred women who took part, seventy-seven women were arrested in the immediate aftermath. Even in the face of defeat, the women rebels continued with their military spectacle, the visual and public display of women in arms reinforced by Irish nationalist Rose McNamara’s description of arrested women carrying rifles and as many as three revolvers.23 The decision to support the men in the surrender was a statement of intent. As Skinnider claimed in her memoirs, ‘we had the same right to risk our lives as the men.’24

And yet of the seventy-seven women who were arrested, only one woman – Countess Markievicz – was put on trial. Although she was given the death sentence, the fact that she was a woman meant that her charge was changed to life imprisonment, with the next few years of her life spent in and out of prison. And even though other leading political figures such as Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Nora O’Daly and Nellie Gifford were seen as dangerous and kept in prison for longer than most women, they were still released by the summer of 1916. The role of women as key political protagonists soon was relegated to secondary status, as events passed into the annals of history and the story of these women was drowned out by the nationalist overtures of a masculinised history. Like with the nationalist movement which predated the Rising, the concept of motherhood was a way of allowing women to share, and crucially assist, in the political experience of seeking independence for Ireland while simultaneously restricting what womanhood would actually entail in this new independent utopia. The result was a complicated silencing of these women’s contributions to the history of Irish nationalism, a dominant state narrative resulting in the continuation of an overtly exaggerated, masculinised militarism which would only start to slowly dismantle towards the end of the century.

From both the actual events of the conflict itself to the writing of its history, it is clear that political activism for Irish women was woven, quite literally, into the fabric of their everyday lives. Against a backdrop of rising militancy, women were able to exploit gendered expectations for their own political gain as well as challenge traditional domestic images by creating a militarised public space and identity, aided by their sartorial choices. We opened on the image of Markievicz, proudly bearing her arms as a political badge of honour. So it is apt to close on the group of women who participated in the Rising, photographed together in its aftermath during the summer of 1916 and capturing the diversity of women involved. The mix of military uniform blended in with the soft feminine dress of the period captures the quintessential essence of being a political woman in Ireland, emphasised by an ability to see the radical potential of clothing. By using the concept of a uniform, women were able to subvert the strictures of everyday gendered dress and redefine the parameters of their political participation. This photo captures the subtle nuances of Irish women’s efforts to overcome such difficulties, using clothing to challenge both political and social convention.

Photograph of the women who took part in the 1916 rising in the garden of Ely O’Carroll’s house, 1916. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum.
The women who took part in the 1916 rising, in the garden of Ely O’Carroll’s house, c. 1916. Courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum.

Tess Davidson is a freelance writer and journalist, recently graduated from King’s College Cambridge. She is currently working at the Times Literary Supplement.

  1. Miss Nancy Wyse Power, BMH Witness Statement 541, p 17. 

  2. The Irish Times, 2 May 1916. 

  3. M Skinnider, Doing My Bit for Ireland (1917), p. 163. 

  4. Mrs MacDowell (Maeve Cavanagh), BMH Witness Statement 258, p. 3. 

  5. S McCoole, No Ordinary Women: Irish Female Activists in the Revolutionary Years 1900-1923 (2015), p. 31. 

  6. Helena Molony, BMH Witness Statement 391, p. 54 

  7. A Matthews, Renegades: Irish Republic Women 1900-1922 (2010) , pp.97-8. 

  8. ‘Constance Markievicz’s Allegorical Garden: Femininity, Militancy, and the Press, 1909-1915,’ Women’s Studies 29 (2000), 423-447, at p. 428. 

  9. “The future of Irish Women”, a speech given by Countess Markievicz, October 1915. 

  10. M Ward, In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism ( 2001 edition), p. 52. 

  11. L McDiarmid, At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916 (2015), pp. 21-22.  

  12. Ibid 

  13. A Matthews, p. 114. 

  14. S McCoole, Guns and Chiffon: Women Revolutionaries and Kilmainham Gaol, 1916-1923, (1997) p. 16. 

  15. M Skinnider, p.95. 

  16. Mrs Catherine Rooney (Byrne), BMH Witness Statement 648, p.8. 

  17. Mrs Mary ‘Marie’ Flanagan (Perolz), BMH Witness Statement 246, p. 7. 

  18. Pašeta, Irish Nationalist Women, p. 181; Nic Shiubhlaigh, The Splendid Years, p. 168. 

  19. Mrs Catherine Rooney (Byrne) BMH Witness Statement 648, p. 2. 

  20. M Skinnider, p. 121. 

  21. Ibid., p. 124. 

  22. The Irish Times, 12 May 1916. 

  23. Miss Rose McNamara, BMH Witness Statement 482, p. 9. 

  24. M Skinnider, p. 142.