Louise Byrne

Forgotten Heroes

Women of the revolution

Sighle's daughter Cróine Magan says that her mother was not interested in taking credit for her revolutionary campaign. Which is just as well really, because the role of women has largely been omitted from the history of the rising, War of Independence and Civil War.

“Women were forgotten for ages, even still there are so few women in political life. De Valera's constitution was so anti-woman, keeping the women in their home, refusing to allow them to work once married. That was very anti-feminist,” she says.

“She would never think she was important enough to have a place in the history of the State. She did what she felt necessary at the time. Because she was such a strong character what she felt necessary was a lot more than other women might have done”

Department of Taoiseach files from 1929 suggested Sighle "had been active for the past seven years in propaganda against the established government".

"The band of gun-men who are associated with this woman, have terrorised many citizens.

During her time in Kilmainham she made sure to leave a message on her cell wall to inform future freedom fighters.

“Tunnel begun in basement of laundry, inside door at left, may be of use to successors, good luck, S.” The markings, which still survive, also include the message: “Ní suíocháin go saoirse.” (No peace until freedom).

In 1926 Sighle Humphreys became director of publicity for Cumann na mBan, and was its leading Dublin activist for a decade thereafter. Until her death in 1994 she maintained that the Ireland "Connolly fought for" had not been realised.
Images by kind permission of the Magan and Comerford families.

Thanks to Dr Mary McAuliffe, Sinead McCoole and Robert Canning.

To mark the centenary of the establishment of Cumann na mBan, RTÉ News presents the story of two extraordinary women who used their courage, skill and ingenuity to further the cause of nationalism.

They are women forgotten by history.

Máire Comerford was a lifelong supporter of Cumann na mBan and remained a committed supporter of republican causes until her death in her ninetieth year. When she passed away in1982 she was described as “the grand old dame of republicanism.”

Máire travelled the country organising branches of Cumann na mBan, carrying dispatches for Michael Collins and reporting on the activities of the Black and Tans.

With only her bicycle for transport, Máire cycled the length of the southern coast providing a crucial line of information and support to the Dublin-based cause.

During the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin in June 1922, she carried communications between the anti-Treaty forces and the IRA’s Dublin brigade.

In January 1923 she was involved in a Sinn Féin plan to kidnap the Taoiseach, William T Cosgrave. However, she was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy jail, where she staged a protest against overcrowding.

For this, she was removed to the criminal section of the prison and given a three-month sentence of hard labour. Her response was to go on hunger strike.

During that time in prison, she was shot in the leg by a soldier, and she would always maintain afterwards that this was because she was waving to fellow prisoners.
“In a typical Irish way they didn’t want much praise, they didn’t care for it. But, I think that Máire would have wanted some acknowledgement of the general female role, because she speaks of great women who were exceptionally brave," Cassie says.

“They don’t get any real credit in the history of that time."

The story of the two friends makes for uncomfortable reading in the aftermath of the Civil War. Sighle Humphreys continued to support the republican cause, sympathising with the Germans during World War II and supporting IRA violence through the 1970s and 1980s. But, her battle began decades earlier, and her lifelong fight must be understood within the context of the period.

Listening to archive audio of the women there is a noticeable reluctance to address the more violent aspects of their involvement. Sighle fired in anger, and Máire was shot in the leg, but neither would dwell on the fact. Were the women embarrassed by their actions? Or had even they begun to accept the narrative of history, that the role of women was auxiliary, secondary, and ultimately unremarkable?
Cassie Comerford's middle name is Máire. Named after her grand-aunt, the 21-year-old is proud of her heritage and admits that when pressed she can demonstrate Máire's much-lauded toughness.

Cassie says: "She was extremely passionate and willing to do anything for the cause. She stayed under the radar so she was able to travel quite freely.

"I never met her but anytime my Dad speaks to me about her it comes across she was really a tough woman. She was shot in the leg, she was one of the first female groups to go on hunger strike which really shocked the Free State forces because they didn't really know how to respond to women going on hunger strike.

"She speaks at one point about how she never really felt that she was in danger, but if you read about the things that happened it is astonishing that she never felt in danger.

“Her life was really at risk for quite long time but she seemed just resilient. The cause - that’s all she really cared about.

Travelling on a false passport (pictured below) Máire was sent on a fundraising mission to the United States by de Valera in 1924.

Listening back to an interview from the RTÉ radio archives, the impassioned voice of Sighle Humphrey's jumps from the speakers.

“The one priority was to get our freedom. We were never looking for credit. Both the men and the girls were so full of idealism that I think those kinds of things would never enter their minds.”

Sighle came from a deeply republican family. Her uncle, the O'Rahilly, was the only person to die in action during the Easter 1916 violence, her mother was also imprisoned in the aftermath of the rising. Her home on Dublin's Ailesbury Road was a safe house for anti-Treaty campaigners during the Civil War.

During a raid on the premises Sighle opened fire and an officer was killed. She always denied firing the fatal shot, but she was known to be one of the best shots in the Ranelagh branch of Cumann na mBan, so there has been some degree of skepticism of her recollection.

Sighle was imprisoned for three years, kept in solitary confinement and ultimately undertook a 31-day hunger strike.

One of Ireland's leading revolutionaries also regularly baked brown soda bread.

"I am charged with being a member of Cumann na mBan and I admit it. You are very foolish to try and suppress that organisation, for we thrive on suppression," she said.
Sighle Humphreys and Máire Comerford were imprisoned and held in solitary confinement "for what the Staters called our 'defiant attitudes'". The lifelong friends were also among the first group of women to go on hunger strike.

But in the decades that followed the War of Independence and Civil War, Irish women, particularly women on the 'wrong' side of the war, were seen as housewives. They were not revolutionaries, and they were certainly not soldiers.

They were prevented from accessing military pensions, and their stories of valour were consigned to the footnotes of Irish history.