In this post, I’m going to tell you about Margaret Skinnider, who, after having researched her life and work, has become a personal hero of mine. By looking at her life, I will also briefly discuss women’s lives in Ireland during her lifetime, and the roles that women took on during the Easter Rising. I hope that by the end of this discussion, you will all run straight to the bookstore or to Google to find out more about the countless incredible women in Irish history.
The early 20th century was not the ideal time to be a woman. It wasn’t until after the 1970s that Irish women weren’t made to give up their jobs when they married. The wage gap was significant throughout the 20th century, and even today contraception is difficult to access and abortion is illegal. The 1916 rising was, according to Hanna Skeffington, “the only instance I know of in history when men fighting for freedom voluntarily included women.” However, once the Catholic Church began to back the fight for freedom, extreme measures were taken to confine women to their homes and to prevent their emancipation.
Even within revolutionary groups, being a woman could be a disadvantage. Eamon de Valera famously did not want to include women in the revolution; even women such as Margaret Skinnider who was as valuable a sniper as any man. To illustrate this reluctance, Elizabeth O’Farrell was a nurse who delivered the surrender message; a photo taken showed her boots as she raced down the street during this pivotal moment; in photos appearing in news papers and textbooks her boots were erased from the photo with whatever early Photoshop they had. This is emblematic of the multitude of ways that that women have been withheld from Irish history books. It is only in recent decades that women have been included in lessons and books about the rising, and 2016 has been an incredible year for archivists, historians, and writers documenting the women involved. Margaret Skinnider was part of Cumann na mBan, and earlier the organization Inghinidhe na hEireinn. In Scotland, she was an active member of the Scottish branch of the Irish volunteers.
Cumann na mBan arose out of the need for a role for women in the revolution and paramilitary groups. This all-female paramilitary organization celebrated their centenary in 2014, and though the executive was often guided by the Irish Volunteers, they have always maintained their independence from male-dominated groups. They have been active throughout all pivotal moments for women’s rights in Ireland. The group grew out of the organization, Inghinidhe na hEireann, or “Daughters of Erin.” Activist women before the inception of Cumann na mBan in 1914 rebelled against all things British, but with less guns; they were to “combat in every way English influence,” according to Sinead Maccoole. These women distributed pamphlets to young Irish women who were seen consorting with British soldiers that not only scolded them for their disloyalty, but also warned them of the venereal diseases they claimed all English Soldiers would spread. Cuman na mBan was a more focused organization that played a key role in the Easter Rising; the women played many roles as nurses, informants, and soldiers. The women demanded they be given the same permissions as men in warfare, and though they struggled to be considered equal to the men fighting, 260 women ended up participating in the rising, and 77 were imprisoned. It is unclear how many died or were injured, though several of the sources I’ve looked at list Skinnider as the only woman injured in action.
Now onto our intrepid heroine!
Margaret Skinnider’s activism and strength did not begin and end in the Easter Rising. Born around 1892, Skinnider was a feminist and suffragette, a smuggler, a writer, an educator, a nationalist, and a scout, who continued fighting for Independence and Women’s Rights until her death in 1971.
Margaret Skinnider was the same age as many of us when she joined Cumann na mBan in the years before the Easter Rising. At twenty-two years old she was a schoolteacher and a bomb-smuggler. At twenty-three she was an accomplished sniper. If you look up, you can see where she was positioned on top of the College of Surgeon’s during the Rising. Imagine a young women lying up there with a look of pure determination on her face. Margaret Skinnider saw several men fall as she picked them off with her gun; not only was she determined; she was deadly.
Margret Skinnider was born to Irish parents and raised primarily in Scotland, where she was trained as a markswoman to “defend the British empire.” I really hope the irony is not lost on everyone. In her book, she stated, “Scotland is my home, but Ireland is my country.”
The Christmas before the events of 1916, Skinnider smuggled explosives underneath her hat and around her body, taking them from Glasgow to Dublin for Countess Markeiwecz. “It was at night that I crossed the Irish sea. All other passengers went to their state-rooms, but I stayed on deck. Leaning back in a steamer-chair, with my hair for a pillow, I dropped asleep. That I ever awakened was a miracle. In my hat I was carrying to Ireland detonators for bombs, and the wires were wrapped around me under my coat. That was why I had not wanted to go to a state room where I might run into a hot water pipe or an electric wire that would set them off.” Imagine a 22 year old woman huddling in the freezing cold on the deck of a ship, trying to stay awake while explosives were packed around her. The fact that she was calm enough to drift asleep was a true mark of her resilience and dedication to the cause.
Skinnider took part in many raids and expeditions to obtain explosives. To her, the revolution was always necessary; “The history of my country seemed to me to be a history of oppression which we should tell with tears if we did not tell it with anger.” Skinnider resisted not only the British in her actions, but the conventions of womanhood in her attitudes. Reflecting on a particularly dangerous raid, she said, “Risks like this have to be taken, however, when one is preparing a revolution and has neither firearms nor ammunition, the people in power having put an embargo upon them. It is all in the way of war. I can add that this raid was as successful as usual.” In a memorable account, Skinnider and the Countess snuck off to test dynamite under the guise of a quick hunt. The two became very close during the rising and are even buried next to each other in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.
Skinnider also became close to James Connolly, personally escorting his family away from conflict.
Skinnider acted as a spy, often convincing young boys to help her map out locations for the Rising. One such case brought her into the confidence of James Connolly, in which she pretended to drop her handkerchief in front of a young guard, and while he retrieved it she mapped out a location to tunnel into the building and place explosives inside of it. She wrote about being a woman in the conflict by saying: “Commandant Mallin […] finally agreed [to let me fight,] though not at all willingly, for he did not want to let a woman run this sort of risk. My answer to this argument was that we had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women were on equality with men. For the first time in history, indeed, a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.”
On Holy Thursday, 1916, Skinnider worked as a scout, posing as a girl riding her bike and transporting goods and messages to the rebels in different areas. This may seem like a pretty menial job, but as the day went on she was meandering around the streets dodging bullets from snipers. When night fell, Skinnider was sent to retrieve 16 men. She brought them back to the College of surgeons, changed into uniform and took her place under the roof. She saw the men she aimed at fall, and four men were put under her command to set fire to a building to cut off the retreat of a British force who had planted a machine gun. James Connolly’s daughter, Nora, recounted that, “When they were going out to attack a nest of snipers she was in charge of the squad”.
During this mission, she was shot three times. Her right side under her arm, her right arm, and her back right side. She was taken inside the college of surgeons, where the bullets were crudely pulled out. Constance Markeiweicz held her hand through the ordeal. “the probing did not hurt as much as I expected it would.” Skinnider recounted, “My disappointment at not being able to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel was what made me unhappy.” Though she lay in agony in the college of surgeons, Skinnider’s heart was with the rising outside. When she was eventually brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital, she was arrested, held, and interrogated until a surgeon told the police she was too ill for imprisonment. After spending many weeks in the hospital, Skinnider left for the states to escape imprisonment, where she wrote her book, “Doing my Bit for Ireland,” and spoke about the rising abroad. She returned to Ireland around 1918 and was arrested during the civil war in 1921 and then again in 1923. She returned to teaching afterwards until she retired in 1961. It is unclear how she died, but I hope that it was peaceful.
What drew me to Skinnider was the fact that not only was she the only woman reportedly injured in action, but the first person to write a book about the events. Her book, “Doing my bit for Ireland,” was published in 1917, and writing her account of the events was a bold move. “That there is some risk in publishing my story, I am well aware,” she wrote, in its introduction, “but that is the sort of risk which we who love Ireland must run, if we are able to bring to the knowledge of the world the truth of that heroic attempt last spring to free Ireland and win for her a place as a small but independent nation.” Skinnider was an incredibly brave soldier, who not only helped ensure the success of the rising, but proved her worth in battle, documented the rising, and continued to fight for independence and justice her entire life.