Review of Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women Who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Rising, by Amy Heath-Carpentier

widowsMCCOOLE, SINÉAD, Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women Who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Rising, London: Doubleday Ireland, 2014. ISBN 9781781620229 £22.99.

Review by Amy Heath-Carpentier, PhD Student, California Institute of Integral Studies, Assistant Director, PreGraduate School and Career Development, Washington University in St. Louis.

As the centenary of the Easter Rising rapidly approaches, several historians have released adept and artful volumes that advance our understanding of the intricacies of the Irish nationalist movement during the revolutionary period. These studies surface from a steady stream of scholarship on advanced nationalist women that began in the 1980’s, including contributions by Anne Clare, Mary Cullen, Rosemary Cullen Owens, Leah Levenson, Maria Luddy, Ann Matthews, Mary McAuliffe, Cal McCarthy, Jerry Natterstad, Senia Pašeta, Louise Ryan, Karen Steele, Ruth Taillon, and Margaret Ward. However, this set of recent releases, including Pašeta’s Irish Nationalist Women, provides nuanced accounts that focus on how these women were politicized and organized, how they negotiated competing agendas of suffrage, nationalism, and socialism, and how they mediated and contributed to the discourse about the role of women in the nationalist movement.

As a core contributor to this recent surge of research corresponding to the Decade of Centenaries, Sinéad McCoole balances individual biography with reflections on the broader advanced nationalist community in her 2014 release, Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women Who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Rising. McCoole interprets the lives of seven prominent Irish nationalist couples whose politics, allegiances, and friendships led to inimitable experiences of 1916 and the early years of the Irish Free State. While not all of their husbands were signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, all of the men participated in the Rising and subsequently were executed by firing squad in the days following the surrender. The seven couples profiled are Kathleen Daly and Tom Clarke, Maud Gonne and John MacBride, Lillie Reynolds and James Connolly, Fanny O’Brennan and Edward Kent, Agnes Hickey and Michael Mallin, and the two sisters Muriel and Grace Gifford and their husbands, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, respectively. While several of these women are documented elsewhere individually (for example, Maud Gonne, the Giffords, and Kathleen Clarke), one of McCoole’s accomplishments is in resurrecting a literary genre of profiling these nationalist women, the wives of the “Martyrs of 1916,” collectively, without the hagiographical tone reminiscent of accounts written directly after the Rising and in the Free State, such as in the December 1916 Catholic Bulletin.

Divided into three parts, the first section, Romance, is broken into a chapter for each couple. Each chapter details one couple’s individual backstory from the Connolly’s struggles to support their growing family on a community organizer’s wages to the relatively short romance between Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett. Giving the reader time to absorb each couple’s journey to the Rising allows McCoole, in the second and third sections, to interlace the couples’ stories as she unfolds the days just prior to and after the Rising. In the second section, Parting, McCoole offers a glimpse into each couple’s final hours together, conveying the complexity of emotion and complicated choices each had to make. Aptly titled Mourning, the final section recounts how each woman and her family coped with being the family of a “Martyr” and emphasizes their mutual support and differing experiences of what it meant to be an Easter Widow.

Indeed, Easter 1916 impacted these women’s livelihoods, their relationships with their in-laws and families, and their own political commitments and aspirations. The women were, to greater and lesser degrees, involved politically. During the subsequent Anglo-Irish War and Civil Wars, some, including Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke, spent time in Holloway Jail, and Grace Gifford Plunkett found herself in Kilmainham Gaol, just a stone’s throw from where her marriage took place and her husband was executed. McCoole attends to differences of class and religion throughout. While all of the women shared the loss of a partner, their individual stories are quite distinct, and the book maintains a clear balance in conveying individual and communal experiences. For example, the reader comes away with a fuller understanding of what it meant to enter the advanced nationalist cause as a working class woman rather than a daughter of the Protestant Ascendency.

Few could have written such an expansive and yet enthralling biographical and historical book about these women’s lives that would appeal to professional and amateur historians alike. McCoole’s warm, eloquent prose combines with her ability to curate the extensive documentation on their lives. McCoole was no doubt aided in this expansive task thorough access to and knowledge of the archival records, particularly at the National Library of Ireland, her curatorial experience with the private records of Kathleen and Tom Clarke, and her personal relationships with the MacBride, Clarke, Phillips, and Mallin families.  Further, she supplements the historical record with in-depth interviews with the couples’ families, gaining valuable, familial insight into their characters. Despite sometimes considerable differences in the available archival sources, the stories are richly painted. One walks away from the book with priceless images like that of Kathleen Clarke planting 100 cauliflowers in her garden as she awaits news from Tom who was fighting at the General Post Office. In another image, Lillie Connolly stands silently at a vantage point overlooking Dublin, watching flames rising from city below (McCoole 2014, 233, 237).

As you might suspect given the Centenaries and the compelling subject matter, the book has already sparked artistic tributes to Easter Widows, including a compelling collection of songs entitled Left Behind – Songs of the 1916 Widows by the composer Simon O’Connor and featuring vocalist Michelle O’Rourke. These songs elevate and mediate some of the unspoken and emotionally charged elements of McCoole’s narrative – including Muriel Gifford MacDonagh’s untimely drowning in July of 1917. McCoole includes letters between the young MacDonagh couple reveal Muriel’s struggles to maintain her physical health and, apparently, mental health as well. It is the warmth, respect, and clear passion with which McCoole conveys these stories that provoke such haunting tributes to these seven, indomitable women.