‘Internment’ by John McGuffin (1973)

Chapter 6

COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ was sentenced to death on 9 May 1916 for her part in the rising. In Kilmainham, in solitary, each morning she was to hear the crack of rifle fire as her comrades of the rising were shot. She refused to change out of uniform. Her sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life because the English wished to capitalize on their 'leniency' – the Germans had just executed Edith Cavell. The Countess was moved to Mountjoy and transferred to Aylesbury in June 1916.
     Aylesbury was "an antiquated rambling building, damp and gloomy, surrounded by a thick high wall."[1] The food was inadequate. Solitary confinement was initially enforced. "All it did was to teach you how to steal," said the Countess. Silence was obligatory.
     But the Countess was at first not an internee, though later she became one. The distinction of being the first women internees in the twentieth century went to five ladies in 1916. By and large, their imprisonment was brief. Marie Perolz and Brigid Foley were the first to be released. They had left Aylesbury before the other three arrived: Winifred Carney, Connolly's faithful secretary who had been with him in the GPO; Nell Ryan and Helena Moloney, held in Aylesbury also, but, as unsentenced prisoners, were held in a separate wing along with suspected spies. These three could only wave to the Countess or exchange notes during Chapel. Consequently, they made an unprecedented request, formally, to the Home Office. They wanted to give up their internee status with its 'privileges' of letters, visits and food parcels, to live as convicted prisoners with 'Madame' – The Countess.
     Their request was refused.[2] Nell Ryan was released in September 1916. Winifred Carney and Helena Moloney were released on Christmas Eve 1916. The Countess was released on 18 June 1917. (The men sentenced after the rising had been released two days previously). She had served 13 months.[3]
     But her freedom was to be short lived. Because of the 'German Plot' leading Sinn Feiners were interned in various English jails in May 1918, and three women, Countess Markievicz; Madame Maud Gonne MacBride and Mrs. Tom Clarke, found themselves interned in Holloway. The case of Mrs. Clarke was particularly disgraceful. The British had shot her husband and her brother and now separated her from her five children without producing any charges whatsoever. The women were, after a time, allowed to associate and have food, clothes, books, newspapers and painting supplies sent in. Some of the Countess's water colours done in Holloway are now in the National Museum. For one day in August 1918 women internees were joined by Mrs. Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, who was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act and held for 24 hours. During the summer they were even able to do a little gardening. But conditions enfeebled their health. In October, Madame MacBride was released to a nursing home in London. It was not until February 1919 that Mrs. Clarke, who was in even poorer health, was released, and Countess Markievicz had to wait until 10 March 1919 for her freedom.
     In the meantime the Countess had become the first woman to be elected to Parliament in a UK election, with a crushing victory as the Sinn Fein candidate in St. Patrick's Division of Dublin. It was over a week before the news was conveyed to her in her lonely cell. When her name was called at the inaugural meeting of the first Dail Eireann it was greeted with cries of "Fe ghlas ag Gallaibh" (Imprisoned by the foreign enemy). Thirty-five other TD's were interned also at the time.
     The British were not to officially intern women again, but many were arrested under the draconian anti-Irish laws of the period. Countess Markievicz herself was to serve four months in Cork jail for 'a seditious speech', and was also sentenced to two years hard labour for her work with the Fianna scouts, ten months of which she served – in Mountjoy.
     By the date of the Truce, 11 July 1921, 26 women were still imprisoned and 15 were being held without charge or trial. The charges, in many cases, were ludicrous, often merely 'suspicion'. One of the worst cases was that of three young girls from Cork, two Cotter sisters and their cousin. They were weeding turnips in a field when a lorry load of Black-and-Tans was blown up on a nearby road. The survivors saw only the three young girls and they arrested them. The girls were sentenced to penal servitude for life. They were released at the Truce. The old were not immune either. Two sisters from Athlone, one aged 70 and the other 80, were arrested as well.[4] Mary Bowles, aged 14, from Co. Cork, got five years for "endeavouring to save a machinegun from capture". Linda Kearns MacWhinney, a nurse, got ten years – and escaped from Mountjoy jail.[5]
     The Civil War was to see just over 250 women interned and some 50 of them joined the men on hunger strike. The women were held in the North Dublin Union from June 1923 until Christmas Eve that year. The Union had been used as a poorhouse and then as a barracks for Black-and-Tans. There were no cells, just large draughty dormitories "haunted by the ghosts of the broken-hearted paupers," according to Constance Markievicz.
     During December, 3,481 political prisoners were released, including all the women, following the hunger strike.
The South was not to intern women again.

IN the North, no women were interned during the 1920's, but during the Second World War 18 were interned in the old wing of Armagh jail. Only one, Mrs. McDowell, was married. Most of the others were young girls in the 16-18-year-old category. All were lifted in small groups during 1942 and it was not until July 1945 that the last eight were released. The majority, 12, were from Belfast, with three from Derry and three from Tyrone. At first they were held for 28 days; then the internment orders were signed.
     Conditions were poor. The food was described to me as 'abominable', 'shocking' and 'disgusting' by those internees whom I interviewed. Mary Keenan (née McDonald) says, "I can still remember the endless prunes and beans." Only one visit a month was permitted and boredom hung heavy for the three years. Knitting, embroidery, drawing, singing, an old gramophone and Nancy Ward's violin were the only forms of diversion. They had no radios, because of the scarcity during the war and the financial plight of their families (Nora McAteer, née McKearney, had three brothers interned). Food parcels were rare. At first the women were treated as ordinary prisoners and even denied internee status, though this was eventually changed. Nonetheless, they had not even a recreation room.
     To these young girls, whose only 'crime' was their militant Republican family background, association with 'common criminals' – shoplifters, prostitutes and wine victims – was a new and horrifying experience. Some, however, felt that it had made them more tolerant. Mary Keenan reminisced about some of the characters she met in the prison yard, or saw and heard from the windows. Thirty years later they were still fresh in her mind. "I began to be less intolerant," she said. "I saw them more and more as victims of society. I began to learn about human psychology at first hand."
But morale was low. Outside, apart from their families, no one wanted to know about them. Very little was sent in to them, and the cells in B1 were bitterly cold. They were locked up, one to a cell, for 20 hours a day, and sat there, huddled up in old blankets. A hunger strike was ignored by the authorities, though Teresa Donnelly, who had a weak heart, was so bad that she had to be anointed. The strike lasted 22 days and achieved very little, although some time later the strikers were allowed to share two to a cell. In the meantime, though, their paltry 'privileges' had been stopped.
     The worst incident was in September 1943; Relations between the internees were not good and factions grew up. After an internal row the warders appeared and, after threats, hosed the girls with high-power jets of water. All received a severe buffeting. Because of the war-time censorship, however, there was no public outcry.
     After this hostility grew. The internees and the ordinary prisoners screamed incessantly at the warders and wardresses for months on end. Added to this were the moans and cries of those prisoners who needed psychiatric help but who, instead, were merely locked up in the padded cells where they screamed all night. Even today the bitterness felt amongst the internees is still in evidence. Some will not talk about the faction fighting while others who were interviewed requested that the details be not given.
     Because of family pressures some signed out – although here the authorities played cat-and-mouse with them. One woman had to go to the Board three times before she was released. The main reason for signing out was family hardship. The money from the Green Cross was pitifully little and the cost of visiting Armagh prohibitive. Nora McKearney's brother, interned in Crumlin, contracted Th and had to sign out. She had to follow suit to support him and their parents who were old age pensioners. At last, in July 1945, the last eight[6] were released. They had no prior notification. Within a quarter of an hour they found themselves in Gaol Square, Armagh, clutching the paraphernalia they had accumulated over the last three years, in battered paper bags.
     Nearly all had lost their jobs, but their suffering, however great, was nothing compared to that of their families. This is a sordid truth of internment: it is the family who suffer even more than the internees. The psychological damage to the children is great, in some cases too great, and the bitterness engendered is too longlasting to ever heal.
     The Unionists did not try to intern women again – with one exception. During the abortive 1956-1961 campaign, Bridie O'Neill from Belfast was interned, on her own, for seven months in Armagh jail. This action, ridiculous though it was, aroused no public outcry whatsoever. It is a sign of how times have changed when, even in view of the fact that women were to play a far more active role in the IRA and Republican activities during 1971 and 1972, including being involved with active service units on bombing raids and taking part in ambushes as well as acting as couriers and messengers, no attempt was made to intern them[7] (despite fairly persistent rumours in January and February 1972 that a wing in Armagh jail had been set aside for women internees). It is true to say, however, that the Unionist courts' flagrant misuse of the law did succeed in jailing leading Republican women like Maura Drumm (12 months for 'inflammatory speeches'), Mary McGuigan and Rita O'Hare (among others – six months for a protest picket outside Chichester Street courthouse) and that this meant that while women were not interned they were very much in evidence amongst the ranks of political prisoners in the North, just as they had been in the South from 1916-1923.

ON 1 January 1973 – a great way to start the new year – Elizabeth McKee (19) of Belfast became the first woman to be detained under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Act No charge. No trial. Teresa Holland, Margaret Shannon and Anne Walsh were soon to join Elizabeth.

Footnotes Chapter 6:

  1. JAQUELINE VAN VORIS, Countess de Markievicz, Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Press), 1967, p.219.
  2. HELENA MOLONEY, in An Phoblacht, Dublin, November 1930.
  3. For her account of English jails see The Freeman's Journal, Dublin, 19 June 1917. Also see New Ireland, Dublin, 8 and 15 April 1922. More information in The Voice of Labour, Dublin, 1 May 1919.
  4. See The Jangle of the Keys by MARGARET BUCKLEY, Dublin (James Duffy), 1938.
  5. See Sworn to be Free, Tralee (Anvil Books), 1971, pp. 171-179. More information on women internees in Van Voris, Countess de Markievicz, pp. 316-317.
  6. Una McDowell, Alice Ashton, Mary Keenan, Teresa Donnelly, Cassie O'Hara, Rosaleen McCotter and the two Ward sisters.
  7. There was almost an exception to this. On 28 August 1972, 18-year-old Anne Walsh from the Falls Road was arrested and detained - illegally. After 48 hours, persistent inquiries had failed to elicit any news of her other than that she was "helping police with their inquiries" in Castlereagh RUC barracks, which had taken over from Palace barracks as the interrogation centre. After four days an application for habeas corpus was made on the grounds that she was illegally detained. The hearing was announced for the High Court the next day. That morning the RUC, who had been accusing Miss Walsh of murder, bombing and everything short of genocide, announced that she was being charged - with being a member of Cumann na mBan! Three hours later, just before the High Court was to sit' even this charge was withdrawn and she was released.

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