Remembering Helena Molony
The Irish Revolutionary died this day in 1967.
Helena Molony was born on January 15th 1883 at 8 Coles Lane, off Henry Street, in the centre of Dublin, to Michael Molony, a grocer, and Catherine McGrath.
But Helena Molony experienced an unhappy, if comfortable, childhood; orphaned in early life, she did not get on with her stepmother. From an early age, Helana was interested in Irish history and had been reading Douglas Hyde—his history and legends.
One August evening in 1903 Helena was walking past the Custom House near Dublin City Centre, a lady was speaking to a crowd about Irish nationalism, the lady speaking was the Revolutionary Maud Gonne and this event would change Helana's life forever.
Inspired by Maud Gonne, Helena joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) and began a lifelong commitment to the Republican cause. In 1908 she became the editor of the organisation's monthly newspaper, Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland).
Bean na hÉireann brought together many Republicans; Constance Markievicz designed the title page and wrote the gardening column; Sydney Gifford (under the nom de plume "John Brennan") wrote for the paper and was on its production team; contributors included Eva Gore-Booth, Susan L. Mitchell, and Katharine Tynan, as well as Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, AE, Roger Casement, Arthur Griffith and James Stephens.
The paper included an eclectic selection of articles – fashion notes (involving Irish materials and Irish-made clothes), a labour column, cookery, politics, fiction, and poetry etc.
Helena was central to the school meals activism of the movement; with Maud Gonne, Marie Perolz and others, she organised the supply of daily school meals to children in impoverished areas, and pressured Dublin Corporation and other bodies to provide proper meals (meat and vegetables, and on Fridays rice and milk) to the starved children of Dublin city.
Helana also had a career as an actress and was a member of the Abbey Theatre but her political work took up most of her time. As a labour activist, Molony was a close colleague of Markievicz and of James Connolly, whose secretary she was for a time.
Helena became heavily involved in the 1913 Lockout where she worked in Liberty Hall’s food kitchen and addressed strike meetings. An Abbey actor, she drew on her theatrical experience to outwit the police, disguising Jim Larkin as an elderly clergyman to facilitate his famous appearance on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel. During the lockout, Helena joined the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU).
But the strike and lockout took a personal toll and her which led to a personal breakdown, leading her to spend 1914 convalescing in France with Maud Gonne. On her return to Ireland she got involved again in left-wing politics and in November 1915 Connolly appointed her secretary of the Irish Women Workers' Union, in succession to Delia Larkin.
Helena managed the union's shirt factory in Liberty Hall, founded to give employment to the strikers put out of work and blacklisted after the strike and joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to protect the workers.
Helena was also was a prominent member of Cumann na mBan, a Republican women's organisation formed in April 1914 as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Members of Cumann na mBan trained alongside the men of the Irish Volunteers in preparation for the armed rebellion against the British forces in Ireland.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, Helena was one of the Citizen Army soldiers who attacked Dublin Castle. During the defence of City Hall, her commanding officer, Sean Connolly was killed, and Helena was captured and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol.
Following a spirited, if unsuccessful attempt to burrow her way out of Kilmainham with a spoon, Molony became one of only five women to join over 2,500 male internees in England. She continued to cause problems for the authorities at the grim Victorian jail at Aylesbury, using her links with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Suffrage Federation to publicise her conditions there, she was released in December 1916.
Returning to Liberty Hall in 1917, she described how Connolly’s execution resulted in a shift away from insurrectionary republicanism: ‘The union was in the hands of Larkin’s section. She returned to the weakened ranks of the Citizen Army and used her position on the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Congress, an increasingly moderate body, to advocate support for the sporadic efforts of workers to establish revolutionary soviets.
During the Tan War and the civil war Helena was active in prisoner rights campaigns and often spoke out against heavy-handed raids carried out by the British and Free State authorities.
Helena remained active in the Republican cause during the 1930s, particularly with the Women's Prisoner's Defense League and the People's Rights Association.
She always believed in the proclamation of 1916 and was dismayed at how women despite now having a vote retained ‘their inferior status, their lower pay for equal work, their exclusion from juries and certain branches of the civil service, their slum dwellings and crowded, cold and unsanitary schools for their children.
Her radical campaigns won little support from the Labour Party, whose pro-treaty politics she condemned, and a male-dominated trade union movement.
Although elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1937, the second woman to hold this office, she was forced to retire from the IWWU in 1941 because of poor health. She lived in relative poverty, relying on friends for support and accommodation.
Helena retired from public life in 1946, but continued to work for women's labour rights; she died in Dublin on January 28th 1967.