Amelia Wilmot (1874-1955) – recovering a lost revolutionary (her)story

One of the best sources of Irish women’s history in the Revolutionary Period (1916-1923), are the military pension applications files, digitised by the Military Archives and available online.[1] While many of the women who were in leadership positions in Cumann na mBan or the Citizen army are already well known, the military pensions give us the voice of the unknown women, working class women, rural women, ordinary members of Cumann na mBan.  These are women whose contribution to the War of Independence, 1919-1921, was vital but often hidden. They were the intelligence gatherers, they were the spies and message carriers, they ran safe houses and took care of arms dumps, they transported arms and bomb making equipment to ambushes, they collected and buried the war dead, they were the essential backbone of the military operations.  They were also the ones most in danger from the Crown Forces as they could not, usually, go on the run.  One of those women was a north Kerrywoman, Amelia Wilmot (nee Canty), daughter  of a blacksmith, born in 1874, in  Lyracrumpane, near Listowel.

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1901 Census, NAI

Like many daughters of tradesmen in rural Ireland she attended the local school for a few years, and by 1901 she was 24 and living, at home, with her widowed father and siblings. This is when her life takes an somewhat unexpected turn. By 1905, she was in Aldershot in England, where she married John Wilmot, a Private in the 8th Hussars (The King’s Royal Irish), on April 9th.  This is not as unusual as it seems however, as John Wilmot was  also from north Kerry, from Knocknagoshel, where he was born in 1877, the son of Daniel Wilmot, an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Mary Bunworth.  There could be several reasons why John joined the 8th Hussars in December 1899, at Tralee.  The Boer war was on at the time, but there was no conscription. However, as the son of an agricultural labourer, his prospects in Lixnaw would not have been  good. There is also a report in Kerry Sentinel of March 3rd, 1900, which might give us another reason.  At the Petty Sessions of that month, Mary Wilmot of Lixnaw had her husband Daniel charged with abusive language and bound to the peace.  In her evidence Mary Wilmot said that her husband had threatened her life on previous occasions and that they were not ‘six months married when he beat her’ first.[i] It is possible that John joined up to get away from what was a violent home.

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John Wilmot, Military Record

Amelia and John possibly knew each other before he joined up and sometime in early 1905 she travelled to Aldershot. John had seen service with the Hussars in South Africa between 1900 and 1903 and was back in Aldershot with his Regiment by 1905.  In 1906, the couple had their first child, John James.  Later that year John transferred to the Army Reserves and the family returned to Kerry. Their second son, Daniel, was born in Tralee in 1908, and another son, William, was born in Listowel in 1911. John is described as a coachman on Daniel’s birth record and as a labourer on William’s birth record. The family moved around and may not have lived together during all of this time.  John is recorded in the 1911 census as a servant/car driver at an Hotel owned by the Hartnett family in Castleisland.  Amelia, who was pregnant at the time, and her sons John and Daniel, are not recorded here, nor could they be found in the census. John re-enlisted to active service with the Army (the 7th Hussars) for a year in April 1911 and returned to Kerry in 1912.  The couple reunited and Amelia gave birth to her last child, a daughter, Julia, in 1914 in Listowel, where the family were then living. Their life was not easy however.

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Listowel 1900, NLI Laurence Coll

John was tried in March 1914 at Listowel for drunkenness and fined.  He was then called up to his regiment in August 1914 as War had broken out.  With John of serving, Amelia now had responsibility for their young family in Listowel, and while she would have received a separation allowance as the wife of a serving soldier, it was not enough for herself and four young children, so by 1916, she had a job as a housekeeper and cook in the RIC Barracks at Abbeydorney.

As the wife of a soldier, she would have been trusted by the RIC; but Amelia had politics of a different kind, as her service for the North Kerry Flying Column was to show. When war broke out in 1919, while working in Abbeydorney RIC Barracks, Amelia was in a great position to supply information to the North Kerry Flying Column (part of 1st Kerry Brigade of the IRA) on RIC movements, in and around north Kerry.

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She was also able to get arms and ammunition out – between April 1920 and December 1920, she ‘procured’ 2 bombs, 1 service rifle, 1 shotgun, 1 miniature rifle’ as well as 500 rounds of rifle ammunition (.303) and several rounds of shotgun ammunition from the Barracks, for the Abbeydorney Company of the 1st Kerry Brigade, IRA.[3]  More importantly and usefully, for the North Kerry Flying Column on the run, she supplied information about the movements of the ‘enemy forces as regards arrests and raids’.[4]

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The North Kerry Flying Column (with Mai Ahern, Cumann na mBan)

In January 1921 she transferred to the Listowel RIC Barracks as cook and housekeeper. Taking ‘her life in he hands’, she continued to supply information, arms and ammunition.  In June 1921 she stole a Webley revolver from a ‘drunken Tan’ and sent it to the Commander of the local Column, Denis Quill.

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Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473, Military Pension Application

She continued to supply information, and this seems to have caused some suspicion in the Barracks about her. However, Denis Quill sent her a threatening letter from the IRA, ‘warning her to leave Listowel Barracks at once’, as a ruse to deflect from any attention from her movements.  The ruse worked, so much so that she had a bodyguard of RIC escorting her to and from work!

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Listowel RIC Barracks, burned during the Civil War

It is perhaps ironic that Quill used what was a common tactic to control women during this period, attacks by the IRA, on girls and women suspected of consorting with the RIC or Crown Forces, to keep Amelia safe in her position in Listowel. She continued to supply arms, ammunition and information until after the Truce, when she was dismissed, finally, from her post in September 1921, doing all this ‘at dreadful risk to herself’ and she ‘had several narrow escapes’.   Such was her work for the IRA that Patrick McElligott, Comandant of the Old IRA said that ‘it would have been nearly impossible for us to carry on, in such a hotbed of spies and informers, without her aid’.[5]

What happened to Amalia after the War of Independence is less clear, although what is in the records shows she did not have an easy life. Her husband, John, had been discharged from the Army in 1919, but he does not seem to have returned to the family home. In October 1929 a case before the Listowel District Court mentioned that a Mrs Wilmot, ‘a woman until recently employed by the Civic Guards in Listowel’, summoned her husband, an ex-soldier, for desertion of her and their four children.[6] Amelia have obviously returned to her job with the Civic Guards after the setting up of the Irish Free State.  However, John had deserted his family and left Amelia responsible for their children.

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Kerry News, Friday, October 24, 1924; p. 4

In 1934 in a letter to the Military Pension Board, Amalia said that she ‘was crippled  (with Rheumatics) and cannot manage to exist any longer on my present income’. One by one her children had left for England for work, and by the 1940’s, Amelia was living, on her own, in lodgings in Listowel. In December 1946 she wrote to the secretary of the Department of Defence that ‘all [she had was] this pension of £7-10-00 a yr, plus the old age pension of 10 per week; ‘I am 73 years of age now and unable to do anything. I find it impossible to live on my present income-I have to pay rent for a room (5/ per week) and but food, clothing and fuel. As I am crippled I cannot manage to exist any longer on my present income and I trust that the Minister can see his way to increasing my pension’.  She was awarded 1 and ½ years for pension purposes in April 1941.  Amelia Wilmot, an ordinary, working class woman, a wife, a mother, a member of Cumann na mBan, died in 1955, at the home of her daughter Julia, in the UK. Julia applied for a funeral grant stating that her mother had left no will, as ‘she had nothing to leave’.

This above is a brief glimpse into the life of an ordinary women who gave extraordinary and dangerous service to a cause she believed in.  She had a hard life, a life of poverty, desertion and some violence, but she also played an indispensable role in the conduct of the War of Independence by the North Kerry Flying Column. Her pension application also reveals that the State she worked to bring into being did not fully appreciate or compensate her for her work. Her pension also reveals a courageous, committed women, and gives a snapshot of the lives and histories of some many ordinary women, who provided similar service throughout the revolutionary period. Amelia’s story and their many stories can now be rewritten into our histories.

[1] http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection/search-the-collection

[2] The Kerry Sentinel, March 3rd, 1900

[3] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473, Military Service Pension application, http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/MSP34REF32473AMELIAWILMOT/WMSP34REF32473AMELIAWILMOT.pdf

[4] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473

[5] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473

[6] Kerry News, Friday, October 24, 1924; p. 4

Flowers for Magdalens Commemoration New Ross, March 11, 2018

Flowers for Magdalens Commemoration, 2018, New Ross

Reflections – Mary McAuliffe

Last year, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Magdalen Laundry in New Ross, and 2016, marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of the last Magdalen Laundry still operating, at Sean McDermot St in Dublin.  2016, of course, also marked the centenary of the Rising, and this year, 2018, marks the  centenary of some Irish women finally achieving the vote.  Since the beginning of the decades of centenaries in 2012 we, as a nation, have commemorated the centenaries of many formative moments in the journey towards the formation of this State.  In 1912 there was the centenary of the passing of the 3rd Home Rule Bill, which seemed to indicate that Ireland would finally achieve a form of self-government, in 1913 we had the commemoration of the Lock-out Strike and the achievements of the trade union movement. In 2013 / 2014 we had the commemorations of the founding of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, in 2015 the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse made the resounding call of republicanism ‘the fool, the fools they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’.Funeral_of_Jeremiah_O_Donovan_Rossa.jpg

Pearse making the speech at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa (Glasnevin Museum)

In  2016 we had all the national and local commemorations of the Rising, we had the army deliver the tricolour to every school in the country, we had the spectacular march down O’Connell St on April 24th, we had gardens, roads, roundabout renamed after signatories of the proclamation, after women in Cumann na mBan,  we had even in 2013 had a bridge over the Liffey named after a young working class trade unionist and rebel, Rosie Hackett. We had museum exhibitions, we had a wonderful new purpose built permanent exhibition, finally, in the headquarters of the Rising, the GPO, we had the 77 women of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen army, arrested after the Rising, commemorated in the re-purposed Richmond Barracks – we had an entire day in 2016, 8th March, International Women’s Day, given over to commemorating the more than 300 women who participated in the Rising, and all female guard of Honour, and speeches from the President, Michael D Higgins, and dignitaries as well the launch of the 77 women of 1916 book and quilt. It was an amazing day for all who attended, RTE even came and filmed the event.

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As the radical generation of young women and men, inspired by what Countess Markievicz called the three-great movements, the women’s movement, the national movement and the labour movement were campaigning and planning and putting into action their fight for nation, gender and class freedoms, young girls and women were still being confined to Laundries.  In 1913 when a young Jacobs factory girl and Irish Women’s Worker Union member, Mary Murphy, was arrested on the strike line and sent, in lieu of there being no borstal of girls, was sent to the Drumcondra Magdalen. There was general hue and cry about this, and many marches and meeting, at one of which the great socialist James Connolly stated that Mary Murphy had to be released, not simply because of her innocence but because of the type of institution she was in.  d2f4a64476c6a51c47f8d909bd1694e7

High Park Margalden Laundry, Drumcondra, after the fire which destroyed it.

In 1914 in Limerick, a group of Irish Volunteers presented their colour, a beautiful blue flag with a golden sunburst, to their nominal leader, the Irish Parliamentary Party Leader, John Redmond – on the flag we can see that it was made by the ‘girls’ in the Good Shepherd Laundry in Limerick.

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The Limerick City Regiment Irish Volunteers Flag. ( Limerick Museum)

This beautiful flag was, wrote historian Liam Hogan, was ‘suitably representative of the Volunteer movement in 1914 – Nationalist and Patriarchal’.

These examples show that as the feminist, nationalist and socialists campaigned for their rights, a parallel and sometimes intersecting history was happening, a history of women and girls incarcerated for some perceived sins against societal norms. As the signatories, Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada and the others, signed the Proclamation which promised equality for men and women, did they also mean the women in the Laundries?  As Markievicz, Skinnider, Rosie Hackett, Dr Kathleen Lynn and the others campaigned for the equality of women and the right to vote, did they include the women in the Laundry in their considerations?  As all the women and men fought in 1916, and later in the War of Independence, did they include the women in the Laundries among those whose freedom they were fighting for?  As the Constitution of the Irish Free State was signed in 1922, and which guaranteed equality to women, were the girls and women of the Laundries included in this?

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We know the answer…. they were not!  Even the most radical of revolutionaries of our revolutionary struggles, Connolly, the Sheehy Skeffingtons, Lynn, and the others did not bring the women of the Magdalen’s into their consideration. And in the State which did come into being, with many of the radicals dead or sidelined, the most conservative of governments combined with the power of the Catholic Church to accelerate the use of the Magdalen system, along with the other institutions of control, the Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools etc.

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Women from the Sean McDermott St Magdalen marching in a MayDay procession, 1950’s

As an historian of the women of the revolutionary period I am very proud of the work of the many women and feminist historians whose research and writing has recovered the activism, roles and contributions of women in the Revolutionary years and have made it an integral and essential part of that history.  No-one can really write a proper history of this period without including the women.  But I am, very often, reminded that not all the histories of women of that period have been written, considered, included or memorialised. Under the sink in my house I have a bar of soap I got when I went to the powerful site-specific play ‘Magdalen’, put on by Anú Productions, in the Sean McDermott St. Laundry.

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It is carbolic soap and has a very distinctive smell – everything I smell it I remember – I remember that there are histories that remain hidden, that there are histories that remain lost, that there are histories that are still being deliberately kept from us.  But I also know, despite, I would suggest, the sometimes deliberate attempts to make invisible the histories of women who experienced the Magdalen system, that there are ways, powerful ways, of getting around this. We may not have the records that the Orders hold, but we have these graves, and to paraphrase Pearse and his O’Donovan Rossa speech, while we hold and honour these graves, we, and Ireland, will never forget, we will always honour these women and girls.

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We have the memories and oral histories of survivors, and we have buildings, buildings like the Sean McDermot St Magdalen, which should be a site of memory and conscience. We have these commemoration ceremonies, in ways, as powerful as a parade outside the GPO. And we have people, survivors, campaigners, activists, artists, writers, historians who will never allow this history to be forgotten; who will in time insist that it sit central to all the other narratives of Irish history.  So today, and every day, remember these women, remember their lives, remember their histories and continue to fight for their memories, and for restorative justice.

Women and Anti Conscription in Ireland, 1918

In 1918 the British government decided to extend conscription to Ireland. Nationalist opinion was outraged at what it saw as a violation of the rights of small nations that Britain claimed to be upholding in the war with Germany.  Senior military and police leaders who were aware of the Irish situation warned that conscription would be ‘bitterly opposed by the united Nationalists and Clergy’, but, as Charles Townsend writes, at ‘no point did the cabinet seem to worry about the advisability of training a vast number of potential dissidents’.  Indeed, Field Marshal Lord French, Commander in Chief of the Home Forces was determined to implement conscription, despite recognising that ‘the country would be thoroughly roused by bitter animosity and resolution’.

Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces badly needed 100,000-150,000 reinforcements on the Western Front, and declared himself not afraid to take hundreds of thousands of ‘recalcitrant conscripted Irishmen’ into his army of 2.5 million. Although the Irish political leaders, the church and the media bluntly said that introducing conscription to Ireland was ‘an act of insanity’ (London Times, April 8th 1918), the Military Service Bill was passed by the House of Commons on April 15th, 1918.  Nevertheless, the House of Commons passed all stages of the Military Service Bill on April 16th, when the Irish Parliamentary Party withdrew in a body from Parliament as a protest. The Bill received the Royal Assent and became law on April 18th.

However, the Ireland into which it would be introduced was not at all receptive to this new Bill. Public opinion, influenced by the ongoing propaganda of the republican organisations, the continuing arrests under DORA and the ongoing hunger strikes, as well as high profile deaths such as that of Thomas Ashe, had swung towards Sinn Féin.

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Funeral procession of Thomas Ashe on the Quays, going towards Glasnevin

Sinn Féin was, despite internal wrangling for power and position, was by early 1918, in pole position to influence Irish opinion on this very real threat of conscription; and it wasn’t the only organisation which determined to oppose its introduction. On this single issue the IPP and Sinn Féin temporarily put aside their many differences and stood as one in opposition, while the Catholic Church was also opposed it, on the basis that the Irish had not given their consent to the war in the first place. Crucial to the anti-conscription campaigns, however, would be the trade union movement and the women’s organisations.

On April 18, the Mansion House Committee was formed by representatives of Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Irish Volunteers, the All for Ireland League and the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILP&TUC). The Committee decided to call on ‘all Irishmen to resist by the most effective means at their disposal’ any attempt by the British government to introduce conscription.

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On April 20, at a special conference of the ILP&TUC 1,500 delegates affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription. Held on April 23, the strike brought much of the country to a standstill and, despite a ban by the British government on demonstrations, almost every town and city outside of Ulster had marches. So successful was the strike that the Irish Times said April 23 would ‘be remembered as the day on which Irish Labour recognised its strength’. Women also organised against conscription. Within three days (April 18) a united campaign of all shades of trade unionism, feminism, nationalism and republicanism was coming together to campaign against it. As well as Sinn Féin, the IPP and the Catholic Church, those who actively opposed conscription included the Labour Party, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU), and the Irish Volunteers.

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On April 18, agreed a Sinn Féin pledge which declared that conscription was ‘a declaration of war on the Irish people’ and all present swore to ‘resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal’.Two million people, men and women, signed the anti-conscription pledge over the coming weeks.

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The National Pledge

Other ‘most effective’ methods of resistance were provided by the trade union movement, the Labour party and the women’s organisations. On 20 April, a special meeting of the Irish Trade Unions Congress (ITUC), attended at about 1,500 members, affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription.  This general strike, which happened on 23 April in all parts of Ireland except north-east Ulster, brought practical effect to the resolutions passed by Sinn Féin, the IPP, the Irish Volunteers and the Catholic hierarchy. Outside of Ulster it was hugely successful; pubs, shops, railways, newspapers, factories closed and all transport ground to a halt.

Organised and lead by the unions and the Labour Party, much of the country was shut down while, despite a ban, almost every town and city had marches. At City Hall in Dublin, thousands converged to sign the anti-conscription pledges.  Interestingly women, organised by the IWWU and Cumann na mBan, took their own pledge which included the promise not to ‘fill the places of men deprived of their work through enforced military service’. Irishwomen were not going to be the supportive ‘home front’ if their men went off to war!  This was a very visible demonstration of their own opposition to the war and a warning to the British government that the economy would be crippled in the event of it pressing ahead with its’ plans.no blackley

While such resistance ended active attempts to impose conscription, it also led to more intensive repression by British authorities. But women kept up their anti-conscription activities. The IWWU, with its expertise to co-organise a huge event, had members on the Lá na mBan (Women’s Day) planning group, chaired by Alice Stopford Green, which represented the different women’s organisations.

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On June 9, 1918, thousands of female activists, many working class women and trade unionists, took to the streets for Lá na mBan. They collected masses of pledges, the Freemans’s Journal reported that 40,000 signed the anti-conscription pledge in Dublin’s City Hall alone.

La na mBan Photo Irish Independent 10 June 1918Report and image, Irish Independent, June 10, 1918

It also reported that the 2,400-plus IWWU women who marched from their great Denmark Street offices to City Hall along with about 400 uniformed Cumann na mBan women ‘made the biggest show’.

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IWWU founder and trade union activist, Delia Larkin signing the anti-conscription pledge in City Hall. With thanks to NLI Ms 40,395, Patricia Lynch / R.M. Fox Collection

On the day and in the following weeks, an estimated two-thirds of Ireland’s women signed the campaign’s ‘solemn pledge’ because ‘the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny’.Women also swore not to ‘blackleg’, that is take the place of men in factories and industry if the men were conscripted.

Lá na mBan’ demonstrated the ability of women’s trade unions and women activists to bring large numbers onto the streets in acts of civil disobedience against imposition of repressive laws. While the threat of conscription was not finally lifted until after the Armistice in November 1918, it was effectively dead in the water by late April/early May of that year. More disastrously, however, from a British perspective was that the anti-conscription campaigns served to heighten nationalist fervour throughout the country, with popular opinion swinging behind republicanism.

Membership of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, and Sinn Fein surged. The moderates, those who would have been expected to support constitutional nationalism, were, by now, swinging towards Sinn Féin. The beginning of the end of the IPP was in sight, especially as the Church swung its support to a greener shade of nationalism. For Labour, April and the general strike, would prove to be a high point.  Lá na mBan demonstrated that women activists had the ability to organise countrywide acts of civil disobedience.  From June 1918, new branches of Cumann na mBan were being formed all over the country and older one expanded. By December 1918 most were in a position to make a real impact on the campaigns for Sinn Fein in the General Election, 1918.

Lá na mBan Pledge text

‘A Solemn Pledge from the Women of Ireland – Inaugurated on St Colmcille’s Day’.

“Because the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny, we are resolved to resist the conscription of Irishmen. We will not fill the places of men deprived of their work through refusing enforced military service. We will do all in our power to help the families of men who suffer through refusing enforced military service”.

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The Lá na mBan Women’s Pledge form (c. Adams & Sons)