Remembering Caitlín Brugha, TD for Waterford, 1923-1927

(extract from a paper given by Mary McAuliffe at the Remembering Cathal Brugha Conference, Dungarvan, November 2018)CB

For Helena Molony, a revolutionary, 1916 rebel, and trade union activist, the participation of women in the Rising was not extraordinary. As a political woman, involved in radical politics for at least a decade prior to 1916, she believed her part was no more or less than that of her comrades, male and female.. She complained to Seán O’Faoláin that many men ‘seem to be unable to believe that any woman can embrace an ideal –accept it intellectually, feel it as a profound emotion and then calmly decide to make a vocation of working for its realisation’.  She despaired that men could not understand that women could embark on a journey of politicisation and come to believe in and fight for a cause (of nation, of gender, of class). Women, she said, were not necessarily involved in events like the Rising because they were ‘in love with some man or looking for excitement, or limelight, or indulging their vanity’.  She believed it was self-evident that a woman could work ‘as a man might work’ for a cause, in this case, the cause of Ireland.  It was unthinkable that she, a political woman who had worked for Ireland from the early part of the twentieth century, needed the imprimatur of a man to motivate her.

In looking at Helena Molony’s words now, over 50 years after that interview, we have to ask the question wherether we still consider these revolutionary women, mainly in the light of their connections to and work with male revolutionaries, where we still fail, oftentimes, to consider them as historical subjects in their own right and, indeed as, historical subjects worthy of deeper study or biography.  One such women is Caitlín Brugha, TD for Waterford, 1923-1927.  At the funeral of her husband Cathal Brugha, who had been died in the Mater Hospital on July 9 1922, after being seriously wounded during fighting in Dublin, Caitlín Brugha was surround by and had the support of Republican women.

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Cathal Brugha

Cathal Brugha, who had been elected Sinn Fein TD for Waterford in 1918, opposed the Anglo- Irish Treaty in 1922.  Having cast his vote against the Treaty, Brugha walked out of the Dail, with his anti-treaty comrades, including de Valera, Austin Stack, Robert Barton and Erskine Childers.  When violence broke out in Dublin in June 1922, and the shelling of the Four Courts began on (28 June), he reported for duty to the Hammam hotel in Upper O’Connell St., which had been taken over by anti-treatyites. The hotel, and other buildings taken by the anti-treaty forces soon came under heavy fire and by 5 July were untenable. Most of the defenders surrendered, but Brugha fought on. With the buildings blaze, he charged into the street that now bears his name, firing a pistol, and was shot in the thigh and seriously wounded.  He subsequently died in the Mater, leaving behind a wife and six children, all under the age of 10.

The history and exploits of Cathal Brugha are well known and form an important part of the historical narrative of the revolutionary decade.  His activities as an Irish language campaigner and member of the Gaelic League, his activities in the IRB and subsequently in the 1916 Rising (when he was also badly wounded), his political activities as a Sinn Fein member and then TD, and later Minister for Defence are all written about. From 1912 onwards of course Cathal Brugha had a companion and supporter in his activities, his wife Caitlín Brugha, nee Kingston. After his death she successfully ran for his seat in Waterford and would remain TD for the constituency until 1927.  But who was Caitlín Brugha and why is it important that we also know more about her than simply the fact that she was Cathal Brugha’s wife.

And what more do we know of women like Cathlin Brugha who were married to revolutionary men, killed in the period 1916-1923, men whose widows took their place in the public realm.  The women who were left behind often became the official mourners and keepers of the male patriot dead flame. These widows, with their young children, became one of the most potent symbols of the sacrifices of Rising and made excellent propaganda material.  For instance, the 1916 Christmas issue of the Catholic Bulletin featured pictures of these widows and their children.

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Kathleen Clarke and her children (December, 1916)

A series of commissioned photographs of the widows and orphans of the dead signatories. Aine Ceannt, Muriel McDonagh, Lillie Connolly, Agnes Mallin and Kathleen Clarke, all photographed in their widows weeds, surrounded by their young children. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was photographed with her son Owen, while Nannie O’Rahilly, whose husband, The O’Rahilly had been killed in the charge up Moore St on Easter Friday as the GPO garrison prepared their retreat, was photographed with her four sons, one of whom, Rory, had been born in June 1916, weeks after the death of his father. Agnes Mallin also held a baby (Maura) who was born four months after the Rising.

Caitlín Brugha knew many of these women.  Áine Ceannt, wife and then widow of Eamonn Ceannt, an executed signatory, had spent most of Easter week in Brugha house.  Both were women with small children, both married to and supportive of revolutionary men. On Easter Friday, 1916, the Brugha house in Dartry was raided, because, as Áine Ceannt later reported, it was so full of women.  However, Caitlín convinced the troops who raided the house that her husband was a commercial traveller – which technically, he was! Of Course, Caitlín did not yet know that, on Easter Thursday, her husband had been badly wounded in an attack by British tropps on the outpost where he was stationed, at the South Dublin Union.  He would take a long time to recover from these wounds.  Like Kathleen Clarke, Agnes Mallin and Nanny O’Rahilly, Caitlín Brugha was pregnant when her husband went off to join the fighting on Easter Monday 1916.  Unlike the other women, however, her husband did return home, albeit to a long recuperation from his wounds. Like many of the women, excluding perhaps, Kathleen Clarke, we know little of Caitlín Brugha, other than her position as wife of Cathal.

And this is the challenge of women’s and feminist biography.  As Sara Alpern, Elisabeth Israels Perry, Ingrid Winther Scobie write in The Challenge of Feminist Biography ‘few biographies of men highlight the gender issues in men’s lives. They generally focus instead on a man’s preparation for and fulfilment of his life course in the public arena…. Whereas … no matter how biographers sort out the complexities of any one individual woman’s response, they accept as a given that gender will always, in some way, be central to the understanding of a woman’s life, even if the woman is not conscious of that centrality or even denies it’.

In 1916 Caitlín and Cathal Brugha were the parents of several small children, and expecting another one, yet little comment is made of that fact that Cathal left his wife and children at home, headed off to fight, in the expectation that he might be killed or imprisoned (or, as happened, wounded).  The was never a question of how Cathal, and indeed many other of the male revolutionaries, were able to do this, the invisibility of their wives roles, their caring of the children, remaining at home without question, was expected. Yet, when Cathal does die in 1922, Caitlín Brugha came out of the domestic, as did many of the 1916 widows earlier, and played a very specific and gendered public role, that of political Republican widowhood.

Was is simply her marriage to Cathal that forced Caitlín, as the widowed Mrs Brugha, into this very public role?  In order to answer this we need to know who she was, outside of her role of wife and widow, and of course, mother.

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Kathleen Kingston was born in 1879 in Birr, Co Offaly, to William Kingston, shopkeeper, and his wife, Catherine, née Roche. She had a comfortable upbringing and she and her sister were educated at the  Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea.  In 1910 the Kingston family moved to Dublin, when Kathleen was 31.  She had been an organisor with the Gaelic League in Birr and continued those activities in Dublin. The League was one of the first organisations which welcomed women members, on the same terms as men.  Women were not restricted to subordinate roles, and could and did take leadership roles.  The League provided an opportunity for women, urban and rural, to engage in public life and it is through the league that many women developed their politics, in particular their nationalist ideas.  The fact that the League also organised mixed social and cultural events meant that many of this young. politicised, generation, a generation influenced by cultural nationalism, feminism, militancy, and socialism, met at these events.

And so it was with Kathleen Kingston and Cathal Brugha – who met at a Gaelic League event and were married by 1912. At the time Brugha was a partner in the Lalor brothers’ company, a candle manufacturer, but he spent a lot of his time engaged on political activities through his membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers.  From what we know of Caitlín, she was fully supportive of his activities and held the same ideologies as her husband.  Through the years from the Easter Rising to the War of Independence the Brugha family life was disrupted by illness (Cathal was badly wounded in 1916) and long absences when he was about his political and revolutionary work.  During the War of Independence, like the homes of many people associated with the leadership of Sinn Fein, the Brugha house was watched. In a statement written by feminist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in 1920 on the Atrocities on Women in Ireland (from Margaret Ward (ed) ‘Hanna Sheehy Skeffington; Suffragette and Sinn Féiner’, p. 183) she writes about the raids by armed and drunk soldiery or police’ on the ‘ wives, widows, mothers and sisters’ of prominent Sinn Feiners, many of who are on the run.  …When a man is on the run, is not his wife, sister etc frequently threatened, separated for hours from her terrified children, and sometime compelled to stand in the street under the rain barefooted in her nightdress when her house is sacked and dismantled and even burned’ … recently blood hounds accompanied these searches and added to their terror. Among such case I mention the frequent raids in Mrs Maurice Collins, Mrs Kent [Ceannt], widow of Eamon Kent shot in 1916, Mrs Pearse, Mrs Cathal Brugha, wife of the speaker of Dáil Eireann (to her house blood hounds brought), Mrs Wyse Power etc…’

Cathal Brugha and his family were a target and having received word that his family home might be burned so he moved Caitlín and their children, first to the Ring Gaeltacht in Waterford and then to Ballybunion in north Kerry, where they would remain until the Truce. In fact, in the months between the Truce and the Treaty Debates, Caitlín and Cathal and the family were finally, for the first time in years, able to spend some quality time together. They went on picnics to Howth and generally enjoyed some family life. This did not last long however, politics as ever called Cathal away, and within a few months he would be dead.

On the 9th of July, 1922 the publicity Department of Sinn Fein issued a request from Mrs Cathal Brugha.  She requested that ‘apart from family relations and intimate friends, the chief mourners and the Guard of Honour should include only the women of the Republican Movement.  She [made] the request ‘as a protest against the ‘immediate and terrible’ civil war made by the so-called Provisional Government or the Irish Republican forces.  She did not desire ‘the presence of any of the representatives of the Free State or its officials at the funeral’.

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Republican Women standing Guard over the body of Cathal Brugha

Like her husband, Caitlín Brugha was deeply opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and with this statement she set down a definite marker of her political position. In a letter in the National Library of Ireland, (MS 49,552/1) to Edmund Downey she said after Cathal’s death her one consulation was he died for Ireland.  She wrote ‘Cathal’s death is the deepest sorrow God could have given me yet is my consolation to know that he died for Ireland. May God send us that freedom for which he died & may his example keep our people from selling our beloved country into slavery’.

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Caitlín and Cumann na mBan women at the graveside of Cathal Brugha, 1922

We know that Caitlín herself had played a role in the Civil War with anti-treaty Cumann na mBan member, Elizabeth Dorman, remembering delivering arms to her Fitzwilliam Place.  These arms were for use by the anti-treaty forces. The request from Caitlín that only Republican women form the Honour Guard at Cathal’s funeral demonstrated again, as Jason Knick written in his book (Women of the Dáil, Gender, Republicanism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty)  ‘the role women took in controlling the memory or commemoration of the dead’ (p.134-125), a role they had been playing since after the 1916 Rising.  Suffering, as Knick, further writes, ‘really seemed to create a feeling of solidarity among these women; it united them and gave them shared experiences in which to draw’(ibid). And in the years ahead it is obvious that Caitlín Brugha was a prominent among several women who had lost family, for example, Mary MacSwiney, Mrs Mellows, Mrs Pearse, Aine Ceannt and others like Molly Childers.  Some like Caitlín Briugha and Mary MacSwiney took a more prominent public Republican role than others, but they did often reach out to each other, privately and publicly.

Over the next five years Caitlín Brugha was to play a very public role as the widow of an unrepentant Republican martyr, standing in his Waterford constituency in 1923 for Sinn Féin. It was not easy for these Republican women – often derided as intransigent, as furies, as unrepentant harridans, unhinged and un-womanly. In January, 1923, W T Cosgrave, the President of the Free State Executive, had this to say about Republican women ‘… Die-hards in Ireland are women, whose ecstasies at their extremist can find no outlet so satisfying as destruction – sheer destruction’. According to him the women sought to keep the bloodshed going. For the women, their meetings and voices were often ignored. A  report of a gathering of Republican women at the Wolfe Tone memorial in Bodenstown in June 19223, which included Caitlín was reported as ‘small’.  The writer of the report noted that the women knew why it was not a large gathering… it was composed almost entirely of women.  They stood there to renew for all true Republicans their pledge of undying fidelity to the Republic, their undying hatred of the British Empire ….they longed for peace but their could never be real peace while the King of England clamed authority in Ireland or Irishmen swore allegiance to him’.

However, despite these prevailing attitudes,  Caitlín  was selected by Sinn Fein to run in the General Election 1923 as a Republican candidate.  At a meeting in Dungarvan prior to the election she said ‘it was with mixed feelings that she decided to go forward as a representative of republicanism I …she had not expected this great responsibility being cast upon her as a standard bearer of Sinn Fein, yet her greatest feeling was one of pride that she had been chosen to following in Cathals footsteps’.

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She further stated that the aim was that the people of Ireland should ‘be masters in their own house’…. And she trusted the people of Dungarvan ‘to give the cause of Republicanism, which stood for freedom and unity in Ireland, their wholehearted support’. She topped the poll in the 1923 election, at 8,265 votes with Captain Redmond, the Independent candidate coming in second at 6,441 votes, despite his popularity in Waterford.   In common with the other members of her party, Caitlín abstained from the Dáil, as a protest against the oath of allegiance. In fact, despite winning two elections, she would never actually take her seat in the Dail, because of the Oath.

One of the issues which Caitlín campaigned on and would be active on for the coming years was the welfare and release of Republican prisoners. In speeches she complained about the privation faced by the prisoners, and worries for their health were uppermost in her mind. She noted that the families of prisoners were destitute and that they ‘wanted peace and they could not have this until the prisoners were set free’. She attended a deputation to Dublin Cooperation in October 1923 with Dr Kathleen Lynn, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dr Alice Barry, and others to persuade the Corporation to send their health visitors to set for themselves the treatment of Republican Prisoners in Mountjoy. Caitlín took umbrage when people suggested that the hunger strike the prisoners were on was ‘a fraud’, stating that anyone who knew Austin Stack and those others who were on hunger strike must know that they did not take on a hunger strike without realising what they were doing’.

As well as continuing her political and activist work for prisoners, Caitlín was raising and providing for her six children, although she did have the assistance of her sister Maire. She worked on the Sinn Fein executive, being its treasurer for several years, she continued her work on prisoner releases. Writing to Edmund Downey in 1923 as prisoners were being released she wrote ‘The prospects are now looking very good for the prisoners, it is only a matter of time until Dev [Eamon De Valera] is back again. … Sinn Féin at present working on a policy which will be practical & workable for the country, with the addition of Sean T. [Ó Ceallaigh] & the others we expect to make some headway now that the awful hunger strike is over & the prisoners coming out”. In fact, she often met prisoners as they were being released and helped them settle back in at home. Caitlín ran again for election in June 1927, and was elected again, although she did not take her seat.  She refused to leave Sinn Fein and join Fianna Fail as, in writing to Edmund Downey (who did join Fianna Fail) again,  she said ‘I understood that De Valera had declared that if Fianna Fáil were to get a majority he would set up a Republican government. Now I understand that he has declared that majority or minority he was prepared to take over the Government, which in plain language is the Treaty. You will understand that it is not possible for [Sinn] Féin to cooperate with Fianna Fáil, if De Valera speaks for all its members”.

Like so many of the Republican women, especially the Republican widows, she was unprepared to compromise, and she held true to those republican principles for the rest of her life. In the second General election of 1927, Caitlín did not run as a candidate, as Sinn Fein were out of funds, and this marks the end of her formal political career, but not her activism – and indeed her success as a business woman.  She had established a drapery business, Kingston’s Ltd, in 1924 and following her exit from politics devoted much time to the venture. She died in 1959. Her son Ruari followed her into politics.

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Caitlín Brugha

In order to write the lives and histories of women like Caitlín Brugha we need an understanding of  her own life, of the motivations which drove her political ideology, separate from and in collaboration with those of her husband.  We need to fully understand the power of her position as a Republican widow, and her use of that power in the political arena, as well as the underlying explanations for her lifelong commitment to the Republic.  All of this is vital to understanding her own political and activist journey.

Women’s contributions to the revolutionary period, are as we know now, far more complicated and nuanced. A focus on the female life cycle where marriage and motherhood impact in ways that marriage and fatherhood don’t for male subjects is vital.  It is also vital to understand the solidarity of female experiences, as here with the solidarity of the Republican widows (I would include women like Mary MacSwiney, who lost her brother and others who lost family members not necessarily husbands), in standing together for causes and in remaining true to those causes. It is also vital to understand that the domestic will, mostly, form a large part of a women’s life story, even for the women who operate also in the public realm. Looking behind the men, to the women, who were also there and who were also ideologically moved by revolutionary ideals will help cultivate a better understanding to the broader narratives of Irish revolutionary and early Free State histories.

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