Flesh­ing out a com­pli­cated woman

Nell Re­gan’s first bi­og­ra­phy of the ac­tor joins other ac­counts of women ac­tivists around the time of the Easter Ris­ing of 1916 He­lena Molony: A Rad­i­cal Life, 1883-1967

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Ca­tri­ona Crowe

By Nell Re­gan Arlen House, ¤20

In 2013 Anu Pro­duc­tions, Ire­land’s most in­no­va­tive site-spe­cific the­atre com­pany, de­vised a se­ries of 13 pieces (un­sur­pris­ingly called Thir­teen) to re­flect on as­pects of the 1913 Lock­out. One of them had the small au­di­ence gather in the lane be­side the Abbey The­atre. A woman rushed out of a side door, pur­sued by a fu­ri­ous man.

The for­mer was the ac­tor He­lena Molony, played by the won­der­ful Derbhle Crotty; her pur­suer was St John Ervine, the Abbey’s gen­eral man­ager. She was leav­ing the the­atre be­tween the mati­nee and the evening show to help with the soup kitchen setup at Lib­erty Hall to feed the locked-out work­ers and their fam­i­lies.

Af­ter a spir­ited al­ter­ca­tion with Ervine, she ush­ered us into the base­ment of Lib­erty Hall, where we passed through the soup kitchen to a small room. She of­fered us all a nip from a baby Power. I took one. She then re­flected on the mis­ery of the Lock­out and gave a graphic de­scrip­tion of the death, from lock­jaw, of 16- year- old Alice Brady, shot on the Dublin quays while try­ing to buy bread.

This short but riv­et­ing per­for­mance gave us a lot of in­for­ma­tion about a deeply in­ter­est­ing woman who was in­volved in all sorts of things dur­ing her long life. Molony was an ac­tor, a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, a magazine edi­tor, a com­bat­ant in the 1916 Ris­ing, a ma­jor trade union­ist, a gifted or­a­tor, a se­ri­ous drinker and, pos­si­bly, a les­bian. She also ap­proved of Soviet Rus­sia and as­sisted a Nazi spy who came to Ire­land dur­ing the sec­ond World War to make com­mon cause with the IRA.

This first bi­og­ra­phy of Molony fleshes out our knowl­edge of this com­pli­cated woman and joins a num­ber of other bi­ogra­phies of women ac­tivists dur­ing th­ese years whose lives are be­ing ex­ca­vated by a new gen­er­a­tion of his­to­ri­ans of Ir­ish women, build­ing on the pi­o­neer­ing work of Mar­garet Ward’s Un­man­age­able Revo­lu­tion­ar­ies and Mary Jones’s Th­ese Ob­streper­ous Lassies, pub­lished in 1983 and 1988. The decade of cen­te­nar­ies has brought a wel- come fo­cus on women in­volved in fem­i­nism, na­tion­al­ism, mil­i­tarism, paci­fism and so­cial­ism dur­ing the pe­riod.

He­lena Molony was born in 1883 in Dublin, the daugh­ter of a gro­cer. She was or­phaned early in life, and lit­tle ev­i­dence re­mains of her child­hood. She re­mained close to her brother Frank, who em­i­grated to the US with his wife in 1910. She built a net­work of close friends through­out her life, in­clud­ing Maud Gonne MacBride and her daugh­ter Iseult Stu­art, Sid­ney Gif­ford Czira, Con­stance Markievicz and Kath­leen Lynn. She spent the last 20 years of her life liv­ing with Eveleen O’Brien, a doc­tor at Grange­gor­man psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal.

Her ac­tivism be­gan with Maud Gonne’s Ingh­inidhe na hÉire­ann, which she joined af­ter hear­ing Gonne speak. In 1908 she es­tab­lished Bean na hÉire­ann as a monthly “woman’s pa­per ad­vo­cat­ing mil­i­tancy, sep­a­ratism and fem­i­nism”. Molony de­scribed it as “a funny hotch- potch of blood and thun­der, high think­ing, and home- made bread”. She favoured na­tion­al­ism over the fem­i­nist cam­paign for women’s suf­frage, believ­ing Bri­tish leg­is­la­tion was an un­wor­thy ob­jec­tive for Ir­ish sep­a­ratists.

Dur­ing this time she was a well- known and crit­i­cally ac­claimed ac­tor on the Abbey stage when the com­pany was at one of its high points. Her act­ing gifts were use­ful to her as a po­lit­i­cal speaker; she spent a lot of time on the back of horse-drawn trail­ers in Fos­ter Place, mak­ing of­ten in­cen­di­ary speeches on the is­sues that con­cerned her.

She was in­creas­ingly drawn to James Con­nolly’s brand of so­cial­ism, and was in­tensely in­volved in al­le­vi­at­ing the worst ef­fects of the 1913 Lock­out. In 1914 she suc­ceeded Delia Larkin as gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Ir­ish Women Work­ers’ Union, and she re­mained part of that or­gan­i­sa­tion, and com­mit­ted to its ob­jec­tives, for the rest of her work­ing life. She was a highly re­spected if some­times con­tro­ver­sial trade union­ist.

Molony was ac­tive in the Ir­ish Cit­i­zen Army in the 1916 Ris­ing. She wit­nessed Seán Con­nolly, her fel­low Abbey ac­tor, shoot dead Con­sta­ble James O’Brien out­side Dublin Cas­tle on Easter Mon­day, and watched him die later from a sniper’s shot. She was im­pris­oned for a lengthy pe­riod af­ter the Ris­ing. Con­nolly’s death was a great blow to her; she had lost a friend and po­lit­i­cal men­tor.

Molony took the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, and when it was over she spent many years op­pos­ing the grad­ual ero­sion of women’s rights in the new con­ser­va­tive State, so much at odds with the Procla­ma­tion of the Ir­ish Repub­lic, which she cher­ished.

Her drink­ing, aris­ing from life­long bouts of de­pres­sion, caused her much an­guish. Her l ater years with Eveleen O’Brien gave her peace and so­lace as she be­gan to be feted as one of the great sur­vivors of the Ris­ing, al­beit with large bits of her legacy sup­pressed. She died in 1967.

The most fa­mil­iar pho­to­graph of Molony is one from the 1930s, where she looks grim and un­happy, with hair like a fright wig. Re­gan has un­earthed an ear­lier pic­ture, taken of the cast of The Devil’s Dis­ci­ple in 1913, where Molony is stand­ing just be­hind a very made-up Con­stance Markievicz, with her friend Sid­ney Gif­ford in pro­file be­side her, look­ing at her with ob­vi­ous af­fec­tion.

In this photo, Molony is a young, vi­brant, pretty woman, smil­ing at the cam­era and the fu­ture. It’s a poignant re­minder of the dis­tance be­tween youth­ful, hope­ful ac­tivism and later dis­il­lu­sion.

Ca­tri­ona Crowe is an hon­orary pres­i­dent of the Ir­ish Labour His­tory So­ci­ety

He­lena Molony, ac­tor, ac­tivist, trade union­ist; above, with the Dublin Trades Coun­cil ex­ec­u­tive in 1930-31; be­low, with Maud Gonne MacBride in the 1940s

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.