Life, love and loss on the road to partition
Protestant men’s role in the creation of Northern Ireland is well known, but what part did Protestant women play? Belfast writer Claire Mitchell turned to her own family history to find out
Where were my women on May 3, 1921? Did they dance on the streets and wave flags when Northern Ireland was born? Were their struggles any different when they woke up the next day?
The women in my family were ordinary Protestants from Belfast and Newry. Their stories have not been overly preserved. I have suitcases of clippings on war heroes and handed-down tales of notable men. But I have fewer tools to discern how my women experienced their lives 100 years ago. I’ve used official records, newspaper archives and fragments of family memories to piece together their lives.
I wanted to see what could be learned by excavating the truly ordinary. None of my women did anything famous, or infamous. But they glued their own worlds together. And sometimes they fell apart. Imagining their lives during partition is my small tribute to them. As well as an exploration of Protestant women’s lives at this time.
My great-great-grandmother was Maria Kirkpatrick. She lived in Carnan Street, off the Shankill Road. Pregnant, and hastily married, at 16. In 1921, she’d had eight children, and six were still living. Maria signed documents, including the Declaration in 1912 (the women’s version of the Ulster Covenant), using only her mark. Many of her in-laws were Catholics from Sailortown. According to the 1901 census, Maria’s children spoke Irish. It’s possible that Maria moved from rural Tyrone to industrial Belfast and brought Irish with her. Or perhaps her kids learned it in school on the Shankill Road, where one of the earliest northern Gaelic League branches was formed. But by 1911, the Irish has gone from my family’s records. I often wonder what happened in these years, leading up to partition, that caused their Irish to become disremembered.
Elizabeth Lewis was my great-grandaunt. She spoke Irish and English. Pregnant and married at 16 in the Church of Ireland beside Castlecourt shopping centre. Thirteen children by the time she was 31. Seven living, six dead. The family was often in court for not vaccinating their children, not sending them to school. Elizabeth would have been 41 when Northern Ireland was created. But she collapsed eight years earlier. Her heart just stopped. Slum life and no contraception would do that to a person.
My great-grandmother was Dora Gibbney. Weaving linen at Ewarts Mill on Belfast’s Crumlin Road from at least the age of 15.
She signed the Declaration at 16 and married Andy Mccandless at 24. Northern Ireland’s first election was due at the end of May 1921. The Shankill was buzzing with political energy, with frequent rallies and some times riots. It was the first time that women could vote, thanks to the Representation of the People Act of 1918.
Dora couldn’t vote though, as she was under 30. Women couldn’t vote on the same terms as men until 1928. Maria was 61 and able to vote. She just inched her over the property threshold. Whether or how she voted is unknown.
All I know is that she would have struggled to read the
ballot. When I think of the Gibbneys, I think of contraction of political worlds. Before they moved to the Shankill, a quarter of their Sailortown neighbours were Catholic. In the Shankill, this was just 1%. In Sailortown, they lived close to mixed-marriage relatives — Catholic aunties, uncles and cousins.
These relatives did not follow them to the Shankill. In the early days, the kids spoke Irish. This too disappeared. It feels that their lives may have narrowed culturally by the time of partition.
But yet, it is hard to believe that politics alone defined these women. Their work in the mills was hard. Many started as young teenagers. They had so many babies. They bore so much loss. The workless years of the 1920s and 1930s were still to come. As was more intense sectarian violence. My guess is that the Gibbneys became loyalist women. But never fully mono-cultured. Because, scratch the surface, Belfast never is.
Catherine Armour was my great-great-grandmother. She lived in a tenement house on the Shankill. I mention her briefly because maybe no one else ever will. She married Andrew McCandless in 1896 and had a baby in 1898. I haven’t been able to locate Andrew anywhere after the birth. It’s likely he did not stick around.
Catherine’s life seems to fall apart after this. She is not literate. She works as a weaver. In 1901, she lives with her mother Eliza Jane, a linen reeler, and her toddler, Andy. By 1911, Eliza Jane and 12-year-old Andy live in Winchester Street, but Catherine has gone.
I searched every workhouse, hospital, every corner of Ireland and Britain, every immigration record and passenger list for her. Nothing. My best guess is that by 1911, Catherine was boarding in a house on the lower Shankill, going by “Kate Armour” and still working at the mills. The Belfast Newsletter records that a man (with a family name) was convicted of assaulting her in 1910.
Catherine died as an old woman in Purdysburn in 1963, and was buried in a paupers’ grave in Belfast City Cemetery. Movingly, she gives her last address as 31 Winchester Street, the place where she may have last been with Andy. Maybe the house was a base camp amid a deeper instability in Catherine’s life. Andy never talked about her. Whatever happened may have caused an irreparable fracture.
Neither Catherine, “Kate” nor Eliza Jane signed the Declaration in 1912. My guess is that they weren’t well, disengaged, perhaps avoiding official paperwork. Catherine would not have met the property threshold to vote in 1921, even if she wanted to.
When I think of the Armours, I think of rootlessness. The poverty beneath poverty. A poverty which erases lives from the records. Sometimes even from family memories. Being a Protestant didn’t garner Catherine many privileges in life. No political clout. Hers is also a story of absent men and violence against women, which seemingly overwhelmed her body and mind in the end.
Politics ran through the veins of my Newry family, with years of military, quasi-military and security force membership. But that was the men. It’s harder to uncover the lives and ideas of the women.
Bella Byars was my great-great-grandmother. I know from a family historian, Ian Gribble, that the Byars farmed a decent plot of land in Kilkeel. Spinning, peat-digging, fishing, tailoring and gathering kelp. They were not rich, but they were able to weather the Hunger, and were more financially secure than many.
Bella and her family lived in Newry in 1912, and every member signed the Ulster Covenant/ Women’s Declaration.
William, Bella’s husband, died of natural causes in 1916, leaving everything to their young son Willie. His will said that Willie should allow Bella to live in the house, “have the use and enjoyment of the furniture (and) clothe, support and maintain her”. But Willie died at war in 1917, and we think Bella inherited the farm instead. She made lace at home for extra income.
On May 3, 2021, Bella was 64. Newry was under curfew. RIC officers were on the streets, firing shots and making arrests. In 1923, Bella sends a letter to her brother, saying “times are a little quieter in Ireland at present, they were not so quiet for a long time”.
Many of the Byars’ marriages were mixed, with religious conversions in both directions. Sometimes this put a strain on families. One of the Catholic mothers beat her son’s head for marrying a Protestant, and he became deaf for life. Bella’s brother joined the Orange Order and carried a pistol around Kilkeel. It would have been difficult to balance these tensions. But somehow Bella did. Despite the backdrop of sectarian violence, her lifelong best friend, “Granny Gallagher”, was Catholic and they raised their families side by side.
Bella’s daughter, Cissie, is my great-grandmother. She was a typist in 1911 and would go on to manage the office of the Newry Reporter — a fine job for a woman at the time. Cissie signed the Declaration in 1912. She was 30 in 1921 and eligible to vote. I have no doubt that she would have voted unionist.
Just down the road, Jack Jones was coming of age. His teenage years had been difficult — stealing, losing work and ending up at Industrial School. Jack joined the British Army in 1910, but his contribution was minimal. He spent much of his time in the Army hospital in Dublin with syphilis. In 1914, Jack was discharged for drunkenness, and ended up in Mountjoy prison. He was in court in Newry in May 1925, and imprisoned for “intent to insult females”.
Just a few months later, Cissie married Jack. They were from neighbouring townlands, so she must have known something of his life. But she was 34 — past typical marrying age. Maybe she felt that she had fewer options. The next year, Cissie became pregnant. Jack jumped on a boat to Liverpool and never made contact again. He never met his daughter. Jack’s sister remained in touch with him until the 1960s. So he was not dead, just gone.
While Cissie was undoubtedly a unionist, this is not without nuance.
I found condolence cards on her death from Orangemen and nuns. Cissie, like Bella, refused to fall out with their mixed-marriage families. Cissie’s daughter was a champion Irish festival dancer.
I found a signed copy of William Mcbride’s Ulster Covenant inside a music book from the Gaelic Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language. This points to a culturally blended life.
When I think of the Mcbrides, I think that my women didn’t quite go along with all of their men’s politics. Their lives were shaped by men’s absence. But this perhaps opened up space for them to achieve a level of independence that was not typical. And indeed would not have been possible without a certain level of financial security, land, or education. This was not unconnected to their Protestantism.
This is my handful of centenary stories, such as they are. Hidden stories. Lives conjured from scraps.
They are ordinary women’s stories that few outside their families will remember. Stories of poverty. Of female labour, in the mills and in their homes. Stories of childbirth, child-rearing and child loss. Stories of men’s abandonment and violence. Stories of social mixing. Also some stories of fledgling independence. Women who tried to create identities outside the home.
Did politics matter to my women? I don’t know.
Half of my women signed the Women’s Declaration in 1912. Many of them would have celebrated the formation of Northern Ireland. The other half of my women did not sign the Declaration. Perhaps a few may have been opposed. Of the women that did sign, many had intimate friendships with Catholics in their wider families and communities. Most of them had Irish cultural layers.
When the centenary comes around on May 3, 2021, there are certain things I will hold in my thoughts.
Some of my women were the first generation of women to exercise their right to vote. Whoever they voted for, they were history-makers.
I will light a candle for the 16-year-old brides, the shotgun weddings and the abandoned mothers.
I’ll reflect on how those who managed to carve out some independence, did so from a baseline of financial security. To an extent, they were able to build on their historical privilege as Protestants in Ireland. For others though, Protestantism was no passport to comfort or security. Many of my women lived on the brink of survival. With broken bodies and sometimes minds. It is difficult to identify privilege in this context.
These are just fragments of my women’s lives, pieced together by a great/great/great grand-daughter they never knew. Excavating their stories did teach me things about women’s experiences at the time of partition. But most of all, it just feels good to say their names.
Maria, Elizabeth, Dora, Eliza Jane, Catherine, Bella, Cissie.
I live with your ghosts and your lives shape me still.
‘One of the Catholic mums beat her son’s head for marrying a Protestant’