“I ASKED for all types of stories. Not just of the women actively involved in the wars as members of Cumann na mBan, but of the events that shaped the lives of women and their families,” says West-Cork author Karen Minihan.
“My interest is as a storyteller and dramatist, rather than a historian; how people survived these events, their personal responses, and how these translated to family and community dynamics, is what I find fascinating.”
Karen’s recently released book Extraordinary, Ordinary Women: Untold Stories from the Founding of the State tells the stories of 13 West Cork women, from Castletownbere to Timoleague, during the troubled days of the early state.
HOW THE PROJECT BEGAN
Although originally intended to be a pamphlet, an accidental ‘tumble on a rock’ left Karen with three breaks in her left leg, and a lot more time in which to sit and research a full book.
“I loved piecing together the bits of information, especially from the access to the pension applications in the Military Archives,” says Schull-based Karen.
“It is sad that some stories will not be told because no application for a pension was made.
“Margaret Crowley in the book is one of three sisters from just outside Clonakilty. She was the secretary of the Clonakilty district Cumann na mBan and I have no direct information about her, just the circumstances around her work, as she had died in 1925.”
Service pensions became available in Ireland for men who had been involved in the conflict in 1924, whereas women were unable to apply until a decade later, in 1934.
A CALL WENT OUT
With the support of Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre and the Heritage Department of Cork County Council, Karen sent out a call for forgotten stories from the founding of the state on social and traditional media in late 2020.
“Other stories came to me through research, where the women stuck in my mind, and I followed threads of information to find family members or greater details,” says Karen.
“Reading all the stories as a body of work makes me reflect closely on what these women did in difficult times, the actions they took, how the events impacted on their lives, and how marvellous they were.
“In trying to understand, even now, the impact of that time on our country and its citizens, the question that remains for me is: How can we know ourselves if we don’t know the stories?”
PREVIOUSLY UNHEARD STORIES
The book features the unheard accounts of 13 women’s experiences in West Cork during the period before the War of Independence through to the Civil War, roughly 1915 to 1923.
“The women in Cumann na mBan took an incredible risk defying the authorities, especially as they often remained at home while their IRA brothers went on the run,” says Karen.
“Look at the story of Helena Hegarty in Schull. She kept a prisoner in the workhouse there. He escaped, only to return with lorry loads of Black and Tans to arrest the person responsible, but she managed to deflect the prisoner from his story, bamboozling him and the other soldiers, and so succeeded in getting away with it. I find that daring in the face of danger really awe-inspiring.
“She was completely humble afterwards; few knew of her escapades until the pension files were released.
“Even her beloved nieces with whom she lived didn’t know.”
Karen grew up in Clonakilty and, like most of us, heard very little of women’s contributions to the war.
“I heard nothing of women, this was all a complete revelation,” says Karen.
“I didn’t know the extent of the presence of the Black and Tans or the Essex Regiment in Clonakilty, or the impact on the town.
“Kate Murphy, chair of the district council Cumann na mBan, lived three doors up from my grandmother in Clon’. She was Aunty Katie to my mother when she was growing up in the 1930s; a lovely, warm, welcoming, grey-haired women, dressed in black, sitting in the corner of her sitting room.
“Apparently, there were dispatches hanging on her wall with photos of Dev and other Fianna Fáil memorabilia.”
A POEM AND A PLAY
Included in the book alongside the thirteen profiles is a poem in Irish and English: Rianta / Impressions, and a short play called Home Rules, based on the story of Rose O’Connell from Skibbereen, who is featured in the book.
“She had two sons who were teenagers at the time of the War of Independence and Civil War and wanted to be involved,” says Karen.
“When they took separate sides over the Treaty, she set down the rules of living in their house and working in the business underneath.
“My job, as an artist, is to put us into the shoes of these women, to help us understand their conflicts and attempts to make decisions and to consider what the impact might be.”
Although this is Karen’s first book, she has been writing and directing plays with PlayActing Theatre for many years.
She also directs plays within schools and performs and writes in a comedy duo called Eileen & Marilyn.
She talks about the creative process in her blog and podcast: Take a Chair: Talking Theatre and Creativity.
Knowing what she knows now, I ask Karen if she would have stepped up and joined Cumann na mBan in its day?
“While I admire their work, commitment, and their wish to serve Ireland while accepting that they might suffer - and did suffer - because of that, I would hope that I would have been active in finding a way to help that would have been non-violent.
“The Russian journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, comes to mind,” says Karen, who believes the appeal of Cumann na mBan must have been thrilling at the time for many rural women.
“When one considers the lack of opportunity and education at the time in rural Ireland, and the poverty, then perhaps this era offered an irresistible sense of purpose and commitment.
“That you also belonged to a strongly connected group of activists who believed strongly in their aims and were targeted for so doing, added to the allure.”
Karen finds there are parallels between the courageous women in her non-fiction book, and current events.
“When you consider the impact on society, the legacy of trauma and heartbreak and the breaking up of families and communities, in terms of spirit, the parallels with Ukraine are unbearable”
Extraordinary, Ordinary Women: Untold Stories from the Founding of the State is available from www.karenminihan.ie