- Doing My Bit for Ireland:Transgressing Gender in the Easter Rising
This essay examines a historical amnesia about women's accounts of the 1916 Easter Rising, arguing that the suppression of these often-violent narratives reflects a conflict within the symbolic economy of Irish nationalism. With Ireland traditionally gendered female in both imperial and nationalist discourse—as "the Sister Isle" or "the Poor Old Woman"—women who abdicated symbolic roles associating them with the nation threatened both the discourse of empire and that of nationalism. Unstable markers of gender were doubly disturbing: woman as the symbol of the nation becomes unidentifiable, and thus nation as a concept becomes amorphous and uncontainable. Two women who fought in the Easter Rising, Constance Markievicz and her protégé Margaret Skinnider, negotiated these dangers through a highly theatricalized dramatization of gender difference, a drag performance heightening fears on both sides of the political spectrum that Irish society had lost all grounding in respectability—indeed had become anarchic.
Gender masquerade deployed for political ends has a history in the Irish nationalist struggle. Luke Gibbons notes that beginning with secret agrarian societies of the early nineteenth century, groups such as the Lady Clare Boys and the Molly Maguires assumed female names and wore women's clothing: "bonnets, veils, gowns and petticoats were pressed into service in this transgressive costume drama" (Gibbons 141). The subversiveness of such politically inflected drag performances transcended the obvious advantage of [End Page 228] anonymity and secrecy provided by any disguise, for the shock value of the insurgent's costume magnified the political effect of his violence. This eruption of aggression from a visually meek or comic source became totalizing and anarchic as a confusing gender disruption turned society on its head and enforced the seriousness of the insurgent's demands. The feminized colonial Irish subject was inverting a debilitating stereotype through these masquerades, asserting his socially disruptive power through male mimicry of militant women.
The women who fought in men's clothing in the 1916 Easter Rising arguably produced an even more disturbing challenge to Irish society, an anarchic reverberation that similarly but more transgressively underlined the seriousness of national upheaval. The widely reported apocryphal story of Constance Markievicz kissing her revolver before surrendering to the English and reports of the ferocity of the rebel women in the English press surely helped justify the swift and brutal repression of the Easter Rising: in 1916 even Ireland's women were out of control.
"Those who conquer usually write the history of the conquest," writes Margaret Skinnider, in her long out-of-print memoir of the Easter Rising, Doing My Bit for Ireland; nevertheless Skinnider's account of a pivotal event in Irish nationalist history emerges from the perspective of woman combatants, a decisively conquered (not to say largely invisible) group in the historiography of Easter 1916. That Irish women participated in the Rising is not unexpected, for Padraic Pearse's proclamation at the General Post Office would guarantee "the suffrage of all her men and women" in Ireland, a privilege not yet extended to the women of the British Empire in 1916. Thus for the duration of the Rising Irish women achieved at least a nominal measure of political parity with Irish men.1 Nearly one hundred women participants—of whom seventy-seven, including Skinnider, were reportedly arrested—made up somewhat less than 10 percent of the 1916 fighting force; sixty of these women were members of Cumann na mBan, the female auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers, and the rest emerged from the Irish Citizen Army (Ward, [End Page 229] Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 111). Whereas the majority were employed as dispatch runners and nurses, some members of Cumann na mBan and most of the women of the Irish Citizen Army, including Constance Markievicz, were trained and armed to fight the British alongside male combatants. Writing just after the hostilities, Maurice Joy recounts an unnamed nurse marveling that such "an organization of determined fighting women could exist in the British Isles. These women could throw hand grenades and understood the use of bombs; in fact, they seemed to understand as much of the business of warfare as their men" (Joy 144...