Actors Of 1916: Helena Moloney

Portrait of Helena Moloney.

Portrait of Helena Moloney.

Helena Moloney was a powerhouse in Irish politics in the early part of the 20th Century, a women who devoted her time and efforts in every possible way possible to the main political movements of the era; women’s suffrage, labour rights activism and of course, Irish Republicanism. However, she was also a talented actor, playing a forming role in the National Players Society, of which Arthur Shields was also a member. According to her Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, the aim of the National Players was to give dramatic expression to National political propaganda. Their annual programme during the Samhain festival was the highlight of their year. Lasting a week, it emphasised nationalist arts projects. For example, in 1903, when Helena joined the Society, a centenary play, ‘Robert Emmet’ was the main billing. It was certainly not ‘art for art’s sake’, as every production had an intentional nationalistic spin. Even in her artistic craft, politics flowed through Helena’s work.

In 1914 at the outbreak of war in Europe, Helena was in France working with the Abbey Theatre. She was forced to remain there until December of that year due to the war. She recalled that while the contract in Theatre was good, the attraction of a political career was much stronger. She had already played a prominent role in the 1911 opposition to King George’s visit, working alongside Countess Markievicz and later helped in the organisation of the 1913 Lockout. Helena had officially joined the Abbey Theatre Company in 1913, which had been formed to replace the original Company, now touring the states, and had worked on a number of plays. While there, James Connolly asked Helena to organise the girls working in the Co-op into a military unit of the Irish Citizen Army. The Co-op had been set up during the strike as an emergency measure, but continued after.

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The work in and around the ICA headquarters at Liberty Hall was tense in the months before Easter 1916. There was constant fears of raids and police harassment over the publication of the paper, “The Workers’ Republic”. The rivalry between the ICA and Volunteers was significant at this time, with the ICA casting the Volunteer leadership as over-cautious. Helena was happy in her position within the ICA and confident in the leadership of James Connolly.

During the first few months of 1916, Helena was sent to London to pick up a number of guns. These were to be transported in her suitcase and then brought home by ferry. Helena had been London numerous times with the Abbey and was confident that she was up to the job. On her way to Euston Station, she met a young Army recruit who offered to carry her suitcase for her. She, of course, let him, and the British recruit inadvertently carried the guns all the way to the train!

Though Helena received no more information than the average ICA member as to the timeframe for the Rising, she knew something was coming in the two weeks before it happened. She and her contingent of women spent most of Holy Week in Liberty Hall preparing for any eventuality. On Saturday evening, Helena left Liberty Hall to give a friend a letter, she expected this was to be her last chance as the Rising was set to start the following day.

The Irish Women's Workers Union on the steps of Liberty Hall. There is little doubt that Helena Moloney is in the photo, although there is some dispute as to where she is sitting. Most accounts seem to put her either 3rd from the left in the front row or in the centre of the middle row.

The Irish Women's Workers Union on the steps of Liberty Hall. There is little doubt that Helena Moloney is in the photo, although there is some dispute as to where she is sitting. Most accounts seem to put her either 3rd from the left in the front row or in the centre of the middle row.

With the issuing of the countermanding order, Helena felt that the Volunteers couldn’t be trusted on counted upon to show up to any military action. There was never any doubt of the commitment from the ICA members, but the news of the countermanding order was devastating to all in Liberty Hall. While the mood was sour, there was a resolve amongst many that no matter what, they would take up arms, even if it was to be single-handedly. Sunday night was filled with preparation, the women under Moloney’s control were cooking and sorting rations for the men and women who would go into action the following week.

Many of the 'ordinary' men and women of the Citizen's Army had no official uniform to speak of. Helena herself was dressed in an Irish tweed costume, perhaps taken from her days in the Abbey. Put under the command of Captain Sean Connolly, she was part of the group which attacked Dublin Castle. She was surprised not to be going to the GPO with James Connolly, but was a good friend of Sean, her fellow Abbey actor, who led the group’s attack on the castle.

Helena was with Sean Connolly when he shot the guard on duty outside Dublin Castle. It was only at that point that she said many of the men with them realised the reality of the situation that they had willingly entered. The brief moment of uncertainty, after Connolly had shot the officer and was shouting at his men to “Get into the Castle”, was what caused the failure of the assault. Instead of rushing the gates, the men’s hesitation allowed for the sentry to quickly pull them shut and begin returning fire.

After the failed assault on the castle, Helena followed Sean Connolly into City Hall. She prepared a back room in City Hall and waited out the firing, which for the first hour was especially heavy. She was soon sent to the GPO with a request for reinforcements. Easily able to slip in to the GPO which was still relatively quiet, James Connolly agreed to the request. However, upon her return, Captain Sean Connolly became the first rebel to be killed, shot by a sniper while on the roof of City Hall.

The death of their commanding officer was a hard blow to the group in City Hall. They maintained their position and returned fire on the British forces, but it was mostly out of fear rather than effective aiming. As evening fell, a large company reinforced the British contingent in the Castle. From then on the position in City Hall became less tenable.  Machine gun fired ripped through the windows, causing large parts of the plastered ceiling to end up on the floor. The fire continued throughout the night, as the cornices of the roof began to crumble and crash onto the marble floor below.

As the fire continued, the sounds of British soldiers could be heard getting closer and closer. Windows in the back smashed and shouts of orders to “Surrender in the name of the King” were reverberating around the building. Laregly unarmed, the women under Helena’s command had little choice but to surrender. One by one they were brought out through the window and into Dublin Castle. The mistaken presumption made by the British officers was that these women were only First Aid responders and not military soldiers. While many of the women of the ICA did first aid work, there was no limitation to their combat role.

The captured rebels were held in a filthy backroom at Ship Street Barracks. All the women were piled into this room, including some civilians who were picked off the street at random. After 8 days of confinement, during which they were treated well by the Dublin Fusiliers, the women were transferred to Richmond Barracks and from there they were moved on to Kilmainham Jail. Like many of the rebels, Helena awoke each morning to the sound of the firing squad executing the leaders of the Rising. After the executions had stopped she was once again moved, this time to Mountjoy. It was from there that some of the combatants began to be released. However, given Helena’s high rank, she was instead transferred to Aylesbury Jail in England. She would not have to stay long here, and was released during the general amnesty in December of 1916.

Throughout the next year, Helena continued to work with the Citizen's Army, amongst whom she was part of a group of hard-line members. They, along with Cumann na mBan and Na Fianna associates, attempted to hang republican flags and paste copies of the proclamation throughout the city. Liberty Hall had become a Trade Union headquarters, due to the ICA numbers having been decimated in the aftermath of the Rising, with many of its members still imprisoned in England. These Union workers were not always patriotic or republican and a rift emerged between the followers of Connolly’s and Larkin’s socialist ideologies.

Moloney (left) with Maud Gonne.

Moloney (left) with Maud Gonne.

Helena returned to the Abbey Theatre, where she worked throughout 1917-1919. She was paid every week but often took time off when she was conducting anti-recruitment drives throughout the country. At the time, John Irvine was the manager of the Abbey, and was wholly unsupportive of Helena’s efforts to promote the Irish Citizen Army and ideas of Irish nationalism. He threatened on many occasions to fire her, but as a protégée of Yeats himself, Helena was protected. Helena did a lot of work throughout the years of the Sinn Fein government with the Ministry of Labour, under Countess Markievicz. By this time she was well known by the authorities in Ireland and her home was constantly raided.

Helena Moloney worked tirelessly for so many political causes, always pursuing equality for the sexes, no matter the cause. In her later life, she noted bitterly that despite the work of women in the creation of the Free State and subsequent Republic, equality had not come in everyday life. She was decidedly anti-treaty in her outlook after 1922 and this left her on the outside of the norms of leftist politics in Ireland. Her prominence in political circles and dedicated work to improve the lives of the poor was not reflected in her personal life and she was left in poverty, dealing with alcoholism and depression in the new Free State.  The conservativism of the newly independent Ireland did not reflect the causes and beliefs of those who had taken to the streets in 1916, and for many, the reality of life was not satisfactory for the sacrifice that many had given. 

-  Written by Daire Collins