Republican Women: Helena Molony

Forgotten Women of Republicanism. A new quarterly feature to honour the contribution made by women to the struggle for a workers republic that often goes unmentioned.

Born in 1883 and orphaned early in her life, Molony was a radical committed to the intersectional causes of feminism, the labour movement and national liberation. Her political awakening began at the age of nineteen: 

“I was a young girl dreaming about Ireland when I saw and heard Maud Gonne speaking by the Custom House in Dublin one August evening in 1903 . . . She electrified me and filled me with some of her own spirit” 

It was from then that she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), a radical Republican women’s organisation led by Maud Gonne that was prolific for its anti-recruitment campaigns against the British Army. 

In 1908 she established Ireland’s first nationalist-feminist journal publishing Bean na hÉireann, a monthly magazine that advocated ‘militancy, separatism and feminism’. It was intended to revive Gaelic pride and counter encroaching British colonial values, covering topics of fashion, labour, cookery, fiction, poetry and of course politics. Bean na hEireann was “the woman’s paper that all the young men buy” and considered the most aggressive paper of its time. 

Molony is responsible for bringing many into the movement, particularly Constance Markievicz and Dr Kathleen Lynn. It was even inside Molony’s home on Lower Camden Street in Dublin that Na Fianna Éireann, the cadet body of the Irish Volunteers, was founded by Constance Markievicz on August 16th 1909.

In 1911 she earned the distinction of being the first Irish political prisoner of her generation after vandalising a portrait of George V during his visit to Ireland. She was bailed out, but was overjoyed when she was rearrested for calling the monarch a scoundrel. “That was marvellous; I felt myself in the same company as Wolfe Tone,” she later said of her brief detainment. 

A prominent member of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, she worked in Liberty Hall’s food kitchen and addressed strike meetings. An actor by profession, she drew on her theatrical experience to outwit state forces, once disguising Jim Larkin as an elderly clergyman to facilitate his famous appearance on the balcony of the Imperial Hotel. For Molony the lockout ‘profoundly affected the whole country’, producing a ‘social and intellectual revolution’. In November 1915 Connolly appointed her secretary of the Irish Women Workers' Union, which had been formed during the strike at Jacob's Biscuit Factory amid the lockout. Molony presided over the union's shirt factory in Liberty Hall, established in order to give employment to the strikers forced out of work and blacklisted after the strike.

Molony equally played an enthusiastic role in the 1916 Easter Rising. During the first few months of 1916, Helena was sent to London to smuggle guns back to Ireland. These were to be transported in her suitcase and then brought home by ferry. She had travelled to London numerous times with the Abbey as an actress 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!  

Weeks prior to the rising Molony alongside James Connolly would even defend the workers’ co-operative printing press adjoining Liberty Hall from an RIC raiding party. The press operator Christopher Brady recorded at the time:

“Connolly came down quickly, walked quietly to the counter with drawn gun in his hand. A few feet away Miss Molony was already covering the police with her automatic. Connolly looked sternly at the police and gave his command to them: “Drop these papers or I will drop you” . . . With this they beat a quick retreat.” 

The workers’ co-operate from then until the rising became her home, sleeping on a pile of coats inside the office with a revolver under her pillow. It was Helena Molony who was trusted to guard the completed proclamations once they were printed. 

During the rising itself she was involved in a daring raid on Dublin Castle before her capture in City Hall and incarceration at Ship Street barracks. She was then moved to Kilmainham Gaol where she was traumatised by the executions of the Rising’s leaders, particularly Connolly’s. After a failed but valiant attempt to dig her way out with a spoon, she became one of only five women to be transferred to a decrepit gaol in England alongside her 2500 male comrades.

During the War for Independence Molony would work with Contance Markievicz in the Ministry of Labour. She would also become an aide to Michael Collins and Liam Mellows whilst also serving as a District Justice in the republican courts in Rathmines. Staying true to the vision of the 1916 she would remain within the Republican camp, opposing the treaty during the Civil War. 

Molony would continue for years to struggle against the repressive 26-county state, remaining active within the Women's Prisoner's Defence League and the People's Rights Association during the 1930s. In 1931 with Frank Ryan, she helped found Saor Éire, a radical socialist republican organisation that was immensely opposed by the powerful clergy and later outlawed by Fianna Fáil.  In 1937 she was elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress, becoming only the second women to hold the office.

Helena Moloney died of pneumonia in Dublin on the 29th January 1967. She is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.