22 May 2022

Derry City Cemetery Series: The young Derry Cumann na mBann woman killed a month before the Irish Civil War began

Debate has raged on whether women have been airbrushed from Irish history

Derry City Cemetery Series: The young Derry Cumann na mBann woman killed a month before the Irish Civil War began

One young Derry Cumann na mBann woman was killed just before the beginning of the Civil War.

A century after the foundation of the Dail in 1919, debate still rages about why and how women involved in the republican movement and many other spheres of Irish life were largely and purposely eliminated from the events of the time.

Examples of the practice abound across the island of Ireland stretching from the Easter Rising of 1916 and its bold proclamations of equality for all, to the Irish War of Independence and the bitterness of the Civil War.

Others however contend that women were not airbrushed from Irish history to the extent that has been claimed.

Whatever the truthful conclusion of the debate, in the quiet and peaceful setting of Derry City Cemetery, a gravestone marks the final resting place of Margaret ‘Maggie’ McAnaney.

She lies with her father Robert and grandparents John and Matilda. Her mother was Catherine Campbell. A member of Cumann na mBann, 98 years after her death, mystery to an extent still surrounds the events that led to untimely demise.

The young Derry woman is not alone in that her memory has been largely obscured from the role she played in the fraught political atmosphere of the first two decades of the twentieth century.

In an era when the women’s movement were striving for universal suffrage, the most famous example of this elimination from history remains the literal removal of Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell from a photograph as she accompanied Padraig Pearse when the rebels surrendered to General Lowe on Dublin’s Moore Street at the conclusion of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Following the enrolment of women in the ranks of the Irish Citizen Army in 1913 and the formation of Cumann na mBann in 1914, it became clear that female republicans were willing to bear arms and take the same risks as their male counterparts.

However, during the 1916 Rising for example, women were almost all confined to cooking, first aid, ferrying messages and signalling duties.

Some women of course managed to overthrow the patriarchal control of the movement and played a full role in the fighting. Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider were the exceptions to the imposed norm of female roles in these times. No women were killed in the fighting at Easter 1916.

Despite claims that Nurse Margaretta Keogh was a republican casualty, it isn’t true. Although she was definitely killed by the British Army during fighting at the South Dublin Union, she was a civilian nurse and not attached to the republican forces and was not a member of Cumann na mBann.

Five years later during the War of Independence, women undertook the dangerous roles of arms and explosives transportation. But only one citation of women playing a direct role in attacking the British emerged from the entire era. That came it seems during an IRA attack on the Royal Irish Constabulary barracks at Killmallock, a town in south Limerick on the border with County Cork. One IRA man recalled “the Cumann na mBann women used a rifle…and boiled kettles as required.”

Others contend however that the recurring argument, particularly during the centenary commemorations of 1916, that women were completely written out of history in this era is incorrect.

Numerous women veterans of the republican struggle including Kathleen Clarke, Madame Czira (Sarah Gifford), Nora Connolly-O’Brien, Maud Mitchell, Kathleen Keyes McDonnell, Maude Gonne, Lil Conlon, Brigid Dirrane had their own biographies published during their own lifetimes. 

Whilst forbidden from taking part directly in battle, republican women were still of course at risk of serious injury and death during encounters with the British, and several members of Cumann na mBann were killed during the Irish War of Independence.

Josephine McGowan was from Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin and served as a member of the Marrowbone Lane Garrison during the 1916 Rising.

On September 22, 1918 Josephine attended a Cumann na mBann rally at Foster Place in Dublin to protest against the internment of republican prisoners. The Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charged the crowd and McGowan was struck several times on the head. Rescued by her comrades, Josephine was ferried to the Cumann na mBann medical post at Ticknock but died there a week later as a result of her injuries and was buried without fanfare at Glasnevin. As a result of her death, her father died a week after his daughter. It was not until the 1940s that Josephine McGowan was posthumously awarded a War of Independence service medal. It bore a ‘Comhrac’ bar – a symbol of recognition normally reserved for male fighters.

Margaret Keogh was a 19-year-old printers assistant and at around 11.15pm on the evening on July 10, 1912 she was fatally wounded by a gunshot during a British Army raid on her Ringsend home. It was the night before the Truce in the War of Independence was announced.

A captain of the Croke Ladies Hurling Club, a member of the Irish Clerical Workers Union and a member of Cumann na mBann, a year prior to her death, Margaret Keogh had been arrested by British forces for refusing to give her name in English when she was interrogated about her fundraising activities for Conradh na Gaeilge, then a proscribed organisation.

Her funeral on July 14, 1921 and she was buried with military honours at Glasnevin by her Cumann na mBann comrades. For her pains, her gravestone is inscribed ‘Margaret Keogh – Died for Ireland.’

In the period between 1918-1921, three more members of Cumann na mBann were killed.

On May 31st, 1922 Cumann na mBann member Margaret McElduff from Co Tyrone died from her wounds after gun she was transporting for the IRA accidentally discharged. In the same year, Nora O’Leary died in similar circumstances in County Kerry when IRA Commandant Denis Reen accidentally discharged his rifle in her home.

An internet search of records about the deaths of Margaret McElduff and Nora O’Leary however reveals precious little on the details of their deaths.

As the War of Independence turned into the Irish Civil War women, most likely through military necessity, women were allowed to play a fuller role in combat.

The first Cumann na mBann woman killed in that bitter conflict was Mary Hartney of Limerick City, followed by Lily Bennett and Charlotte Despard from Dublin, Margaret Dunne from Cappaleigh South in West Cork and Nan Hogan of Cratloe in County Clare.

Today there are national monuments to Constance Markievicz, the boys of Na Fianna Eireann, but none to Cumann na mBann nor the girls of Clan na nGaedheal Girl Scouts.

The story of Derry girl Maggie McAnaney is similar in that relatively little is known of her demise. Her death coincidentally took place on the same day as Margaret McElduff’s in neighbouring Tyrone (May 31st, 1922).

Margaret McAnaney was the daughter of city councillor Robert McAnaney, a member of the first city’s first nationalist led Corporation under Mayor Hugh C O’Doherty in 1920. He was a tailor by profession and a member of the IRA. The family’s home was 245 Bishop Street.

According to the account given at the official inquest by her friend Maggie Canning from Bluebell Hill Terrace in the Brandywell area of Derry, Maggie McAnaney called to her home at 9.30am on the morning in question and they left from there with five other girls to travel to Inch Island for a picnic.

On they way they hitched a lift on a Ferguson’s lorry as it drove through Bridgend. The vehicle was then halted at an IRA checkpoint at the Rectory at Burnfoot.

As they waited for the lorry to be given permission to move away again, both Maggie McAnaney and Margaret Canning had a friendly chat with the IRA guard who they both knew well. According to Miss Canning as they talked, the sentry put the butt of his rifle on the ground as he talked and at that the lorry driver told everyone to sit down again as they were about to continue the journey.

As this happened, a shot rang out and Maggie McAnaney fell to the ground, fatally wounded.

She had been hit by a round accidentally discharged from the IRA man’s rifle. The IRA officer at the inquest offered sympathy and said that the sentry responsible could be produced for questioning if required. The inquest chairman said that wasn’t necessary and a verdict of accidental death was recorded.

However, an inscription on the young woman’s headstone declares she was ‘Killed in Action’ – an epitaph normally reserved for those engaged in activities on behalf of the republican movement.

The official date given for the beginning of the Irish Civil War is June 28, 1922 – a month after the death of Maggie McAnaney.

Tensions over the imposition of Anglo-Irish Treaty and partition were obviously high and in Derry city and nearby Donegal, like the rest of the island, the IRA were split. Documents and discussions about applications for the IRA pension years later revealed that there was much debate on whether the Derry IRA was in fact neutral when the Civil War began.

Whether the ill-fated picnic trip to Inch was a ruse for other activities, the inquest verdict was a matter of expediency, or whether it really was simply a case of a tragic accident remains unclear almost a century later.   Whatever the reason, Maggie McAnaney was just 18-years-old when she died.

Her father Robert died less than ten years later, on February 4, 1931 aged 50.

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