Illuminations: “Doing My Bit for Ireland”
By: J. Michael Finn
Throughout Easter Week 1916, women often faced the same dangers as did the men, risking their lives so that Ireland could be free. One such interesting person of the Rebellion was Margaret Skinnider.
Margaret was born on April 5, 1892 to Irish parents in the Lanarkshire town of Coatbridge, Scotland. The family later moved to Glasgow. Her father and mother had roots in County Monaghan and the family often returned there to visit relatives. She wrote, “Scotland is my home, but Ireland my country.”
When she was twelve a friend loaned her a book on Irish history and she could not help but notice the difference between actual Irish history and the “English version” of Irish history that she was taught in Scotland. She noted that, “The resentment I had felt in County Monaghan grew hotter.”
In college she was trained as a mathematics teacher. Believing that “An English war is always a signal for an Irish rising” she joined Cumann na mBan (pronounced coo-man nah van) and the Irish Volunteers in Glasgow in 1914. It was at this time that Margaret learned to shoot at a rifle club, which had been established so that women could help in defense of the British Empire. Margaret became a very good shot.
Her work in Glasgow for Cumann na mBan and the Volunteers came to the attention of Countess Constance de Markievicz and she asked Margaret to come to Dublin to visit her. Margaret made the overnight trip to Dublin during Christmas of 1915.
In crossing the Irish Sea, she chose to sleep on deck, using her hat for a pillow rather than sleeping in a stateroom. For in her hat, she was smuggling explosive detonators and had wires wrapped around her under her coat. Margaret was fearful that in a stateroom she would run into a stray electric wire or a steam pipe that would detonate them. She wrote, “That I ever awakened was a miracle. Pressure, they told me when I reached Dublin, is just as dangerous, and my head had been resting on them all night!”
She arrived in Dublin and was welcomed by the Countess to her home in Rathmines, known as Surrey House. The house was always a hive of activity, full of an odd assortment of characters – out of work actors; struggling writers and artists; republican revolutionaries; trade unionists; Irish boy scouts; and others.
Someone wrote that, “Until she (the Countess) came down to breakfast in the morning, she never knew what guests she had under her roof. In order not to disturb her, they often climbed in through the window late at night.”
Margaret soon fell right in, assisting the Countess with the training of her Irish boy scouts (known as Fianna Boys). The Countess, a trained marksman herself, was teaching them to shoot. Margaret accompanied the Countess and her boys to the woods surrounding Dublin, where the boys learned shooting, camping and military skills. Margaret wrote that the boys were delighted that she could hit the bulls-eye more often than any of them.
“The Countess had trained them to expect good marksmanship from a woman,” wrote Margaret.
At the encouragement of the Countess and after meeting James Connolly, Margaret signed on as a private in the Irish Citizen Army. She also made several trips back and forth to Glasgow, each time smuggling explosives into Ireland hidden in her clothing. Her Scottish accent often kept her from being searched or detained.
During the Easter Rebellion, Margaret was assigned as a dispatch rider to St. Stephens Green, reporting to Commandant Michael Mallin. She made several trips during that week between the Green and the General Post Office delivering dispatches and successfully dodging bullets from British snipers.
As fighting around the Green began, Mallin ordered that they take possession of the College of Surgeons building. Margaret was asked to utilize her skills with a rifle as she was sent to the roof, where she served quite effectively as a sniper under the direction of the Countess.
Then, Margaret and William Partridge were detailed to lead a patrol towards the Russell Hotel on the corner of the Green and Harcourt Street. Here they were ordered to gain entry to a nearby shop, work their way down the row of buildings, and set fire to a British outpost; this would remove the snipers, force the withdrawal of the military and deny this position to the enemy.
Upon arrival at the shop, Partridge smashed the front glass with the butt of his rifle. As the sound of breaking glass echoed throughout the street, a volley of rifle fire from British snipers erupted from a nearby building. Margaret turned just as Fred Ryan caught the full blast of the first volley of fire, killing him instantly. Ryan was just seventeen years old.
The second volley hit Margaret, and she collapsed on the street. She had been shot in three places. The others took cover in the shop doorway. Partridge dragged Margaret’s body into cover as the squad laid down covering fire. She was still breathing, but seriously wounded. She was the only woman wounded during the Rebellion.
Partridge carried Margaret back to the College of Surgeons, where they were able to remove the bullets, without anesthetic. That same day Partridge and the Countess returned to the scene of the shooting and the Countess personally dispatched the two British snipers who had killed Ryan and wounded Margaret.
When the surrender order was received on Sunday, it was decided to take Margaret directly to St. Vincent’s Hospital, rather than risk her falling into the hands of the British. She was in the hospital for several weeks after the Rising, was briefly detained and then returned to the hospital when the doctor advised the authorities that she was too sick to be jailed. From the hospital, she arranged to escape while awaiting medical treatment and obtained a travel permit from Dublin Castle to enable her to return to Scotland.
Margaret returned to Dublin later that year before fleeing to America in fear of internment. While in America, she collected funds for the republican cause and lectured with other women who had fought in the Easter Rising. In New York, Margaret also wrote and published her autobiography, titled, “Doing my Bit for Ireland”. Her book provides an excellent firsthand account of the Rebellion. She later returned to Ireland and took up a teaching post in Dublin in 1917.
During the War of Independence she was arrested and imprisoned. In the civil war she became Paymaster General of the Irish Republican Army until she was arrested in 1923 and held at North Dublin Union. There she became Director of Training for the prisoners.
After her release from prison, Margaret worked as a teacher at Kings Inn Street Sisters of Charity Primary School in Dublin until her retirement in 1961. She was a member of the Irish National Teachers’ Organization (INTO) throughout her teaching career and became its’ President in 1956. She lived her last years in Glenageary, County Dublin. Margaret Skinnider died on October 10, 1971 and is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at FCoolavin@aol.com.
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