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‘The Rabble’

O CearnaighTCD MS 3560/1 is the personal narrative of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (1883-1942), detailing his experiences as a Volunteer in the 1916 Rising. During Easter week Ó Cearnaigh fought at Jacob’s biscuit factory, but escaped arrest when British troops took over the building. The account held in M&ARL is an eloquent and lively account of his experiences in Jacob’s and on the surrounding streets, where clashes between the Volunteers and the British were taking place. By far the most intriguing and poignant is the following description of the reaction of some local women when they first encountered the Volunteers:

TCD MS 3560/1
TCD MS 3560/1

‘The Volunteers erected barricades in Black Pitts and New Street, and while doing so the most heart-breaking scenes of the week took place. In this neighbourhood the vast majority of the women were drawing “separation allowances” i.e. so much per week from the British Government for their husbands or sons who were fighting on the various fronts in the European War. Adopting a hostile attitude from the start, as the afternoon wore on, and being fortified with a certain amount of liquor, and a natural aversion on the part of the Volunteers to retaliate, they grew bolder, going as far as to struggle with the men to take the rifles from them, one actually spat in my face. It was a painful experience for those who went thro[ugh] it and easily the worst part of Easter Week’.

When the Rising first broke out, the Volunteers encountered extreme hostility not only from pro-British elements but from a section of Irish society identified as ‘separation women’ or, ‘the rabble’. They came from the Dublin slums, where roughly half of the city’s 320,000 population lived. To escape the unemployment in the slums, 30,000 new recruits left Dublin for the Great War, 5,000 of whom would die over the course of the conflict.

The Volunteers claimed that these separation women were merely concerned with losing their state-funded income. However, it seems clear that there was also a feeling among the families of serving soldiers that the Sinn Féiners were engaged in treachery against their men who were fighting in the trenches. Inner city residents saw their workplaces – such as Jacobs’ factory – taken over by the insurgents, leading to the rebels being heckled for disturbing the livelihood of the residents. The separation women were not Unionists as the term is typically understood; their ties and loyalties were personal and familial rather than political.

The Ó Cearnaigh papers (TCD MS 3560) were presented to Trinity College Library by Ó Cearnaigh’s nephew, the playwright and costumier Séamas de Búrca in October 1959. The papers consist of his recollections of Easter Week and a history of the IRB. An adaption of Ó Cearnaigh’s 1916 memoirs was later published by de Búrca in The soldier’s song: the story of Peadar Ó Cearnaigh (Dublin: P.J. Bourke, 1957). Ó Cearnaigh’s text for ‘the Soldier’s Song’ was the subject of a previous blog post.

Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin
Manuscripts & Archives Research Library