The Workers’ Party held a commemoration for Winifred Carney, republican, trade unionist and suffragist, in Milltown Cemetery yesterday (19/11/23). Wreaths were laid by Margaret McCorry on behalf of the Workers’ Party and by Tim Smith on behalf of SIPTU, while Gemma Weir of North Belfast gave the oration, which can be read below:
“Winnie Carney lived during a period of political turmoil and at a time when many women were becoming more involved in politics in Ireland, in the labour movement, in republicanism, and in the suffragettes.
Carney with her interest in social justice had a choice as to where she wanted to put her energies and her strong pull towards radical politics meant she took a job working for the unions in the mill.
In 1911 Connolly was living in Belfast and in the process of organising the dockers when some of the women related to the dockers asked for help with improving their conditions. Connolly provided this support and the linen strike of 1911 took place. It only lasted for two weeks and the strike ended because of lack of pay and an inability for the union to support the workers financially.
Carney became involved in the Gaelic League, the Suffragette movement and later the socialist movement and in 1912 Carney became secretary, for the Irish Textile Workers’ Union. Through her socialist trade union activity, she naturally gravitated towards republicanism and she soon joined the Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan.
Carney strongly supported Connolly’s political ideas and due to her close working relationship and friendship with him was aware of the planned Rising. She became his ‘Aide-de-Camp’ when preparations for the rising began. On the 14th of April 1916, Connolly sent a telegram instructing Carney to travel to Dublin immediately. Initially she worked from Liberty Hall, typing dispatches and mobilisation orders until moving to the GPO with Connolly and the Citizen Army on Easter Monday when the fighting began. She was the only woman present during the initial occupation of the GPO and she entered armed with a typewriter and a Webley revolver, becoming known as the ‘typist with the Webley’.
Following the rising she was held in Kilmainham Gaol initially and later moved to Mountjoy, and was transferred to Aylesbury Prison in England. She was finally released in December 1916. The transport union was devastated in Dublin and the union needed to be rebuilt. Liberty Hall had been almost raised to the ground and the task of rebuilding the union began.
In 1918 women could not only vote in elections but could stand as candidates. Republican women had taken much from the proclamation particularly around equal rights and opportunities. Yet Sinn Féin only chose two women, Winifred Carney and Constance Markievicz. Sadly Carney only polled about 400 votes, this was partly due to the fact she had contested a strongly unionist area, an area that was unwinnable for a republican candidate but also because she had stood on her own platform for a workers’ republic which had not gained the support of middle class nationalists. It was after this that she really lost faith in Sinn Féin, she no longer believed they were serious about radical politics, about her as a woman and most importantly she realised they were not serious about class politics. She could no longer be a part of the narrow vision the party had for the future.
An extract from her electoral manifesto shows the stark difference between her platform of a workers’ republic and that of Sinn Féin:
“The issue then is clear and definite. Ireland or England; Independence or Subjection; Freedom or Slavery; the Republic or the English Monarchy; the Workers’ Republic or the Capitalist Empire; the Sovereign People or the People in Chains. You know for which of these I stand. For which do you stand?”
Following the Treaty, Carney took the anti-treaty side and once more became active in Cumann na mBan, working with the 1st Battalion of the Belfast Brigade and during the Civil War she was subsequently arrested several times.
In 1920 she joined the Socialist Party of Ireland and then in 1924 the Northern Ireland Labour Party. It was in this small group of people who were attempting to build a non sectarian base and rebuild the Labour party where she met her future husband George McBride, a fellow socialist, from the Shankill.
In the years following the Rising, War of Independence and the Civil War the role of women was much overlooked, even hidden. It is important to note that Cumann na mBan also took the anti-Treaty side and this meant that the role of women came under very serious criticism at the time. The Free State government would go so far as to ban Cumann na mBan in January 1923 detaining any women suspected of membership in Kilmainham Gaol, alongside this the Catholic Church issued a pastoral letter calling on women to cease all revolutionary activity.
Of course the following years under De Valera and the Roman Catholic stranglehold were no better with women removed from participating in juries, working after marriage, working in industry or the public sector. Contraception was made illegal under the 1935 Criminal Law and Divorce was banned in Ireland in 1937. De Valera famously refused to have any women under his command at Bolands Mills during the Rising despite direct orders from the leaders. So it is unsurprising that he would ensure the role of women during the Rising and subsequent years would be airbrushed.
The contribution played by women in Irish history has often been neglected or deliberately sidelined, however the centenary commemorations of the last few years have begun to put that right and we are beginning to see women, like Carney, rise more in notability and prominence, taking their rightful place in our history.
Carney was a remarkable woman. Her writings, particularly her GPO memories, give us an insight into a woman who was deeply compassionate, her concern for the leaders and the volunteers is striking, fearless and no nonsense, committed and fiercely loyal. Carney, like Connolly, understood the need for class politics and a United working class; she would never accept the argument that Labour must wait. It is for these reasons and for her contribution to creating a better society and a better Ireland she should be remembered. She will continue to inspire many more generations of socialist republicans.”