The Women Who Dared

by Mary Attenborough

In whose name is this torture? of women and men.
If only we could travel a different way,
No evictions, burnings and executions, and then
Into back of lorries or cattle boat or cells pen
Those with principles, who now must pay
For the crime of the foreign power.
Why are we prepared to so lower?
And reduce ourselves once and again.

In Mountjoy I was wardress for many a year
My fatherless chislers to maintain.
Damp, dirt, misery, absence of cheer,
From cons; hatred, desperation and fear,
With only a bare living to reward my pain.
Now, after seven hundred years’ English rule,
Talk of independence could make a fool
Of those serving in the crown’s sphere.

In February ’21, an open lorry at moonrise
Brought Eithne Coyle — detained for what reason?
And two old women, their poorly state no surprise,
Penalty for campaigning with freedom their prize?
“Blankets for my compatriots, they must be frozen,”
Eithne’s voice quavered, shivered, yet of others she thought,
With a clear and honest belief, she fought,
And for this she risked her demise.

I shared neither language nor religion with these rebels,
Yet I admired their principled stand.
They would see me sitting outside their cells
And, as Béarla, would tell me their tales.
When Nurse Linda Kearns was visited by a man
bearing manner of haunted dedication
along with Josie O’Connor, also nurse by vocation,
I judged both to be republicans themselves.

When the man passed a flask, I did hear,
In a clear voice, Linda loudly thank
For hot beef tea, and she sounded sincere
But, on another day, did appear
A parcel with a cake and, to be frank,
I didn’t cut it through the middle,
Just a cursory search and a little nibble,
Because better not to interfere.

Another package, to Linda addressed,
Arrived one day with a whole chicken in.
A further dilemma as the content, I processed,
Was not just an old fowl, I simply guessed,
because the stuffing had a metallic ring.
Eithne, so slight, with impish smile,
Said to me, after only a little while,
Could I turn another blind eye on her behest?

I asked why the chicken plot didn’t succeed.
They key didn’t fit, but she would never tell.
Would I help? a door ajar was the only need,
No risk, she promised, for this good deed,
As they had a plan and a map as well.
I thought of my chislers, of the landlord’s rent demand,
I thought of myself ending up on remand,
But the bravery of those girls did exceed.

Hallow’s eve, seven women at corridor football,
Eithne with Linda, Killeen Keogh and Kathleen Burke entered the yard.
At 6:20, Linda threw a stone over the rough wall,
The appearance of a ladder was reason for them all,
To tug hard on the rope, with still no sign of a guard.
Once gone, I locked the door and went to my room
And thought of those girls, would they keep their freedom?
Or would they be captured and my role recall?

I never saw any of those girls till ’22 then,
Eithne transported from Buncrana sea poet,
because of her distribution of arms through the glen,
And work as a despatch rider for IRA men,
Revenge from her erstwhile comrades, I thought.
Remembering Óró, sé do bheatha ‘bhaile,
No welcome though, like for Grace O’Malley,
But returned by smelly cattle boat to danger again.

Worsened prison conditions, three girls to a room,
Letters were censored, bullets fixed into her cell,
being out on exercise, she didn’t meet her doom.
She complained to the governor, not too soon,
Paidir O’Keefe just said “You can go to hell.”
In ’23 moved to North Dublin Union by van,
A filthy old workhouse used by Black and Tans,
Of 300 women there, many died, but Eithne escaped in June.

I heard Eithne did later sustain,
Recaptured, then released and returned to Donegal,
Elected to be president of Cumann na mBan.
Ní Síocháin go Saoirse, she would say often,
I’m glad I assisted a woman with spirit so tall,
For I used my tiny amount of power,
To help a movement for freedom to flower,
For Ireland to be whole again.

Reproduced with kind permission of the author. This poem was composed in Poetry as Commemoration workshops held at Bantry Literary Festival in July 2023. The workshops were led by writer Thomas McCarthy.