'Widow propaganda'

The Case of Michael O’Callaghan as presented by his Widow

Image: The case of Michael O’Callaghan as presented by his widow, June 1921 (Limerick City Archives,1991.0635) (http://museum.limerick.ie/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/11690)

by Courtney McKeon

Courtney McKeon is from Limerick City and studies English and History. She has a long-cultivated interest in history that she credits to her brilliant secondary school teachers. She is particularly interested in women’s place in history and how women have been represented in the media. She hopes to continue this line of study in the future. For this publication, Courtney drew on the resources of the Limerick Studies Library. She would like to extend her thanks to them for their tireless work in archiving pivotal sources for the benefit of the people of Limerick. Limerick has a rich history and one that Courtney personally feels could use more attention. She also enjoys creative writing and is heavily involved in theatre in the city. 

Published media representations of women impacted by the Limerick Curfew Murders, 1921

On the night of 6 March 1921, the mayor of Limerick, George Clancy, his predecessor, Michael O’Callaghan, and Irish Republican Volunteer, Joseph O’Donoghue were shot and murdered during the curfew hours in the city.[1] This essay contains a primary source analysis of contemporary publications concerning this event. In particular, there will be a focus on the representation of women as victims in the published media coverage directly after the event and how this coverage created a platform for the women involved to enter the public narrative. The analysis will begin with a brief biographical section to illustrate the place in society from which the women involved were coming. Following this, newpaper coverage directly after the murders will be looked at in terms of its representation of the women involved. From here, Kate O’Callaghan (1888–1961) will become the more central focus of this essay. Her use of published media as an outlet for voicing her opinions of the murders became imperative to her representation. In all, this essay attempts to illustrate how tragedy and suffering are utilised as propaganda for the republican movement, and how the portrayal of women as victims is imperative to such propaganda. While choosing the primary sources for this essay, careful consideration has taken place to ensure all sources are recognised hand in hand with the problems that arise from them. As E.H. Carr notes, bias has its essential place in history and it is hugely important to not discount sources simply because they contain the turbulence of recollection.[2]

As has been traditional in Irish historiography, the lives of many female participants in the Irish revolution have not been widely studied or contemporarily publicised. [3] However, one historian, Sinead McCoole, does include a brief synopsis of the life of Kate O’Callaghan in her book, No ordinary women, tracing her heritage to County Cork where she was highly educated, completing teacher training at Cambridge University in England. [4] The social implications of her privileged education are significant in this discussion. As Sangster outlines, education and social class are linked privileges that influence any biographical testimony, especially in a female sphere.[5] Sangster’s theory is important to keep in mind as it implicates how Kate was constructed in the media that surrounded her. Kate had married Michael O’Callaghan in 1914, having met due to their mutual involvement in the Gaelic League. [6] Kate was also a founding member of the Limerick Cumann na mBan branch where she became acquainted with Mary Clancy, wife of the late George Clancy. Mary, George, Michael, and Kate were very active members of nationalist movements in the city, speaking regularly at events and campaigning for independence. [7] Both Michael and George served time in the Mayoralty of Limerick. Michael, in particular, had a turbulent service as the city's first republican Mayor; he received two written death threats that caused him to leave this post early allowing George to be elected as successor. [8] This background places this study of the protagonists within a strong republican framework; these women were educated and vocal within their communities and married to men who did the same, which influences how they would be represented in contemporary publications and propaganda. [9]  

Local, regional and national newspapers have always played a central role in reporting conflicts in Ireland. From the rebellion of 1916 to the Civil War, the printed press - and its changing affiliations in this revolutionary period - frame contemporary understandings of the violence nationally and internationally.[10] On the morning of 8 March 1921, we see the role that the press played in framing public understanding of the murders with the Limerick Chronicle featuring the headline ‘Night of Horror, Mayor and Ex-Mayor Shot in Their Homes, Wives' Heroic Struggle, Mayoress Wounded, Third Tragedy-Young Male Victim’. [11] This article offers a particularly interesting insight into the event as it framed the murders from the two widows’ perspectives. The article highlighted the double tragedy felt by Mary as ‘she had buried her own father only the week before’. While they framed the murder of Michael O’Callaghan completely from the perspective of his wife, quoting her actions and even the words she spoke as he was shot. Emotively they present a step-by-step account of the raid and present 'Mrs O’Callaghan' as the ultimate hero of the event: as a gunshot fired past her shoulder, she ‘seized an umbrella with which she attacked the raiders.’ [12]  It is not clear whether the paper contacted the women in order to access their recollections, or whether they received their information from other sources close to them, but it is significant that from the outset the women are heavily present in public narrative surrounding the murders. Louise Ryan has tracked the changing image of women in the Irish press in this revolutionary period, concluding that press representation of women underwent a type of metamorphosis during this time. She explains that during the War of Independence women were increasingly portrayed as victims, having moved beyond the realms of obscurity they suffered in 1916 to now feature in publications in terms of their suffering for propaganda value so as to increase sympathy for the ‘Irish cause’. [13] 

Theories by Steven Lukes, a scholar of social integration, surrounding social inclusion and political action, can be applied to the representation and inclusion of women in this public narrative.[14] Particularly on an international level, the press played its role in bringing the Limerick women involved onto the international stage - but only as mourners and victims. The New York Times reported the event on the front page on 8 March 1921. The headline read ‘MAYOR OF LIMERICK IS SHOT DEAD IN BED’ while the subtitle read ‘Ex-Mayor Is Also Killed in Residence, and Another Citizen Is Killed in Field. MAYOR'S WIFE SHOT IN ARM She Makes Heroic Effort to Protect Her Husband, as Does Also Wife of the Ex-Mayor.’[15] As Maurice Walsh outlines, it was not irregular for American, or indeed British, newspapers to report on conflicts in Ireland, writing that there was a huge international interest in these events and the extent to which they could change ‘public opinion’. [16] The women impacted by the murders were framed simultaneously as heroines and victims, making efforts to stand in the way of gunfire to help their husbands, while ultimately being left helpless. Lukes would argue that through the murder of two prominent political figures, the minorities, in this case the women, were included in the narrative for further political aims.[17] This portrayal in both national and international published media is significant; as Carr has stated: ‘the best way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts’ and this line of reporting widows was hugely influential for the development of the Irish republican movement.[18]  

As the press continued to cover the murders, a Military Inquiry was opened on 15 March. Kate wrote a letter to the press in which she publically criticised the inquiry and stated that she would ’gladly attend any hearing in front of [her] fellow countrymen’ but that she could not take part in the ‘military run farce’ that was being offered to her. [19] Her letter was later printed in her Witness Statement (1953) to the Bureau of Military History - but it was not the one printed in the press at the time. In fact, the Irish Independent featured a much longer and more scathing criticism of the inquiry in her name. [20] It is important to outline this editing of Kate’s letter as it creates problems for interpreting the source. As Ludmilla Jordanova cautioned: when choosing a source that ‘bears on a historical problem’, it is imperative to outline ‘how they do so’. [21] This source indicates that although the press were happy to include the women in the narrative, they wished to do so on their terms.

Kate was not always edited - or in some cases silenced - she eventually took matters into her own hands by publishing a pamphlet entitled The Limerick Curfew Murders of March the 7th 1921; The Case of Michael O’Callaghan as presented by his Widow. The pamphlet outlines the lead-up to her husband’s murder and describes the event itself. The publication is not only a narrative however as it includes a detailed presentation of evidence which Kate claims proved the British Army was involved in the deaths of her husband, his successor, and Joseph O’Donoghue. The pamphlet, Kate claims in her Witness Statement, was published and circulated in America, Britain and Ireland. [22] The overall sentiment of the piece is that of a woman striving to obtain justice for her murdered husband. Even from the outset, the wording used situated Kate in the place of ‘widow’ and her husband as ‘victim’ mirroring the image the media had constructed for her. Reading further into the document, republican undertones can be seen. In particular, Kate’s scathing criticism of both the ‘handicapped’ Military Inquiry and the ‘ignorant’ British Cabinet for attempting to place the blame for the murders on ‘extreme elements’ of the Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstrated anger and placed the injustice firmly in the hands of the British government.[23] Although the pamphlet was completed within months of the death of her husband, the problem of recollection is still present in this source. It must be taken into account that Kate was writing from a place in society, having just been appointed president of Cumann na mBan and having been left with no verdict from the military inquiry; the external forces at play in this pamphlet must be recognised. As Carr has outlined: ‘society and the individual are inseparable’ and, as such, society becomes an ‘unconscious’ force in our writing of history especially when penning our own. [24] Still, this source can be read as a way in which Kate O’Callaghan centred herself in the discussion by utilising the image created of her in the press to achieve further justice.

The basis of this investigation came from a reading of the Witness Statements given by Mary Clancy and Kate O’Callaghan to the Bureau of Military History in the 1950s. These statements come to the historian with an abundance of problems but provides interesting insights. Even years after the murder of their husbands, these women situated themselves as pieces in their husbands' story but not as stories themselves. Their presence in the published media surrounding their husbands’ deaths is important to help understand the role women played in mourning during the Irish revolutionary period. The creation of post-mortem revolutionaries was the ultimate product of this event. Having created martyrs from injustice, these women, and the press surrounding them, became part of a ‘widow propaganda’, which, as Thomas Toomey has highlighted, ultimately quadrupled republican activity within and outside of the city. [25]


[1] Thomas Toomey, The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1921 (Limerick, 2010) pp 532-567.

[2] E.H. Carr, What is History? (Hampshire, 1986) p.xiv

[3] Louise Ryan. ‘”Furies” and “Die-Hards”’: women and Irish Republicanism in the early twentieth century’, Gender and History, 11(2002), p.256.

[4] Sinead McCoole, No ordinary women (Wisconsin, 2003) p.190

[5] Richard Johnson & Graham Dawson, ‘Telling our stories, feminist debates and the use of oral history’ in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomas (eds),The Oral History Reader, pp 89-91.

[6] McCoole, No Ordinary Women, p.190

[7] Photograph of Limerick City Volunteers and Cumann na mBan Members, 1920, Limerick Studies Library, George Clancy Collection, (http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/clancy,%20george%2007.pdf) (20 March 2017)

[8] Jim Kemmy, ‘The Killing of Michael O’Callaghan’ in David Lee and Debbie Jacobs (eds), Made in Limerick Vol.III (Limerick, 2013), p.220.

[9] ‘Popular Memory; Theory, Politics, Method’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomas (eds), The Oral History Reader, pp 79-81.

[10] Maurice Walsh, The news from Ireland: foreign correspondents and the Irish Revolution (London, 2011), pp 3-10.

[11] Limerick Chronicle, 8 March 1921, Limerick Studies Library (http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Curf006.pdf) (21 March 2017)

[12] Limerick Chronicle, 8 March 1921

[13] Ryan, ‘”Furies” and “Die-Hards”’, p.262.

[14] Steven Lukes, ‘Political Ritual and Social Integration’, Sociology, 9 (2016) pp 289-308.           

[15] New York Times, 8 March 1921.

[16] Walsh, The news from Ireland, p.3.

[17] Lukes, ‘Political Ritual and Social Integration’, pp 291.

[18] Carr, What is History?, p.5.

[19] Statement of Kate O’Callaghan, 14 May 1953, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History (hereafter BMH), WS688.

[20] Irish Independent, 14 March 1921, Limerick Studies Library (http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Curf011.pdf) (21 March 2017)

[21] Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (New York, 2010)  p.91.

[22] Statement of Kate O’Callaghan, 14 May 1953, BMH, WS688

[23] 'The case of Michael O’Callaghan as presented by his widow’, June 1921 (Limerick City Archives,1991.0635) (http://museum.limerick.ie/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/11690) (20 March 2017)  p. 30.

[24] Carr, What is History?, p.25.

[25] Toomey, The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1921, pp 532-567.