Limerick's leading ladies

Kathleen Clarke and Kate O'Callaghan

Image: Kathleen Clarke and Kate O'Callaghan pictured with Countess Markievicz and Margaret Pearse, four of the six ‘Black Widows’ elected to Dáil Éireann in 1922. Source: Liz Gillis, Women of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2014). p. 150. (https://goo.gl/images/sHNyt9)

by Ailbhe Browne

Ailbhe Browne is a Law Plus student who studies History as an elective. She has a keen interest in Irish women’s history and local history, particularly the forgotten women of Irish history especially the Irish revolution.  She is from Clonlara Co. Clare, a small parish steeped in history. She is also a fluent Irish speaker and hopes that her combination of Law and History, and her Irish language skills, will enable her to work in the European Union.  

Cumann na mBan stalwarts Kathleen Clarke (1878–1972) and Kate O’Callaghan (1888–1961) 

This essay will discuss how two Limerick women used their influence within Cumann na mBan to excel in their political careers amidst a backdrop of personal turbulence. It will focus in particular on the timeframe in the period between the Easter Rising in 1916 to the sitting of the second Dáil Éireann between 1921 and 1922. To do this, accounts written by and pertaining to Kathleen Clarke (1878–1972) and Kate O’Callaghan (1888–1961) will be examined. These include Limerick Cumann na mBan records, military pension records, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. Secondary sources will also be used to contextualise and briefly discuss the historiography of this topic.

The struggles and remarkable feats that the women of the Irish revolution achieved have been largely absent from the general historiography, and their voices were widely written out of history until recently. The men of the revolution have been largely portrayed as martyrs who died for their love of Ireland while the women were simply regarded as wives, their history belittled and lost amongst the narratives of the men they fought alongside or against. At the beginning of her book, No Ordinary Women, Sinead McCoole, wrote: ‘Women played a major role in the fight for Ireland’s freedom; but while the names of their male counterparts are writ large in the history of those years, the women have never received the same recognition’.[1]

Certainly in the last number of years the focus has slowly shifted to the women’s stories. However, the books and articles written do not seem to expand on the lives of these brilliant women and often focus on their lives through the lenses of the lives of their husbands. This is a problem that seems to be widespread across the majority of the secondary sources available for research of this period.  In another of McCoole’s books, Easter Widows - seven Irish women who lived in the shadow of the 1916 Rising, the women are portrayed merely as widows. This book comprises seven chapters, each depicting one of seven couples, which is one of the major problems that could be found in this book. The women are only discussed from the point of view of their husbands’ revolutionary careers even though they had extraordinary nationalist careers themselves. In his review of McCoole’s Easter Widows, Hugh McFadden describes the book as ‘moving and empathetic’.[2] However this depiction of the women as mere supporting characters to the male revolutionaries rather than revolutionaries themselves could be said to be doing more harm than good to the historiography surrounding the women of the Irish revolution.  

Cumann na mBan was founded as an auxiliary organisation to the Irish Volunteers in 1914 with a view to giving women an outlet to be politically active; the organisation was formed from the membership of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the radical Irish nationalist women’s movement formed by Maude Gonne in 1900. A statement published in The Irish Volunteer in 1914 explained why Cumann na mBan had been formed: ‘We came into being to advance the cause of Irish liberty’.[3] The Limerick city branch of Cumann na mBan was established on the 5 June 1914 and both of the women studied in this essay dominated the branch.[4]

The following summer, the Limerick branch was regarded by The Irish Volunteer as the ‘most flourishing’ branch in the country.[5]The branch continued to go from strength to strength, and provided a platform for Kathleen Clarke and Kate O’Callaghan to further their roles in the fight for independence. The records of the Limerick branch provide a list of the officers and the objectives, and show that Kate O’Callaghan was president of the branch and Madge Daly, a sister of Kathleen Clarke, was the vice-president. The records also show that the Limerick branch ‘got all instructions from the Headquarters of Cumann na mBan’ in Dublin; this was signed by Annie O’Dwyer, treasurer of the branch.[6]The Limerick branch grew over the years and provided aid and assistance to families in need during the revolution, as well as highlighting political issues and causes to women.

Kathleen Clarke, the first woman to be discussed in this essay, was born Kathleen Daly in 1878. Her upbringing in the prominent Limerick nationalist Daly family meant that she was steeped in history and revolutionary thinking, something that strongly shaped her choices in later years. Her grand-niece, Helen Litton, describes her as ‘stubborn, energetic and driven by a fierce commitment to the cause’.[7] Kathleen married Thomas ‘Tom’ Clarke in New York, USA, in July 1901; he had spent time with her family in Limerick following his release from prison after serving fifteen years for his role in the Fenian dynamite campaign in London in the 1880s. The Clarkes moved back to Ireland in 1907.

In April 1914, Kathleen joined Cumann na mBan and was active in the Central Branch.[8] She was a staunch supporter of the Volunteers and, due to the fact that she played a prominent role in Cumann na mBan, her profile quickly grew; this later aided her political career. She was one of very few privy to the plans of the Easter Rising in 1916 and, on Holy Thursday, her husband Tom arranged that she would carry the message to the Limerick Volunteers. In her memoirs, Clarke recalled that Tom refused to let her join him in Dublin during the week of the rising, writing that the night before the rising was due to start, she felt ‘that the world was tumbling around me, though I did not say so … as far as I was concerned my happiness was at the end.’[9] After the rising, Clarke formed the first committee of the Irish republican prisoners’ dependants’ fund, to distribute help and sympathy to those who called looking for it. Clarke had been left £3,000 by the Military Council for this relief aid and took the leading role to coordinate the relief operation.[10] In November 1918, Clarke was added to the roll of Freemen of Limerick as a representative for Limerick’s Cumann na mBan, another thing that helped raise her political profile.

One primary source that details Clarke’s active role in the Irish revolution is her 1952 application to the Ministry for Defence for a Service Certificate under the Military Service Pensions Act, 1934.[11] Interestingly, in her application, Clarke signed her name on some documents in Irish as Cáitlín Bean Uí Chléirigh. In a ten page statement, she described in detail her activities during the 1916 Rising, her role after the Rising, and her involvement sending instructions through letters and parcels from members of Cumann na mBan to Irish prisoners. She also outlined that fact that in 1919 she was elected Alderman to the Dublin Corporation and this gave her ‘another field through which to work’.[12]This kicked off her political career. The President of Ireland in 1950, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, wrote a reference letter which Clarke attached to her application confirming the actions that she had outlined her application. For example, he confirmed Clarke’s claim that he had carried to her despatches from the rebel's headquarters at the General Post Office in Dublin during Easter week.[13]

Kathleen Clarke’s Service Certificate application also highlighted the role that she played in politics, stating that: ‘from the Rising to the Treaty I gave every moment of every day of the year to the work for the freedom without financial reward of any kind.’[14]She had been incarcerated in 1918 for her part in the so-called German Plot, an alleged conspiracy between German and Irish republicans that again raised her profile politically. She was one of six women elected to the Dáil in May 1921. These women played a crucial role in the Treaty debates – they all strongly opposed the Treaty. Clarke passionately argued against the oath of allegiance.[15]Clarke’s strong nationalist background and her leadership role in Limerick’s Cumann na mBan allowed her to become the key political figure that she was in the second Dáil and during the Anglo-Irish Treaty debates. She was subsequently a Teachta Dála and a Senator with both the Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil parties, and was the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin from 1939 to 1941.

Women do not cry much in Ireland during this war; the trouble goes too deep.[16]

The next woman to be discussed in this essay is Kate O’Callaghan who was born Kathleen or Kate Murphy in 1885 near Macroom in Cork. Educated at the Royal University of Ireland in Dublin and at Cambridge University in England, she moved to Limerick in 1909 to teach; this is where she met Michael O’Callaghan and they were married in July 1914.[17] Professor O’Callaghan was a founding member of Cumann na mBan in Limerick and is recognised as the President of the branch in the Cumann na mBan records.[18] After the 1916 Easter Rising, she worked tirelessly collecting for the Prisoners’ Dependents’ fund, alongside Kathleen Clarke and Madge Daly.

A key primary source written and published by O’Callaghan during the Irish War of Independence was a pamphlet entitled The Limerick curfew murders curfew murders of March 7th 1921: the case of Michael O’Callaghan (Councillor and ex-Mayor). As well as giving an insight into Kate’s writing, this source provides a first-hand account of the background and circumstances of the murder of her husband Michael. The production of this source also shows O’Callaghan’s influence as the pamphlets were spread across the country, something that helped raise her profile. Michael O’Callaghan was a local councillor, a former mayor of Limerick, and an IRA officer, who was killed in their home and in her presence by British forces in March 1921. The published details of his demise – and related correspondence to authorities – appear as an attempt by his wife to counteract British ‘military censorship on the truth of what is happening in Ireland’.[19]

While O’Callaghan described her husband as the ‘brains of Sinn Féin in Limerick’, this pamphlet clearly highlights her intellect and ability.[20] Details were provided of death threats or ‘notices’ sent to Michael. The first notice, received in March 1920, was a chilling letter reading: ‘Prepare for death. You are a doomed man. Rory of the hills.’[21] That summer, ‘police’ raids of their Limerick home began, with O’Callaghan stating that they ‘poured into all the rooms’ as she stood in the hall with their maid.[22] Several death threats and raids later, Michael was forced to go on the run in September 1920. Kate detailed the final death notice he received on 15 October 1920; this was an anonymous typed letter that read: ‘the Sinn Féin organisation of which you are a prominent official through the so-called I.R.A, or murder gang, has been committing outrages … This reign of terror must be stopped…you will be personally held responsible and punished in such a manner that others will be deterred from criminal courses’.[23]

An ‘unofficial’ raid followed in February 1921 which O’Callaghan said ‘was a nightmare. I had to go downstairs with a rifle to my back’. On 6 March 1922, came what she termed ‘the murder raid’ by the Black and Tans; she recalled that she was pulled aside and beaten by the raiders as Michael was shot several times.[24] She described in detail what happened after Michael’s death, and her actions. What is most interesting in this source however is the inclusion of her letters to several politicians, including British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, of whom she demanded an open and impartial inquiry into the Limerick murders. It could be argued that these letters signify the beginning of O’Callaghan’s political career.

In May 1921, Kathleen Clarke was one of six ‘Black Widows’, women widowed in after the 1916 Rising who were elected to Dáil Éireann. She represented Limerick City and Limerick East and, in the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty debates, claimed to speak ‘for the other women who are careful for the honour of their dead’.[25] The Treaty signed in December 1921 provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State  as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth and was strongly opposed by republican women like Clarke and O’Callaghan who addressed Dáil Éireann, giving their reasons as to why it should be rejected. An extant photograph (above) shows the two women, along with Countess Markievicz and Mrs Margaret Pearse, attending the Dáil during the debates: Clarke and O’Callaghan both look solemn and carry papers in their hands.[26] O’Callaghan stood firmly against the Treaty, and was re-elected to the Dáil the following year but after losing her seat in 1923 she moved back to Limerick.

Both of the Limerick women introduced here gave a great deal of their lives and spirit to the Irish revolution. They held key roles in Cumann na mBan, utilising the powerful network and platform that the organisation provided to shape their political careers. Their actions and staunchly republican views throughout the revolution shaped how they conducted politics, and caused their outright opposition to the Treaty during the debates.  They both had significant personal losses during their campaign – which probably galvanised their resolves – but they both carried on the fight. Clarke and O’Callaghan were two remarkable Limerick women. Their stories of intelligence, political influence, and commitment to causes they believed in, deserve more recognition than they have received to date. They left an important legacy which should be celebrated.


[1] Sinead McCoole, No ordinary women, Irish female activists in the revolutionary years 1900- 1923, (Dublin, 2003), p. 1.

[2] Hugh McFadden, ‘Review: Easter widows by Sinéad McCoole’ in Books Ireland, 360 (2015), pp. 37-38.

[3] The Irish Volunteer, 11 April 1914, p. 8.

[4] John O’Callaghan, Revolutionary Limerick, the republican campaign for independence in Limerick, 1913-1921 (Dublin, 2010), p. 33.

[5] The Irish Volunteer, 8 May 1915. 

[6] Military Archives, Military Services Pension, Limerick Cumann na mBan records (July 1922), MA MSPC CMB 106.

[7] Helen Litton (ed.), Kathleen Clarke revolutionary woman (Dublin, 2008),  p. 6.

[8] Sinead McCoole, Easter Widows - seven Irish women who lived in the shadow of the 1916 rising (London, 2014), p. 31.

[9] Littton (ed.), Kathleen Clarke, p.112.

[10] McCoole, No ordinary women, p. 60.

[11] Letter from Kathleen Clarke to the Department of Defence, 4 June 1950, Military Archives Ireland (MA), Military Services Pensions Collection (MSPC) W49SP751KAT (http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R2/49SP751KATHLEENCLARKE/W49SP751KATHLEENCLARKE.pdf) (28 April 2017)

[12] Statement by Mrs Kathleen Clarke, 4 June 1950, p.9, MA, MSPC, W49SP751KAT (1950).

[13] Letter from Uachtarán na hÉireann to Mrs Clarke, 5 June 1950, MA, MSPC, W49SP751KAT  (1950).

[14] Statement by Mrs Kathleen Clarke, 4 June 1950, p.10, MA, MSPC, W49SP751KAT (1950).

[15] Jason Knirck, Women of the Dáil: gender, republicanism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty (Dublin, 2006). p.88.

[16] Kate O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921: the case of Michael O’Callaghan (Councillor and ex-Mayor) presented by his widow. Publisher not identified. (Limerick, 1921).  Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections (http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/content/267/pdf/267.pdf)

[17] McCoole, No ordinary women, p. 190.

[18] Cumann na mBan, Limerick City Branch (independent) records, 1921-22, MA, MSPC, CMB/106 (http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Membership/9/MA-MSPC-CMB-106.pdf

[19] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921, p. 31.

[20] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921, p. 3.

[21] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921, p. 4.

[22] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921, p. 7.

[23] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921 , pp 11-13.  

[24] O’Callaghan, The Limerick curfew murders of March 7th 1921 , pp 13-18.

[25] Dáil Éireann Debates, Treaty Debate, vol. T, no. 7, col. 60 (20 December 1921) (http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie/debates%20authoring/debateswebpack.nsf/takes/dail1921122000003) (28 April 2017)

[26] Photograph of Clarke, Markievicz, O’Callaghan and Pearse, 1922. From Liz Gillis, Women of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2014). p. 150.