Monday, March 18, 2024

International Women’s Day: Two formidable Belfast Women: Macalla na mBan

International Women’s Day

Last Friday was International Women’s Day – a day when around the world humankind celebrates the work of women who are active in their communities, in trade unions, voluntary organisations, business, politics, their families and across every facet of our society.

It is also a time to reflect on the long history of struggle by women for equality and fairness. In many aspects of life today women remain second class citizens - in pay and employment rights, conditions of work, in access to education and health and in protection before the law. Hardly a week passes without evidence emerging of the extent to which women continue to face violence in the home, in the workplace and within communities. 

A fortnight ago the northern Assembly endorsed a motion calling on the Executive to urgently implement a strategy and framework to end violence against women and girls. During the debate it was revealed that since 2021 the North has the joint highest rate of femicide in Europe along with Romania. According to statistics from the PSNI between 2017 and 2022, “34 women and girls were killed by men. Many others faced other forms of violence, abuse and intimidation both within their own homes and the wider community.”

Calling for a whole of society approach to tackling this First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “These women are not statistics, these women are our mothers, our sisters, our aunts, our daughters, our friends, our work colleagues, and they are us who have been speaking in this debate today. We must take action now to stop this violence and we must never forget those that have been killed.”

Last year almost 98% of women surveyed for a report into violence against women - ‘Every Voice Matters!’ Violence Against Women in Northern Ireland’, published by the Ulster University - revealed that that they had experienced at least one form of violence or abuse in their lifetime. 

A second report, published by Queens University - ‘It’s Just What Happens’: Girls’ and Young Women’s Views and Experiences of Violence in Northern Ireland’ found that 73% of girls aged 12-17 reported having experienced at least one form of violence in their lifetime.


Irish Republicans have long understood the connection between Irish freedom and equality, and women’s rights. From Ann Devlin to Anna Parnell, from Countess Markievicz to Máire Drumm, from Sheena Campbell to Mairead Farrell, whose anniversary was last week, there is an unbroken line of women who sacrificed all in the quest for freedom and equality and justice. 


I had the great privilege of knowing some of this generation of republican women activists. They were ordinary women, many little more than teenagers, who at a time of great crisis and challenge for our people came forward to stand against injustice and to give leadership.


At the end of this month Irish republicans will mark the 1916 Easter Rising. The Proclamation of the Republic recognises the rights of women. It opens by addressing Irish men and Irish women and guarantees not just ‘religious and civil liberty”; but also “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. A century later the words of the Proclamation are as relevant as ever in the lives of women in Ireland. 


Much of women’s work today is undervalued and underpaid.  Irish women are still disproportionately concentrated in low-skill, low paid and part-time employment. Older women are more likely to live in social isolation. Traveller women face higher poverty, mortality and unemployment levels, and lower levels of educational attainment than their settled counterparts.  Internationally girls and women continue to face additional issues like female genital mutilation and arranged marriages.


In Gaza over 8,000 women and girls have been killed in Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people. Tens of thousands more have no access to health care or personal care because their health service has been destroyed. This is shameful.


Women on the island of Ireland and all over the world have won many battles for equality over the past century, but there are further battles ahead. The struggle for justice and equality and equal rights will continue.


Winifred Carney

Two formidable Belfast Women

On International Women’s Day history was made when two statues were unveiled at the front of Belfast City Hall to two formidable Irish republican women - Mary Anne McCracken and Winifred Carney. Despite the cold hundreds of people gathered for the ceremony to applaud these two fearless women and this important initiative by Belfast City Council. 

Winifred Carney was born in Bangor but was reared at 5 Falls Road. She qualified as one of the first lady secretaries and short hand typists in Belfast and was a strong advocate for the rights of women and a committed socialist. She worked closely with James Connolly and in 1913 she published Connolly’s, Manifesto of Irish Textile Workers’ Union – To the Linen Slaves of Belfast. 

Carney was also a member of the Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army. In 1916 she was the first women to enter the GPO during the Rising. She worked closely with Connolly in preparing dispatches. When the GPO was evacuated Carney was with the wounded Connolly as he was carried to number 16 Moore Street. There five of the signatories to the Proclamation held their last meeting as the Provisional Government. Julia Grenan, Winifred Carney and Elizabeth O’Farrell were present. 

Following the surrender Winifred Carney was imprisoned in England. In 1922 she was imprisoned in Armagh jail. 

In 1928 she married George McBride. He had fought in the First World War and was from the Shankill Road. They were both committed socialists although differed on the national issue and the Rising. Winifred Carney remained a committed trade unionist throughout her life. She died on 21 November 1943. Belfast Graves erected a headstone on her grave in Milltown Cemetery in 1985.

Mary Ann McCracken was born in Belfast in July 1870 to a wealthy Presbyterian family. She was a radical thinker, social reformer, who was implacably opposed to slavery and poverty, and an advocate for the rights of women. 

Her opposition to slavery was total. When Waddell Cunningham, a merchant, proposed in 1786 that the Belfast Slave Ship Company be established the scheme was vehemently opposed by those who later established the United Irish Society. This and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and the French and American revolutions hugely influenced Mary Ann her brother Henry Joy and all of those who came to found the United Irish Society in Belfast in October 1791.

In July 1798 her brother Henry Joy McCracken was sentenced to be hanged for his part in the United Irish Rising. She was with him as he died. 

After the failure of the rebellion Mary Ann dedicated her life to many causes. The breadth of her interests and activism is remarkable. She helped provide education and apprenticeships for children through the Poor House Ladies Committee. In 1847 at the age of 77 she was one of those who established the “Ladies Industrial School for the Relief of Destitution” with the aim of helping those suffering as a result of An Gorta Mór. 

Her opposition was such that as a small frail woman she would hand out leaflets opposing slavery to those boarding vessels to sail to the USA. Frail in body she might have been but strong in heart and spirit she remained all of her days. Mary Ann McCracken died on the 26 July 1866 aged 96.

Two great women now immortalised in statues in front of Belfast City Hall. 


Macalla na mBan 

On Saturday evening as part of the events to mark International Women’s Day the garden in the Roddy McCorley Club in west Belfast was rededicated after major renovations. The garden was first opened in 2007. Carál Ní Chuilín gave the main address reminding those present of the sacrifice of republican women in the struggle for Irish freedom. I was asked to read my poem which I wrote in 2006 as a tribute to my friend and comrade Siobhan O’Hanlon.


Macalla na mBan


Streachailt na mbBan

Caoineadh na mBan

Fulaingt na mBan

Neart na mBan

Foighne na mBan

Fearg na mBan

Dóchas na mBan

Craic na mBan

Gáire na mBan

Cairdeas na mBan

Áthas na mBan

Grá na mBan

Todhchaí na mBan

Saoirse na mBan

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