December 2016        

Public meetings celebrate Winifred Carney

Alan Hanlon

Winifred Carney was a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army. This was possibly the first army of the twentieth century to recruit female combatants and to treat them equally.
     Winnie Carney was born in Bangor, Co. Down, in 1887. She was an experienced shorthand-typist and legal secretary when she was employed by the ITGWU’s Belfast Branch organiser, James Connolly, in 1912. She stayed with the union for sixteen years.
     Winnie shared Connolly’s political vision and became his personal assistant and confidante. In 1916 she was his aide-de-camp in the GPO during Easter Week. Following the surrender she was interned; unlike many of the other women prisoners, she was released only with the other combatants in December.
     After internment she actively supported republican prisoners and their dependants. She stood for Sinn Féin in the 1918 parliamentary elections—campaigning for a Workers’ Republic. She remained an active socialist in Belfast all her life. When she died, in 1943, she was all but forgotten. Her grave was unmarked for forty-two years. The Northern peace process and the “centenary impulse” have finally awakened a broad interest in the life of this extraordinary woman.
     Dr Helga Woggon is a German scholar and the author of Silent Radical: Winifred Carney (Dublin: SIPTU and ILHS, 2000). Dr Woggon is a lifelong anti-fascist and at one stage documented the statements of Holocaust survivors. Among her other works is a 500-page study of James Connolly (1990), written in German.
     When she was a research fellow in Dublin and Belfast (1976, 1979–1981) she heard of Winnie Carney and began a lifelong study of her. She met many former colleagues and comrades. Most inspiring was Winnie’s husband, George McBride, a socialist, ex-soldier and former UVF boy, who was eager to see her biography published. George, over ten years Winnie’s junior, was left a widower at forty-five and lived alone for another forty-five years.
     It was twenty-eight years after he died that George McBride’s headstone was unveiled by Belfast Trades Council in 2016. Winnie’s name was entered on the headstone, though they are buried in separate graves.
     The Communist Party of Ireland invited Dr Woggon to come to Waterford and Carrick-on-Suir in November to deliver lectures on Winnie. She travelled from Berlin and delivered two excellent lectures, illustrated with many rare photographs, which brought Winnie Carney to life. The lectures also exposed the hypocrisy of the Free State and the early discrimination against women. In her pension application for service in 1916, Winifred Carney was originally deemed to be at the lowest grade. On appeal, when she pointed out that generals do not have aides-de-camp at the lowest grade, she was regarded as a D.
      Both Waterford and Carrick-on-Suir have connections with Winnie. One of Winnie’s comrades in the ITGWU was Joe McGrath, a member of the IRB and associate of Michael Collins. McGrath was one of the founders of the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes and subsequently of Waterford Glass.
     Although Winnie stood for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, she was not elected. At the time she reckoned that she had not received much support from Sinn Féin. Despite these handicaps she was surprised to get 395 votes, which to her was significant. Women had to be aged thirty to even have a vote.
     Joe McGrath was elected, and he visited her in her final years to offer financial support. She refused.
     The connection with Carrick-on-Suir is even more direct, in that Winnie Carney’s niece lives there. It was delightful to have that family connection during the lecture.
     Winnie Carney was a republican and socialist all her life. After 1918 she supported republican prisoners, which attracted the attention of the police. Her papers were stolen, lost, and possibly destroyed. She remained politically active and at the time of the Republican Congress in 1934 joined the Socialist Party. She always supported Connolly’s aims and objectives. She never sought her own aggrandisement.
     In recent years Winifred Carney has come to be recognised as a symbol of cross-community activism. It is to Dr Woggon’s credit that she has not been written out of history.

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