Margaret Skinnider

Margaret Skinnider & the INTO – Vere Foster Lecture, Belfast 2016

It’s great to see the publication of a new book on Margaret Skinnider by Mary McAuliffe. Best known for her participation in the 1916 Rising, Margaret Skinnider was, among other things, an active member of the INTO and it was a real pleasure to spend time with her, virtually, in the archives. Her contribution to the INTO was marked in 2016 when I gave an address to the Easter congress and I was invited to give a longer version at the annual Vere Foster lecture in Belfast.   

Maighréad Ní Scinneadóra 1892-1971

On 16 May 1916, the Times of London published a letter from the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, JP Mahaffy. After criticising John Dillon for a speech in the Commons on the rising he turned his sights on the Sinn Féiners themselves, before turning his attention to the people Mahaffy thought responsible for the rebellion in the first place.

‘There has been throughout the national schools a propaganda of hatred to England on the part of the schoolmasters living on the salary of the Imperial government,’ he asserted, ‘The rising generation have been so carefully soaked in disloyal sentiments that the large majority of the population is now against Imperial law and order.’

So began the notion of the Easter Rising as ‘the schoolmasters’ rebellion’, which is often misunderstood to refer to the participation of teachers in the planning and execution of the rising.

Superficially, it might seem as though teachers were especially active, with Pearse and MacDonagh – and though it is little known Tom Clarke taught briefly in a school in Dungannon – but there were actually very few national teachers out in Easter Week. Because of Mahaffy’s accusations, the Board of National Education, which oversaw Irish primary schools, investigated the extent of their involvement.

On 21 July 1916, the Board issued a statement to the press summing up the results of its inquiries, namely that

two or three instances of disloyal teaching [had] been brought under notice and these charges are being investigated, but no evidence has been adduced which would warrant the conclusion that seditious teaching in the national schools exists to any appreciable extent.

In a teaching body of 5,700 men, the Commissioners noted, only ten had been imprisoned, which hardly supported a charge of general disloyalty.

In a teaching body of 5,700 men.

Significantly, the Commissioners did not regard the women teachers as a possible source of sedition. This was quite mistaken.

Thomas Ashe, the principal from Corduff NS who died on hunger strike in 1917, is probably the best known INTO member from Easter Week, but lately his status is rivalled by that of Margaret Skinnider, who fought with the Citizen Army in the College of Surgeons during Easter Week.

Miss Skinnider is one of the women sometimes referred to mistakenly as the ‘forgotten women of 1916’.  If she, and others, were less well remembered than some of the leaders of the rising in more recent years, she was certainly not forgotten when she was alive.

Her participation in the Rising was well-known, she wrote a propaganda memoir in 1917 called Doing my bit for Ireland in which she very matter of factly describes the events of Easter week as she experienced them.

Margaret Skinnider has become better known once again in recent years, partly as a result of efforts to bring the participation of women to the fore, but this evening, as well as looking at her participation in the Easter Rising, I want to give an overview of her an important figure in Irish public life and especially as a teacher and trade union activist.

When Margaret Skinnider took part in the Easter Rising, she was working as a maths teacher in St Agnes School in Lambhill, Glasgow. She was born in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, Scotland in May 1892 to James Skinnider from County Monaghan and Jane Doud from Renfrewshire in Scotland. Raised in Maryhill Glasgow, she was the second youngest of six siblings, she spent summer holidays with her father’s family outside Monaghan when she was younger. She had developed an interest in Irish history at the age of 12 but was also acutely conscious of the sectarianism and anti-Irish feeling in Glasgow growing up.

Like many women of the time – and many women in the nationalist movement –  she became politically active through the women’s suffrage movement and was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She said she was known to the police locally as a militant suffragette, and she attended protests in support of suffragettes imprisoned in Perth Prison in 1914. It was around this time that she joined the Irish Volunteers and the Anne Devlin branch of Cumman na mBan when it was set up in Glasgow in mid-1915. She started attending a rifle club, set up to teach women to shoot in the event of a German invasion, and became a very good shot. She didn’t refer to it in her memoir, but it seems her first bit of active service took place in October 1915 in an unsuccessful effort to raid the Admiralty Yard in Glasgow for arms, where she was one of three Cumann na mBan posing as girl friends to three Volunteers so as not to arouse suspicion. Though the Volunteers successfully made it into the yard, all they managed to find was a fire extinguisher. If they were unsuccessful on that occasion, the Glasgow contingent did manage to procure some explosives all the same. A few months later, at Christmas 1915, Miss Skinnider travelled over on the boat to Dublin, wearing a three-cornered hat, with a detonator hidden in each corner and the wires curled around her under her coat. She spent much of the voyage sitting on the deck of the ship because she was afraid if she ran into a hot-water pipe or an electric wire, that might set them off. Instead she fell asleep on deck, using her hat as a pillow, only learning afterwards that this was even more dangerous.

She was travelling over to Dublin at the invitation of Madam Markievicz who had heard of this young lady in Glasgow and asked her over to stay in her house on Leinster Road for the Christmas holidays. After she arrived in Dublin, she and Madam went to the Dublin mountain to test the detonators.

Markievicz, who took this young woman, some thirty years her junior quite under her wing. You can imagine the impression that this aristocratic, bohemian woman thirty years her senior had on the 23 year old maths teacher from Glasgow. It was not that the fearless and serious Miss Skinnider was over-awed, but she was hugely impressed by Markievicz, who took this young woman, some thirty years her junior quite under her wing.

The two had much in common. Both were proud of being good shots and physically fearless; as well as being ardent nationalists they were both horrified by poverty and motivated by a desire to end it as well and they both really enjoyed dressing up, with the somewhat bird-like Margaret telling Madam that she could pass for a boy if ever needed, ‘even if it came to wrestling or whistling’ so Markievicz tried her out by putting her into a boy’s suit and Skinnider passed herself off as a member of the Glasgow Fianna to boys from the Fianna Éireann in Dublin when they went to a shooting gallery. On that occasion Skinnider hit the bulls-eye more often than most of her male comrades, as she recalled, much to the delight of the one boy among them who knew she was a girl, although, as she observed ‘he was not much surprised for by her own skill Madam had accustomed them to expect good marksmanship in a woman’. On this trip, Markievicz sked her to draw up plans of Beggar’s Bush barracks near the canal off Baggot Street in the south of the city, in case they wished to dynamite them if conscription was introduced, against promises to the contrary. Previous efforts by the Volunteers to draft them had failed but Skinnider had experience in gauging distances and drawing maps and had just completed a course in calculus. But, as Skinnider observed afterwards, it was not merely a test of her ability to draw maps and figure distances, and after that day she was taken into the confidence of the leaders of the movement, including James Connolly, who was a regular visitor to Markievicz’s house.

Margaret Skinnider returned to Glasgow at the end of the holidays, promising to come back when needed and so found herself in Dublin again before Easter. She arrived back on Holy Thursday and that evening, she was given a dispatch to bring up to Belfast to a man who was staying in the Connolly home there. She arrived up at 2 in the morning and returned to Dublin the next day with Mrs Connolly and her daughters, who, she recalled, were not sure if they would ever seen their home again. Connolly’s second daughter, Nora, was almost the same age as Margaret Skinnider and the two became good friends and remained very close over the years.

Otherwise, in the days before the rising she ran messages for the volunteers and moving dynamite around Dublin city and on Easter Monday, she took her bike into town and began her work. Her activities on Easter week have been well rehearsed recently, but I’ll let her speak for herself to give you an idea of how that day started out.

As well as scouting, Miss Skinnider carried  dispatches between the rebels in the Green and head quarters in the GPO. On the Tuesday morning, by which time the Stephens Green battalion was in the College of Surgeons, she had her first taste of the risks of street fighting when the soldiers on the top of the Shelbourne aimed their machine gun at her. She recalled her speed saved her life but that bullets had hit the wooden rim of the bicycle wheels, puncturing the tyres, as well as hitting the spokes of the wheels.

From Tuesday she was also actively involved in the fighting, one of the few women who were, as well as continuing the perilous work of a despatch rider. Dressed in a Citizen Army uniform which Markievicz had had made for her, she acted as a sniper from the roof of the College of Surgeons. As she recalled ‘more than once I saw the man I aimed at fall.’ She was still acting as a despatch rider as well though, and whenever she was required to deliver a despatch, she would change into her civvies before getting on her bike, and then change back into her uniform on her return to join the fire squad on the RCSI roof.

Her requests to Mallin that she be allowed take out the Shelbourne, to rid them from the menace of the machine gun, were originally rebuffed but on Wednesday, she was put in charge of four men and set out to fire a building on Harcourt St in an effort to take out the escape route of the British army snipers who were on the roof of the University Church on Stephens Green.

Just as they were about to enter the building, snipers on the roof of the Sinn Féin bank across the road on Harcourt Street opened fire, in the course of which she was shot three times. She had just turned to speak as she stood at the door a moment earlier, which meant that one of the bullets narrowly missing her spine, by a quarter of an inch. Had she not moved at that moment, she would almost certainly have been killed.  One of her comrades, the seventeen year old Fred Ryan was shot dead. Grievously injured, she was carried back to the College of Surgeons where she stayed until the surrender order was given by Pearse, after which she was brought across to St Vincent’s Hospital on the other side of the Green.

Grievously injured, she was carried back to the College of Surgeons where she stayed until the surrender order was given by Pearse, after which she was brought across to St Vincent’s Hospital on the other side of the Green, which is now home to Loretto on the Green girls’ school. She was very seriously ill, especially for her first two weeks in hospital which were quite hellish. She had contracted pneumonia and had a bad fever and as well as suffering from the internal effects of being shot by three dum-dum bullets, her wounds had been treated with too much corrosive sublimate which took all the skin off her side and back. Her first two weeks in hospital were hellish, as she fought a fever and was in great pain. Meanwhile, word had reached her mother that she had been killed, with later reports saying she had been paralysed and that she had been sentenced to fifteen years. William Partridge, who had actually saved her life, seems to have thought that she’d died and one of his fellow prisoners in Dartmoor later remembered how they included her in the prayers for their departed comrades every night. While in hospital she was visited regularly by Nora Connolly and her sister, Ina, with Nora telling Margaret of her father’s concern for her when she had last seen him. After five weeks, she was escorted to the Bridewell prison but she was followed down by Doctor Kennedy who had been taking care of her in Vincents, who apparently raised holy hell that his patient had been removed as a result of which she was returned to hospital where she stayed for a further fortnight, making seven weeks in Vincents in all.

Not long after she was discharged, Margaret Skinnider managed to secure a travel permit to return to Glasgow – a time when her accent and her looking more like a maths teacher than a rebel stood to her advantage – and she was able to travel to England to visit some of the prisoners in Reading Jail. She also visited Dublin twice where she noticed a change in the mood of the city, before travelling to America in December 1916 for a few months on a Cumman na mBan propaganda tour, during which time she wrote her book which was a personal account of Easter Week, written essentially for propaganda purposes.

She lived in Glasgow for a time, unable to secure a visa to return to Ireland but during the war of independence she was on the Executive of Cumann na mBan and was appointed Director of Training soon after. During this time, between 1919 and 1922 she worked for the Transport and General Workers Union.

Along with many of her closest comrades, she opposed the Treaty in 1922. During the attack on the Four Courts, she was in charge of Cumann na mBan operations in Dublin. She worked in charge of the Accounts Branch in the Quarter-Master General’s Office, at the Four Courts and following Liam Mellows’ arrest, she continued on as acting Quarter-Master General. Apparently she was the only woman ever to have been made a member of the General Headquarters staff of the IRA. Arrested in possession of a revolver and ammunition on St Stephens Day, 1922, she spent eleven months in prison. She was in Mountjoy for a time before being moved to the North Dublin Union where she and others spent time on hunger strike. Ever the teacher, while she was in the North Dublin Union she conducted a choir of Cumann na mBan prisoners, which was at its best at Mass on Sunday. Mairead and Siobhan De Paor who were in with her described her as being the O/C of various activities including knitting and drilling and her advice was often sought on many subjects. She was a great knitter and was able to knit and read at the same time, which kept her busy particularly in later years.

Miss Skinnider was released from prison in November 1923, six months after the dump arms order. She went to work as a clerk for the Larkinite Workers’ Union of Ireland, which had split from the ITGWU, and whose office at 31 Marlborough Street was almost beside the Department of Education.

Last year, the files of the Military Pensions were released online and there was a lot of attention given to Margaret Skinnider’s application for a 1916 pension which had been turned down in 1925 because according to the Minister for Defence the Army Pensions act of 1923, was ‘only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’.

This was merely an added reason for her claim being rejected, however, because it was not merely her gender more her politics that stood against her since, as the intelligence report put it ‘this lady has been a very prominent Irregular since 1922’.

It was after Fianna Fáil were in government from 1932 that the rules of the pensions were changed so that those who had subsequently been on the anti-Treaty side were also eligible and she was eventually declared eligible for a pension in 1938, assessed at 20 per cent disablement for two years.

A dedicated teacher, for whom it was a vocation, she wished to return to the classroom, but it was not easy for a woman with her record to secure a position. Eventually, in 1927 she secured a post in the Sisters’ of Charity school in King’s Inn Street. It was a large school, with some 1,200 pupils, in an economically disadvantaged part of Dublin’s north inner city. It’s near Henrietta Street, where the Tenement museum is now based. She was strict with great control over her girls but with a great sense of loving kindness, and she developed their love for Irish history and the Irish language especially. She organised camogie for the school and they played in the Phoenix Park.

Miss Skinnider had made a reasonable recovery from her injuries considering their seriousness, but the extensive scars from her wound remained all her life, and, more importantly she had sustained serious damage to the nerves of her upper arm which meant that she was unable to write on the blackboard for any length of time or do any work involving use of the right arm for any length of time.

Of course, as soon as she resumed teaching she joined the INTO and Nora Connolly O’Brien recalled that she ‘would not tolerate’ any teacher in the school not being a member of the organisation.

The INTO Strike Working Committee 1946

 It was during the great Teachers’ Strike of 1946 that she became particularly active. She served on the strike committee and afterwards she was elected to the CEC at the 1949 congress along with Miss Breedge Bergin, who had been elected vice president. The two were the only women on the executive, and this lack of representation was reflected in the treatment of women generally, even though women made up sixty-four per cent of the membership. When Miss Bergin was elected president in 1950, she became only the third woman president in the Organisation’s eighty-two year history at that point, after Catherine Mahon and Kathleen Clarke, the namesake of Tom Clarke’s widow. Not long after, Margaret Skinnider would become the fourth.

Miss Skinnider was also politically active around this time. Many national school teachers were deeply angry at Fianna Fáil’s behaviour over the ’46 strike and a few of them were active in establishing the new progressive republican party, Clann na Poblachta, of which she was a founding member in 1946. She served on its ard comhairle and ran unsuccessfully for the Clann in the local elections in 1950. Clann na Poblachta was in the inter-party government of 1948-51 during which time, Margaret Skinnider was asked to approach party leader Seán MacBride to lobby on education and to seek Clann support on moving a motion on teachers’ salaries but to no avail.

With senior members of Clan na Poblachta

 Skinnider was nominated to stand for the seanad on two occasions. The first time was in 1954, when she was nominated to stand for the Labour panel by the Irish Conference of Professional and Service Associations but the INTO’s treasurer, MP Linehan, was standing for the same panel, leading the general secretary to impress upon her that her candidature would interfere with Linehan’s and there was a grave danger that neither would get in. He suggested she consider withdrawing and later she did so. At the following seanad election in 1957, when she was INTO president, the ICPSA nominated her for the Labour Panel once again, this time before the INTO had already done so. The INTO did not put up another candidate on the panel and supported Skinnider asking that the TUC give her all possible support but she failed to be elected.

As an INTO activist, she fought for better pay and conditions for all teachers but at a time when women teachers were discriminated against through the marriage ban, and there was great resistance among male teachers to the idea of women receiving the same pay as them, Margaret Skinnider was one of few women activists in the organisation. The issue was a particularly divisive one in the years immediately after 1947, when the pay scale which followed the teachers’ strike had seen single men and women teachers put at the same rate. The male teachers were vehemently opposed to this and succeeded by way of their massive majority in congress and on the executive, in securing the INTO’s support for their cause. At congress and on the CEC, Margaret Skinnider opposed any move to revert to have male teachers restore a disparity and protested strongly at what she felt was a betrayal of the women teachers and the organisation’s values.

She was nominated to represent the INTO on the Roe Commission on teachers’ salaries in 1948, in order to ensure there was a woman representative, but in no way was she mere window-dressing or tokenism. The extent to which the INTO was male-dominated at the time is difficult to exaggerate, but as ever, she was fearless. Even in a room full of men, many, if not most, of whom disagreed with her, she would clearly argue her point and stand her ground, even if it meant speaking to her colleagues as though they were a class of infants. Admonishing congress one year, she told delegates severely ‘I never speak to a class when there is talking and I am sorry I cannot speak to you’ which brought about a sheepish silence, before she continued to make her point about pensions. Neither was she selfish in this and made sure others – particularly young women teachers – would have the freedom to speak. At the same congress, she had taken to the platform during a debate to complain that ‘proper facilities were not being given to the younger members to speak and that delegates were embarrassing young girls coming up, with the first girl trying to speak to a motion having calls for her telephone number from the floor. ‘Is it any wonder the younger people do not come up?’ she asked. On the executive and at congress, year after year, she fought for the rights of women teachers. In 1956 she was elected vice president of the organisation and became president the following year. When the Irish Congress of Trade Unions set up a Women’s Advisory Committee to advise it on problems faced by women in the trade union movement, she was appointed its chair, stepping down on her retirement in 1964. Speaking at the 1963 congress, she pointed out to delegates that ICTU research on the possible impact of Ireland joining the EEC on things like salaries, they had found that the difference in wage rates between men and women was much greater than that of OEEC countries, which were Christian and mostly Catholic. A delegate named Morgan from Drogheda responded by telling her that she should not  forget the women at home. ‘As an organisation they praised themselves that they always had the welfare of the children at heart but what about the mothers at home.’ At her last congress as a delegate the next year, in 1964, she was still at the fore in speaking for equal pay, citing the UNO, the Treaty of Rome, the ILO and the ITUC but to no end. Her motion was defeated by an amendment tabled by a Tipperary delegate named Ryan who complained that he ‘could not understand this business of equal pay for equal work’ and wanted to know ‘if someone had a grudge against the married teacher.’

That Margaret Skinnider’s sense of nationalism remained undimmed throughout this time was clear from her president’s speech at the Killarney congress in 1957 which dealt with education in Ireland since before the time of St Patrick. In it, she discussed the role played by teachers in various national movements; looking at the minutes of the National Board from 1831 to 1870, she proudly noted that there was a record for sixty-five teachers, men and women, who were in trouble with the Board for alleged disloyalty during these years, many of whom had been connected with the Young Irelanders and the Fenians. This record only covers those who were ‘found out’ by the board and can only be a small percentage of those actually connected with those movements. At the same time, while she was a great believer in social justice and was an active member of Clann na Poblachta, whose policies were broadly social democratic, she took time in her speech to condemn one of de Valera’s favourite political philosophers, Nicolo Machiavelli, and what she called his ‘evil statist doctrine’

Her fighting spirit was often evident in her speeches. Speaking in the 1960s on the matter of dilapidated school buildings and huge class sizes, she called on teachers to examine their own consciences, asking would anyone accorded professional status work in the conditions that teachers did. ‘Sometime ago the CEC sent a questionnaire around to teachers asking them when their schools were clearned and painted etc. and one question was ‘is your school rat-infested?’ One teacher replied ‘no self-respecting rat would be found dead in this place.’ She urged the teachers ‘get up off your knees and stand up like men and women’…The rat had one quality which she much admired and that was he fought when he had to.’

She retired in 1964, and her voice was missed at congress. She had been a hugely important voice for women teachers and there was still a great deal of sexism and resistance to open up the old boys club and for many years after she retired there was not a single woman on the INTO’s CEC, and if anything the sexism became worse during the 1970s in her absence.

Commemorating 1916 in 1966

Again and again, we have been told lately about the ‘forgotten women’ of 1916, but if current generations have failed to remember, they were not forgotten by their peers at the time. Over the years, Margaret Skinnider was a regular attendee at events to commemorate and celebrate the men and women of the revolutionary period and when Seán Lemass’s government was nominating a committee to over-see the state Commemorations for the fiftieth anniversary of the rising in 1966, Margaret Skinnider was one of those appointed. She was interviewed for Radio Éireann about events on Easter Week and appeared in various accounts of the rising.

In 1966, her old principal, Sister de Lellis, invited her back to King’s Inn Street to tell the girls all about 1916. After addressing the assembly, she made sure to stop and speak to the girls on her way down from the stage.

She was also invited to address the INTO Congress that Easter. She was still a revolutionary woman, but she was proud of what Ireland had achieved during independence, telling the delegates in 1966, she was unhappy there were people who ‘belittle what has been done’ since 1916. ‘‘They don’t appreciate what has been done; the hospitals which have been built; the schools erected; the industries which have been started and flourish and all the other things.’

Thanking her after Miss Skinnider had ended her speech to congress in 1966 the president, Mrs Liston, observed she had turned down many other invitations to be with them at Congress. Margaret Skinnider responded, though, that there was no other place she would be. ‘Even my allegiance to those sacred things in Dublin [1916 ] could not get inside my allegiance to the INTO.’

 Margaret Skinnider remained in her home in Fairview on Dublin’s north side in her retirement where she spent much of her time reading and knitting, and would spend most weekends staying with her great friend Nora Connolly O’Brien. She died on 11 November 1971 and was buried beside Countess Markievicz, only the third woman to be buried in the Republican Plot after Markievicz and James Connolly’s widow Lillie. The day after her death, Radio Éireann broadcast a half hour radio programme including her friends.

Margaret Skinnider was well-known to her generation and her name would have been known to many of those who studied the revolutionary period but among the general public in recent years, like many of the rank and file of Easter Week, male and female. Recently, her name has become better known as part of the attempt to highlight the role played by women in the Rising, especially as she was one of the only female combatants, and the only female combatant to be injured. The release of her pension records, and the refusal of the state to countenance paying her a pension on the grounds of her sex has also brought her significant attention, and she has been the subject of an RTÉ broadcast documentary and newspaper articles, and talks and has become the first INTO president to have a roundabout named after them. It is natural in the year that’s in it that her role in 1916 would be emphasised, but there is so much more to Margaret Skinnider than that.

After she had spoken to the INTO congress in 1966, the general secretary Dave Kelleher observed that in all the time they had spent together over the years, he had never once heard her mention the party she’d played in the rising. ‘She was that modest’. While it is true that she was a modest person, it might be more accurate to say that she was not someone who lived in, or dwelt on the past. She may have done her bit for Ireland in 1916, but she didn’t stop there and her devotion to education and the children of Ireland was really her life’s work.