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Her Rebel Self … Her Real Self, 1917-1920

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Paula Tully

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I’ve had the privilege of reading the 100 year old precious diaries of a very intelligent, ordinary Dublin woman who lived through Ireland’s deeply turbulent revolutionary period. A friend of mine very kindly gave me the opportunity to study her family relative’s diaries over many months. Thanks to May Guilfoyle (also known as May Moran) taking the time to record her thoughts and observations, I’ve been able to imagine what life must have been like for some Dublin women leading up to the War of Independence. What is striking about May’s diary entries is the almost banal way she makes references to major political events and individuals while she goes about her own business of working both inside and outside her own domestic sphere.

In one of her earlier 1914 diaries May describes the new Irish Volunteers as a ‘grand sight’ whose guns and bayonets flashed in the sunlight of the Phoenix Park. Towards the end of the year she writes of James Connolly holding a meeting in Beresford Place (now Liberty Hall) in protest of the government suppressing the Irish Worker and other socialist, and nationalist, newspapers.

In February 1917, May mentions a male friend who accompanied her home, but she was clearly disappointed in him and writes that ‘men are very much alike in thinking’. This intimate reflection gave me an inkling of her spirit and character. The following month May refers to St Patrick’s Day when British soldiers were ordered to stay in their barracks, presumably for their own protection from the great crowds around O’Connell Street, the memory of the Easter Rising, a year earlier, still fresh in the republican mind.

One of the most memorable entries is on 11th November 1918, the official ending of World War 1, the whole of London ecstatic on the streets. Although relieved the war is finally over, May writes, ‘I feel so cool a spectator, I cannot wave or cheer. It’s all so different to me. I only feel glad it’s nearer to our day. For Ireland’s must come now.’ In March 1919, still living in London, May went to a large London-Irish meeting for the release of prisoners. She listened to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who spoke eloquently of her brave husband’s murder in 1916.

At the end of one of her diaries, in March 1921, May writes of the joy felt by Dubliners at the calling of the truce which ended the bitter War of Independence. More than this small, pre-Civil War entry, or any further diaries, I don’t have, I think they have been lost or, more probably, destroyed.

My novella, Her Rebel Self, is inspired by May’s diary entries from 1917-1920. As part of my fictional re-imagining, I’ve given her a new name, an English boyfriend, and sent her on secretive actions in both cities; aspects of her life tantalizingly hinted at in her diaries. I’ve also tried to imagine her role as a Cumann na mBan member whose personal and political journey takes her from Dublin to London and back again.

As we consider another Irish centenary, the sitting of the first Dáil in January 1919, I wonder what the next hundred years will bring to our little island.

Her Rebel Self is now available on Amazon and Book Depository.

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