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Nora O'Keeffe and the Irish revolution

Updated: Sep 7

The Cumann na mBan activist and publicist was one of many women to the fore of promoting the republican message.


In a recent biography of Margaret Skinnider, Dr Mary McAuliffe revealed that Skinnider and O'Keeffe were life-long partners.


Ellen O'Keeffe and 9 of her children c. 1909. Back row: Joseph, Nora, Helena, Mary Catherine. Front row: Daniel, William, Sarah, Bridget, Ellen (nee Ryan), Con. O'Keeffe family collection. Used with permission.

The O'Keeffe family: in the midst of the revolution


Born in 1885 in Glenough, near Clonoulty, Co. Tipperary, Nora O'Keeffe was one of the twelve surviving chidren of Daniel O'Keeffe and Ellen, née Ryan. Nora emigrated to the United States in 1906 at the age of 20 or 21 to work as a typist and stenographer, and her brother Patrick also emigrated about this time. A cousin who grew up nearby wrote that Nora and Patrick returned to Ireland for a holiday in 1916 and, with their brothers Joe, Con and Dan, took part in the Easter Rising, though what role they played is not clear (Ward, As Slow our Ship, p.53). It is possible they gave some support to Seán Treacy and Éamon Ó Duibhir who attempted to rally the South Tipperary, North Cork and East Limerick Brigades to action. Though these efforts failed, Treacy was instrumental in building up the South Tipperary Brigade (later 3rd Tipperary Brigade) in the aftermath of the Rising, though he spent much of the ensuing two years in prison. He was assisted by Ó Duibhir, Seumas Robinson from Belfast, Dan Breen and others.


Glenough (1) and Kilshenane (2), Co. Tipperary. These were close to railway stations on the Great Southern and Western Railway (Goold's Cross and Cashel). The railways were of strategic importance during the War of Independence.

O'Keeffe met Skinnider in New York and they returned to Ireland to participate in the revolution


Nora returned to Ireland in early 1919, and in November she helped to dispose of the gelignite captured at Soloheadbeg. She subsequently became secretary to Thomas Johnson, the leader of the Labour Party in Dublin. While in America, she had become involved with Cumann na mBan, the women's independence organisation, and met Margaret Skinnider, who, according to a new biography of Skinnider by Dr Mary McAuliffe, would be her life-long partner. The charismatic Scottish-born woman was a comrade of Countess Markievicz and Nora Connolly and a private in the Irish Citizen Army and, as a sniper in the 1916 Rising, had been seriously injured.

Skinnider had fled to Glasgow in the wake of the Rising, but her injuries prevented her from returning to her work as a teacher. Instead, she travelled to the United States of America, where she wrote Doing My Bit for Ireland, which was published in New York in 1917. She spent two years touring and lecturing with Nora Connolly on behalf of Cumann na mBan before returning to Ireland in April 1919. According to Dr McAuliffe, Skinnider and O'Keeffe may have met in New York. On their return to Ireland, they set up home in Fairview, Dublin where they kept a safe house and stored weapons. Both joined the local branch of Cumann na mBan (McAuliffe, Margaret Skinnider, p. 50).



Brigid O'Keeffe, Margaret Skinnider and Nora O'Keeffe at 11 Waverley Avenue, Fairview, August 1925. Courtesy of Mary O'Keeffe.

Death of Seán Treacy in an ambush laid by British intelligence


Seán Treacy stopped by to see Nora at her place of work in October 1920. Nora knew that openly visiting the Labour Party headquarters was a rash move, and questioned Treacy about it. He and Dan Breen had not intended to stay long in Dublin, but General Headquarters, in the shape of Michael Collins, required them to partake in the work of targeting British intelligence agents. There had been narrow escapes from British secret services and Auxiliary forces, and Tipperary policemen had been brought to Dublin for the purpose of identifying him. He responded without emotion that he was aware of the risk. "Oh they’ll get me some day. So why shouldn’t I do some good, and see my friends while there is time?" On 14 October, Treacy was in Talbot Street to attend a meeting of Dublin officers when he was ambushed and shot dead by British agents. Nora, masquerading as a relative, identified his body at George V Military Hospital (later St. Bricin’s). She spoke of the respect that was given to Treacy in death by those in the hospital and by the soldier on duty.


As she wept, overcome by the sight and the memories of Sean Treacy in the O'Keeffe's home in Glenough, the soldier went out, came back with a pair of scissors, cut off a lock of Treacy's hair and gave it to her, as well as a ring from Treacy's finger. 'You may as well have it,' he said, 'otherwise it will be buried with him.'

(Desmond Ryan, Seán Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade, p. 186)


Seán Treacy, Vice O/C 3rd Tipperary Brigade, c. 1919

O'Keeffe took the anti-treaty side in the civil war and became Director of Publicity for the Second Southern Division


Brighid O'Mullane, the national organiser of Cumann na mBan, appointed Nora O'Keeffe as a regional organiser. During the Truce period (after 12 July 1921) her sister-in-law Nan, née Walsh, conveyed her about the Waterford Brigade area. The British War Office noted in October 1921 that Nora also carried dispatches between Dublin and Cork, Kerry, Tipperary and Waterford (McAuliffe, Margaret Skinnider, p. 56). When pro-treaty forces launched war on 28 June 1922, the O'Keeffes and most of their associates fought on the anti-treaty side. Dan O'Keeffe fought in the Hammam Hotel in Dublin with Cathal Brugha's contingent. Margaret Skinnider ran a field hospital and was appointed Paymaster General for the anti-treaty forces.


Having responsibility for countrywide communications as well as her publicity office, O’Mullane appointed Nora O’Keeffe as publicity agent for Tipperary. O'Keeffe's duties were later expanded to encompass the Second Southern Division area, which may have occurred in October when Robert Brennan was appointed overall Director of Publicity.[2] Brennan noted on 1 February 1923 that "[t]he Publicity Agent in 2nd Southern Division prints weekly paper, “Chun an Lae”, and serves all areas in his (sic) Division." Nora edited Chun an Lae with Seán Fitzpatrick from December 1922 until February 1923, assisted by a compositor from Clonmel named Hally. Frank Gallagher also wrote of having some involvement with the newspaper (Stewart and Allen, p. 172). Chun an Lae contained the usual mixture of propaganda and political commentary, but the latter aspect was more insightful than in many anti-treaty papers.


The press used in producing Chun an Lae may have been a Platen treadle press as in this video by the National Print Museum in Dublin. Such presses were often used in anti-treaty publicity as they could be transported easily: this was useful given that editors were often on the run and publicity offices frequently raided.


In early 1923, Nora was captured by Free State forces and interned in Cork and Kilmainham Jails. Countess Markievicz, who was as an enthusiastic a propagandist as Nora, but more prolific, drew a satirical cartoon (now in the possession of Lissadell House) which depicts a "glorious victory" by Free State forces in capturing the bicycles of Nora and her sister. Nora's release from Kilmainham was reported in the republican paper Éire of 3 November 1923. Her sister Helena is also on the list of those released.




O'Keeffe's career and later life with Skinnider


Nora became a civil servant and lived with Margaret in Fairview in Dublin before they made a permanent move to a house in Seafield Road, Clontarf in the 1930s. Her younger sister, Bridget, who had been a member of Cumann na mBan and was also friendly with Tipperary’s ‘Big Four’, lived in Fairview. Bridget married Tom Dwyer, who was an aide-de-camp of Éamon de Valera, and she was referred to in the Irish Press of 12 July 1973 as still living. Nora and Margaret visited family and had family to stay with them often, and they regularly travelled within Ireland - to Tipperary, Monaghan and Connemara - and abroad - to Glasgow, England and France. Nora wrote folk stories and some articles on history under the name Nora Ní Chaoimh for a number of newspapers including the Irish Press. (McAuliffe, p. 108.) Margaret dedicated her life to trade union activity and became president of the Irish National Teachers' Association (INTO) in 1956. In 1958 she achieved her aim of having the marriage bar for teachers overturned.[3] Nora died on 12 August 1961 and was buried with her family in Kilpatrick Cemetery in Dundrum, Co. Tipperary. Margaret Skinnider died on 10 October 1971 and was buried near Countess Markievicz and Nora Connolly O'Brien in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.


A notice in the 'In Memoriam' section of the Irish Independent, 12 August 1964.

[1] Many Tipperary Volunteers mobilised during Easter week under Éamon Ó Duibhr of Ballagh (Clonoulty) and Commdt. Liam Manahan of the East Limerick Brigade, both of whom had advance knowledge of plans for the Rising due to their membership of the I.R.B., the secret organisation within the Volunteers. The few Tipperary Volunteers who were awarded 1916 service medals included two men under Ó Duibhir's command, Seumas de Brún and Cornelius Deere of Goold's Cross. The O'Keeffes may well have been active in the locality in cutting communications, scouting and carrying dispatches.

[2] When de Valera finally obtained IRA agreement to a joint political and military opposition 'government' in October 1922, he appointed Childers as Director of Publicity. However, on the way to Dublin, Childers was captured by state forces. A sustained official propaganda campaign against him ensued before he was shot dead after a show trial. Brennan wrote to the Irish Independent that the paper had "published every deadly lie against him with the intention of fanning the flames of hatred." (De Valera Papers, P150/1736, D/P to Editor of Irish Independent, 23 November 1922.)

[3] marriage bar = restricting the right to employment of married women, a practice employed by some western countries for part of the twentieth century.


Thanks to Paul Middleton, whose genealogy page about the O'Keeffe enabled me to fill in a lot of family background, to Robert O'Keeffe of Tipperary for sources and information, to Mary O'Keeffe for the photograph of Nora, Bridget and Margaret and to Joe O’Keeffe, Edward (Tim) O’Keeffe, Margaret Sermon, Chris O’Keeffe and Kevin Chan and all the aforementioned for permission to use the O'Keeffe family photograph and for their generous support. Thanks also to Kevin O'Reilly, Tipperary, and Bernard Minogue of the Cashel Folk Museum.


C.M. Guerin is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and University College, Cork. Her Master's thesis was entitled 'Anti-treaty publicity in Ireland, 1922-23'.


Sources:


De Valera Papers, UCD Archives.

Borgonovo, J. 'Michael Collins’s importance in the War of Independence has been exaggerated.' The Irish Times. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/michael-collins-s-importance-in-the-war-of-independence-has-been-exaggerated-1.4191438

Fitzpatrick, Seán, WS 1259, Bureau of Military History. Available online at: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/bmhsearch/

Gillis, L. 2014. Women of the Irish Revolution. Mercier Press, Limited, Cork.

Gillis, L. Oration at Seán Treacy commemoration, 13 October 2019 (via Kevin O'Reilly)

Guerin, C.M. 2016. 'Anti-treaty press and publicity in Ireland, 1922-23’, MPhil thesis, UCC.

McAuliffe, M. 2020. Margaret Skinnider. University College Dublin Press.

McAuliffe, M. 'Margaret Skinnider: radical feminist, militant nationalist, trade union activist.' The Irish Times. Available online at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/margaret-skinnider-radical-feminist-militant-nationalist-trade-union-activist-1.4202266

Middleton, P. ‘Norah O’Keeffe’. Wikitree. Available online at: http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/O'Keeffe-259

Ó Duibhir, Éamon, (n.d.) Obituary of Helena O'Brien, Kilshenane, source unknown, via Robert O'Keeffe and Kevin O'Reilly.

O'Keeffe, Nora (Nan), Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. Military Service Pension Application Ref. MSP34REF5678. Available online at: http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/

Robinson, Seumas, WS 1721, Bureau of Military History. Available online at: http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/bmhsearch/

Ryan, D. 1945. Seán Treacy and the Third Tipperary Brigade. Kerryman.

Shelly, J. 1996. A Short History of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade. Available online at: http://homepage.eircom.net/~150/page31.html. Shelly gives Seumas Robinson (O/C 2nd Southern Division) as the editor of Chun an Lae, but Robinson’s Bureau of Military History Witness Statement (1721) states that he wrote the first leading article and Nora O’Keeffe and Seán Fitzpatrick produced everything else. Shelly's source does not credit Nora O'Keeffe at all.

Skinnider, Margaret, 1917. Doing My Bit for Ireland, The Century Co., New York.

Stewart, B. and Allen, N., 2004, The Irish Book Lover: An Irish Studies Reader Taken From Issues of The Irish Book Lover (1909-1957), Colin Smythe, Bucks.

Ward, S. 1973. As Slow Our Ship. Available online at: https://www.wikitree.com/photo.php/e/ef/O_Keeffe-287.pdf

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