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Remembering Rebels in 2016 – Bridie Halpin

“Never fear for Ireland…Up us!”

Rebel Bridie Halpin was a member of Cumann na mBan, committed to political and social change in Ireland. Born on Nicholas Street in Dublin in 1902, she died in New York City in December 1988. Drawing on papers found in a suitcase under her bed after her wake, we know that Bridie Halpin, Prisoner of War No. 294, was imprisoned by the Irish Free State in 1923 in Kilmainham Gaol, and later at the North Dublin Union. We also know that she applied for a visa to come to America in 1929 because she was bitterly disappointed with the terms of the Treaty.

While there are many gaps in Bridie’s story, we do know that from her New York base at 151 Nagle Avenue in Manhattan she continued to work to bring about what she referred to as a “proper” settlement to Irish affairs. This was a woman who corresponded with Maud Gonne McBride, someone to whom President de Valera sent Christmas cards. As Ireland marks the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising this year, I am grateful that we have Bridie’s words written in a little booklet she made from scraps of paper stitched together in prison over eighty years ago. These words speak to me of her confidence in her own political position, her sense of her own agency, and her capacity to effect change, even from afar. One excerpt reads: “Never fear for Ireland for she has soldiers still. Up Us!”

Bridie grew up in Dublin’s inner-city where working families experienced acute need during the economic depression, with strikes and the inflow from rural areas contributing to the hardship in urban slums. Imprisoned by the Irish Free State when she was 21, first in Kilmainham Gaol and then the North Dublin Union, the experience seems to have emboldened her. According to Aoife Torpey, Archivist at Kilmainham Gaol, the women prisoners were highly organized: women OCs (Officers in Command) held ranks and responsibilities, taught classes in history, the Irish language and, when necessary, reading and writing. This must have been a period of incredible politicization and bonding for women of different social class, age and education, a time when their role as political agents and revolutionaries was reinforced and supported by the experience of collective incarceration.

Forbidden by the Catholic hierarchy to receive Communion or have their confessions heard, Aoife Torpey explained to me that “leaders like Mrs Humphries, or OC God, arranged occasions when hundreds of women recited the rosary together.” It seems ironic to imagine revolutionaries praying to such a meek female religious icon in these circumstances. Yet I also understand how this practice may have functioned as both a personal comfort – the soothing, repetitive, meditative words – and a communal binding force.

The portrait that emerges from Bridie’s scant writings is one of a woman strong in purpose, aware of her role as a political agent. The aims of Cumann na mBan (Bridie had a pristine copy of the handbook in her suitcase) stress the importance of equality in the struggle, an aim that ranked second only to Ireland’s separation from Britain and before the unity of Ireland!

The significance of Bridie’s life in the context of my Models for Movers’ study (published by Cork University Press, 2015) is twofold: first, she was a revolutionary, committed to social change, and deeply disappointed by the acceptance of the Treaty conditions which were in direct contradiction to the aims of the Cumann; and second, because of this outcome, she chose to emigrate. She settled in New York City, at 151 Nagle Avenue where she formed a branch of Clann na Phoblachta.

Maud Gonne McBride’s handwritten letter to Bridie on 25th November 1948 reads in part: I see you are interested in our country as ever…There must be a lot to do for Ireland in America, to help us free our six still occupied counties we need all the help our own people abroad can give.

Dissatisfied with conditions in Irish society, Bridie moved to America, but she did not forget about Ireland. Indeed, in her efforts to maintain pressure for change and gather support “for the cause,” she appears to have conducted her revolutionary work outside of the public domain in America. No rebel song glorifies her past. Few know of her story. Yet her confident rallying call to Irish women rebels – “Up Us!” – has remained with me for decades, ever since I first came across it in her prison diary.

You can read more about Bridie Halpin and other fascinating Irish women emigrants in my book Models for Movers: Irish Women’s Emigration to America, Cork University Press, 2015, www.corkuniversitypress.com

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