Margaret Buckley was an Irish republican and president of Sinn Féin from 1937 to 1950. She was the first female leader of Sinn Féin and was the first Irishwoman to lead a political party. An account of her life from Saoirse, first published by RSF in 1998.
It would be inappropriate in a series such as this not to advert to the role played during the 1940s by the President of Sinn Féin, Margaret Buckley.
A most dedicated Republican, Mrs Buckley — or Bean Uí Bhuachalla as she was widely known — made her most valuable contribution to the Movement in holding the fort and keeping the Sinn Féin organisation a “going concern” during those lean years.
During her period as President (1937-1950) Sinn Féin was not supported by the Irish Republican Army.
The IRA from the late 1920s was completely separated from Sinn Féin and during the 1930s it launched two successive political wings which did not strike roots and grow. These were Saor Éire 1931-32 and Cumann Poblachta na h-Éireann 1936-7.
However Sinn Féin and Cumann na Poblachta did co-operate in two parliamentary by-elections in 1936 when they campaigned together for Count Plunkett in Galway and Stephen Hayes in Wexford.
No account of the career of Margaret Buckley, the first woman to lead an Irish political organisation, is included in books on famous Irish women.
We are indebted to her nephew, Séamus Ó Goilidhe in his contribution to The IRA in the Twilight Years 1923-48 by Uinseann Mac Eoin for several pages of material relating to his remarkable aunt.
She was the sister of his father, Patrick Joseph Goulding of Cork city and when his mother died in 1925 he was “fostered” to his aunt in Dublin, now Mrs Buckley.
Born in 1879 she married in 1906 Patrick Buckley, “a typical rugby-playing British civil servant”. After Patrick’s death she moved into a house in Marguerite Road, Glasnevin.
Séamus describes his new home as “comfortable and book-lined”. Margaret Buckley was very much a woman in her own right, working as an organiser for the Irish Women Workers’ Union. (The IWWU was amalgamated with another trade union in recent years.)
Séamus says that Cork city where his aunt grew up was “a hot-bed in her time which was pre-1900.” Her father was a strong supporter of Parnell and she was “a very young follower” of him. (She was twelve years old when “The Chief” died.)
INGHINIDHE NA hÉIREANN
Margaret immersed herself in amateur operatic societies and was deeply involved in music and choral work. She joined Inghínidhe na h-Éireann which was founded in 1900 by Maude Gonne, Helena Moloney and Bulmer Hobson and later (in 1914) was absorbed into Cumann na mBan.
Ó Goilidhe continues: “Now in the first decade of the Celtic Dawn, the nation, yes, the Nation of Davis, Tone, Lalor and Mitchel, called; and the cudgels then taken up were not to be laid aside until July 24, 1962 when she passed on.”
He believes that Margaret returned to Cork from Dublin to attend her ill father and that “she was welcomed by the Mac Swineys, the Mac Curtáins and everybody who was anybody in the excitement of the Tan struggle”.
Earlier, of course, she engaged in militant anti-British activities in her native city as she describes in a series of articles in An t-Éireannach Aontaithe (The United Irishmen) in the early 1950s. She wrote under the pen name Margaret Lee and in one episode tells how she and other young women pelted with rotten fruit a British Army band playing in the Cork Opera House while dressed in full and glittering regimentals.
Back in Dublin in 1920 she became a judge in the North city circuit of the Republican courts, appointed by Austin Stack, the 32-County Minister for Home Affairs. She was now in her early 40s.
Ó Goilidhe goes on: “What an experience it must have seemed, post-Bastille, to preside at all those new-founded functions of a seemingly independent Ireland. But, alas, this breakaway into independence and with it the creation of new non-imperial structures was not to continue.
“With the collapse into Civil War, Margaret as a marked figure was interned, first in Mountjoy and then in Kilmainham until October 1923. The 10-year old boy came to live with her then in the brick terraced suburb of Glasnevin, while she was Vice-President, and ever active, giving lectures and keeping the spirit alive.
“She was a very powerful personality and I, being a close relative, probably did not appreciate her as I should have done.” Another source (p. 714 of the Twilight Years) indicates that she was involved in anti-British-Royal-Visit protests in 1903 and 1907 and that she was among the group that founded An Dún in Cork city in 1910.
This account states that she was arrested after 1916, released in the amnesty of June 1917 and played a prominent role in the reorganisation aftermath. Arrested again as a Sinn Féin courts judge she was freed during the Truce.
Three years after the formation of Fianna Fáil in 1926, a body known as Comhairle na Poblachta was set up to find, in Mary MacSwiney’s words, “agreement and co-operation between the civil and military arms of the Republic.”
Margaret Buckley was a member along with Mary Mac Swiney, Maud Gonne, Count Plunkett, Frank Ryan, Peadar O’Donnell, Brian O’Higgins, Mick Fitzpatrick and others. The Comhairle was not successful.
At the Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin in October 1934 Margaret Buckley became one of its Vice-Presidents. Fr O’Flanagan was now President and Mrs Buckley had been prominently associated with him and those who opposed de Valera’s scheme in 1926.
Cathal Ó Murchadha became President in 1935 and two years later at the age of 59 Margaret herself stepped into the breech. The organisation was slowly sinking and only 40 delegates were present.
On December 29, 24 days after her election as head of Sinn Féin, Mrs Buckley had a black flag flown from the first floor balcony of Head Office on Parnell Square. It was the date of the coming into force of de Valera’s new constitution and at a public meeting in the capital’s Cathal Brugha Street the new President of Sinn Féin described the document as “a bogus constitution.” There had been 116,194 (or 8.75% ) spoiled votes — on the direction of the Movement — in the referendum in the 26 Counties on that constitution the previous July. But the attendance at the protest was small.
Next year de Valera secured the return of the Treaty ports from the British but ran into a stone wall when the question of Partition was raised by him. When Margaret Buckley was re-elected President at the Ard-Fheis on November 13 the delegates attending numbered 60.
She certainly had her work cut out for her.
Cumainn now were centred mainly in Dublin and Cork with one still faithful abroad — in Glasgow.
The woman who was active as a member of the Women Prisoner’s Defence League, founded by Maud Gonne and Charlotte Despard in 1922 and who participated in the great hunger strike in the autumn of 1923 now wrote her Jail Journal. It was published in 1938.
THE JANGLE OF THE KEYS
Entitled The Jangle of the Keys it runs to 116 pages and sets out her experiences in a most interesting manner. She was well known to her captors and she tells her story without bitterness, just as one would expect. At last a woman political prisoner had set down her tale of prison life. The publishers were James Duffy and Co Ltd. Dublin who had been publishers to the Young Ireland movement. Their last office in the capital was 21 Shaw Street, Ard Oifig for Republican Sinn Féin from 1987 to ’89.
Margaret Buckley was a formidable figure, much taller than the average woman and built accordingly. She emerges in these pages as a woman to be reckoned with.
When the women prisoners refused to be searched on transfer from Kilmainham to the North Dublin Union, many were badly beaten. Mrs Buckley was put into the surgery by the three searchers; she drew herself up to her full height and glared at them.
“I became a cave woman” she writes, and the searchers did not touch her. She was then 44 years and a comfort to the other prisoners. They elected her O/C in Mountjoy, Q/M in the North Dublin Union and O/C B-Wing in Kilmainham.
She organised courses for the prisoners and ran a “tight ship”. When a medical doctor who was also a prisoner came over from A-Wing, Kilmainham she remarked that no one seemed to get ill in B-Wing. With a wink and a nod in the direction of the O/C, a prisoner commented “Sure we’re afraid to get ill here.” In the midst of all the privation and suffering Margaret Buckley maintained discipline and saw to it that the time on their hands was used to improve themselves.
In her dealings with people she showed her insight into situations, eg the following: “Strange as it may seem, it is nevertheless true that women have an almost uncanny faculty of seeing into men’s minds and some, anyhow, of those prisoners (Mountjoy 1921) did not feel a bit happy as to the outcome of the negotiations then in progress;
“Compromise was in the air and I think it will be generally admitted that women are less prone to compromise than men; one or two of our friends were very angry with Eithne (Coyle) when she expressed her fear that the Republic would be let down by the negotiators.”
There is a moving account of the Hon Albina Brodrick’s arrival in the North Dublin Union on a stretcher. Known as Gobnait Uí Bhruadair she was a sister of Lord Midleton, a leading unionist, and had been wounded and arrested while attending wounded Volunteers in Kerry.
She immediately went on hunger-strike for release. After 14 days she was freed, still on a stretcher as “she passed between our formed files.
Our OC called out the command ‘Eyes Right’ and we saluted Gobnait Ní Bhruadair as she opened her eyes and smiled at us.”
As the stretcher reached the wicket gate the prisoners’ feelings gave way and they sent cheer upon cheer after her.
Both in Margaret Buckley’s own account and in Mary Mac Swiney’s introduction there is conscientious concern for the ordinary women prisoners they came in contact with.
Mary Mac Swiney writes: “It could be that when we have won and are putting our Republican house in order, Mrs Buckley and those who like her have seen the degrading and degraded conditions of those . . . will be given the task of devising a more humane and Christian method of dealing with them . . . we are not fighting for a Republic which will continue or tolerate such a system.” Margaret Buckley taught Protestant hymns to her “flock” and they sang “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Abide With Me” at Mass, creating a “mild sensation”.
These are only some of her most interesting accounts of time in prison which undoubtedly helped to prepare her for the most adverse of circumstances.
Right through the 1940s Mrs Buckley would give leadership with her small grouping of comrades, never bending the knee, always asserting Ireland’s rights until she handed over to Pádraig Mac Lógáin in 1950 an organisation intact in every aspect and back once more in a cordial relationship with the IRA.
Her nephew says she had a “refreshing command of wit and repartee” which stood her well in those trying years. Her last Presidential Address was published as a pamphlet and indeed was the basis for her “Short History of Sinn Féin” published in 1956 and used in educational classes in the organisation for many years.
In 1950 she reverted to Vice-President, a position she held until her death. When the entire Ard-Chomhairle was arrested at a meeting of that body in July 1957 and later interned without trial, she was not held. She made her way to the Sunday Press offices and as sole Ard-Chomhairle member free to do so she made a public statement to the Irish people. She was then 78.
The account of her efforts to recover the funds of Sinn Féin seized in 1922 will be told another day. She was buried in St. Finbarr’s cemetery in her native Cork and John Joe Rice, former Sinn Féin TD for South Kerry and Ruairí Ó Driscóil, NT spoke at her graveside.
Of all people it was due to Margaret Buckley that Sinn Féin survived as a vibrant Republican political organisation. Let us salute a valiant Irishwoman!