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9 July 1998 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The women of `98

The risings of 1798 have many forgotten heroes, anonymous men and women who gave up what little they had to fight for a more equal society in which the worth of labour would be recognised and rewarded, where privilege was a thing of the past. As in most of historical research the history of these people was neglected for years. It is fitting therefore that that wrong is being righted by much of the historical research and reappraisal occurring at present.

Unfortunately because of the gap of 200 years, the lack of any major United Irish records except the British government's court records, the reams of reports from informers and the military returns, many of the characters appear only as a name or a statistic and we will never have full biographies of the unknown soldiers - the Croppies.

We can gleam much from other sources, ballads, local legends and the contemporary accounts of the risings by its participants as collected by the Monk of Clondalkin, Luke Cullen. Trawl the hundreds of local histories being produced around the country this year and the unknowns become the known.

Despite being revolutionary many of the male leaders seemed to have preferred that their partners remain in the background.

While some women played the role of supporting mother, sweetheart or sister of the United men a more active role was played by many.

To acknowledge that role we have selected a number of the heroines who at a time when their legitimate human rights as people were not recognised were willing to sacrifice what little they had and anti-heroines who took the opposing side.

Pamela Sims & Lady Lucy

Pamela Sims was the young ward of reknowned educationalist and dramatist Madame de Genlis - probably her daughter by the Duke of Orleans (Philippe Egalité, who voted for the execution of his kinsman Louis XVI and was himself executed under the Terror). Pamela had previously, when on a visit to England, been briefly engaged to the widowed Brinsley Sheridan. (His wife Elizabeth had died shortly after giving birth to Lord Edward's daughter, Mary.)

In Paris in December 1792, she married Lord Edward Fitzgerald who was to become the United Irish Army's Commander-in-Chief before the Rising. She shared her husband's radical views and took an active part in the revolutionary work of the United Irish Movement.

Lady Lucy, Lord Edward's younger sister, was 25 when she joined Edward and Pamela at their small house in Kildare town which was to become a focus for much United Irish activity. They quickly made their politics and radicalism known locally, rejecting coal in favour of turf and beginning to learn the Irish language. Other `democrats' from all over Ireland often stayed with the young couple. A frequent visitor was Arthur O'Connor who had captured the heart of Lady Lucy. Together with Pamela and Edward they made up what they called the ``beloved quatuor''.

Lady Lucy was also very much involved in republican activities, she took to wearing her hair short - unheard of at the time outside of revolutionary France - sang French songs and flaunted Parisian style and an adherence to democracy at ascendancy balls at a time when France was at war with England. When Arthur was captured in England she, now living in London, became an unwavering supporter of the United Irish cause. Samuel Turner, the informer, directed that the English authorities should intercept her post, as there was a possibility that United Irish instructions were being transmitted through her.

Even after the collapse of the Rising she continued to support the United Irish call. With the threat of the Act of Union emerging she issued a letter, which was suppressed, calling on the Irish people to rise again in glorious struggle for freedom, declaring that she would be willing to die for Ireland as her brother had done, in the cause of ``happiness, freedom and glory''.

When Leinster House was raided in a search for Edward on 13 March (the Leinster Committee had been arrested the previous day) the pregnant Pamela, fully aware of the dangers of her husband's work, attempted to destroy what incriminating articles were around the house as her husband fled through the back yard. She was seized by the sheriff and letters recovered from the room included her husband's plan for the capture of Dublin

While on the run her husband visited her at her lodgings in Denzille Street in April. Such was the shock of seeing him that she gave birth to their third child Lucy a few hours after he left. This was possibly the last time she was to see him alive. He died on 4 June of wounds received when captured two weeks earlier.

Despite willing Pamela everything she was to become a pauper when an Act of Attainder was rushed through the Irish parliament to seize his estate and her annuity. She now had no money and no home. His family gave her a meagre allowance mainly for little Pam's education, but showed no inclination towards providing her a home. She was given three days to leave the country and left for London on 25 May. Edward's sister Sophia adopted her month-old daughter Lucy Louisa, while Pamela continued to her cousins the Mattiesons in Hamburg. Eighteen months later she remarried. Her new partner was the US Consul Mr Pitcairn.

Betsy Gray

Reputedly born in Gransha, north County Down, it has been traditionally believed that her father Hans Gray was a prosperous Presbyterian farmer and a member of the United Irishmen. Isabel - `Betsy' - at the time of the rising was engaged to another local farmer and United Irishman Willie Boal. Her brother, George, and fiancé were involved in the rescue of Colonel Bryson from Newtownards Jail before joining the main insurgent forces at Ballynahinch. Betsy joined them on 13 June.

She played a prominent role in the attack against the English General George Nugent and his soldiers, riding astride a white mount carrying a United Irish standard, a green flag, at the front of the massed rebels. When the battle turned against the mainly untrained soldiers Betsy, George and her fiancé were overtaken by the Hillsborough Yeomanry Cavalry and killed.

A man named Little and Thomas Nelson of Annahilt are named as being among those who murdered the fleeing trio near Ballycreen. Her memory remains alive, having been captured in song and story.

The sister of Henry Munroe, commander of the United Irish forces at Ballinahinch, Margaret (`Peg') also took part in the battle. ``She rode a grey pony and wore a green sash''. The song The Battle of Ballynahinch records her as coming to the fore after her brother's arrest: ``Then in came his sister well clothed in green/with a sword by her side, both long sharp and keen/They gave her three cheers and away she did go/Crying I'll have revenge for my brother Munroe'.'' Unlike Betsy Gray she survived, was captured and had to serve a prison term.

`Lady Betty'

`Lady Betty' was not originally a loyalist, but was in fact a convicted murderer. A lodging house owner, she had mistakenly murdered her son and had been sentenced to hang. In the condemned cell awaiting the hanged were several Whiteboys (a secret agrarian society) and their presence is believed to have prevented the Crown finding anyone willing to carry out the public hangings. In return for clemency `Lady Betty' agreed to take the task and it is said that on her first day she hanged 25. Many United Irishmen condemned for insurgency were executed by her before her death in 1806 in Roscommon Jail where she enjoyed free quarters.


Next week: Matilda Tone, Molly Weston, Mary Doyle, Anne Flood, Susan O'Toole and `Lady Betty'.

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