The pension files contain a lot of correspondence and naturally, when associated with administrative processes, material can be dry and very matter-of-fact. However some can give us a substantial amount of information about people’s interactions and transactions and in some cases, they can be the only testimony of a person’s actions during those years, describing unique evidence of exceptional deeds, but also pleas and disappointments. Some of them are well written but few present such a sophisticated style and depth of emotion than this example in Ellen Carroll’s file.
The letter is written by Nora Martin (of 30 Parnell Place, Cork). Mrs Martin (Nora Bean Ui Mhartain; nee O’Brien) is an important figure in Cumann na mBan and it is rather disappointing that Martin herself seems not to have applied for a service pension. She had been involved in the independence movement since before the Rising in Inghinidhe na hEireann. Later, she served as Captain of the Craobh Poblachtach branch and as a member of the Cork District Council during the War of Independence. She became President of same from 1922. She was most active as an intelligence officer and worked in close connection with Michael Collins, leading a special intelligence unit of which Ellen Carroll was a member.
As a Cumann na mBan Officer, Martin wrote reference letters for many claimants of the Cork area and more often than not, remained in the realm of dates, names and factual confirmations of her personal knowledge of the claimants’ activities. However in the case of Ellen Carroll she wrote several letters from April 1937 to March 1944, largely prompted by the ongoing requests for evidence and the rejection of the claim in November 1941. Following an appeal by Carroll and the request for yet further evidence, it is obvious that Martin had grown frustrated and felt compelled to justify the work performed by women who gave all their time and most of their active years to the independence movement.
The resulting letter examined here, addressed to Mr Flinn, T.D. (dated 13 October 1942), was written not only in support of Carroll’s claim but also to provide a forgotten context for the work of all the women involved.
Martin succinctly paints a picture of what women had to endure by simply being members of Cumann na mBan and how much they risked: “they were the butt for the jeers and insults of a large section of the community. They risked their jobs, their homes, and their lives by doing so and in preparing and training themselves they gave their time and energy”. This is very apparent in the files and accounts provided for the verification of claims. Women were dismissed from employment because of their political activities, during the War of Independence their houses were raided repeatedly or burnt to the ground. And indeed some died. Some died accidentally, some died during or following internment during the Civil War, some having suffered through hunger strikes. Others died of diseases contracted through continuous exposure to the elements. This constant stress is a point addressed by Martin: “Keeping vigil night after night in a house, knowing yourself to be a guardian of some soldiers life, waiting the creepy crawl of the armoured car and the rush of the soldiers from the lorries and the rat-tat on your door is a nerve-wracking experience but this continued over months and years and is indeed an ordeal”.
These acts were carried out by ordinary people but were far from being ordinary acts.
“These lawyers and civil servants could say of course that any woman could keep members of the IRA in her house, hold guns and ammunition in her home, carry despatches or guns through the streets, but they could never realise the state of tension of these women during that period…”
It is evident from the files that women endured constant direct contact with the enemy whether this was facing the Crown Forces at their front door while the IRA men escaped out the back or dealing with constant raids on their homes and land following attacks or ambushes, while the men would move on to their next operation or go to ground.
Martin insists on the sheer determination that animated the women in whatever task they were given: “determined to do their task at any cost”, “consistently prepared for, and ever ready to act, at any time and any capacity they were called on”, “That dispatch which you carry may be a very harmless document, but to you, as a member of Cumann na mban it was as precious as your life”.
One of the most interesting points expressed by Martin is only very rarely (if ever) verbalised by applicants in their claims. Their work at that time, during those years, was also synonymous with an exhilarating, hidden part of their lives: “You were living a dual life, in your ordinary work you were an automation, but when it came to your real job, you were a fund of resourcefulness and initiative”. These years marked a possibility for freedom and self-realisation. A dangerous and risky freedom but an exciting double life taking them out of their individual situation, whatever it might be, being part of something bigger them themselves, together.
This letter tells us something important:
It is not because other female applicants don’t verbalise their past activities with emphasis and insights that they did not feel those emotions and faced those risks. Many women underplayed their role and their claims hardly do them justice on paper.
Currently around 90% of successful women applicants are placed at the very bottom of the pension award ladder. In their applications, we find the same activities over and over again: dispatches, keeping and hiding arms and ammunition, moving weapons and equipment to different dumps every day, supplying the Flying Column with essentials, reporting useful overheard conversations, providing shelter for soldiers and officers for meetings are all activities that are considered basic for the award of service pension and they are so frequent that there exists a risk of underestimating or diminishing ‘what it took’ to execute them.
“In justice to them, one woman at least should be on that Advisory Board”
To Martin and others, the criteria of eligibility were narrow, limiting, discriminatory and applied so rigidly that the courageous actions of many, in particular women, were disregarded and the value of their work unrecognised as they faced the cold process of the pension administration. “Now these operations must all be “Within the Act” and judged according to some Legal standards altogether unknown to me and the likes of me who worked and suffered and endured with these women”.
Martin felt that only a woman who had gone through similar experiences would be in a position to judge these cases fairly.
Ellen Carroll is just one example of many who felt that not only was their work undervalued but that their past involvement was seen as meaningless. It is no wonder then that in writing to her friend Nora Martin, she declares that she is “fed up with my life. I only wish I died I would be better off. I have nothing to live for”. She was only 43 at that time.
Women of the Irish Revolution had tasted this new and exciting life only to, in the end, have it taken away from them through a system that no longer understood their worth and the context in which they had made these sacrifices.
NOTE: Following an appeal in 1942, Ellen Carrol’s application was eventually successful and her service (between 1 April 1920 and 30 September 1923) was recognised by the Army Pensions Board in April 1944.