‘The women were better than the men’: Irish nationalist women and the IRA’s Tyneside Brigade, 1920-1922.

This post will explore the support provided by Irish nationalist women in the North East of England to the Tyneside Brigade of the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence.

No women were allowed in the ranks of the Irish Volunteers, in contrast to the Irish Citizen Army,[1] and, at the Volunteers’ inaugural meeting in Dublin on 25 November 1913, categorized by a feminist historian as ‘a collective beating of masculine chests’, women were confined to a gallery ‘specially set apart for them’.[2] Women, however, were not to be ignored within the Irish nationalist movement and so, after ‘heated discussions’, Cumann na mBan or Women’s Council was formed in Dublin on 5 April 1914 ‘to advance the cause of Irish liberty’.[3] This would be achieved, however, not by serving on the front line but by fund raising to arm and equip the Volunteers, and by acting as auxiliaries, particularly as nurses and messengers.

Over fifty members of Cumann na mBan turned out during the Easter Rising in 1916, undertaking the auxiliary duties for which they had trained. None, however, appear to have been combatants, unlike the armed women of the Irish Citizen Army, nine of whom joined the abortive attack on Dublin Castle.[4]

Rebuilt after the Rising, Cumann na mBan grew, in parallel to the growth of republicanism across Ireland, and by September 1918 had more than 600 branches.[5] And from the onset of war in Ireland in January 1919 to the truce agreed in July 1921, these nationalist women had a key role in the Irish War of Independence, supplying the fighting Volunteers, providing safe houses, gathering intelligence, carrying messages, scouting before and during IRA operations, transporting and hiding munitions, distributing propaganda, orchestrating protests, collecting funds, and providing relief for the families of dead and imprisoned Volunteers and the victims of war.[6]   

But what of Irish nationalist women in England?

The first English branches of Cumann na mBan were formed in Liverpool and London before the end of 1914 and, between November 1920 and October 1921, there were fifteen branches paying affiliation fees to headquarters in Dublin, with six in London, four in Manchester, two on Merseyside, and three in the North East of England.[7] These three North East branches were in Newcastle upon Tyne, Jarrow, and Chester le Street, and it is probable that other branches existed as each IRA company (and there were ten in the Tyneside Brigade) was, in theory, to be supported by a Cumann na mBan branch or squad, each headed by a captain, secretary, and treasurer.[8]

Unfortunately, no one from any North East branch of Cumann na mBan applied in the 1930s to Dublin for a military pension or a service medal or left a witness statement or memoir. This does not mean, however, that the contribution of these nationalist woman was forgotten, as three of the men who served in the Tyneside Brigade remembered them and named them.

In his witness statement for the Bureau of Military History, Brigade Quartermaster Gilbert Barrington wrote ‘From the outset, valuable assistance was given by members of Cumann na mBan in carrying arms after a job, in covering up operations… and in collecting funds’.[9] And he went on to record how on 21 May 1921, officers and men from three companies – ‘B’ (Hebburn), ‘C’ (Newcastle), and ‘D’ (Wallsend) – used chain saws to cut down telegraph poles along four miles of busy road between Hebburn and Wallsend, dislocating communications between London and Scotland ‘for nearly a week’. This operation would, according to Barrington, have been ‘impossible’ without Cumann na mBan members, who ‘accompanied the men detailed to carry out the operation’ because ‘had the men gone alone they would have attracted attention but with their escorts it appeared to all and sundry that they were courting couples’.

Barrington named two women in his witness statement, who were key members of the Irish Self-Determination League in Newcastle, and ‘who were also active members of Cumann na mBan’, Theresa Mason and Martha Larkin. Though he did not record if either of these two married women, aged about 40 and 60 years old respectively, had joined this perilous operation. Details of the activities of these two militant nationalists have been related in previous posts.[10]

The only other Cumann na mBan members Barrington named were the ‘Misses Brennan of Jarrow,’ who, he claimed, ‘were tireless in giving every possible form of assistance to the IRA in connection with the operations including the acquisition and storage of munitions’.[11]

In 1939, Michael McEvoy, who had been sent from Dublin in December 1920 to organise the nascent IRA in the North East of England, was interviewed about the IRA’s Tyneside Brigade.[12]

And he remembered ‘two women and if anyone won the “V.C.” they should get it… Nothing was too hot or too heavy for them. They had more stuff in the house than we had in the big dumps here.’ These were the ‘Misses Brennan of Jarrow’.

Cecilia Brennan was born in Jarrow in November 1890. Her father, Michael, was from Galway and her mother, Sarah, though born in North Shields, had an Irish-born father. Michael Brennan had worked as a bricklayer and in the local gas works. In 1921, however, then aged 60, he had found less arduous work as a gas-meter reader, whilst ‘Cissie’, who was unmarried and still living at home, and who had trained at St. Marys’ College, part of the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Fenham, Newcastle upon Tyne, was a ‘certified assistant school teacher’ at St Bede’s school in Jarrow.[13]

When Cecilia Brennan became active in the Irish nationalist cause is not known, but she joined the Jarrow branch of the Irish Self-Determination League, formed in September 1919, and served on the branch committee and later as branch delegate to the ISDL’s District Council in Newcastle.[14]

After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, whilst other ISDL branches stuttered and collapsed, Jarrow’s remained active, identifying itself as ‘a purely Republican Branch’.[15] And the surviving minute book of Jarrow’s ISDL branch continues to record Cecilia Brennan as a republican activist until after the end of the Irish Civil War in May 1923 and the defeat of the republican forces.[16]

In March 1923, the Countess Markievicz spoke at a St Patrick’s night demonstration in Jarrow’s Co-operative Hall, organised by the local branch of the ISDL, ‘in aid of Irish distress funds’.[17] This was part of her tour of northern England and Scotland to rally republican Anti-Treaty forces, even as those forces in Ireland were facing defeat. Theresa Mason, the ISDL’s District Organiser was present on the platform along with the local ISDL branch committee, presumably including Cecilia Brennan. Many other women were present in the hall and undercover police agents estimated that 60 per cent of the audience of 300 were women. Many of these women had come to hear the Countess Markievicz, the much-imprisoned heroine of Easter 1916, but some were also there to listen to her as their president, the president of Cumann na mBan.[18]

There is less certainty over the identity of the other Miss Brennan. Four unmarried Brennan sisters were living with their parents at 43 Harold Street, Jarrow, when the census was held in June 1921: Cecilia, aged 30; Frances, aged 24; Mildred, aged 19; and Rosalie, aged 17.[19]

Mildred Brennan, who was teaching at St Aloysius’ school in Hebburn as an ‘uncertified assistant school teacher’, also joined the ISDL, and ‘Miss Millie Brennan’ is recorded as having been appointed assistant secretary of the diehard republican branch in early 1923.[20] When, however, Gilbert Barrington was writing about the ‘Misses Brennan’, he added ‘One of these ladies was engaged to be married. Before her marriage she had secured a house and we used it freely as a dump’. Cecelia, Mildred, and Rosalie never married,[21] but Frances Brennan did marry in September 1921,[22] and so she was, almost certainly, the second Miss Brennan praised by Michael McEvoy. There is no evidence, however, that her husband, Charles Hanratty, who was raised in Jarrow by Armagh-born relations, and who was a teacher at St Bede’s Junior Boys’ School, was either an Irish nationalist or knew of his future wife’s pro-IRA activities.[23] In August 1923, however, a meeting of Jarrow’s ISDL branch was chaired by a ‘Mr Hanratty’.[24] But that may simply be a coincidence.

Not all the women remembered for their active support of the IRA’s Tyneside Brigade, however, were members of Cumann na mBan. One was a nun, Sister Imelda, head teacher at St Patrick’s school in Consett.

Sister Imelda’s nationalist activities are described in two letters written in support of an application to Dublin for a military service pension. James Melody, born in Mayo, was living and working in Consett, when he joined the Tyneside Brigade’s ‘F’ Company in 1920, eventually taking command as Captain, before he emigrated to the United States of America in May 1922.[25]

In his letter of November 1935, he wrote that Sister Imelda, whom he was naming as a reference, had ‘done excellent work, carrying everything of a contraband character on her person at some time or other from the summer of 1920 to the Treaty of Dec. 1921.’ And when ‘a local telephone operator’ warned ‘F’ Company of an impending police raid ‘she took to the convent all of the revolvers, documents, etc., she could carry and brought them back when the raid was over’. Not content with providing a safe house, she also acted as a ‘contact’ between Brigade headquarters and ‘F’ Company, and ‘organised concerts, socials, etc., to raise funds for everything for which funds were then needed’. And Melody believed that the thirty or so Volunteers in Consett, who comprised ‘F’ Company, ‘would have been seriously handicapped without her.’

Aside from collecting arms and munitions, Consett’s Company was not the most active of the Tyneside Brigade, which resulted in James Melody, though described by Gilbert Barrington as ‘a good man’, being refused a pension. However, it did take part in two of the Tyneside Brigade’s coordinated arson attacks of 1921. In the first on 27 March, when the Brigade lit fires in farms across the North East, Melody and another (unnamed) Volunteer fired three hay stacks near Consett. This was followed on 22 May, when ‘F’ Company lit fires at farms at Chopwell, Ebchester, and South Moor, whilst Melody and five others set fire to the booking office and bridge at High Westwood railway station near Ebchester.[26]

And in a second letter written in August 1936 in support of his pension application, James Melody clearly implicated Sister Imelda in these arson attacks, as she not only ‘got the school children, more than once, to secure paraffin for me’, but also that she ‘always knew when I (we) was going to use it.’  He then added ‘But please keep this information locked up because of the possibility of a scandal. (She would not mind, but her Order may suffer. After all, they are still in England.)’.

James Melody knew that Sister Imelda’s ‘maiden name’ was Phelan and that she came from Ballyragget. And on the 1921 census return for the convent in Derwent Street, Benfieldside, Consett, is Bridget Phelan, born in Ballyragget, County Kilkenny, in 1880, and employed by Durham County Council as a teacher (she was, in fact the head teacher) of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic elementary school in Consett.[27]

St Mary’s convent was home to the religious order The Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle, which was a French teaching order.[28] In 1921, the convent’s superior was a seventy-year-old English-born retired school teacher, who, according to Melody, had suspected Sister Imelda at the time ‘of being active’. She had, however, ‘for her country’s sake, denied it’. The Irish-born parish priest of St Mary’s, Blackhill, Father John O’Donoghue,[29] also ‘threatened to expose her’, when he saw that her nationalist fund-raising events were adversely impacting on the parish’s finances. Sister Imelda, however, survived these suspicions and was still living and teaching in Consett in 1939.[30]

In her pioneering study of female religious orders and the Irish Revolution, Sophie Cooper mined the Bureau of Military History’s witness statements for evidence of republican activity by nuns in Ireland, and argued that women in religious orders ‘were not removed from their familial and kinship net-works’, and that these networks, plus friendships, played a key role in their politicisation. And, within the witness statements, she found many instances where nuns acted ‘as intermediaries and facilitators’ for the republican forces in Ireland.[31]

So, what motivated Sister Imelda to become directly involved in revolutionary action in County Durham, so far from the war in Ireland?

It is now impossible to say, but it is important to note that she was not a member of an enclosed religious order cut off from the secular world. Rather, through her position as a head teacher and a respected community leader, she would have had almost daily contact with Consett’s Irish Catholic community. Was this how she became aware of events in Ireland? She may also have read the nationalist press, in addition to the English press, even though she was sworn to obey the convent’s English Mother Superior, who clearly suspected her.[32] 

Sister Imelda had left Ireland for England before the Irish Revolution began,[33] but, perhaps, had brought with her her nationalist sentiments. She had also not broken all her family links, which played such an important role in the politicising of women during the revolution. As, according to James Melody, she was in contact with her brother, ‘Paddy Phelan’, who was a marine wireless operator and who was also active, bringing ‘her messages from Ireland which we passed on to their destination’.[34]

In 1939, when Michael McEvoy was interviewed about the IRA’s Tyneside Brigade, he was asked what he thought about the Brigade. He replied: ‘I will go so far as to say that it was the best area in Great Britain at the particular time because they were always doing something’. And he added ‘and the women were better than the men’. [35]  

Between 1920 and 1923, reports of the branch meetings and other activities of the Irish Self-Determination League in the North East of England regularly appeared in the local, Catholic, and nationalist press. Women’s names regularly appeared in these reports, but how many of these women did more than just sing ‘The Soldier’s Song’? [36]

The Tyneside Brigade’s Quartermaster, Gilbert Barrington, had four sisters, who were, like himself, all school teachers.[37] At least one of these women was a member of the ISDL branch in South Shields[38], whilst another ‘Miss Barrington’ (the same?) accompanied her brother home after his release from prison in April 1922.[39] Were one or more of Barrington’s sisters active in Cumann na mBan, as the Brennan sisters were in Jarrow?

And then there is Kathleen Maud Gallagher. In 1922, she was secretary of Sunderland’s ISDL branch,[40] and that June, as civil war was about erupt in Ireland, newly-freed Gilbert Barrington wrote to Art O’Brien, the ISDL’s vice-president in London, suggesting that he should ask Kathleen Gallagher of 7 Ravine Terrace, Roker, ‘to form a Republican Committee of people whose names I am sending her, this committee to work inside the League until you give them other instructions. As things are, it is impossible to make use of the League for Republican purposes, as the branches have nearly all a majority of Free Staters among their members’.

Born in 1890 to a wealthy middle-class Cork family,[41] Kathleen Gallagher gained an honours degree from University College Cork in 1911, before leaving Ireland for the North East of England.[42]  In June 1921, she was boarding at 7 Ravine Terrace, Roker, with two of her sisters, Genevieve Clare, aged 26, and Eileen Rose, aged 24.[43] All three were school teachers with Kathleen teaching at St Anthony’s Grammar School in Sunderland, and her sisters in Seaham Harbour.[44]

Barrington’s letter reveals that Kathleen Gallagher was an active diehard republican, and the wellspring of that nationalism almost certainly lay within her family, as it did with so many during the Irish Revolution. Kathleen’s father’s politics are unknown, but, as an Irish speaker, who had all nine of his children taught to speak Irish, it is probable that he too was a nationalist. In addition, two of his sons were IRA Volunteers, with his eldest son, James Jarlath Gallagher junior, shot dead in a training accident in 1917.[45]

None of the women discussed in this post, either within or without Cumann na mBan, appear to have left any record of their lives and actions as militant Irish nationalists during the years of the Irish Revolution, and their activities are only known through the writings of three men. But, at least, those brief writings show something of the contribution nationalist women in the North East of England made to the cause of the Irish Revolution. A contribution that prompted Michael McEvoy to say ‘and the women were better than the men’.[46]

Finally, if you have enjoyed reading this post, you may find this link to Raidió Teilifís Éireann’s website of interest:

Acknowledgement:  Special thanks must go to my sister, Clare Wright, for her invaluable help in tracking down the census returns and other on-line sources that have enabled the story of these nationalist women to be told.

[1] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries. Women and Irish Nationalism (London, 1995), p.109.

[2] Ibid., p.91.

[3] Ibid., p.92.

[4] Ibid., p.111.

[5] Ibid., p.131.

[6] Ibid., pp.142-152. Also see Cal McCarthy, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2007).

[7] Gerard Noonan, The IRA in Britain, 1919-1923: ‘In the heart of enemy lines’ (Liverpool, 2014), p.49.

[8] Ibid., p.48.

[9] Bureau of Military History, Dublin, Witness Statement [hereafter BMH WS] 775: Gilbert F Barrington.

[10] Theresa Mason,; Theresa Mason and Martha Larkin,

[11] BMH WS 775: Barrington.

[12] Bureau of Military History, Military Service Pensions Collection [hereafter BMH MSCC]: MA/MSPC/RO/610, Newcastle on Tyne IRA (including Tyneside Division IRA, ‘Michael McEvoy describing events that occurred pre-Truce in Newcastle upon Tyne’, 26 September 1939.

[13] The National Archives. Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911: RG 558, piece 30556; Census 1921: RG 15, piece 25046, schedule 354, district RD 556 RS 3 ED 8.

[14] Tyneside Catholic News, 16 April 1921; Jarrow ISDL, Minute Book, 1922-23 (Private Collection), 29 September 1922.

[15] Jarrow ISDL, 5 January 1923.

[16] Jarrow ISDL, 9 October 1924.

[17] North Star 19 March 1923.

[18] Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom, Home Office Directorate of Intelligence, RORO 199, 28 March 1923.

[19] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1921: RG 15, piece 25046, schedule 354, district RD 556 RS 3 ED 8.

[20] Jarrow ISDL, 2 March 1923.

[21] In 1939, unmarried school teachers Cecilia, Mildred and Rosalie Brennan were living at 74 Bede Burn Road, Jarrow. The National Archives, 1939 Register, RG 101/2792b.

[22] Free BMD:

[23] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911, RG 556, piece 30349.

[24] Jarrow ISDL, 2 August 1923.

[25] BMH MSCC, MSP34REF19048: James Melody.

[26] BMH MSCC, MA/MSPC/RO/610: Newcastle on Tyne IRA.

[27] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1921: RG 15, piece 24529, schedule 35, district RD 550 RS 1 ED 17.

[28] Anon, The religious houses of the United Kingdom. Containing a short history of every order and house compiled from official sources, (London, 1887), pp.134-35.

[29] Michael Morris and Leo Gooch, Down Your Aisles, The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, 1850-2000 (Hartlepool, 2000), p.100. Also see

[30] 1939 Register; RG 101/2767a.

[31] Sophie Cooper, ‘It was the Presentation nuns who made a rebel of me’: women religious and Ireland’s Revolutionary Era, Women’s History Review, 2022, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp.1047–1068.

[32] A Brigidine sister in Goresbridge, County Kilkenny, gave a weekly copy of a nationalist newspaper to another (non-religious) female teacher in her convent school. Cooper, ‘Presentation nuns’, p.1053.  

[33] In 1911, Bridget Phelan was head teacher of the infants’ school attached to St Andrew’s convent in Newcastle upon Tyne. Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911, RG 558, piece 30646.

[34] BMH MSCC, MSP34REF19048: James Melody.

[35] BMH MSCC, MA/MSPC/RO/610: Newcastle on Tyne IRA.

[36] Miss M Thompson, treasurer, Ashington ISDL, Blyth News, 20 May 1920; Miss Greta Hellier, secretary, Spennymoor ISDL, Durham Chronicle, 22 October 1920; Miss K Connolly, committee member, Jarrow ISDL, Tyneside Catholic News, 16 April 1921; Miss M Regan, assistant secretary, Newcastle ISDL, Tyneside Catholic News, 24 September 1921.

[37] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1911, RG 556, piece 30312.

[38] Tyneside Catholic News, 31 July 1920.

[39] The Irish Exile, April 1922.

[40] Letter from Gilbert Barrington to Art Ó Briain, 1 February 1922 (National Library of Ireland, NLI, MS 8445/17/12).

[41] The National Archives of Ireland:

[42] Dublin Daily Express, 13 October 1911.

[43] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1921: RG 15, piece 24923, schedule 39, district RD 555 RS 3 ED 25.

[44] St Anthony’s was a girls’ grammar school founded in Sunderland in 1902 by the Sisters of Mercy.

[45] BMH WS 707: Michael Noyk.

[46] BMH MSCC, MA/MSPS/RO/610: Newcastle on Tyne IRA.

4 replies on “‘The women were better than the men’: Irish nationalist women and the IRA’s Tyneside Brigade, 1920-1922.”

Thanks for this very informative piece.
Have you any information on the Blaydon area. It has puzzled me why there appears to be no ‘organisation’ in this area.
My Grandfather and brothers were members of Sinn Fein and were from Blaydon.


Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed this new post. There was a branch of the Irish Self-Determination League in Blaydon, but that’s about all I’ve come across for Blaydon between 1919 & 1923.


Yet another good read!

I have just finished drafting my short piece about JBO’R for the Lancashire Archives Newsletter, which I shall shortly submit – though I suspect it mat be too parochial for them!

Bill ________________________________


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