Diane Charleton as Rosie Hackett.
By Maura Mulligan
In a welcome respite from pandemic fears and election hype, friends in Ireland and the UK accepted my invitation to join our Nollaig Na mBan NY group for a transatlantic Samhain celebration. With Kamala Harris about to be elected as Vice President of the U.S., we channeled the brave spirits of those who were first to fight for women’s rights.
Eimear Friel, Ireland’s Deputy Consul General to New York, described the Irish roots of Halloween, mentioning spirits from the fairy world and preparing us for a visit from the Púca and the Bean Sí. A shapeshifter, the Púca appeared in the person of Terence Flanagan zooming from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo. We found out about the tricks and damage he does on Samhain night – a reminder not to eat wild fruit after Nov. 1. The Bean Sí, (a/k/a banshee) dressed in white wailed in the voice of Gerardine Flanagan. She cries, we know, because of her lot to bring those from the land of living to the world of the dead.
Our activist spirits came back from the dead on both sides of the ocean. Karen Daly appeared as Irish-American firebrand union organizer Leonora O’Reilly, (1870-1927) who went to work in a clothing factory at age 11 and experienced conditions she would forever fight. O’Reilly told women, “...your first step must be to gain equal political rights with men. The next step must be "equal pay for equal work.” Yes, her words, over 100 years ago, we were reminded.
Karen Daly as Leonora O’Reilly.
Rosie Hackett, in the person of my creative cousin Diane Charleton, emerged from her bridge that crosses Dublin’s River Liffey. Co-founder of the Irish Women’s Workers Union in 1911 she spent her life as an activist campaigning for the rights and working conditions of Irish women. More than 100 years later in 2014, the bridge was named in her honor.
Samhain bonding with cousins continued from Galway as Judy Charleton-Greelish brought the ghost of Grace Gifford to life with a backdrop of Grace and Joseph Plunkett’s wedding photo. After telling the assembly about Gifford’s activism, Judy aced the song “Grace” which tells the story of that wedding day on May 3, 1916, hours before Gifford’s husband Joseph Plunkett was executed for his part in the 1916 rising.
A friend from Scoil Acla’s (Achill Summer School) writing group, Marie Clynes, zoomed in from Ireland’s capital. As Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Marie told us that while her father voted against all female suffrage bills in the House of Commons, she founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League with a colleague, Margaret Cousins.
Judy Charleton-Greelish as Grace Gifford.
At the mention of her name, Cousins zoomed in from Derry in the person of poet, Ethna Johnston - (another friend from the Scoil Acla writing group). She told us that on this evening she saw her soul pass over the two lands she loved – Ireland and India. After moving to India with her husband, Cousins was elected as the first non-Indian member of the Women's University at Poona (1916). Her work to support education for woman put an end child marriage. Her soul friend was Gandhi and she spent a year in prison for supporting his campaign.
The suffragettes kept showing up as if they wanted to let us know that we are not alone in these pandemic times. Mayo born Dr. Kathleen Lynn, in the voice of Deirdre Batson, reminded us that she was one of the few women doctors of her time. A suffrage campaigner, Lynn was recently acknowledged by novelist, Emma Donohue in her book, Pull of the Stars for her work with the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
Deirdre Batson as Dr. Lynn.
Nancy Oda took on the persona of Rosamond Jacobs a lifelong activist for suffragist, republican and socialist causes. A member of Cumann na mBann and the Gaelic League, she fought for human and animal rights. Her diaries are among her literary and political papers held in the National Library of Ireland.
With or without the cry of the Bean Sí this night, we experienced many other ghostly appearances. They came to help our Nollaig Na mBan NY team raise funds for The Dwelling Place of NY – a transitional shelter for homeless women. One of these who needed little introduction was the English-born Irish Republican, Maud Gonne. Wearing an elegant period hat, Mary McIntyre reminded us that as well as being an activist, Gonne was well-known for being the muse and long-time love interest of poet W. B. Yeats.
Next was Lillian Bland, an Anglo-Irish journalist and pioneer aviator who, in 1910, became one of the first women ever to design, build, and fly an aircraft – the Bland Mayfly. As presenter, Sheila Houlihan reminded us, she was anything but bland.
Zooming from Galway City, Ger Mulgannon introduced Mary Josephine Donovan O’Sullivan - a member of the local women's suffrage movement who was professor of history in Galway from 1914-1957. Through her research, Ger was thrilled to find that she and the activist were near neighbors.
Ann McGuire presented Winnifred Carney who also fought for suffrage and trade unions. A close confidant of James Connolly, she was at his side throughout the Easter Rising. She typed his orders throughout the Rebellion.
Scottish born Charlotte Despard was presented by Bernadette Daniels zooming from Clare. This activist/novelist was a founding member of the Women's Freedom League. Her motto was “Dare to be free.”
Returning to America, the talented Bernadette Fee played “America the Beautiful” on fiddle whilst her Mom, Mary Fee introduced Alice Paul, one of the main leaders and strategists of the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting sex discrimination in the right to vote.
Deirdre Batson as Dr. Lynn.
Mary Otis Gay Willcox joined in with Dolores Nolan presenting this member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She donated her father's library to the New York Public Library.
At our candlelight ceremony we remembered friends and loved ones and were serenaded by NY musician – Linda Hickman appearing as Composer, Ethel Smyth.
On behalf of Nollaig Na mBan NY, I wish to thank Cousin Emily Rowland-Kane for her technical assistance. Míle buíochas also, to everyone who helped make this celebration a pleasant educational experience.
Founder of Nollaig Na mBan NY Maura Mulligan is author of the memoir “Call of the Lark.”