Winifred Carney (also known as Winnie) has often been depicted in history as the ‘prudish spinster with her typewriter in one hand and Webley pistol in the other’ for her role as the aide de camp for James Connolly during the 1916 Easter Rising. However, there is more to Winnie’s character than just her involvement during the rising as she was a suffragist, trade unionist and Irish independence activist. This blog piece gives a brief overview of Winnie’s life and her involvement in activism and politics.
Maria Winifred Carney was born, on 4 December 1887, into a lower-middle-class Catholic family from Fisher’s Hill in Bangor, Co. Down. She was the youngest daughter of Alfred Carney, who was a Protestant commercial traveller, and Sarah Carney (née Cassidy) who was a Catholic. Despite the religious differences of their parents, the six Carney children were raised as Catholic. During Winnie’s childhood, her family moved to Falls Road where her mother ran a small confectionery shop. Alfred Carney later abandoned his family to go to London leaving Sarah Carney to support her children with the money she made from her sweet shop. Winnie was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School on Donegall Street and she later taught at the school as a junior teacher. She also got a qualification as a shorthand typist from Hughes’s Commercial which meant that she could find employment as a clerk at a solicitor’s office. During her early twenties, Winnie became involved in the Gaelic League as well as suffrage and socialist organisations. She also was interested in culture, particularly art, literature and music.
In 1912, Winnie took over as secretary of the Irish Textile Workers’ Union from her friend Marie Johnson, which was then based at 50 York Street. This organisation operated as the women’s section of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) which was led by James Connolly. Despite her low and irregular income, Winnie and her colleague Ellen Grimley worked hard to improve the wages and working conditions of mill girls as well as operating within the insurance sector of the trade union. During the 1913 Dublin lock-out, the major industrial dispute between workers and employers, Winnie helped to raise funds for affected labourers and helped to support locked-out workers who came to Belfast. She also joined the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s organisation, after attending its inaugural meeting in Dublin with Ina Connolly. Winnie was a close friend of James Connolly and soon became his secretary as she had his complete confidence and supported his revolutionary ideas.
A week before the Easter Rising, Connolly telegrammed Winnie to come to Dublin. She worked hard on preparations for the Rising, typing up confidential correspondence and mobilisation orders. She briefly travelled to Belfast to deliver a message from Patrick Pearse but returned in time for the Rising. Winnie worked full-time at the Liberty Hall until the end of the week and then she, along with her pistol and typewriter, marched with the Irish Citizen Army to join the GPO leadership. Winnie was the only woman to take part in the initial occupation of the GPO and remained Connolly’s secretary throughout Easter Week. Along with Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell, Winnie was one of the last women to leave the GPO. Crucially, she typed out the surrender notices that were distributed to the various outposts. After surrendering on 29 April 1916, Winnie was imprisoned in both Kilmainham Gaol and Mountjoy prison before being moved to Aylesbury prison in England with Helena Molony and Nell Ryan. Countess Markievicz was also imprisoned in Aylesbury prison, but all visitors were refused, despite many women requesting to forgo their benefits for the privilege. Winnie was eventually released from prison on 24 December 1916.
After returning to Ireland, Winnie continued to work for the ITGWU in both Belfast and Dublin, but she found it difficult to settle back into routine trade union affairs. Winnie was elected President of the Belfast Branch of the Cumann na mBan and was chosen as their delegate for the 1917 convention. Her associates were proud of her role during the rising and they presented her with a Tara brooch to represent their high esteem. Carney stood for parliament as the Sinn Fein candidate for Belfast Victoria in the 1918 election. Despite Winnie being the first woman to stand for election in the north of Ireland, there was little interest in the newspapers. On 16 December 1918, The Belfast News Letter wrote that ‘the Sinn Fein candidate in Victoria ward was not regarded seriously’. Unfortunately, she lost to the Labour Unionists who gained 9509 votes compared to her 395. After the election, Winnie became secretary of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents Fund between 1920-22 and continued to work for the ITGWU until 1928. It was reported on 24 July 1922 that Winnie Carney was arrested at her home (2a Carlisle Circus) by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and a variety of seditious material was seized relating to an illegal organisation. She was imprisoned in Armagh gaol but was later released on grounds of ill-health.
In 1924, Winnie joined the Court Ward Branch of the Irish Labour Party, where she met George McBride. Winnie and George’s relationship has been described as an ‘…unusual “love across the barricades romance”’. Unlike Winnie, George McBride came from a unionist background. He was a former member of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), fought for the British Army during the First World War and was a member of the Orange Order. What brought this unlikely couple together was their shared interest in revolutionary socialism. The couple married in 1928 despite facing family opposition to their union. Afterwards, Winnie left her job with the ITGWU and the Labour party and the couple lived at 3 Whitewell Parade, north Belfast, with Winnie’s mother. During the 1920s and 1930s, Winnie suffered from tuberculosis but she focused her efforts on nursing her mother. In 1933, Winnie’s mother died and she later joined the Northern Ireland Socialist Party (NISP) which a predominately Protestant organisation based in the Shankill and Newtownards districts of Belfast. The couple and other socialists went to Bodenstown, Co. Kildare, with the Republican Congress for the Wolfe Tone Commemoration in June 1934 where violent clashes broke out over unauthorised flags. Along with other socialists, Winnie and George organised support for republicans affected by the 1936 Spanish Civil War.
After spending several months in hospital Winnie died, at the age of 55, from tuberculosis on 21 November 1943. There was a small funeral service attended by her husband and members from the various organisations that Winnie was involved with during her lifetime. She was buried in Milltown Cemetery in an unmarked grave until a gravestone was erected in 1985 following a campaign by Belfast trade unionist.
 Belfast News Letter, 16 December 1918.
 Belfast News Letter, 21 August 1922.