A well-known quote that is often used to describe Winifred Carney describes her as a ‘prudish spinster with a typewriter in one hand and Webley pistol in the other’. Apart from proving that women have always been able to multitask, this summary does a disservice to Carney’s lifelong involvement with activism and politics. Although best known for her role as ‘aide de camp’ to James Connolly during the Easter Rising in 1916, Carney was a prominent suffragist, trade unionist, and Irish independence activist in her own right. With our Great Place: #greatwomen series, we’re aiming to put women back at the centre of their own stories and focus on their individual achievements rather than interpreting their actions as ancillary to male contemporaries.
Maria Winifred Carney was born on 4 December 1887 into a lower middle-class family from Fisher’s Hill in Bangor, Co. Down. Carney was the second youngest of seven children born to a Catholic mother, Sarah (née Cassidy), and a Protestant father, Alfred. Despite their parents’ mixed marriage, all seven of the Carney children were raised as Catholic. Her parents’ marriage broke up during Carney’s childhood and, when her father left to live in London, her mother Sarah kept the family in Belfast and supported them by opening a confectionery shop on the Falls Road.
Carney was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School on Donegall Street and later taught at the school as a junior teacher before returning to education herself. She became a qualified secretary and shorthand typist – skills would prove invaluable during Easter Week – and secured a job as a clerk in a solicitor’s office. In her early twenties, Carney became involved with the Gaelic League, which was formed in 1893 by Douglas Hyde with the aim of preserving the Irish Language and was later at the forefront of the Gaelic Revival. At this time, she also joined suffragist and socialist organisations in industrial Belfast together with her friend Marie Johnson whose husband, Thomas, would go on to be the leader of the Irish Labour Party. Carney’s developing activism reflected a wider movement in Irish society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Gaelic Revival was in full swing, promoting the Irish Language and traditional culture and her involvement also reflected her personal interest in art, literature, and music.
In 1912, Marie Johnson became ill, and asked Carney to take over her work as Secretary for the Irish Textile Workers’ Union (ITWU), which had been set up by James Connolly the previous year as the women’s section of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU). As Secretary she worked closely with Connolly, then General Secretary of the IGTWU, and they quickly found that their political views aligned. In 1913, Carney and Connolly co-wrote the Manifesto to the Linen Slaves of Belfast. Carney threw herself into the role. Together with Nell Gordon, a mill worker who had been recruited as a union organiser, Carney was responsible for keeping the union running during Connolly’s many absences from Belfast. During the great Dublin Lock-out in 1913, Carney and Gordon worked hard to raise funds for workers facing hardship and provided practical support and accommodation for locked-out workers who came to Belfast.
By now a committed nationalist, Carney was one of about ten founding members of Cumann na mBan, established in 1914 as a women’s auxiliary organisation to the Irish Volunteers. She helped to set up the Belfast branch, was an active member alongside Connolly’s daughters, Nora and Ina, and later became branch President. Carney also joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) and by 1916 held the rank of Adjutant. Her relationship with Connolly had also developed. She was now a close friend, confidante, and his personal secretary. In the aftermath of the Rising, she described how ‘James Connolly honoured me with his trust and confidence in a way he did with no other person’.
The week before the Easter Rising, Connolly telegrammed Carney to join him in Dublin. She stayed with Countess Markievicz and was kept busy typing up highly secret messages and mobilisation orders. She made a brief return to Belfast, delivering a message from Patrick Pearse, but came back to Dublin in time for the Rising.
Carney was on full-time duty in Liberty Hall until the end of that week, when she marched out with the rest of the Irish Citizen Army to join the leadership in the General Post Office (GPO). As a member of the Irish Citizen Army and aide-de-camp to Connolly, Carney was the first woman to enter the GPO, armed with a Webley and her typewriter. Along with Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell, Carney was also one of the last women to leave the GPO and she typed out the surrender notices that were distributed to the various outposts.
After the surrender, Carney was imprisoned first in Kilmainham Gaol and then Mountjoy prison before being one of just five women moved to Aylesbury prison where she was held until Christmas Eve. Her incarceration left her concerned for the wellbeing of her mother, who was living alone in north Belfast: ‘Revolutionaries, I suppose, ought not to have relatives.’
The Revolutionary Years:
After her release, Carney continued to work for the ITGWU in both Belfast and Dublin, but she found it difficult to settle back into routine trade union affairs. In 1917, she was chosen as the Belfast delegate to the National Convention of Cumann na mBan and elected President of the Belfast branch. In May 1917 she assisted in the successful by-election campaign of the imprisoned Joseph McGuiness who was Sinn Fein’s first candidate in Longford, and, in the historic general election of 1918, she stood as a Sinn Féin candidate in the ‘unwinnable’ Central Belfast Victoria Ward.
Carney – the only female candidate other than Constance Markievicz – insisted on a feminist socialist platform. Despite her being one of the first women to stand for election, 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’. Although supported by Belfast Cumann na mBan, she was unsupported by Sinn Féin and had no electoral machine. She received less than 3% of the vote (395 of 13,373) and lost her deposit.
After the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the formation of the Irish Free State, Carney sided with the Anti-Treaty forces and was arrested several times in connection with such organisations as the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund (IRPDF) – of which she was Secretary – and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). On 24 July 1922, 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 later released on grounds of ill-health. With the formation of the state of Northern Ireland, political repression and increased sectarianism, republicanism in the north suffered heavy blows. Many, including the Johnsons, left to live in the south.
Carney retained her commitment to socialism and in 1920 became a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, also attending the convention of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow. In 1924, she joined the Court Ward Branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party where she met George McBride, a working-class Protestant from the Shankill Road, who had fought at the Battle of the Somme with the 36th (Ulster) Division. Their subsequent relationship has been described as an ‘…unusual “love across the barricades romance”’ and, despite family opposition, the couple married in Holyhead in 1928.
After her marriage, Carney left her job with the ITGWU and resigned her membership of the Labour Party. By this time her health was poor, and she was increasingly tied down caring for her mother, until her death in 1933. However, this decision could also be seen to represent a wider exclusion of married women from the workforce. In 1926 only 15% of married women in Northern Ireland were economically active and many occupations, including the civil service, factory work and clerical work actively prevented married women from working with the introduction of a marriage bar. In local government and the civil service, this bar remained until the early 1970s.
After her mother’s death in 1933, Carney joined the Northern Ireland Socialist Party (NISP). The NISP was allied to the Republican Congress, set up in 1934 following a split in the IRA and was supported by the son and daughter of James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army. Carney and her husband George also worked with other socialists to organise support for the republican side in the Spanish Civil War during the summer of 1936.
From the mid-1920s Carney shared her life and her activism with George. After spending several months in hospital, she died from TB on 21 November 1943, aged just 55. There was a small funeral; with funeral notices only from George, old comrades Cumann na mBan No 1 Belfast Branch, the Belfast Socialist Party, and the Belfast Branch committee of the ITGWU. She was buried in Milltown Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Her grand-niece later reasoned that this was down to her brother’s continued disapproval of her marriage to George. In 1985, a headstone was erected by the National Graves Association with the permission of George McBride and one of her nieces.
 Belfast News Letter, 16 December 1918.
 Belfast News Letter, 21 August 1922.