Carney, Winifred (1887–1943)

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Carney, Winifred (1887–1943)

Irish suffragist, socialist and labor organizer. Born in Bangor, County Down, Ireland, on December 4, 1887; died in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on November 21, 1943; daughter of Alfred Carney and Sarah (Cassidy) Carney; educated at Christian Brothers School, Donegall Street, Belfast; qualified as secretary; married George McBride (labor organizer), in 1928.

Winnie Carney came from a Catholic, lower-middle-class family in the coastal town of Bangor, just south of Belfast. She was educated and later became a junior teacher at the Christian Brothers School in Belfast. She then qualified as a secretary and shorthand typist and in her early 20s became involved in the Gaelic League, which was concerned with the revival of the Irish language, and in suffrage and socialist activities. It was through her friend Marie Johnson (b. 1874), wife of the labor leader Thomas Johnson, that she met James Connolly in the summer of 1912. Connolly was the Ulster provincial secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), and in 1912 he helped to organize the Textile Workers Union, which functioned as the women's section of the ITGWU. Appointed secretary of the Textile Workers Union, Carney was responsible for the insurance section. She became Connolly's trusted associate and confidante, accompanying him to the factory-gate meetings of the "mill-girls" who made up the membership. She also typed the many articles Connolly wrote for the labor press and was probably the person most familiar with his ideas.

Throughout his career, Connolly had close working relationships with many active feminists including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington , and Helena Moloney . In contrast to some other labor organizers, he always treated women on an equal basis and in December 1915 he urged women to protect themselves: "If you want a thing done do it yourself … don't whine about men protecting you. If men wanted to protect you there would be no war and no prostitution." Carney took his advice to heart and joined the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan (The Women's League) where she taught first aid and learned rifle-shooting. In 1914, she joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a workers militia founded after the lockout of Dublin workers the previous year. Unlike the Irish Volunteers also founded in 1913, the ICA accepted women as full members and soldiers.

After the outbreak of the First World War, plans for a rebellion against British rule in Ireland were prepared and Connolly decided to join forces with the Irish Volunteers. The rebellion was planned for Easter 1916. The week before, Connolly wired Carney to come to Dublin. On Easter Monday, she joined the garrison at the General Post Office in Dublin with the rank of adjutant. For a week, she helped Connolly to maintain contact with the other insurrectionary centers in Dublin, and when the order came to evacuate the Post Office because of heavy shelling she refused to leave because Connolly had been wounded. As the surrender was being discussed the following Saturday, she asked Connolly, "Is there no other way?" Connolly shook his head.

Of the 77 women arrested after the rebellion, only 6 were imprisoned for a long period and Carney was among them. She was distressed but not surprised when she heard that Connolly was executed on May 12. To the end of her life, she regarded her work with him as one of the high points of her career and was scathing about those of his successors who did not live up to his ideals. After her release from prison on Christmas 1916, colleagues in the ITGWU found her restless and impatient about the political future in Ireland. In 1917, she was the Belfast delegate at the Cumann na mBan convention and in 1918 was one of only two women nominated by the Sinn Fein party to contest the general election: Constance Markievicz was nominated for the St. Patrick's Division in Dublin and Winnie Carney was nominated for the Victoria Division of Belfast.

As the Victoria Division was predominantly unionist in political sympathies, Carney—a feminist, socialist republican—had little chance of winning, a view shared by many Sinn Fein party workers who gave her little help. She won only 395 votes, later writing that she was amazed to get even that many considering the minimal support she received. The experience confirmed her dissatisfaction with Sinn Fein as being too conservative in its social aims, and she returned to work for the ITGWU in Belfast. When the Irish civil war broke out in 1922, she supported the republican side and sheltered many republicans in her home, which led to police raids. Arrested in July 1922, she was released after three weeks and fined for possessing seditious papers. She continued to work for the ITGWU both in Belfast and Dublin until 1928.

In 1924, she joined the Northern Ireland Labor Party and was associated with the radical wing, which later became the Revolutionary Workers Groups. The party had members of both nationalist and unionist sympathies, and among the latter was George McBride, a textile engineer from a staunchly unionist, working-class background in Belfast, who was active in the labor movement. Despite their different backgrounds, Carney and McBride shared many socialist and cultural interests and in 1928 they married. Her marriage alienated many of her family and friends who could not understand why she married "an Orangeman" who was moreover ten years her junior. They lived in north Belfast where Winnie nursed her mother until her mother's death in 1933. She joined the Belfast Socialist Party in the 1930s but her health was poor, and Carney died in November 1943. Her grave remained unmarked as her family did not want McBride's name to appear on it.


Ward, Margaret. In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism. Dublin: Attic Press, 1995.

Woggon, Helga. "Silent Radical: Winnie Carney 1887–1943," in Labour History News. Vol. 1. Dublin, 1986.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland