Molony, Helena (1884–1967)

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Molony, Helena (1884–1967)

Irish nationalist and labor leader who strove to improve and protect the rights of women workers. Born in Dublin, Ireland, in January 1884; died in Dublin on January 28, 1967; never married; no children.

Little is known about Helena Molony's early years except that she was born in 1884 and brought up in Dublin. She was 19, "a young girl dreaming about Ireland" as she later recalled, when she heard Maud Gonne speak at a meeting in Dublin in 1903. Gonne had founded the women's organization Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900, and Molony joined in 1903, becoming involved in teaching, acting, and radical political activism. She also taught children's classes arranged by Inghinidhe in the Irish language, Irish history, dancing and singing, and subsequently started a campaign for school meals. "Our aim," she said, "was to have a school refectory where a child could eat in a civilized fashion." In 1908, Molony became editor of Bean na hEireann (The Irishwoman), the monthly paper of Inghinidhe. Through the newspaper, she met Countess Constance Markievicz and was credited with influencing her in the cause of Irish independence.

Inghinidhe had been involved in a number of drama productions with various Dublin companies in the first years of the century. In 1909, Molony was invited to join the Abbey Theatre company and worked with them, off and on, for several years. In 1911, following protests against the visit of King George V and Queen Mary of Teck to Dublin, in which Molony took a leading part, she was arrested and charged with high treason, a highly dramatic charge which was later reduced to the more prosaic one of "using language derogatory to His Majesty." Molony was furious at the reduction: "In my heart of hearts I felt degraded by such a miserable accusation." On her release from prison, she immediately made a speech which resulted in another brief spell of imprisonment. To her disgust, her fine was paid by Anna Parnell , founder of the Ladies' Land League in the early 1880s and sister of Charles Stewart Parnell, the disgraced Irish leader who had died in 1891.

Molony then left Ireland briefly but returned in 1912. In autumn 1913, while performing at the Abbey, she also became involved in the "Lock-Out," the great strike which saw thousands of Dublin workers, demanding better pay and conditions, locked out of their jobs by their employers. After the Lock-Out ended in defeat for the workers, the labor leader James Connolly asked Molony to help with the reorganization of the demoralized labor movement, and especially the women workers who had suffered particularly in the aftermath of the strike. She and Connolly revived the Workers' Cooperative, which helped women workers develop skills and markets for their goods. They also reorganized the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU), in which Molony had worked sporadically since 1911. She wrote later that she had "no experience or idea of any kind of organizing and it was really [Connolly] who did the work, coming with me to the various factory gates to try and enlist girls into the Union." She became secretary of the IWWU, which was based at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of Connolly's Irish Transport and General Workers' Union (ITGWU). She also worked on Connolly's various journals, including the Irish Worker which was suppressed by the authorities in 1914 following the outbreak of the First World War. At Connolly's request, Molony became the registered proprietor of its successor, Workers' Republic, which meant that she was legally responsible for any seditious material published in it, a risk she did not shirk.

In 1914, Molony joined the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann mBan (the League of Women), the women's auxiliary of the paramilitary Irish Volunteers which, following the outbreak of war, was soon planning a rebellion against British rule in Ireland. When the rebellion took place at Easter 1916, Molony was with the City Hall garrison, but the rebels surrendered after a week. Connolly was one of the leaders executed shortly afterwards. Molony, who was taken to Kilmainham Jail in Dublin, tried to tunnel out using a spoon before she and the other women prisoners were moved to England. Molony was one the last women prisoners to be released in December 1916. When Constance Markievicz was released the following year, Molony went to England to meet her.

After 1916, Helena Molony took an active role in the struggle for independence, continuing to work for Cumann na mBan and Sinn Fein. When civil war broke out in 1922, she took the side of those who opposed the terms of independence set out in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. After this, Molony's time was mainly devoted to labor activities. The IWWU had been reluctant to take sides in the civil war and stayed neutral. In 1929, Molony was elected to the executive of the Dublin Trades Council and the following year visited Russia as part of a DTC delegation. The visit aroused unfavorable comment within sections of the IWWU who objected to her "public connection with Communists." Molony was greatly respected throughout the trade union movement in Ireland and by more conservative political leaders such as Eamon de Valera, but her radical socialism was always viewed with considerable wariness by certain members of the IWWU.

In the 1930s, Molony was active on behalf of women laundry workers who had no guaranteed working week and who were paid hourly. She also played a prominent role in opposing the government's 1935 Conditions of Employment Bill, which she regarded as a blatant attempt to protect male employment by restricting the rights of women workers. The bill caused a serious split in the Irish labor movement. In 1937, she was elected president of the Irish Trade Union Congress, but ill-health led to her absence from union affairs in this and the following year. After her return to work, she had particular responsibility for laundry workers, nurses, the rosary bead industry and cleaners, but poor health again intervened, and she resigned in October 1941. On her death in 1967 de Valera, now president of Ireland, paid tribute to Molony. "She stood firmly for the rights of women and their political equality with men in our society. She was admired and beloved by those who knew her as a noble Irish woman who had deeply at heart the welfare of our nation and its people."


Fox, R.M. Rebel Irishwomen. Dublin: Talbot Press, 1935.

Irish Times. Dublin, January 30, 1967.

Jones, Mary. These Obstreperous Lassies: A History of the Irish Women Workers' Union. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1988.

Taillon, Ruth. When History was Made: The Women of 1916. Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 1996.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland