Maggie Forsyth was born in the year 1896 – the year James Connolly organised a ‘Jubilee’ procession through the streets of Dublin. A big black coffin carried the words ‘British Empire’ and it was thrown into the River Liffey as a protest against the continued presence of the British in Ireland. Connolly was well known as a Trade Union activist. Later, as one of the leaders of the 1916 Eastern Rebellion in Dublin, he was executed by the British. The coffin incident, needless to say started a mini riot and Connolly was arrested. Queen Victoria would not have approved. She would also not have approved of one of her most beautiful subjects, once presented at court, and now an inspiration for the revolutionary women of Ireland, the Lady Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markievicz.
Maggie Forsyth was not easily impressed by anyone but the Countess made a big impact on her life. At the age of nineteen Maggie already possessed a strong sense of self-reliance and a feeling of self-worth that was derived from having had a tough life and a robustly optimistic approach to the challenges she had already faced. In her family history, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee was marked by the death of her mother in a Glasgow tenement. She had previously married a sea captain from Partick near Glasgow, Thomas Forsyth. Captain Tam, a good God fearing man who fell in love with Maggie’s mum when he bumped into her as she hurried to work in one of the big houses on the Great Western Road. She had literally crashed into him in her haste. It was six in the morning and the early summer light reflected off the most wonderful wavy red hair that Tam Forsyth had ever seen. They had both expressed their apologies and separated as quickly as they had come together. Tam lingered for a little while, remembering the red hair and the most beautiful face he had ever seen. As he turned away he was already planning to be at the same street corner a little earlier the next morning.
They got to know each other very quickly and as their love grew the question of marriage was raised. It was only then that they realised the significance of the differences in their religious upbringing. Margaret Kearney was an Irish Catholic and Tam was reared within a strong Scottish Presbyterian tradition. Against the wishes of many members of both families they were wed and set up home in a tenement not far from where they met. It was convenient for both to get to work. When Margaret became pregnant there was great joy and hope for the future that certain hardened hearts would be softened once the child was born. The pregnancy was a happy healthy time for Margaret and Tam and the baby, Maggie, arrived into the world bawling loudly. Their feelings of happiness and euphoria were not to last, for during the night Margaret suffered a seizure and despite the attentions of the doctor, whom Tam had hastily summoned, she died only hours after giving life to her child.
Captain Thomas Forsyth stood beside the bed of his dead wife and wept bitter and despairing tears. At the urging of friends and neighbours he found the energy to organise Margaret’s funeral and a wet nurse for his baby daughter. Exhausted by this effort, for days and weeks after the funeral, he sat alone in the bedroom he and Margaret had shared for so brief a time.
Despite her father’s despair and neglect of her, baby Maggie thrived and grew rapidly beyond the stage of needing the wet nurse. At this point Tam realised that something would have to be done about the child. Neighbours and friends were good and helped as much as they could but they weren’t able to be with Maggie all day when Tam was at work. Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly Tam decided that even though she was his strongest connection to his beloved Margaret, Maggie’s best hope for the future would be for him to take her to her mother’s family in Belfast.
The Kearneys were very happy to take responsibility for the child and she grew up surrounded by the love of grandparents, aunts, uncles and many, many cousins.
Tam visited rarely as he now spent most of his life at sea, to which he had returned after his wife’s death. When Maggie thought of him she remembered a kindly man who seemed weighed down by a great burden of sadness. At ten years of age, word reached Maggie and her grandparents that her father had been lost at sea, along with his crew and ship somewhere in the stormy North Atlantic.
And so Maggie grew up with her mother’s family in the Markets area of Belfast which was considered by many to be a Catholic and Nationalist stronghold. Within her immediate family she was also encouraged to remember that she was also from the Scottish Presbyterian tradition.
In Maggie’s nineteeth year, December 1915 was a very tense time in Belfast. Countess Markievicz secretly visited the city to recruit and organise the Nationalist women into the Cumann na Bhan, the female wing of the Irish Republican Army.
The Countess had been born into a well-known Anglo Irish family the Gore-Booths of Lissadell House in County Sligo. She was the elder daughter of the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth. He was a model landlord with a deep concern for the poor, providing free food for them during the worst years of the famine in Ireland. His daughters, Lady Constance and Lady Eva, grew up to share his concern for the poor and the dispossessed. Eva became involved in the labour movement and women’s suffrage in England whilst Constance, married to a Polish nobleman Count Kazimierz Dunin-Markievicz, gradually became involved in nationalist politics in Ireland.
In 1909 the Countess founded na Fianna Eireann, a para-military nationalist scouts organisation for teenage boys and girls. In 1911 she was jailed for the first time for speaking at an Irish Republican Brotherhood rally to protest at the visit to Ireland of King George V. At the same time she also joined the Irish Citizen Army, a small volunteer force formed by James Connolly to defend demonstrating workers from the police. Women played active roles within the Citizen Army and the Countess knew how vital the contribution would be from women when the revolution began to end British Rule in Ireland. It wasn’t just about rolling bandages and coat trailing behind the men. Women, like Constance herself, would play a key and active role in the revolution. Plans were being laid in Dublin to challenge the might of the British Empire and achieve independence for Ireland.
The Nationalist population of Belfast had a role to play and so the Countess travelled to the city to recruit young women, and men, to the cause of the revolution.
Maggie, with a group of other young women from the Markets area, was listening intently to the strong cultured voice of the Countess, who was a powerful and engaging public speaker. She was dressed in the uniform of the Citizens Army and very daringly for a woman at that time, was wearing a holstered gun. A bandoleer was strapped across her chest and she made quite an impression standing on top of a cart with a couple of men in front of her holding aloft flaming torches.
Young John Farrell had been posted as lookout at the bottom of the street. He never saw the blow coming which extinguished his short life. As his blood pooled across the black cobble stones a Loyalist mob quickly filled the street intent on committing more murders. There seemed to be hundreds of them and it was Maggie Forsyth’s quick thinking which saved the Countess. As the mob swarmed into the street Maggie realised that the Countess was in grave danger. She ran into the middle of the street, adopted a crouching position, raised her arm with her two hands pointing what appeared to be a gun at the Loyalist mob and yelled,
‘I’ll shoot the first six of you if you move another step forward!’
The mob hesitated. They stood there waiting to see which of their crowd was brave enough to challenge the young woman resolutely facing them. Cudgels were no match for a firearm. As they stood, considering their next move, the Countess was whisked away by her minders to a safe house. The Nationalist crowd who had been listening to the Countess’s speech now moved closer to support Maggie, which helped to steady her nerves. Suddenly a door to the left of Maggie was opened and someone shouted
‘Quick. In here!’
Maggie didn’t hesitate, she dived for the door and it was slammed shut behind her. The crowd that had been supporting Maggie scattered down the street with the Loyalist mob pursuing them with screams of ‘Kill the Fenians!’ They smashed windows and tried to break down doors in their rampage. Suddenly sirens sounded and into the street lumbered three armoured police tenders. The senior officer, using a loud hailer, literally “reading the riot act”, instructed the mob to disperse or be fired upon. The mob quickly responded by throwing away their cudgels and slouching off in the direction of the nearest Loyalist area. As they walked past the vehicles one of the police officers called out, ‘You didn’t get her then?’
There was no reply.
Later, when the stories of the event were being retold, the conclusion of many was that the whole incident was a set-up. It was obvious that the authorities had hoped the mob would do the work of ridding Ireland of one of its most formidable women, Countess Markievicz. Needless to say, no arrests were made and no-one was charged with the murder of young John Farrell.
When the Countess reflected later on what might have been, she asked to meet the young woman who had given her the chance to escape. On meeting Maggie she was very impressed by her quiet confidence and asked where she had got her military training? Maggie had smiled at the Countess,
‘I’ve never had any. The thing is I didn’t have a real weapon.’
‘You took a chance doing what you did. Were you not afraid?’ the Countess asked her.
‘There wasn’t time. I just thought the lighting in the street was very poor and the mob had about fifty yards to get to you. So if I took up a firing position they just might be fooled long enough to allow you to get away. It was easy. I just copied what some of the police do to frighten our friends and neighbours when they are patrolling our area. It’s very intimidating. A mob is just a mob with no real leaders. They generally don’t have the guts to carry something out when faced with a greater threat. But, as I say, the bad street lighting helped.’
‘Well it was incredibly brave what you did and I thank you. Young lady you are the kind of woman we want in the Cumann na Bhan I think it is time you had some proper training, if you’re willing?’
‘Indeed Countess I’m prepared to do what’s necessary.’
‘Good. Well, to start your journey I wish to give you something as a token of my thanks.’
With that the Countess took off her Bandoleer and placed it over Maggie’s head to rest on her left shoulder.
‘Wear this with pride but always remember there is more to winning a war than just using guns and bullets. The courage, cool head and quick thinking that you have already shown may count for more in the long run.’
Maggie stepped forward and hugged the Countess.
In January 1916 Maggie travelled by train to Dublin and made contact with the Irish Citizen Army. The story of how she had saved the Countess had preceded her with certain embellishments which made Connie’s standing amongst the volunteers very special. They had moved secretly out of Dublin to the Wicklow Mountains where proper military training could take place, under the eye of two tough Corkmen who previously served with the British army.
Weapons were in short supply and many volunteers carried makeshift wooden mock-ups or simply a hurley stick. Maggie was handed a Lee Enfield rifle, bolt operated and very accurate in the right hands. One of the volunteers from the north side of Dublin, Paddy Houlihan, took exception to Maggie being give the rifle and sneeringly implied that all ‘wimmin’ were good for was running messages, rolling bandages and keeping a man’s bed warm at night’.
One of the Corkmen put him firmly in his place,
‘Houlihan. When you have proved yourself, even a little, perhaps we’ll trust you to carry a proper weapon. Maggie has won the Bandoleer and with it the right to have a weapon, a weapon to use the bullets she now carries in the pouches of her bandoleer.’
Maggie had ignored the remark, simply flashing the Dubliner a scathing look. She made up her mind there and then that her understanding and still more, the use of this weapon, would equal if not surpass any loud-mouthed Dublin oaf.
Weapons being so few, and precious, Maggie was first taught the rudiments of how to look after hers. She quickly learned how to take it apart, oil and put it back together again and, with practice, she knew she could do this with her eyes closed. She relished the physical exercise of running at speed over heather and rocks, dropping to a firing position, controlling her breathing and firing at a target chosen by one of the Corkmen. Maggie quickly became an excellent shot and it was her calmness under fire which in later skirmishes would benefit all of those around her and ensure that she was certain to achieve her objective.
However, as the training progressed in the open country it became clear to Maggie that this kind of operation wouldn’t work in Belfast. Whilst the theory was discussed Maggie had suggested that they should try and at least simulate an urban environment. Heather and rocks wouldn’t be replicated in her city’s neighbourhoods. Her request was always met with, ‘Impossible. We need to keep what we are doing a secret and anyway the towns are patrolled by both the police and English army units.’
Maggie was persistent, even stubborn and wouldn’t let the matter drop. As the training was coming to an end she had one last go at persuading the Corkmen. A decision was taken that they would use the town of Rathdrum for the final phase of their training.
A light flurry of snow was beginning to descend on the slopes of local mountain Lugnaguillia as they moved to infiltrate the town. The police barracks was in the centre of the town and the first objective was to ensure that the men within it were rendered powerless.
A team of four volunteers was dispatched to gain access to the barracks and hold the policemen captive for two hours. During this time the remainder of the Company would practise street manoeuvres and simulate the action of street fighting.
Two of the volunteers created a scene outside the barracks by smashing an empty bottle on the ground and then pretending to argue over this, loudly bemoaning the loss of the whiskey. As the pushing and shoving was getting close to a fist fight, an officer who had been shouting at them to ‘be quiet and stop disturbing the peace’ stepped out to break it up. At that the two remaining volunteers moved alongside him,
‘Quietly now, step back into the barracks.’
The remaining officers were sitting playing cards at a table,
‘Well done Timmy, you sorted those boys out.’
They turned in their chairs to see three guns levelled at them.
‘No trouble now. You’ll be alright. We just want to borrow your fine building for a while and if you behave you won’t even get a crack on your thick skulls. Tie them to the chairs. We’ll also take these fine weapons. You won’t be needing them in the future.’
Everything was going well and by two in the morning Maggie and the other volunteers were getting the feel for moving through streets and covering each other. The Corkmen were about to call an end to the manoeuvres when the sound of a lorry was heard coming from the south of the town. ‘A long way to Tipperary’ was being song by loud English voices, clearly a troop of soldiers coming back from a night out in Arklow.
None of the volunteers had previously been aware of the presence of soldiers in the town. The Corkmen were disgusted with the so-called intelligence that they had been given. The soldiers had, in fact, been dispatched from Dublin just two days before when word had reached the military authorities at Dublin Castle that Republican exercises were taking place in the vicinity. As the lorry approached Maggie took off the Bandoleer and handing it and her rifle to one of the Corkmen said,
‘If I stop the lorry, can you surround it and capture it. The only sober one might be the driver.’
‘What do you mean? What are you planning to do?’
With that she took off her jacket and started to unbutton the top of her blouse. Calmly she stepped out to the side of the street. Maggie cut quite a figure in the headlights of the lorry. The driver slammed on the brakes, rolled the window down,
‘Well darling, you’re a sight for sore eyes. You’ll catch your death of cold. Climb up here where I can keep you warm.’
He opened the door of the cab and at that two of the volunteers stepped forward, guns raised, and ordered,
At the same time, the other volunteers were at the back of the truck lifting the tarpaulin. The soldiers soon stopped their singing when a loud Cork voice interrupted them,
‘Now lads, it’s too late at night or early in the morning for that kind of singing. We’re commandeering this wagon, so out you come. Leave your weapons on the floor, any false move and my volunteers will shoot.’
The disarmed, and very drunk, soldiers were lined up on the side of the road as Maggie put her jacket and Bandoleer back on. The Corkman continued,
‘So, my brave boys you’ve been sent over here to keep us poor Irish quiet and subdued. I could ask, if you’re so brave why are you not dying with the rest of your comrades in the Flanders Fields?’
No one answered.
‘Perhaps you think the Irish are an easier option. Well I can tell you that the time is coming, when you’re going to earn your shilling. Now don’t worry nothing’s going to happen to you, yet. Just take off your jackets and boots and throw them in the back of the lorry. Since the good folk of Arklow like your company, there’s the road back. Now be off with you.’
The soldiers filed along the road and headed back in the direction they had come from. Maggie and her comrades watched smiling. As the soldiers got further down the road the driver turned and shouted,
‘You bastards, we’ll get you and as for that Irish whore, I’ll make sure she gets what’s coming to her.’
The Volunteers burst out laughing and piled into the back of the lorry, picked up the rest of the team from the barracks and headed back to Dublin by the minor roads. They got rid of the lorry before entering Dublin, hiding it with a sympathiser, so that it could be used again if required at a later date. Before they went their separate ways the Corkmen lined them up in military formation – in what now looked like a very professional group of volunteers.
‘Comrades, you have done well, but as you know, this is only the beginning, take what you have learned back to your own people and teach and train them so that when the time arrives, and it may be soon, you will be as ready to answer the call. Good luck and God bless Ireland.’
There were hugs and handshakes all round and even Houlihan shook Maggie’s hand and wished her luck adding,
‘I take back everything I said, if I’m ever in a tight spot I hope there’s someone like you by my side. Look after yourself Maggie.’
Back in the Markets, a few days later, it was difficult to put into practice all she had learned. Some of the men were suspicious and obviously quite jealous of her experience, but the women hung on her every word. Talk of the revolution or Rising was beginning to filter through to the Republican leaders in Belfast. People were beginning to feel that this time British rule in Ireland would end. Whispered conversations took place in the Nationalist areas of the city that things were about to happen and as Easter approached there was a heightened sense of anticipation.
Finally, on Easter Monday, word was received that Dublin was in flames and the IRA had taken on the British Army. There was no clear plan for what was supposed to happen elsewhere on the island of Ireland. When news did come it was to say that the Rising was over. After a couple of days fighting the leaders had been killed or arrested, thrown into prison and the people of Dublin had turned against them.
Maggie was overwhelmed by a wave of hopelessness and then anger. What was the point of it all? Building up their hopes and not even getting a chance to take part in the Rising. She had gone up stairs and lifted part of the floor boards where she had hidden her precious Bandoleer and the Lee Enfield rifle that she had brought back with her from Wicklow. She sat on the edge of the bed with the Bandoleer across her lap and wept. She wept at the sacrifices that had been made. It all seemed so futile now. She wept for the leaders and in particular the beautiful Countess and prayed that God would keep her safe.