Although another has long since staked its claim, Wexford, located in the south-east corner of Ireland, has a legitimate entitlement to be regarded as the true ‘Rebel County’.
Even a hurried review of Irish history will reveal Wexford’s central role in the bloody 1798 Rebellion against British rule, when the rebels enjoyed several hard-fought victories before ultimately succumbing at Vinegar Hill after 25 days of fighting.
It is perhaps less well-known that one of Wexford’s main towns, Enniscorthy, was one of the few places outside of Dublin, along with Ashbourne and Galway, to stage its own Rising at Easter 1916.
In order to command the railway route to Dublin from the ports at Rosslare and Waterford, it was felt that Enniscorthy would be a strategic military location for the Rising. However, but for the efforts of one man to cycle from Dublin to Enniscorthy, the town very nearly joined the list of other locations around the country whose own planned Risings never materialised due to the contradictory messages coming from the capital.
That 200km bike ride by Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) man, Paul Galligan, was the difference between Enniscorthy Rising, and remaining in a state of confusion. Galligan had travelled to Dublin on Easter Saturday in an attempt to confirm what the leaders were planning. But it was only after speaking directly with Connolly, Pearse and Plunkett on Tuesday at the GPO - when Connolly advised him to return to Wexford as quickly as possible and mobilise the troops - that Galligan started out on his journey. He eventually arrived in Enniscorthy late on Wednesday evening and delivered the message.
The rebels took over a building called The Athenaeum in the centre of town early on Thursday morning and used it as their headquarters. They raised the Irish flag over the same building and posted The Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the door of the Market House. The Enniscorthy Rising had begun and it was to last until Monday, May 1st. Enniscorthy was therefore the last place to rise in 1916, and the last to formally surrender.
One of the first women to arrive at The Athenaeum in Enniscorthy that Thursday morning, and assist with the raising of the Tricolour, was my great aunt, 21-year-old Margaret Williams from the village of Taghmon. Margaret, better known as Gretta (or Greta), was living in Enniscorthy at the time working as a confectioner at McCarthy’s Restaurant. She was also a member of the local branch of Cumann na mBan, an all-woman movement formed in 1914 to advance the cause of Irish liberty.
But she wasn’t the only Taghmon native in Enniscorthy that day; neither was she the only Williams. Her sister, Mary, known as Mai, was working with her at the same restaurant and, though just 19, was as determined as her elder sibling to support the Volunteers wherever and however she could.
Gretta was the second eldest of a family of 10, and the eldest girl. Mai was next and arrived two years later in 1896. Their parents, Laurence and Kate, moved to Taghmon - a village nine miles west of Wexford town - from Kilkenny in approximately 1894 and set up a shop and bakery business on the main street. Kate was originally from Castlecomer and met Lar, a Wexford town man, when he was working as a baker in the area.
Lar and Kate worked hard to make a success of their business, but they were trying times. The fact that the Williams family was one of the few ‘Irish-minded’ in the village at the time didn’t help matters. At that time, Taghmon was largely in favour of British rule and became even more anglicised when large numbers joined the British Army during the recruitment drives for the First World War. The Williams family, and the views they held, would not have been popular, especially when Gretta and Mai, and later their younger brother, Tommy (my grandfather), became involved in Republican activities.
As the eldest daughter of a baker, it was no surprise that Gretta turned her hand to confectionary. She had already acquired a talent for decorating cakes and this is what led her to Enniscorthy and her job at McCarthy’s. She had declared her Republican intentions a few years earlier by joining the Gaelic League and as she told a journalist in America many years later, it was with this organisation that her rebel days began.
“There had always been discontent over the British, but between 1914 and 1916 a real storm began to gather. The Gaelic League was originally formed to create an interest in the Gaelic language and customs but we soon became interested in other chores.”
On arrival in Enniscorthy, she became a member of Cumann na mBan, and it was alongside these women she served during the Rising.
Up to very recently, Gretta’s role in Easter 1916 was not entirely clear. That changed when the Military Service Pensions Collection - part of the Ireland’s military archives - was released on a phased basis in the run up to Easter Week, 2016 as part of the Rising Commemorations.
Contained among thousands of archived files are all the records and documentation relating to Gretta Crosby’s (nee Williams) application for a service pension, which she received, deservedly, in 1942.
In her initial application, Gretta outlined her work during Easter Week, describing her activities as ‘intelligence work, outpost duty, dispatch work, first aid and commandeering and cooking food’.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her involvement, however, is her claim that she assisted in the raising of the Tricolour over The Athenaeum on the Thursday morning, along with a number of other Volunteers.
It was later in her pension application, in a handwritten letter, that Gretta explains in more detail her role during the five days of the rebellion: “When the call came Easter Week, I was one of the first members to appear at The Athenaeum…which was taken over by members of Cumann na mBan and Volunteers as headquarters and [I] assisted a Volunteer (if I remember correctly the name of the Volunteer was either Liam O’Leary or Seamus Doyle) in raising the Republican flag over the building.”
In a later letter, Gretta recalls that as the flag was being raised, “one of the boys remarked, ‘we will make history’”.
She continues: “I worked day and night getting very little sleep, taking in supplies of commandeered food etc. In fact, I went out and commandeered food with another member and prepared beds and cooked for the boys. [I] also did lots of dispatch work and gave my sister, Mai, who was on duty too, rifles to take somewhere; I cannot remember details.”
The latter note may refer to the Mai’s own account of helping to get a despatch to Sean Sinnott in Skeeter Park, a location about 17 miles south of Enniscorthy and six miles west of Wexford Town. Sean Sinnott was Commandant of the Wexford town battalion of the Volunteers, and Vice Commandant of the South Wexford Brigade.
Gretta continues: “I supplied first aid when needed. One Volunteer whose name I remember was Philip Murphy to whom I applied first aid … was wounded in [the] chest in a battle with the RIC (the Royal Irish Constabulary).”
Gretta says that she was sent to Ferns police barracks in the latter part of Easter Week to assist the Volunteers who had been stationed there. It was decided by the commanding officers to establish a strong outpost at Ferns on Saturday morning (April 29th), on the assumption that it would act as a bulwark and take the first onslaught of the enemy; thereby giving the troops at Enniscorthy sufficient warning to prepare their own defence.
When the surrender came in Enniscorthy, Gretta returned as ordered to The Athenaeum, where she “helped to hide everything of value” and worked to prevent the arrest of some of the Volunteers by hiding them when possible.
Mai became active in Republican circles from a young age and, like Gretta, went to work at McCarthy’s and joined the local Cumann na mBan. In a document to be found in the military archives, Mai (as May) is listed as a member of the Enniscorthy branch of Cumann na mBan in 1916, along with Gretta (as Greta). In another list, for those who served during Easter Week, she is listed as 'Ciss (or Cis) Williams'. As her address is Taghmon and she is listed beside Gretta, this can only be Mai, but why her name was recorded as 'Ciss' remains a mystery. One can only speculate that Gretta perhaps referred to Mai as 'Sis' and this was incorrectly recalled as her name by those who wrote up the list over 20 years later.
Mai was almost 20 years old at the time of the Rising.
In the Williams family history, researched and authored by my father (and Mai and Gretta’s nephew), Tom, it is recorded that Mai was one of those who raised the Tricolour in Enniscorthy. Although there doesn’t seem to exist any written record of this, it is conceivable that Mai was at least present at the time, given she was involved in Republican activities and was working (and presumably living) with Gretta.
In an interview with her nephew a short time before she died, Mai recalled her role in the aforementioned despatch to Skeeter Park. She said she was driven by a Volunteer called Paddy O’Leary and because the soldiers were everywhere, she remembered that they had to travel through Bree, which would have taken them well out of their way.
The Rising ended in Enniscorthy on Monday, May 1st, and though not insignificant, those few days and the weeks preceding it were just the beginning of Gretta and Mai’s involvement in the fight for Irish independence.
Gretta remained an active member of the Enniscorthy Cumann na mBan branch for the remainder of 1916 and through 1917, until she returned to Taghmon in early 1918. There, she was made captain of ‘D Company’ of the Taghmon and Glynn branch of Cumann na mBan. Mai emigrated to England and continued her involvement there, and later, on her return to Taghmon.
The years after the Rising were full of adventure – and danger. The stories are plentiful and include tales of hiding Republicans amongst the ovens in the bakery; late-night clandestine meetings to plot attacks on British forces; plucking shotgun pellets by candlelight from the scarred backs of local Volunteers; meeting Countess Markievicz in an English jail; Tommy being chased and fired upon by Free State soldiers in an armoured car; and the sisters’ spying and intelligence work which allowed for, amongst many things, an attack on a group of ‘Black and Tans’ as they swam in the local quarry.
But these are all stories for another day…
Gretta emigrated to the USA in 1922. Five years later, she married Richard (Dick) Crosbie of Stoneen, Clongeen, County Wexford, in Old Orchard Beach in Maine, where the couple ultimately settled down. The officials at US immigration misspelled the name as ‘Crosby’ when the couple were entering the country. The Crosby family have used that spelling ever since.
Gretta and Dick worked very hard through the depression years to keep their family together. Gretta set up a bakery in the kitchen of her home and began to bake. Dick bought his wife a ‘regular’ bakery oven, and not long after that, they made the ground floor apartment into a bakery. They called it ‘The Victoria’. The couple survived, prospered and had seven children: Richard (Dick), Brendan, Francis, Margaret, Earl, Lawrence, and John, who died as a baby.
Gretta’s service to her country was recognised by the Irish State later in life when she received her military pension and two medals from the President of Ireland; one for her service during 1916, and another for her service from 1917 until the start of end of The War of Independence.
Gretta Crosby (nee Williams) died in Maine, USA, on July 26th, 1971. She was 75.
Gretta’s patriotic values undoubtedly rubbed off on her children. Dick, Brendan and Francis all served with the US Army. The three brothers, and Dick’s son Michael, have visited their Williams and Crosby relatives in Wexford on a number of occasions down through the years. Earl, Lawrence, Dick and Brendan have all sadly passed on, but the Crosby name, and Gretta’s legacy, lives on among her many descendants in the US to this day, from Sarasota, Florida, to Seneca Falls, New York, and down to Virginia and beyond.
Not long after The Civil War ended, Mai married Seán McLoughlin of Horetown, Wexford, in 1925. The couple emigrated to Argentina, but tragedy befell them when Sean suffered two strokes and died in 1929 at just 42 years of age. The determined Mai, left all alone in a foreign country, mastered the Spanish language and obtained a job in the National City Bank of New York and then in the Union Telegraph Company in Buenos Aires.
She returned to Ireland in 1935 and married Eddie O’Rourke the following year. Eddie had been bereaved by his first wife, Mary McLoughlin, who was a sister of Mai’s late husband, Seán. Consequently, where she was once aunt-by-marriage to Eddie and Mary’s three children - Statia, May and Ted – she now became their stepmother.
Mai worked and lived the rest of her days in Wexford and died on the 13th of July, 1981 aged 85.
It is perhaps only in recent times that the role of the women of Cumann na mBan during the Irish revolutionary years is being truly recognised. Their role in helping to achieve Irish independence was, for many years, almost forgotten.
It is a shame that they had to fight to justify their involvement in the first instance against some who felt they were merely "slave women" and others who accused them of being "handmaidens" to the Irish Volunteers.
In a stout defence of her colleagues, founding member Mary Colum explained that Cumann na mBan had "decided to do any national work that came within the scope of our aims. We would collect money or arms, we would learn ambulance work, learn how to make haversacks and bandolier… we would practise the use of the rifle, we would make speeches, we would do everything that came in our way - for we are not the auxiliaries or the handmaidens or the camp followers of the Volunteers - we are their allies."
Words, no doubt, that would have sat well with Gretta and Mai Williams - the Rebel Sisters from Taghmon.
* Much credit for information in the above article must go to my late father, Tom - Gretta and Mai's nephew - who wrote the Williams family history and conducted an interview with Mai shortly before she died. Also a big thank-you to Dr. Michael Crosby - Gretta's grandson - for providing me with additional information and imagery.