Alice Ginnell joined Cumann na mBan’s London Branch in 1915 and later organised branches in Ireland. An active member of Sinn Féin, she was the Election Agent for Laurence Ginnell, her husband, during his successful campaign in the 1918 general election. She would subsequently play a vital role in his diplomatic activities on behalf of Dáil Éireann.
In the latest of our guest posts, we discuss Alice Ginnell’s activism between 1915 and 1923. Dr Anne Marie O’Brien takes up the story.
Alice King was born near Mullingar, County Westmeath in 1882 to James and Georgina King. On 30 January 1902 she married Laurence Ginnell who was thirty years her senior. Between 1906 and 1918 the Ginnell’s spent much of their time in London, on account of Laurence’s political career as an Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Westmeath North. Like her husband, Alice was active in political affairs and joined the London branch of Cumann na mBan after its establishment in 1915. Both Ginnells were in regular contact with Republican activists: Alice was a close friend of Constance Markievicz and Maud Gonne and on her return visits to Ireland she roomed with Constance Markievicz at her home in Rathmines.1
Both Laurence and Alice took a more active role in the independence struggle after the 1916 Easter Rising. Alice visited female Irish Republican prisoners in Lewes and Aylesbury Gaols under the pseudonym ‘Mrs Jones’. She collected letters and testimony from the prisoners about their treatment and forwarded them to Dublin. Recalling the period 1916-17, Helena Molony wrote to Ginnell: ‘We all of us realised the great risk you ran going from prison to prison to get information about the prisoners and the publication of that evidence was of great propagandist value to the Republic.’2
On her return to Ireland in 1917, Alice organised Cumann na mBan branches in Meath, Westmeath and Rathmines. Like many Cumann na mBan members, she was also a member of Sinn Féin. In April 1917 representatives from the leading women’s nationalist organisations, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Women Workers’ Union and Irish Citizen Army women, came together to form the League of Women Delegates which aimed to represent women’s political equality. The Sinn Féin executive was busily reorganising the party in this period and women were largely excluded from the deliberations so the League demanded a representation of six women to the Sinn Féin executive.
Alice Ginnell was elected secretary and in this capacity she wrote to the Sinn Féin National Council outlining that the organisation’s ‘claim [was] … based on the risks Irish women took, equally with men, to have the Irish republic established, on the necessity of having their organised co-operation in the further struggle to free Ireland, and the advantage of having their ideas on many social problems likely to arise in the near future’. It was initially rejected by Sinn Féin but the League redoubled its efforts in the lead up to the October 1917 Convention. On the eve of the Convention the organisation restyled itself Cumann na dTeachtaire. The resolution was passed to feminist delight and Kathleen Clarke, Áine Ceannt, Jennie Wyse Power, Kathleen Lynn, Helena Molony and Alice Ginnell were nominated to the Sinn Féin executive.3
The following year Laurence Ginnell ran as a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1918 general election for Westmeath. In this period Alice was active in Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan. In the final run up to the general election in December she was asked by Sinn Féin’s Director of Elections, James O’Mara, to travel to Westmeath to help candidates in that constituency, but ‘seeing the confusion that reigned there, she had to take on the position of Election Agent, the first woman in the British Isles to occupy that position.’4 Laurence was successfully elected for Co. Westmeath and took his seat in the nascent Dáil Éireann.
For much of 1919 Alice Ginnell remained actively involved in the republican movement. Laurence was arrested in May 1919 and March 1920. These imprisonments took a toll on his health. It was feared that he would not be able to withstand another incarceration so, upon medical advice, Laurence took sick leave from his position as Director of Propaganda. In July 1920 he and Alice set sail for the United States, via Canada, under the pseudonym’s Mr and Mrs Jones.
In Montreal they met Dáil Éireann representative Lindsay Crawford and ‘other friends’ attached to the independence struggle. Later in the month they travelled to Chicago, via New York, Washington (where they met with Eamon de Valera) and Cincinnati. There is little information on Alice’s activities in Chicago, much of her witness statement is concerned with her husband’s establishment of a Labour Bureau for Irish Independence. However, in December 1920 she travelled alone to New York and met with Harry Boland and the MacSwineys to ask Muriel if she would accompany her to Chicago to receive the freedom and hospitality of the city.
Exactly a year after setting sail for the United States, the Ginnells set sail for Argentina with the intention of commencing a speaking tour of South America. The Ginnells were well-received in Argentina and Alice assisted her husband in his public role: she gave and attended receptions with Irish-Argentineans and state officials, fostered contacts with the Irish religious community in Buenos Aires, and most importantly, managed the press and spoke to journalists about her husband’s role in South America. Ginnell describes her husband’s activities in Argentina in the plural, ‘we’ and ‘us’ are used repeatedly and it is clear that she did not view these activities as her husband’s alone, but as theirs – they were a diplomatic team.
Both Alice and Laurence opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and they returned from Argentina in April 1922. Laurence ran as an ‘anti-Treaty’ candidate in the general election of 1922 and Alice became his Election Agent for a second time. In October 1922 Alice returned to the US under the pseudonym Alice King, working for anti-Treaty republicans. She established a ‘Public Stenographer’ office on Madison Avenue, New York. Laurence followed in December and became the Anti-Treaty representative in Washington at the request of de Valera. Just four months later Laurence died suddenly on 17 April 1923 – the news was broken to Alice by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who was in the US at this time.
Alice remained in the US after Laurence’s death but returned to Ireland shortly after. She took a position as translator in the Department of Industry and Commerce and spent the last twenty years of her life living at 24 Clyde Road, Ballsbridge. She was granted a military service pension in 1956 for her membership of Cumann na mBan and for her services in the US and Argentina with her husband. Alice Ginnell died at the age of 86 on 2 August 1967 at Our Lady’s Nursing Home, Edgeworthstown.
1 - Paul Hughes, ‘The MP for Ireland: Laurence Ginnell and 1916’, available at RTÉ Century Ireland
2 - Helena Molony to Alice Ginnell, 4 February 1955, Bureau of Military History (hereafter BMH) Military Service Pensions Collection, Alice Ginnell file, MSP34REF61755, http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R7/MSP34REF61755%20Alice%20Ginnell/MSP34REF61755%20Alice%20Ginnell.pdf
3 - Senia Paseta, Irish Nationalist Women, 1900-1918, p. 226.
4 - Alice Ginnell witness statement, WS982, Bureau of Military History, p. 21.
Dr Anne Marie O’Brien is the author of The Ideal Diplomat? Women and Irish Foreign Affairs, 1946-90, published by Four Courts Press in July 1920. For more details on the book see https://www.fourcourtspress.ie/books/2020/the-ideal-diplomat/
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 05/11/2020