Close to the entrance of Milltown Cemetery is a limestone monument which marks the grave of a remarkable woman – Maria Winifred Carney. Winnie was born in Bangor, Co Down, but moved to the Falls Road in Belfast at an early age. She was born into a fairly comfortable family, and was one of seven children. Her mother and father Alfred and Sarah, were estranged, therefore, Sarah, was left to rear the family, with a small sweet shop for a time at No.5 Falls Road, where the Twin Spires complex stands today. By the early part of the 20th century as Winifred was in her early twenties, she and her mother were living at 2a Carlisle Circus. By this time in her life with a good education behind her and two secretarial jobs, she became involved with the Suffragette’s and then the socialist movement.
In 1912 she met James Connolly and became secretary of the Textile Workers’ Union, which was in practice in the women’s section of the Belfast branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (though officially part of the Irish Women Workers’ Union), for whom she drafted a manifesto, containing these words:
‘Many Belfast mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children. But while the world is deploring your conditions, they also unite in deploring your slavish and servile nature in submitting to them: they unite in wondering what material these Belfast women are made, who refuse to unite together and fight to better their conditions.’
Through a national progression of socialist trade union activity, she moved into republicanism, joining Belfast No.1 branch of Cumann na mBan in 1914. As one of the few outside the republican leadership, she knew well of the forthcoming rising due to her close working relationship with James Connolly. She became a part of his family, and became friends with his daughter Nora. He kept her informed of events during her visits to Belfast, and on 14 April 1916, he sent her a telegram instructing her to travel to Dublin immediately.
There, she found herself in Liberty Hall typing dispatches and mobilisation orders. Known as the Typist with the Webley, during the fighting she was the last of the women to leave the GPO. After Connolly became wounded, she refused to leave his side. This was despite direct orders from Pearse and Connolly. She had earlier taken the wounded Connolly’s final dictated orders. Carney, alongside Elizabeth O’Farell and Julia Gremen left the GPO with the rest of the rebels after their surrender.
After the Rising she was interned in Mountjoy Gaol along with Helena Moloney, Nell Ryan and Countess Markievicz. They were then transferred to Aylesbury Prison, England. These women tried to revoke their internee status with the privileges it brought so that they could be held as normal prisoners with Countess Markievicz. Their request was denied. They were finally released in December 1916.
She became involved in Sinn Féin, and even stood as a candidate for Central East Belfast in the elections of December 1918. But this was a period when the Irish Parliamentary Party in Belfast under Joe Devlin had the backing of the majority of Belfast Catholics. When the ‘troubles’ broke out in July 1920 in Belfast, she was once again active in Cumann na mBan working within the 1st Battalion of the Belfast Brigade, 3rd Northern Division (Her service number was 56077).
Following the Civil War, Winifred became disillusioned with politics in the new Free State, and was critical of subsequent governments including de Valera’s. She returned to her roots of socialism and labour politics. She even found time to marry a Protestant, George McBride from Crimea Street in the Shankill Road, while still remaining herself a Catholic, although critical of the church hierarchy. They set up home at No.3 Whitewell Parade on the outskirts of North Belfast. She slowly drifted from politics in the late thirties through a combination of health problems, and her friends moving to Dublin.
Winifred Carney died on 21 November 1943 a Socialist to the end. Her brother Ernest refused to have her grave marked so that the name McBride would not appear, a final protest at marrying a Protestant. However, many years later when the Belfast National Graves discovered the final resting place of this fine woman, a headstone was erected, and an oration by Belfast Republican Liam Rice.
Photo: Winifred Carney colourised by My Colorful Past