This week’s Decade of Centenaries blogpost is by Margaret Hogan, retired teacher of St Brendan’s Community School, Birr, and local historian.
Catherine Mahon is represented in most of the strands of the Decade of Centenaries: the labour movement, the women’s movement, the nationalist movement and even the implications of World War One for women teachers and agriculture. She became principal teacher at Carrig Mixed National School in Birr parish in 1892, and many of her friends and ex-pupils remembered the building of the nucleus of the present school by direct labour in 1911 and spoke about her activities during the Decade of Centenaries.
She was co-opted to the executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) in 1907 after she protested that the executive was all male in a majority female profession. Her ability was recognised, and she became first woman president of the INTO in 1912 for two years. Female teachers then had to work longer hours than male teachers, training girls in laundry, needlework and cookery, and often buying products at their own expense, even though their salaries were much lower than those of male teachers. Then a pregnant woman teacher was obliged to take three months’ leave and employ a substitute at her own expense, and this enraged ‘Miss Mahon’, as she came to be known. It was alleged that inspectors at the time operated ‘a reign of terror’, humiliating, fining, demoting and having teachers dismissed in an arbitrary way. The UK government set up the Dill Commission to investigate teachers’ conditions of work and it is agreed that Miss Mahon starred when she gave evidence at the inquiry, with able responses to stiff challenges.
During her presidency of the INTO, she must have met several prominent nationalist leaders in Dublin, and she swung into action in the nationalist cause. Having spoken publicly in Birr in defence of the leaders of the Easter Rising and on behalf of the National Aid Association for relief of dependants, she was tried by the National Board, reprimanded and narrowly escaped dismissal.
The pupils at Carrig school were marched across the road to the church to pray for those involved in the Easter Rising, as well as for hunger strikers Thomas Ashe and Terence McSwiney. When military formations were forbidden, Miss Mahon lined up the schoolchildren in military formation when she was informed the Black and Tans would pass by.
She joined the Birr Branch of Cumann na mBan and founded a branch in Carrig, as well as a branch of Sinn Féin. She also helped establish a parish court in Carrig, and organised fundraising for the Republican Loan Committee, according to her statement in the Military History Archives. She delivered lectures and training in First Aid at local venues, having qualified at a course in Coolrain, Co. Laois.
During the War of Independence, she provided shelter, beds and food to men on the run who could access her house through a side road into her garden and thence into her house by a back door which was kept open for them. Her house was raided several times, and even used blotting paper was confiscated on one occasion. During the Civil War, she supported the anti-Treaty side, and two local men, Bill King and Louis Doorley, were arrested in her house by Free State troops.
She spoke about the dignity and rights of labour and called for the release of political prisoners at a meeting of the Trades Council in Tullamore in January 1919, after which she was severely reprimanded, as she daringly described in a letter published in the Midland Tribune: ‘ I had a highly placed official down to demand an explanation of my attendance at that meeting … a crime sufficiently grave to set the Castle, the Education Office, the Inspectorate and the Constabulary in motion concerning me.’ Her public letter was to explain her non-attendance at a Labour demonstration in Edenderry. ‘Personally, I would not mind … but it is not fair to the Rev. Manager to have these officials swooping down on him.’ However, over a year later, she spoke to Tullamore Students’ Union on the reconstruction of society through equality, truth, honesty, Christian charity, more women in public life.
‘The Gaelic League aims at restoring, not only our National Language, but our National pastimes, our singing, dancing, hurling, and other games racy of the soil’, she declared at an Aeridheacht in Birr in May 1919.
The Carrig Strike was long remembered in the area. A decline in agricultural prices after World War One affected the income of farmers and the employment and pay of labourers. Some of Miss Mahon’s pupils were children of farmers, others of labourers. During a labourers’ strike there in 1919, Miss Mahon took the side of the labourers, antagonising the farmers and causing ‘much rancour’ in Carrig, according to witnesses whose farming parents withdrew from Carrig school and sent them to Birr schools. It may be of note that Miss Mahon’s father had been a labourer and she had been president of the INTO during the 1913 Lock-out.
She retired from teaching in 1934 and was elected to Tipperary NR County Council for the Fianna Fáil party, but she resigned and went to live in Balbriggan in 1937 where she died and was buried in 1948.
Speaking and writing with clear, well-developed, well-organised ideas on education, trade unionism, equality, temperance, women’s rights, Christianity, nationalism and Gaelic culture, she was greatly in demand as an inspirational speaker. Justice and equality were paramount issues for her, and she expressed her opinions fearlessly at a time when it was problematic for women to speak out and take initiatives. The radical suffragist Irish Citizen in 1912 reported that she was placed fourteenth in a proposed list of forty women suitable to be senators at some time in the future. She had ‘spent time, money, brains, energy and health in the Irish struggle for independence’ she declared in her application for a pension (refused) or a medal (granted) by the Military Service Pensions Board . (See Military Archives files 34SP54561 and MSP34REF52093)
She is commemorated by a storyboard in Carrig NS and by the publication of a book, Catherine Mahon: First President of the INTO by Síle Chuinneagáin (1998).
She was commemorated at INTO Headquarters at 36, Parnell Square, Dublin by the launch of the Catherine Mahon Room with her portrait by Tom Ryan, officially opened by President Mary McAleese on 3 April 1998.