The girl’s branch of Na Fianna Eireann was called the Betsy Gray Sluagh.
The above photograph features some prominent members of that unique branch of the National Scouting organisation. They are as follows: Lily (Kempson) McAlerney (front centre), Marie McKeown, Aideen Ward, Kitty Shells, Ina Connolly and Alice Kavanagh.
The Betsy Gray Sluagh met weekly at St Mary’s Hall, and later at the McGuinness buildings in Berry Street on Tuesday nights.
This branch formed in 1911 and was the first, and subsequently, the only female branch of the Fianna in Ireland. It had only about 20 members initially but rose to about 50 girls at its height. Ina (shown above) and Nora Connolly were senior officers in the Sluagh; Annie O’Boyle was its first O/C.
The girls from Betsy Gray Sluagh attended the national Fianna Ard Fheis in 1912, 1913 and 1914. Their first appearance at the national convention in 1912 caused a bit of controversy amongst their male counterparts in Dublin and prompted a heated debate amongst delegates on whether girls be admitted to the organisation.
Nora Connolly-O’Brien later recalled those years in her 1949 witness statement to the Bureau of Military History:
“The Fianna had the only girls’ branch in Ireland in Belfast. My sister, Ina, and I joined the Fianna – the ‘Betsy Gray’ Sluagh. We came down to the Fianna Convention every year in Dublin. There was always a big Belfast contingent. We always wore our uniform. The girls had the uniform, as well as the boys; we had green linen shirts instead of their hopsack shirts. Great numbers came from Belfast. It was usually held in July; and July was the time they had holidays in Belfast. A lot would come down to attend the Convention, and later go camping with the boys. The girls were usually under Madame Markievicz’ charge, when we came down here.”
Nora’s sister Ina also recounted her time in the Betsy Gray Sluagh:
“Shortly after we arrived [in Belfast], I got to hear about Na Fianna Eireann who used to meet and drill in St. Mary’s Hall. I went down there one evening by myself and joined as a member. The entrance fee was nominal, a couple of pence a week. Joseph Robinson – a brother of Seamus – both of them were afterwards very prominent in the independence movement – was one of the people in charge of the Fianna. Sean Kenny, now a solicitor in Belfast, was the drill master. Cathal O’Shannon used to lecture and give lessons in the Irish language .
It was at St. Mary’s Hall that the Gaelic League also met and gave the Irish classes. My father used to take us to céilidh there. We learned drilling, Irish dancing, Irish history, Irish language and first aid. At the weekend we used to march and parade up to Sean’s Park at Whiterock Road. All the Labour supporters, as well as Nationalists, used to march there on Sundays.
I was appointed secretary to the Betsy Gray Sluagh of the Fianna which was named after a heroine in the north in the struggle of ’98. Our headquarters were old wooden army huts that had been built long years before to house soldiers who kept the peace, as they called it, when there was much rioting in Belfast. To the huts came many prominent people to enlighten us on aspects of the fight for Irish freedom. My father, though in full sympathy, had not joined the National Movement. It was through the Fianna that he met those noble young souls, Liam Mellows, Sean Heuston and Con Colbert, who later sacrificed their young lives for Ireland. Liam Mellows, in particular, became firmly attached to my father and family. Here, too, I met Eamon Martin who, in troubled times, out of sincere admiration for my father, became a firm friend of the family. My father would come, when his work permitted, to our plays and lectures.”
The Betsy Gray Sluagh remained in operation until about 1915 when most of the girls joined Cumann na mBan.
Photograph source: The National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks and http://lily1916.com/
Research and text by Eamon Murphy.