Winifred Carney was born on the 4th of December 1887 in Bangor, County Down. She was the youngest of six children, three boys and three girls, born to Alfred and Sarah Carney. When Winnie was still a child her parents broke up and her mother moved the family to Belfast, eventually settling in Carlisle Circus.
Her older brothers Ernest and Louie emigrated to the United States to find work, and eldest brother Alfred spent many years working on ships as a steward. Her older sisters Maud and Mabel later left Belfast to join the nunhood. Her mother ran a sweet-shop on the Falls Road and Winifred found work as a teacher in her old school, Saint Patrick’s Christian Brothers’ School in Donegall Street, before later qualifying as a secretary and shorthand typist.
As a young woman, Winnie was hugely influenced by the cultural revival taking place around the country. She was especially interested in history, literature and music, learning to play the piano and to sing, and she also joined the Gaelic League and began to learn Irish.
In October 1911, Winifred helped her friend Marie Johnson form the Irish Textile Workers’ Union (ITWU) during the millworkers’ strike. The efforts to organise the mill-girls were being spearheaded by James Connolly, at that time the Belfast organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU).
A few months later Winnie decided to put her skills to use by becoming full-time Secretary of the Textile Workers’ Union. Though her pay was poor and irregular, she dedicated herself to the task of improving the lot of the millworkers of the city, whose own pay and working conditions were appalling. Connolly, in his address ‘to the Linen Slaves of Belfast’, described them:
“The conditions of your toil are unnecessarily hard, that your low wages do not enable you to procure sufficiently nourishing food for yourselves or your children, and that as a result of your hard work, combined with low wages, you are the easy victims of disease, and that your children never get a decent chance in life, but are handicapped in the race of life before they are born.”
Connolly went to Dublin in 1913 as the Great Lock-out began, and Winifred and her friend and comrade Nellie Gordon carried on his work with the union. Winnie began organising a fundraising campaign for the Dublin workers and their families, and as well as spending every day raising money she was also involved in organising accommodation and events for families who came to Belfast as the lock-out dragged on.
As well as being secretary of the ITWU, Carney also served as Connolly’s personal secretary. As part of her work she typed up most of his articles and other writings, and came to share his resolute socialist republican politics. After Cumann na mBan was established in April 1914, Winfried became one of its first members in Belfast. She taught first aid classes and was considered one of the branch’s best riflewomen, and they regularly competed against local units of the Irish Volunteers.
On the eve of the 1916 Rising, Carney arrived in Dublin and helped with the final preparations for the insurrection. On the 24th of April 1916, holding the rank of Adjutant in the Irish Citizen Army, Carney marched out of Liberty Hall with a contingent of republican soldiers towards the GPO, carrying her typewriter and a revolver. (She came to be popularly known as ‘the typist with the Webley’.)
Winnie was initially the only woman in the GPO. This changed as the days passed but with the tide turning against the insurgents and the GPO being reduced to rubble, the leaders made a decision to evacuate the building of women. She pointedly refused to leave and with two other Citizen Army women – Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell – stayed with her male comrades until they surrendered to British forces after a week of fierce fighting.
Around 80 women were brought to Richmond Barracks and then held in Kilmainham Gaol after the surrender. As the courts martial began, Constance Markievicz was initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment and she was transported to Aylesbury Prison in England. Winnie later recounted her experiences as the executions began:
“In the early morning of May 3 I am awakened by the sound of firing and, in the after stillness, a low clear voice gives the order to quick march. They must be below our cell window... My heart sinks for I know the first of the executions has begun... But for many mornings to come we shall awake to that close noise of rifle firing and the crisp voice of the officer in command.”
Most of the female detainees were released by May 9, but Winifred and four others were held longer before being deported and interned in Aylesbury Prison. They were segregated from their friend and comrade Markievicz. Two of the women were released before long but Winnie was held with Helena Molony and Nell Ryan until Christmas Eve 1916, when they were released as part of the general amnesty of internees. They had previously been offered early release if they would sign an undertaking ‘not to engage in any act of a seditious character’. They had refused.
Winifred returned to Belfast and was impatient to rededicate herself to the socialist and republican struggles. She was elected president of the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan and nominated as their delegate to the national convention in October 1917. Republican women pushed for Carney to be a Sinn Féin candidate in 1918 general election, a move that was supported by grassroots members of the ITGWU in Belfast.
Carney was the only female Sinn Féin candidate aside from Markievicz, and she stood in Belfast’s Victoria ward on an unequivocal Workers’ Republican platform. The constituency was considered hopeless by the organisation, and little effort was put into supporting Carney’s campaign. She wrote afterwards to a friend:
“I was disappointed losing the £150 in my case, which would with workers on the day of the poll have been recovered. I had neither personation agents, Committee rooms, canvassers or vehicles, and as these are the chief features in an election, it was amazing to me to find that 395 people went to the ballot on their own initiative, without any persuasion.”
Winnie continued working for the ITGWU in Belfast and she also joined the revived (but short-lived) Socialist Party of Ireland, under the leadership of Roddy Connolly. She worked for the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund and served as its Secretary from 1920 to 1922. Her home in Carlisle Circus, where she continued to look after her aging mother, was always open to republicans on the run as the Tan War raged, and the house was constantly raided by the RIC, later the RUC and the B Specials. Winnie was arrested on numerous occasions over these years and spent time in several prisons including the City Hall Courthouse, Crumlin Road Jail and Armagh Prison.
With the signing of the Treaty and later the Civil War, Winifred took the republican side. In July 1922 she was arrested and charged with possession of ‘seditious documents’. She was held on remand until the case was heard, during which time she refused to recognise the court. She was convicted of the charges but spared a prison sentence as a result of ill-health.
With the eventual victory of the counter-revolution and the bedding down of both reactionary states, Winifred continued her political activism by joining the NI Labour Party in 1924. While the NILP was largely influenced by the gas-and-water politics of William Walker, the Court Ward branch in which Winnie was a member contained many ITGWU activists such as her old friend and comrade Nellie Gordon. Winnie also joined the Socialist Party, a small organisation that was affiliated to the NILP but which took a more Connollyite position.
It was also in this branch that Winnie met George McBride. George was an engineer from the Shankill Road whose father had been involved in the 1907 strike and who greatly admired James Larkin, but George came from a hardline unionist background and later joined the UVF to fight in the First World War. The two were married in North Wales in September 1928. As a married woman in those times, Winnie was forced to leave her job with the ITGWU.
She continued to look after her mother Sarah until her death in 1933. While taking care of her mother took up much of her time, Winnie was still involved in political activism in these years. She took part in protests against the Poor Law Guardians before and during the Outdoor Relief Strike of 1932. Winnie and George were also part of the Republican Congress’ Belfast contingent at the 1934 Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown.
With the failure of the Republican Congress and the increasing partitionism of the Labour Party, Winnie became isolated from many of her friends who had found it impossible to live under the Orange state – her old friend Nellie Gordon moved to Dublin with her husband as a result of the pogroms of 1935. During these years Winifred’s health continued to deteriorate and she was unable to continue her political activism.
Winifred Carney passed away on the 21st of November 1943 at the age of fifty-five. A former ITGWU comrade recalled of her:
“She had set her mind to a certain idea, her idea was the Connolly idea of the Republic. She could have gone many places in Ireland, she had all kind of facilities. She had a record second to none. But she did not agree with the new Free State government, did not agree with Partition, she was entirely opposed to that. She still stuck to the Connolly line and maintained it right up to her death.”
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