Rebels or German Spies?
Of all the Petticoat Rebels I have written about I think Sidney Gifford is one of my favorites. Perhaps it was because she never let anyone tell her she couldn’t do something. Like so many other female rebels in 20th century Ireland she accomplished extraordinary goals in a male dominated world.
Sidney Gifford was a writer but not just any writer. While it was acceptable for females to write about subjects such as housekeeping and cooking Miss Gifford took another path entirely with pen and paper. She wrote political and considered radical essays about Irish freedom and British tyranny. She did this in not one but 2 countries. Ireland and the America and took the pen name, John Gifford to make sure her articles were read.
Sidney or John as she was frequently called came from a family of female rebels. Each of her sisters at one time or another was involved in Irish republican politics. Two of her sisters married IRB men. Muriel’s husband, Thomas MacDonagh and Grace’s husband Joseph Plunkett surrendered after the Easter Rising of 1916 and executed shortly after by the British. Grace was only married a few hours before her husband’s death, right in Kilmainham Gaol and Thomas left his wife and 2 small children behind.
When John Gifford arrived in New York she was surprised to find a cool reception from the editor of the Gaelic American, John Devoy. She even had a letter of introduction from Thomas Clarke who was a close friend of Devoy’s back in Ireland. She offered her services as a writer for his paper. After all, they were working toward the same goal, a free Ireland and she had immense experience writing for the Bean, the Cumann na mBan newspaper. Back home in Ireland Arthur Griffith had accepted women’s roles in serious journalism for his own paper, the United Irishman.
Women were accepted in Irish politics but few in American politics. But it was more than John’s gender and those like her that set up obstacles to gaining American support.
Determined to make a living as a writer, John sought out other papers finding a warm reception at the NY Sun which may have been the only paper at the time to have a woman editor. Through her perseverance and unwillingness to be deterred she found more support for her ideals.
She was invited to address a meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary convention, choosing as her subject the Irish Volunteers and the expected War of Independence. The women were impressed by her confident manner. They opened their purse strings and the first ever branch of Cumann na mBan was founded.
John Devoy tried to derail the new movement. He made negative comments about the NY Cumann na mBan, calling them not simply rebels but German spies. To be honest, Ireland tried to enlist Germany’s help to overthrow England right from the beginning but smuggling guns and when Nora Connolly, James Connolly’s daughter arrived in America she was there on a special mission. Although John Gifford was not sent to Ireland as a spy; she went on her own accord, she accompanied Nora Connolly to Washington to see the German Ambassador Count von Bernsdorff. Nora delivered a message from her father that the British were building ‘dummy ships’ in Belfast. They were meant as decoys to lure the German ships to Kiev Canal where the British were waiting for them and not with open arms.