Illuminations: Jennie Wyse Power – Formidable and Under-Estimated
By: J. Michael Finn
Jennie Wyse Power was born Jane O’Toole in Baltinglass, County Wicklow, Ireland on May 1, 1858, the daughter of Edward O’Toole and Mary Norton. Her father owned a leather and grocery business on Main Street in Baltinglass.
The family was strongly nationalist. As a youngster, Jane began using the name the name Jennie. In 1860 her father sold his business and property and moved the family to Dublin.
In 1881, at the age of 21, Jennie embarked on her first journey into the world of activism and politics when she joined the Ladies Land League. She was a friend of Anna Parnell, founder of the League and an admirer of Anna’s brother, nationalist Member of Parliament, Charles Stewart Parnell. The League’s main aim was to raise funds to provide relief and shelter to evicted tenants.
Jennie O’Toole became an active member and served on the Ladies Land League executive committee. She soon found herself living back in her native Wicklow, trudging through fields in wintry weather in order to reach the farms of distressed tenant farmers.
During her time in the Ladies Land League, she met her husband, John Wyse Power, who was then editor of the Leinster Leader newspaper and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
They married on July 5, 1883. The family moved to Dublin in 1885 after John secured a position with the national newspaper Freeman’s Journal. They had four children.
Charles Stewart Parnell died in 1891. In that year, Jennie published Words of the Dead Chief, containing a selection of extracts from Parnell’s speeches. After his death, Jennie and her husband became disillusioned and stayed out of politics for some time. However, she remained an active member of the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association, fighting for the right to vote for Irish women.
Jennie opened a shop and restaurant in 1899 at 21 Henry Street in Dublin, called the Irish Farm and Produce Company. This was a restaurant and shop that sold farm produce, honey and cakes – all produced by Irish suppliers. Jennie maintained a strict “all-Irish produce” policy in her shop.
Irish was always encouraged as the preferred language. The restaurant soon became a popular meeting place for many of the cultural and political organizations with which she was involved.
Conradh na Gaeilge
Jennie and her husband joined Conradh na Gaeilge (pron: con-rah nah gale-ga) (Gaelic League). She became a member of its executive in November 1900. Both John and Jennie took classes to improve their Irish and their children participated in the various cultural activities of the League.
The Gaelic League was the first major Irish organization to offer membership to both men and women. Jenny wrote of the Gaelic League, “From the beginning, women sat on its Committees and Executive, and helped to carry out the programs. The study of the Irish language was for all; the social side was almost wholly in the hands of the women members, who by absorbing the Irish tradition influenced in no small degree the growing effort to wean the people from an Anglicization that had gone all too far.”
Daughters of Ireland
In 1900, Jennie was elected one of the four Vice-Presidents of Maude Gonne’s organization Inghinidhe na hÉireann (pron: in-nyee na hare-un) (Daughters of Ireland). This movement sought complete independence for Ireland, and the development of the Irish economy and culture. It was formed to provide women with a nationalist and activist platform.
Sinn Féin (pron: shin-fain) was founded in 1905. Arthur Griffith became its first leader. Jennie became an executive member of the National Council of Sinn Féin in 1906.
By 1911, she had risen to the position of Vice President, which ranked her second only to Griffith in the organization. A fellow member said of Jennie, “She was a remarkably able woman, very brainy, full of fun and a great teller of humorous stories.”
Cumann na mBan
In November 1913, the Irish Volunteers were established and became an armed military organization. Nationalist women soon followed suit in 1914 by organizing themselves as Cumann na mBan (pron: cume-un na mawn) (The Women’s Association). Jennie was one of the founders and was elected as the organization’s first president in 1915.
According to the memoirs of Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke’s widow, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was signed at a meeting, “… held in Mrs. Wyse Power’s house in 21 Henry Street on Tuesday of Holy week 1916.” During the Easter Rising, Jennie and her daughter Nancy carried food from her restaurant to the rebels in the General Post Office.
Ladies Land League
Jennie’s home and business were destroyed when 21 Henry Street was burned during the Rising. Also destroyed in the blaze were the records of the Ladies Land League, which had been in her custody for thirty years. After the Rising, Jennie provided aid to the families of Republican prisoners and she and her daughter helped to re-organize Cumann na mBan.
The 1918 General Election saw Sinn Fein win 73 out of the 105 parliamentary seats. Sinn Fein decided against taking its seats at Westminster. Instead Dáil Éireann was established. Republican courts were set up in opposition to the Courts of the Crown.
Jennie served as one of the judges in North Dublin. She continued to assist the nationalist cause during the War of Independence.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on December 6, 1921 and caused Jennie much soul searching. She decided to support it because she viewed it as a pathway towards achieving greater independence. Jennie was the only leading member of Cumann na mBan to support the Treaty. As a result, she felt obligated to resign from what she described as a “splendid force of women.”
Jennie was nominated by William T. Cosgrave as a member of the First Seanad (pron: shawn-ad) (Senate) which met in December 1922. She was appointed as honorary Film Censor in 1922. Jennie and her husband also appeared as fictionalized characters in the 1922 James Joyce novel Ulysses.
Jennie’s husband John died in 1926. In 1934 she sat as a Fianna Fáil senator. Jennie continued to sit in the Seanad until her retirement from public life in 1936.
Jennie Wyse Power died on January 5, 1941 at the age of 82. Her passing was mourned by both sides of the Irish political divide. The huge turn-out for her funeral was evidence of the enormous respect and fondness in which she was held by everyone. She is buried in the family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
A final word of praise regarding Jennie Wyse Power comes from the historian, Ann Matthews, who in her 2010 book, Renegades: Irish Republican Women 1900-1922, described Jennie as, “One of the most formidable and under-estimated women in nationalist history.”
*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].