Marion Steenson of North Strand Dublin, a veteran of the Cumann na mBan since the 1940's and a valuable assistant to the movement in every decade since, died on November 18th 2015. (You can read about her husband Leo here http://laochrauladh.blogspot.com/2013/10/vol-leo-steenson.html)
Marion Steenson was of the old breed of republicans whose beliefs transcended the many splits of later years; upon her death tributes came in from all sides, from dissident groups to PSF to the Workers Party.
The following articles from An Phoblacht sum up her life very well:
(Marion was also a lifelong member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (and a non-smoker) and a Third Order Fransiscan, proof that, in one republican's words, you can be a staunch republican and still be a devout Catholic.)
‘I was born into republicanism. It was a great life. I never changed my principles for anybody’
MARION STEENSON (neé Murphy) is a formidable woman. She had to be. As a youthful 87-year-old, the most striking thing about meeting her is the clarity with which she recalls her upbringing in a republican household steeped in history and the fearless way in which she still espouses her beliefs without fear or favour.
Ní h-aon ribín réidh í Marion. Laoch imeasc laochra sa ghluaiseacht poblachtánach – a bhfuil tuairimí láidre fós aici faoin streachailt leanúnach.
When we meet in the home near Fairview Park in Dublin which she has lived in all her life, Marion tells me that she is proud of being a republican. “I was born into it. It was a great life. I never changed my principles for anybody.”
It was inevitable that Marion would become involved with republicanism. She talks particularly about the influence her mother had on her.
“My mammy was in Cumann na mBan, the Citizen Army and the Red Cross corps and she worked with Nurse O’Farrell in the Pro-Cathedral. She was an amazing woman. She was only 17.”
Marion’s mother, Martha Kelly, was active in the Irish Citizen Army in the GPO. Her father was Captain Michael Murphy, who fought in Bolands Mill, in 1916. Both are listed as taking an active part during Easter week 1916 and they are reported to have met in Kilmainham Jail while being held as prisoners.
On release they married and moved into the house which Marion still occupies. They both died relatively young, leaving 16 children (eight boys and eight girls) behind, of whom Marion raised the younger.
Marion recollects those early days and particularly the formative influence her mother had on her.
“There was always politics here. The [Irish Republican] Army used to use our front room at night. She never spoke of anything else. It was always politics. We were on our own here (in North Strand). But we had lovely neighbours. Actually, this was real Church of Ireland because a lot of the houses down there, artisan dwellings, they built them for the Church of Ireland.
“Everything was culture,” Marion continues. “Coiste na bPáistí for the youngsters. Get them ready for the Gaeltachts. I was wreath bearer in Clann na nGael and I danced for commemorations. Used to dance in ‘Bulfin’ for the craobh.”
Míníonn si dom go raibh dlúthbhaint ag an am sin idir an dream a bhí gníomhach sa ghluaiseacht agus an dream a bhí gníomhach ó thaobh na Gaeilge de.
“It was the same people in both. We were all just connected. I was out of school at 14. We used to go to Irish classes. My parents didn’t speak Irish. We used to go to the ceilis. Outside I always spoke Irish. We’d go out to the mountains with friends on a Sunday and it would be all Irish. I did my fáinne exam with Máirtín Ó Cadhain. He was a lovely man.”
During this time Marion was also becoming immersed in the Republican Movement and the activities that would shape her future life and political philosophy.
“When I was young, Clann na nGael was the first thing. They were the girl scouts. When we were in Clann you went to anything that was on – Irish on a Monday night, something else on a Thursday. That’s the way we were brought up. Some of my sisters were in Cailíní when they were young and you could go into Cumann na mBan afterwards but they didn’t. I was in Cumann na mBan. You didn’t do that much really because that was after the 1940s and it was banned. They brought out internment then.”
She explained to me what role Cumann na mBan played at that time.
“I was involved up to the time I was married really. We had a meeting every week. We used to do collections for the internees and then we used to get food parcels ready for them to send down, somebody went down every Saturday. And we’d have concerts and different things for them. We were very well supported locally.”
Marion met her husband, Leo Steenson, another dedicated republican, at a public meeting. A Belfast man, Leo was involved in the IRA campaign of the 1950s and eventually settled in Dublin, where he met Marion through her brothers.
She talks about her husband and the effect the republican struggle had on the family.
“Leo was involved and when you have a family you had to look after them. There were no babysitters then. I had five children: four boys and a girl. That changed the whole thing. I didn’t know much [about Leo’s prominent role in the IRA]. It’s only when he died that some of the fellas would tell you how he was involved.
“I still went to anything I could. We used to go up with Cumann Carad, to Joe Cahill’s father. They had a little shop on the Falls Road and [Leo] used to go up on a Saturday morning and have breakfast there.
“My youngest brother was in Belfast in the ‘56 campaign. He was last to be released and another one was interned here. After all that Mammy done and they were jailing us, the Special Branch gave her an awful time.”
State forces were a constant shadow over the Steenson household also, but Marion recalls with great humour that she and her family always got the better of them.
“They raided the house regular alright. I was in hospital with the second one, Pádraic, and a sister of mine was here and they came to raid. It was a false alarm but they shovelled all the coal out of the back. There was nothing there and when they wanted her to put it back she wouldn’t and they were looking for soap to wash their hands she wouldn’t give it, saying: ‘I didn’t send for you and ask you to do that.’”
The house was always a safe haven for republicans and they would outfox the authorities in helping out comrades in need throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
I ask Marion what she thinks of the current crop of Sinn Féin representatives and the move away from the armed struggle towards democratic politics.
“You are better in it trying to do something than outside. I must say I like Mary Lou McDonald a lot. She speaks very well.”
The Cumann na mBan veteran still aspires to a united Ireland but isn’t sure that the unionist rump will ever be ready to agree to equality.
“And while we have that [Fine Gael/Labour] Government we still have the element of the Blueshirts about the place. Enda Kenny says we’re closer to Britain now than we ever were. And sure they have given everything away. Look at the ESB, the fishing, the farmers, the turf. I think they’ve sold us out, to be honest with you.
“I asked [Labour Party minister and local TD] Joe Costello the other day, how could the Labour Party go with the conservative party, Fine Gael. Two different policies. Do you know what he said to me? That Clann na Poblachta went with Fianna Fáil.
“Another thing I go mad about is Seán Kelly. He brought the GAA down. And he walked out and joined Fine Gael – two different policies. And there”s another thing with Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, they seem to have lost an awful lot. They never use ‘Cumann Lúthchleas Gael’. And the way they stand for Amhrán na bhFiann, they’re a disgrace. I mean, whoever taught them to stand with their arms around each other?”
Croke Park was also the catalyst for a former Taoiseach being reprimanded by Marion.
“Bertie Ahern was going around here for the election at the time the English queen was coming or the rugby match with England was on. He shook my hand and I said I’m going to watch you tomorrow to see if you’re going to stand for God Save the Queen and he said to me, ‘Well what do you want me to do?’
“I said ‘I don’t care what you do’ but I showed him that photograph of Bloody Sunday in Croke Park and said ‘Croke Park wasn’t built for that.’”
The influence of Marion’s mother is ever-present, even as she explains why she still fights against unfair policies being imposed by this Fine Gael/Labour Government.
“She was an amazing woman. She was only 17 and that’s why you’ll be coming to see me in jail. I wouldn’t pay my Property Tax. So I got a letter a month ago saying I had to have it paid by March, and all the things they can do. They can dock it out of my pension and I’m waiting to see if they do because they have no right to – it’s illegal. I’m still battling.”
Agus níl aon dabht orm go bhfanfaidh Marion ag troid ar son a cuid prionsabail poblachtánacha fad agus is féidir léi. Eiseamláir iontach is ea í do phoblachtánaithe an lae inniú agus sampla iontach do na mná, ach go h-áirithe i mbliain seo comórtha céad bliain ar bhunú Chumann na mBan. Go mairfidh Marion céad agus ós a chionn
Eight decades of republicanism
Dublin woman Marian Steenson (neé Murphy) is a lifelong republican and next February marks her 80th birthday. Here she talks to ELLA O’DWYER about her life, the republican home into which she was born and growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Marian Steenson (neé Murphy) was born in 1927. She has a vibrancy that defies her years and a determination that comes with experience. Her parents took part in the 1916 Rising, the Tan War and Civil War and are said to have met while both were prisoners Kilmainham Jail.
Her father was Capt Michael Murphy, C Company, 3rd Battalion. He was the O/C of A Company 2nd Batt at Boland’s Mill in 1916. Her mother was Martha Kelly of the Irish Citizen Army, F Company 2nd Battalion.
The couple later married and moved to the house at Leinster Avenue, North Strand where Marian still lives today. She was part of a large family, some of whom she helped raise herself.
“My parents came to this house in 1918 and I was born here in 1927. I was one of 17 children, one of whom died at birth. My father went with the Free Staters and my mother with the republicans.
“My Mammy was in the Irish Citizen Army with James Connolly in 1916 – the Imperial Hotel which is Cleary’s shop now, and in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday. She encouraged us to join the Movement. My mother remained republican till the last. Her parents threw her out because she wouldn’t have anything to do with a British soldier. Her name then was Martha O’ Kelly but she dropped the ‘O’ when Sean T O Kelly/Ceallaigh was made president. This was because he had gone with the Free State. She was very bitter against the Free Staters. That was at the time when the ‘40s men were interned in the Curragh – Tin Town they called it then. My mother was very good to all the lads in the ‘40s. They used to use the front room in this house for their drilling.
“Maggie Doyle who was over Cumann na mBan and her husband used to come to the house. I remember my mother going to Bodenstown when De Valera banned it. They went down in a lorry.
On growing up in Dublin at the time she says: “It was a very hard life but we had fun too. We used to play among ourselves. We’d play a game called ‘buttons’, we’d do skipping and we’d another game called ‘kick the can’. And of course we were in the Republican Movement.
“There was Clan na Gael, Cumann na gCaílini, Cumann na mBan and the Fianna. Clann and Fianna were more or less amalgamated. Basically the girls went with Clan na Gael.
“At that time Sinn Féin headquarters was at number 9 Parnell Square. We used to go upstairs there and do our drilling or marching, preparing for parades and after that we’d go to the Ceilidh.
“My mother insisted we understood Irish culture. They all spoke Irish. I’m a fluent speaker myself. I was active in Conradh na Gaeilge and in the Irish dancing circle.” Marian got her fáinne after being taught by Mairtín Ó Cadhain.
“I love traditional Irish music. We had Ceilidhs and the like. The Fianna boys used to go camping at the weekend and the girls would go with the Clan. We always had sing-songs, dance classes and Irish classes. We had outings on Sundays. There’s nothing like that for young people now. Young people should be taught Irish history too.
“The Headquarters of the Gaelic League was in 14 Parnell Square at that time. Easter Sunday was a big event and we’d cycle to Bodenstown for the Wolf Tone commemoration.”
Most of the eight boys in the Murphy family – all now deceased – were involved in the struggle as volunteers and her brother Eamon Murphy was one of the last to be released from Crumlin Road jail after the IRA’s 1950s Border Campaign and another brother Bertie was interned during the campaign.
The house in North Strand where Marian lives has always been known as a republican house. It was a stop-off for many republicans including Sean Sabhat who stayed there on the Christmas Day in 1956 before he was killed along with Fergal O’Hanlon in a raid at Brookeborough in the New Year.
“There were about ten men staying in the house that night. I remember Seán Sabhat playing a violin up in the room and teaching the children to play cards through the Irish language. I remember the lads leaving by degrees in order not to draw attention to themselves.”
Marian Murphy was of the Sean Russell Cumann, Sinn Féin. The Russells were her neighbours. She was also involved in organising the unveiling of the Sean Russell statue in Fairview and still attends commemorations at the monument.
Marian met her husband Leo, another dedicated republican, at a public meeting. A Belfastman, Leo was involved in the IRA campaign of the 1950s and eventually settled in Dublin where he met Marian through her brothers.
Marian Steenson’s children are all republicans and one son, Pádraig went to prison for his republican beliefs in the late 1990s: “Naturally I worried about him when he was imprisoned but at least I knew where he was”, she says.
For Marian Steenson, republican unity is very important, even if in the context of differing opinions:“We’re all – as republicans – entitled to our views but whatever about splits in the past, the families knew each other and were friends and should always remain so. We should always talk to each other.”
The house has often been the target of Garda raids: “We only learned we had an attic after one of the raids when the Guards found it. I remember another raid when they dug out all the coal in the shed. They found nothing and my sister made them put it all back in again. They must have thought we were eejits. There was never, ever, anything found in this house”
She also remembers men on the run escaping out of the house. She remembers that her “neighbours were great.”
During several raids the house also received a visit from the clergy. On one occasion the priest came to the house to tell the family to excommunicate themselves for their republicanism.
“I told him he was a servant of God and he should remember that”, she says. Marian believes that the nationalist community in the North have a greater awareness of their Irishness and points to the growth in the Irish language and culture there.
She remembers the 1981 Hunger Strike as a particularly sad period: “It was very sad. DeValera and the rest should have finished what they started. If they had dealt with it then those ten young men wouldn’t have had to die. Them that started it all should have finished it and it’s not finished yet.”
Marian says that being a republican makes her happy. Her favourite song is The Patriot Game. She remains an unrepentant republican and says that her policy was always to ‘burn everything British except their coal’.
“I never changed my principles for anyone. I enjoyed my life”, she says. And long may it last.