Women's role in Irish history has never been satisfactorily or adequately acknowledged. In a society where women were denied a vote until 1918 this oversight is easily understood. The tendency to write of mens involvement in times past is one which even I regretfully have unwittingly or otherwise failed to arrest. Today I make some amends for my omission and it is fitting that the subject of this article should be a lady who over the years I have had the privilege of interviewing on several occasions.
In her 92nd year and as sprightly and alert as most persons 40 years younger Mrs. Hester May lives today with her daughter Sheila in St. Patrick's Avenue. As the daughter of Michael Dooley of 41 Duke Street, Athy, whose name is remembered in the Housing Estate on the Stradbally Road, she had an early introduction to the politics of Irish Independence. Her parents house and shop was a well known "haunt" of republican activists and was raided on many occasions by the local R.I.C. and the Black and Tans. At an early age Hester joined the Cumann na mBan which was organised locally by Miss Moloney. Her eldest sister Kathleen, who was later to marry Eamon Malone of Dunbrin, Commander of the Carlow Brigade I.R.A., left Athy to work in the Post Office in Dublin. Hester joined Kathleen in Dublin in 1919 and before long she was interviewed for a job with Piaras Beaslai, who was Editor of An t-Oglagh and head of publicity for the I.R.A. She was to act as his Secretary for a number of years and when he went to America she worked for J.J. 'Ginger' O'Connell who was director of training for the I.R.A. She also worked for Oscar Traynor who was Officer Commanding the Dublin Brigade and the leader of the attack on the Custom House in May 1921.
Her offices were located at No. 14 North Great Georges Street but raids by the Black and Tans often meant frequent unplanned moves to safer offices such as those in the Plaza Hotel near the present Barrys Hotel. She met all the great Irish leaders of the day and remembers particularly Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera. Another frequent visitor to Piaras Beaslai's office was Emmet Dalton, a member of the G.H.Q. staff of the I.R.A. who was with Michael Collins when he was ambushed and killed at Beal na Blath. Her impressions of Dalton, who was previously a member of the British Army, are not entirely favourable.
While working in Dublin she returned as often as possible to her native Athy and despite the difficulties at the time found romance with a local man living in Woodstock Street. Almost inevitably that man, Joe May, was involved in the Republican movement and had been a regular visitor to the Dooley household at 41 Duke Street. Joe was arrested in November 1920 by the Black and Tans and brought to the Curragh Camp where he was detained for three weeks before transferring to Arbour Hill and later still to Ballykinler Camp. He was not released until November 1921. One of Mrs. May's most treasured mementos of that period is an autograph book kept by her late husband and signed by a number of his fellow prisoners in Ballykinler Camp. A fellow inmate at the time was another Athy man, "Bapty" Maher.
Hester Dooley's involvement in the Republican movement extended up to the end of the Civil War in May 1923 when she returned to Athy to marry Joe May. They settled down in their home town where Joe was appointed to take charge of the former Union Workhouse which the Irish Government designated as a County Home. He was to continue working there until his untimely death in 1961 at the age of 63 years.
Hester May's involvement in the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War are not well known. She has lived in Athy since returning from Dublin over 70 years ago and has only recently retired as Registrar of Births Marriages and Deaths for this area. The younger generations of Athy people have largely remained unaware of Hester Dooley, the young girl from Athy who crossed paths with the men and women whose lives and experiences are part of the history of our country.