Kathleen Browne (1876-1943) was born in the Browne family home in Bridgetown County Wexford, which is now Doyle’s. Originally Catherine Anne Browne, she hailed from Rathronan Castle, Mulrankin. From a young age, Kathleen became interested in the ‘Gaelic Revival’ which was spreading throughout the country. Kathleen viewed the Nationalist movement as a romantic affair, which subsequently bled into her personal life, in which, followed the reoccurring theme of her Celtic dress and Irish Wolfhounds. A letter dating from 1881 shows that she was a member of the ‘Ladies Land League’ in the parish of Kilmore, at the tender age of 5 years old. Following the steps of her father, Michael Browne (1842-1912), Kathleen became an activist in both national and regional affairs.
In 1909, Kathleen became a member of the ‘Gaelic League’ where she struck strong relationships with both Arthur Griffith (1872-1922) and Padraig H Pearse (1879-1916). It was during this time, that she became a leading figure of the ‘County Wexford Gaelic League’ movement. Similarly, Kathleen began to devote her time away from politics, to enhancing the general public’s knowledge and understanding of the history and antiquities of County Wexford. Being a keen agriculturist and a master in the field of dairy management, Kathleen became a lecturer for seven years in the Department of Agriculture and technical instruction. During this time, Kathleen is noted to have spent many of her holidays in the Ring Gaeltacht outside Dungarvan, Co. Waterford.
Kathleen was a prominent member of Sinn Fein, serving on the ‘Ard-Chomhairle’ in Wexford for a number of years. Moreover, she soon followed a close friend and leader, Ellen Mary (Nell) Ryan (1881-1959), becoming an early member of the female force that was ‘Cumann na mBan’. Being a passionate nationalist, it was inevitable that Kathleen would be involved in the 1916 rising. There was correspondence between Padraig Pearse in which he was documented to have made visits to Kathleen in Wexford for meetings in 1912. Unfortunately, the story of Kathleen during the rising is non-definitive. It is known that she, among another 30 women took the Athenaeum in Enniscorthy. However, it is not known where she was arrested, alongside leading Cumann na mBan member Nell Ryan. Newspaper articles of the time state that Kathleen was arrested in Bray, on her way travelling to Dublin, while others say it was in Bree in Enniscorthy after the town was won, with the remaining theory that she was simply arrested at her home in Rathronan.
Kathleen and Nell were imprisoned following the 1916 rising. Both were shuffled throughout the prisons, where the conditions of female prisoners were documented by women and were stated to be horrendous whereby ‘No respect or dignity was shown to any female prisoners’. Firstly, Kathleen was imprisoned in Wexford, then Waterford, followed by the Richmond Barracks, then Kilmainham, finally ending up in Mountjoy. From correspondence with family and close friends upon her release on June 4 1916, it is stated that the famous executions of the proclamation signatories occurred during Kathleen’s spell inside Kilmainham Gaol. Being such a proud republican, Kathleen wrote to Mrs Alice Stopford Green upon her release whereby Browne states ‘I was glad to be in prison and to have a slight share in the sufferings of our latest martyrs’.
Given the tragedy of the 1916 rising on both the Irish population and the social state of the country, it is astounding that the reputation of Kathleen Browne as a public speaker was one that was even commended by the Royal Irish Constabulary. ‘Few women in this country achieved such fame as Miss Browne … and her outspoken and uncompromising addresses from public platforms reflected the strength and sincerity of her convictions’. Following her release from prison, re-establishing the somewhat damaged Cumann na mBan and Sinn Fein in Wexford was the first task at hand. Additionally, Kathleen offered the help necessary for locals who had family members interned both in Ireland and further afield in England during the War of Independence.
Progressing through her already established academic career, Kathleen became one of the founding members of the Ui Ceinnsealaigh Historical Society. Additionally, her involvement was praised in the Historical Society Council where she acted as one of Wexford’s representatives. It was in 1926, when Kathleen Browne was awarded as ‘Honorary Secretary’ of the Ui Ceinnsealaigh Historical Society. Interestingly, she was the only woman involved with the Historical Society, until the later arrival of the previously mentioned Nell Ryan. The academic life did not surpass her passion for political change. In 1918, Kathleen worked closely with friend Alice Furlong, Barntown (1866-1946) to establish a nationally recognised ‘Lá na mBan’ (Women’s Day). During the War of Independence, Rathronan was raided numerous times. Given the involvement of the family and the reputation they had throughout the area, it was unsurprising to find it was a safe house for many republicans who were seeking refuge on the run. Although Kathleen was involved in the War of Independence, she used her limited resources wisely, striving for cessation.
When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, Kathleen stood by her long-time friend, Arthur Griffith on the Pro-Treaty side. As was the case nationwide during this major social change, Kathleen lost many friends who were Anti-Treaty. The most notable of these was long time friend and colleague Nell Ryan. Local tales state that Kathleen and Nell never spoke again after their political views on the treaty became known. Browne wrote strongly on the topic of a Free State, one area of work which would remain with her for the rest of her days. Because of the uproar the treaty caused for some, Kathleen subsequently resigned from her position in Cumann na mBan and joined Cumann na Saoirse. Cumann na Saoirse was a newly established women’s league which was a result of the bitter split between the Pro and Anti-Treaty sides inside the Cumann na mBan following the War of Independence.
From this time in 1922, Kathleen found herself as the main organiser of Cumann na Gaedheal across county Wexford. Soon after, she was appointed ‘Peace Commissioner’ of County Wexford. It is with the Cumann na Gaedheal that Kathleen would find her footing in a strong political career. The government compensation schemes were established as a result of some atrocities during the War of Independence and the Civil War. Kathleen was subsequently awarded a sum of £200 from the Dáil after her agricultural produce was boycotted, primarily as a result of her political views during this time. She did not allow the political unrest to stop her progressing further as a politician. In 1925, Kathleen ran for Public Office in the Senate Election. Unfortunately, having lost out on the 25th count, she was not elected.
As well as being a successful activist, politician, farmer and artist, Kathleen was also a very credited academic. Mainly writing within the historical area, she completed many articles for the Free Press newspaper, including a series on Wexford castles. Other publications include ‘Was Wexford Betrayed by Cromwell’ and extensive research and writings into the Forth and Bargy dialect of South Wexford. The Middle English dialect which arrived on the Southern Wexford shores from the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 became an area of high interest for Kathleen Browne.
Upon the death of friend, Alice Stopford Green in 1929, Kathleen was elected for the Seanad Eireann, where she remained until the dissipation of the Senate in 1936 after a number of constitutional changes and Governing proposals were delayed. Kathleen became an active member of the National Guard, more commonly known as the ‘Blueshirts’. From wearing her blue blouse in the Seanad and the Dáil, uniform restrictions were put in place. Close friend William T Cosgrave (1880-1965) founded a new party, which merged the National Guard with a number of other parties in 1933. The party became known as Fine Gael, with Cosgrave acting as the party leader. In the 1930’s, Kathleen became involved in many agricultural and historical societies and events including the ‘Loch Garman Co-Operative Society’, ‘Ancient Monuments Committee’ and the ‘Library Advisory Committee’. Additionally, she was one of the first people to grow beet in South Wexford, noticing the economic potential of the plant long before the rest of the agricultural community, leading to Kathleen’s involvement in the ‘County Wexford Beet Growers Association’.
Following the breakdown of the Senate, Kathleen still remained a vibrant figure in the political issues in Wexford. Agriculture became the primary lifestyle in her final years, where five of her nieces and nephews were cared for by Kathleen and her sister Maisie, following the death of their sister Margaret. On October 9th, 1943, Kathleen Anne Browne passed away aged 65 following a cardiac failure. She is interred in the Browne family plot in Mayglass, Co. Wexford. The family plot and the remains of Rathronan Castle remain stark reminders of the role Kathleen played in Irish society during her illustrious lifetime. Spanning from historical academic publications, women’s rights in rural Ireland, political activism, agricultural lecturing to being imprisoned for her participation in the 1916 Rising. Kathleen Browne was a proud, independent and fearless Wexford woman.
Brendan Wright, BA Hons. (Culture & Heritage)
For further information regarding the history of Kathleen A Browne please contact Brendan Wright @ email@example.com