Winifred Carney

Winifred Carney (1887-1943)

Maria Winifred Carney, known as Winnie Carney, was born in Bangor, the youngest of six children. Her parents were Sarah Carney, née Cassidy and her father Alfred Carney, a Protestant and commercial traveller. Her parents’ marriage broke up and Carney lived with her mother and brother in Carlisle Circus, north Belfast. 

She qualified as a secretary and for a time worked as a clerk in a solicitor’s office. In her early twenties, she became involved in the Gaelic League and also in suffrage and socialist activities in Belfast, together with her friend Marie Johnson, whose husband Thomas was later to become leader of the Irish Labour Party. Marie worked as secretary for the Irish Textile Workers’ Union, set up by James Connolly in 1911 as the women’s section of the Belfast Transport and General Workers Union, and when she became ill in 1912, she asked Carney to take over her work as secretary for the union. Carney and Connolly co-wrote the Manifesto to the Linen Slaves of Belfast in 1913. As a committed nationalist Carney also became an active member of the Belfast branch of Cumann na mBan when it was formed, together with Nora and Ina Connolly.  Connolly sent for her before the Easter Rising began, and she provided secretarial support to the leadership, typing up despatches and other messages. Carney was the first woman to enter the GPO, as a member of the Irish Citizen Army and aide-de-camp to James Connolly. She surrendered together with the Republican leadership and was imprisoned in England for a time afterwards. Carney stood unsuccessfully for Sinn Fein on a Workers’ Republic platform in east Belfast in the 1918 election. The venerable nationalist poet Alice Milligan was one of her supporters.

Carney continued to work for the Transport Union while also remaining an active Republican, in the confidence of the IRA leadership in the north. She was secretary of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents Fund 1920-22 and her home in Carlisle Circus was frequently raided.  She was imprisoned in Armagh jail in 1922, being released on the grounds of ill-health.  With the formation of the state of Northern Ireland, political repression and increased sectarianism, republicanism in the north suffered heavy blows. Many, including the Johnsons, left to live in the south.

Carney retained her commitment to socialism and in 1920 became a member of the Socialist Party of Ireland, also attending the convention of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow. In 1924, she joined the Court Ward Branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party where she became friendly with George McBride, a young working-class Protestant from the Shankill Road, who had fought for the British during the War. They shared a commitment to socialism, although McBride disagreed with Carney’s nationalist views and her continued defence of the Easter Rising.  Despite objections from family, the couple married in North Wales in 1928. After their marriage, they lived in Whitewell Parade, Whitehouse, where they also supported Carney’s elderly mother. Winifred Carney suffered from bad health in the last years of her life and she died on 21 November 1943. She is buried in Milltown Cemetery, Belfast. A headstone to mark her grave was erected by the National Graves Association in December 1985, following a campaign by Belfast trade unionists.