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Josephine (Aherne) MacNeill

Bualadh Bos for the Irish Language
by Sean Ua Cearnaigh
While Josephine MacNeill's memory is not nearly as neglected as that of Williams¹, she is still, to a large extent, forgotten, even in her native Fermoy. And this is much to be regretted. She was a woman of deep patriotic instincts who played a prominent part in the fight for a free and Gaelic Ireland.

She was born in Fermoy where her father James Aherne owned a shop and hotel, on March 31, 1895. Her parents were fluent in Irish and she and her two brothers and two sisters grew up loving the language. After secondary education at the Loreto school Josephine entered University College, Dublin, where she obtained a degree in Modern Languages. According to Padraig O Braoin (An Da Shaol, 1983) she taught Irish in Fermoy during her college vacations.

In 1917, she joined the staff of the Ursuline Convent secondary school in Thurles and became a member of the local branch of Conradh na Gaeilge, where she met and fell in love with Pierce McCan, a committed republican from Tipperary. They planned to marry in 1919 but McCan, who in 1918 had been elected Sinn Fein TD for East Tipperary while in Gloucester Jail, died of the flu.

Throughout the War of Independence Josephine was active in Cumann na mBan, both in Thurles and in Dublin, where she subsequently moved. Although she took little part in the Civil War her sympathies were with those who opposed the Treaty.

She married James MacNeill, who was 26 years her senior, in 1923. James, a senior British civil servant, resigned in 1914 to devote himself to Irish independence. Unlike his wife, he supported the Treaty.

In 1928, after the retirement of Tim Healy, MacNeill reluctantly accepted the post of Governor General and he and Josephine moved into the Viceregal Lodge (now Aras an Uachtarain). It was suggested that Josephine was too republican for such a role, but she proved a great asset.

MacNeill died in 1938 aged 69 and Josephine continued her republican support. When Clann na Poblachta was founded in 1946 she became one of its first members. In 1950, on Sean MacBride's recommendation, she was appointed Irish minister at the Hague, the first woman to occupy such a prestigious post.

An accomplished pianist with a lifelong love of music - particularly Irish traditional music - Josephine was interested in all aspects of the arts. Her only book, Finscealta O India, was published in 1933.

This patriotic Irishwoman died in Dublin on November 20, 1969.

[1 - William Williams "one of the most neglected figures of Gaelic Ireland . . . North Corkman devoted many years of his life to publishing and copying religious texts for the benefit of those whose first, and, in many cases, only language was Irish.]

Cork Holly Bough Christmas 2004

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