A star that shone brightly – Volunteer Ella O’Dwyer remembered

By Martina Anderson

A chairde agus a gcomradaithe – We gather here today to honour and remember a woman of immense courage, intellect, and unwavering dedication to the cause of Irish freedom—Ella O’Dwyer. 

It is with a heavy heart that I stand before you, not only as a comrade but as a close friend who shared the deepest and darkest moments with Ella.

Ella’s journey into the republican struggle began when she was deeply influenced by the hunger strikes in the north of Ireland in 1980 and the tragic loss of ten brave men in 1981. Those events ignited a fire within her, a determination to fight for justice and Irish freedom, no matter the personal cost.

In 1985 we were arrested with Pat Magee, Gerry Blute McDonald and Peter Sherry. We were thrust into the harsh reality of our struggle when we were all held on remand in Brixton Prison, London – Ella and I the only two women in a jail with 600 male prisoners.

Dr. Ella O’Dwyer

The daily verbal, sexual abuse we endured was relentless. Almost 40 years on, Ella still recalled male prisoners indecently expose themselves to us as we walked around the exercise yard, a cruel attempt to degrade us. Striped searched, six times a day as well as six body searches, which Ella described as being “mauled”—a violation that stripped away our dignity but never our determination. The “screws” touching her body was something Ella hated with every fibre of her being.

By the time we arrived in Durham prisoner after being sentenced to life, the strip searches continued and Ella’s fury with the daily harassment and barbaric prison conditions, which she internalised was evident. With no toilets in our cells, Ella was quicker in the mornings arriving first to the slop out basin, her resilience shining through even in the most degrading tasks.

The world is a little dimmer without Ella O’Dwyer. Each day, our phone calls punctuated the monotony of existence, and through her words, the harsh realities of Durham prison were forever relived. Ella would often recount the winters when the raw sewage would overflow from the slop out system onto the eating area floor; the cockroach-infested cells and only last week she laughed aloud still hearing the governor scream when I threw a shovel of coach-roaches over him, in an effort to get the place fumigated. 

And she never forgot the chilling presence of Dr. Death, the male gynaecologist who infuriated her, as he removed, or in my case permanently damaged, women prisoners’ wombs. 

Whilst we endured horrors together, surviving on sheer willpower and the bond we forged in that forsaken place, we also laughed aloud which seemed to annoy the screws, so we laughed louder.

Martina Anderson gives the funeral oration for Ella's funeral
Martina Anderson gives the funeral oration for Ella’s funeral

However, every winter remembered was not a horror story – we two laughed as much as we cried.  Ella wrote of our first Christmas in Brixton Prison; it snowed that morning. Ella said, “We got out to the yard and, like mad children, drew Christmas messages on the snow to people who’d never get to see them. We exchanged presents and read the greetings in An Phoblacht – Ann and Rab of the POW Department, our families and God knows how many others. We even got our faces on the front page of the paper one Christmas. What a blast!”

The years we shared; our spirits intertwined, unbowed and unbroken and then we were transferred back to Ireland six weeks before the first IRA cessation in 1994. It was there we were surrounded with love and affection; the women POWs in Maghaberry Jail were and are amazing Irish republicans.  Here are more words from Ella herself:

“When we were transferred to Maghaberry we had a Christmas never to be forgotten. We were met on the first visit with the delighted faces of our families – the people who had gone through so much hardship on our behalf for all those years.

While walking around that exercise yard in Durham under the dingey, grey chimney of H-Wing I’d sworn that if I ever got back under an Irish sky, I’d kiss the ground on the first Christmas there. If the Pope was good enough to kiss it, so was I. And that’s how I’d begun Christmas morning, 1994. It was one hell of a Christmas. 

She went onto say “I remember saying to the O/C, Mary McArdle, that people outside would have paid to come into a party like this. “I doubt it,” said Mary. Marie Wright (RIP) complained that the hooch was below par and nothing like the usual quality. Martina and I disagreed. It was like fine wine. 1994: a good year — vintage stuff”.

Ella’s brilliance extended far beyond her Republican activism. She was an exceptional writer, earning an honours degree in Linguistics and Philosophy, followed by an MA on Women and the Colonisation of Language, and a PhD, culminating into her powerfully intellectual book, “The Rising of the Moon,” which stands as a testament to her remarkable mind. Dr. Ella O’Dwyer will undoubtedly be listed among the Greats—Samuel Beckett and W.B. Hu Yeats—her legacy etched in the annals of Irish history.

In an interview with Melissa Thompson in 1999, Ella’s words resonated with the strength and clarity that defined her: 

“We were more than prisoners; we were soldiers in the fight for our nation’s freedom. They tried to break us with their cruelty, but they only forged our resolve”.

In the depths of jail, Ella found love with Jackie McMullan – her first husband – and he said her best – and she agreed. Their marriage didn’t weather jail confinement, but their friendship remained steadfast, a testament to the resilience of their spirits. Jackie’s visits to see Ella when he was in Dublin were a reminder of the comradely connection that transcended prison walls.

Ella O'Dwyer funeral 1

Ella’s anticipation for the local and European elections for Sinn Féin was palpable. She kept Sinn Féin candidate Alan Whelan’s leaflet in her living room table, ensuring that I, Eamon Nolan, her Carer Tina and Neighbours who came into her flat in Killarney Court knew where her 1,2 and 3 were going – Sinn Féin all the way. 

Our last conversation on Tuesday 4 June was all about the forthcoming elections – and about the legend Michael Gaughan – as well as Gerry Adams who apparently was on a TV programme that morning.  

Standing for election herself for Sinn Féin in 2004 in Nenagh, she tasted defeat but brushed it off with characteristic defiance. “I’ve had tougher challenges to overcome”, she told me – and she was right – and I heard in her voice that mixture of resolve and wisdom.

Dr Ella O’Dwyer was more than a loyal Irish Republican solder; she was a beacon of hope and strength, a confidante to the late Brian Keenan and something of a lifeline to those who had strayed from “The Cause”. 

When Ella died, a mutual friend of ours wrote to me the words of Bobby Sands who said, “I fought a monster today”. Ella fought her monsters with unparalleled courage, a warrior in every sense. Her Irish republicanism, brilliance and scholarship are the inheritance of her nieces, Ciara, Maria and Emma, and nephew Pierce. 

They, along with her grandnieces, grandnephews and cousins must know of the giant whose legacy they bear. I say to Ella’s brothers and sister, Gerry, Philip, Bill, Patrick, and Marian tell your children and grandchildren who Ella was, tell them she was a soldier, a revolutionary, a loving, dedicated Irish Republican, whose linage spanned from the “good old IRA” to the great IRA of which she was a proud member – her life a testament to the struggle for Irish reunification. 

Make sure they know that their aunt Dr Ella O’Dwyer’s name will forever be synonymous with bravery, resilience, and unyielding love for Ireland.

Ella was a beacon of hope, a symbol of unwavering resistance, and her passing leaves a void that can never be filled, but her spirit, her words, and her deeds will live on in our hearts and in the continuing struggle for justice and Irish reunification. 

For me, speaking of Ella O’Dwyer here today is one of my greatest honours and privileges but I wish we were not here – as I’ve a heartache with a pain that is excruciating. Every call we had ended with the words “I love you Comrade,” and those words now echo in the chambers of my heart, filled with love, comradeship, and an aching sense of loss. In your memory Ella, we’ll find strength, in your legacy, we’ll will find purpose. 

Ella, you are with us always. In every thought, in every whispered prayer, your spirit remains. You fought the good fight comrade and now, may you find the peace you so richly deserve. We will carry your legacy forward, inspired by your courage and unwavering dedication. Your name, Dr. Ella O’Dwyer, will forever be honoured among those who dared to dream and fight for a free united Ireland.  

Ar Fhéis De go raibh a hanam. I love you.

This story first appeared in An Phoblacht. You can read it here.