The Silk Weaver, Usherette and Revolutionary
Image courtesy of Diarmuid O'Connor
The title may suggest three different individuals but that is not the case. These words describe the many roles that Sarah Ellen ‘Nellie’ Bushell undertook in her life.
Nellie Bushell came from Clanbrassil Street, Dublin 8, where she lived with her father, a silk weaver and her stepmother. Nellie followed in the family business and became a silk weaver, but this was no surprise considering the area she lived in, near the Liberties was as famous for the weaving trade as it was for breweries and distilleries. Nellie was in the Irish cultural revival and in the 1901 census she is noted as being able to speak Irish and English. She loved the theatre and when the Abbey Theatre opened, she got a job there selling tickets and working as an usherette. Her job in the Abbey would prove exceptionally valuable during the War of Independence, but more of that later.
Nellie continued to work for a time as a weaver, doing this work by day and working in the Abbey at night. Soon she began to meet people who would play a central role in the revolutionary movement, like Countess Markievicz, Thomas MacDonagh and others. In them she found kindred spirits and she was determined to play her part.
Soon after Na Fianna Éireann was set up, co-founded by her friend Countess Markievicz, Nellie became a member of its Executive. Through her work with Na Fianna, she met Con Colbert. Nellie set to work making kilts for the Fianna boys and when the Irish Volunteers were set up in 1913, she made equipment for them also. In fact, she spent the week before the Easter Rising making cases for rifles and bullets out of mail bags for the Volunteers to use. By now Nellie was living in Newmarket and her home was always open to the Volunteers, especially members of ‘F’ Company, 4th Battalion and her friend Con Colbert.
During the Rising Nellie acted as a courier between the garrisons near where she lived. She brought food to Con Colbert and his men in Watkins Brewery on Ardee Street, brought messages to and from Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and Stephens Green and Marrowbone Lane Distillery. And when Con Colbert and his men left Watkins, Nellie was tasked with finding them civilian clothes to put over their uniforms so as they would not be recognised.
Nellie evaded arrest after the Rising, but she could not stay in Newmarket. The police knew she had been involved in the Rising and raided her house many times. In August she moved to New Road in Inchicore. But Nellie was among friends as she was now living among her comrades of the 4th Battalion.
During the War of Independence, Nellie’s door was always open to the IRA. They would have meetings in her house at night while she was in work at the Abbey. Arms were regularly kept in her house. She soon again came to the attention of the police and military who raided her house many times but Nellie was always one step ahead. She began to store the guns and ammo in the Abbey, and when needed for an ambush she would get them and hand them over to the IRA and take them back when the job was done. But Nellie did so much more than just hide guns, she hid IRA men who were on the run, she treated wounded IRA men and always ensured their safety. And if there was a hint of a raid coming, she would get them away. This in part was thanks to a contact that she had working for the British authorities who would pass on the information to her.
Nellie was so deeply valued by ‘F’ Company, 4th Battalion that she was ‘recognised as an auxiliary member of the company’. Very few, if any women were given such an honour, but that is how much she was valued.
Nellie did not take part in the Irish Civil War. She continued to work in the Abbey Theatre. It is doubtful that many people knew in the years that followed that the lady selling their tickets had played such an important role in the fight for Irish freedom. And Nellie also made her home in New Road, Inchicore. She worked in the Abbey Theatre until a few months before her death. Nellie Bushell died in 1948, she was sixty-four years old.
Historian and author Liz Gillis is from the Liberties. She works as a Researcher for the History Show on RTE Radio, and runs ‘Revolution in Dublin Walking Tours’. Liz has written six books about the Irish Revolution including, ‘Women of the Irish Revolution’. She is currently writing her next book about the Rebel Liberties. Liz has worked as a researcher on numerous publications, television and radio documentaries covering the Irish Revolution. She is co-organiser of the annual conference on the Burning of the Custom House in May 1921.