Bushell, Ellen Sarah (‘Nellie’) (1884–1948), silk weaver, usher and activist, was born on 23 January 1884 at 57 Francis Street, Dublin, to Edward Bushell (d. 1904), a silk weaver, and his wife Ellen (née Walshe). Bushell’s mother was dead by 1901 and Edward had remarried, to a woman named Annie. The 1901 census shows the three of them living at 17 Lower Clanbrassil Street, Dublin 8, but no occupation is recorded beside either of the women’s names. By 1911 Bushell was living alone at 19 Newmarket Street, Dublin 8. On the census she is recorded as being able to read and write, and as speaking both English and Irish, which would suggest she had been educated at least to the start of second level. By that date she was also working as a silk weaver, which is unsurprising given her family connection and the area in which she lived and grew up; the Liberties had been the centre of Dublin’s weaving trade since the seventeenth century and, although it had declined since its heyday, there were still significant numbers of weavers in the area: the 1911 census recorded 441 people within the electoral district working in the trade.
Bushell also worked at night in Dublin’s theatre scene as an unpaid ticket seller for the Irish National Dramatic Company, which staged productions in the Clarendon, Molesworth and York Street halls. Established shortly after the turn of the century by brothers Frank (qv) and William Fay (qv), the company merged with the Irish Literary Theatre in 1903 to form the Irish National Theatre Society; when the Society took over the former Mechanics’ Theatre on Lower Abbey Street to found the Abbey Theatre, they brought non-acting members like Bushell with them to work part-time. The new theatre opened on 27 December 1904 with three one-act plays – ‘On Baile’s strand’ and ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ by W. B. Yeats (qv), and ‘Spreading the news’ by Lady Gregory (qv). Bushell sold tickets at the box office and ushered patrons to their seats. Local Dublin historian Séamus Scully, who developed a lifelong love of theatre when Bushell presented him with a free pass, described her as ‘a slip of a girl of sixteen’ on opening night, ‘daintily clad in black frock and skirt, fronted by white-laced apron, dark stockings and shoes, which Lady Gregory had asserted was the most graceful attire for the Abbey’ (McGarry, 71). Bushell held down the two jobs for several years, working as a poplin weaver by day (poplin is a fine wool, cotton or silk fabric with a high thread count) and at the Abbey at night, where she was paid per show. Her work at the Abbey brought her into contact with the great literary minds of the day – Lady Gregory, Yeats, Constance Markievicz (qv) and Thomas MacDonagh (qv) to name but a few – and her home on Newmarket Street became a popular meeting place after performances. Peadar Kearney (qv), composer of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, recalled numerous evenings where staff would gather to talk into the small hours, feasting on sausages, pudding and stout (McGarry, 74).
Bushell first encountered the republican movement through her involvement with Na Fianna Éireann, the national youth organisation for boys founded by Bulmer Hobson (qv) and Markievicz. Bushell knew Con Colbert (qv) and was persuaded by him to make kilts for the Fianna boys. As a result of this work, she was brought on to the committee of Na Fianna in 1911 alongside Eamon Martin (qv) and Helena Molony (qv) among others, and they also utilised her weaving skills to make the traditional Irish cloaks favoured by Irish–Ireland groups. Colbert also introduced her to Roger Casement (qv), who provided them with money to buy material, and to Patrick Pearse (qv) who asked her to make kilts for the boys at St Enda’s. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, Bushell was enlisted as an auxiliary member.
In the early months of 1916 Bushell was involved in preparations for the planned rising. Some of the guns that landed at Howth in July 1914 were hidden in her house, and she was supplied with post office mail bags which she turned into bandoliers for holding ammunition. According to the account she gave to the Military Service Pensions Board, in the week before the Easter rising she brought messages to Sinn Féin headquarters at 6 Harcourt Street especially from Colbert, so the military action came as no surprise: ‘I knew it was the rising we were working for and I knew it was coming off. I was in their confidence’. When the rising was called off on Easter Sunday, Bushell says the news ‘knocked’ her out – she was supposed to have met Colbert at the corner of St Stephen’s Green to get her orders. Although she turned up at the appointed place, there was no sign of Colbert so she returned home where there was general confusion: ‘different Volunteers were coming in and they left their stuff and some of them left their mobilisation orders there. It was all confusion and sorrow’ (Military Archives, MSP34/REF22326). She visited the barricades the following morning, carrying first aid and whiskey but did not gain access to any of the garrisons – it was felt that she would be more useful on the outside. She finally received orders on Tuesday morning to report to Ardee Street brewery and for the rest of the week she carried dispatches, ammunition and food between the garrisons. She helped Colbert and his men evacuate Watkins’ brewery by gathering up clothes to cover up their military uniforms, and she carried McDonagh’s order of surrender to Marrowbone Lane on the Sunday. As the week progressed, Bushell faced increasing danger from the chaotic nature of the fighting. At several stages she was caught in crossfire and on one occasion a British soldier forcibly stopped her with his bayonet.
In the immediate aftermath of the rising, Bushell sheltered rebels on the run, including Peadar Kearney, for whom she found old clothes to replace his uniform. Her house was raided constantly, so in August 1916 she moved to New Road, Inchicore. After a lull in activity in her home in late 1916 and early 1917, her house was again used for nationalist meetings while she worked evenings in the Abbey, and arms were regularly stored there. With her home once more subjected to police scrutiny and raids, Bushell began storing guns and ammunition in the theatre. After the assassination of fifteen British intelligence agents on the morning of 21 November 1920 (Bloody Sunday), she took two guns and ammunition to a friendly house. Suspecting she was involved, the Black and Tans raided her home eight times in just fourteen days, leaving her homeless for five weeks after they tore up her bed and smashed her furniture.
Following the Custom House fire in May 1921 she hid the guns of Volunteer Paddy O’Connor; she also helped him to escape following an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate a British officer on Leeson Street. O’Connor later submitted a statement in support of Bushell’s application for a military pension, in which he recalled that her house hosted the initial organisational meetings of F Company, 4th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, and was used for later conferences and as an assembly point, and that she was recognised as ‘an auxiliary member of the company … fully cognizant of company affairs and in the confidence of the officers’ (Military Archives, MSP34/REF22326). In one extraordinary anecdote, Bushell recounted a cab pulling up to the Abbey Theatre with guns, bombs, ammunition and a ‘thing they called Irish Cheese’ (Military Archives, MSP34/REF22326). This was actually ‘Irish Cheddar’, an explosive formulated by scientist James O’Donovan (qv) at the request of Michael Collins (qv), who wanted something which could be produced by those with little or no technical training. When the performance started, she brought the arms through the foyer to a waiting ass and cart; the arsenal was loaded up and then disguised with cabbages. In February 1921 she also helped members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) escape capture after two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men were killed in an ambush in Ballyfermot, and on one occasion she smuggled Michael Collins out of the Abbey when the Black and Tans had the theatre surrounded. Bushell’s revolutionary career ended with the Treaty, and she appears to have taken little active part in the civil war. Although her sympathies lay with the anti-Treaty side, poor health limited her involvement to sheltering some anti-Treaty republicans.
Bushell continued working in the Abbey Theatre throughout the revolutionary period, becoming a shrewd judge of plays. Writing for the Evening Herald in 1963, theatre and film critic John Finegan recalled ‘well known literary figures [seeking] her out to ascertain her opinion of the drama of the evening’ (Evening Herald, 12 Apr. 1963). Her love of the theatre remained absolute; author Val Mulkerns recalled Bushell as a ‘quiet-spoken little Dublin lady’ whose house was wallpapered with old playbills and photographs – Bushell kept Abbey programmes from the first night and all subsequent productions, as well as copies of Samhain (the review edited by Yeats), the Arrow magazine (published by the Abbey), and An Macaoimh (the magazine edited by Pearse and published at St Enda’s College).
Following the enactment of the Military Service Pensions Act of 1934 – which extended eligibility for a military pension to various groups, including people with pre-truce service who took no further part in revolutionary activity – Bushell applied for a pension. Though submitted in 1935, it was not until 1941 that she was granted the lowest possible pension of £19 15s 3d per annum (a personal representation was made on her behalf by Thomas Derrig (qv), minister for lands, in February 1940). Bushell continued at the Abbey until ill health forced her to give up work in March 1948. Séamus Scully, who visited her in the Adelaide Hospital during her final months, described her as a neglected and lonely figure, forgotten by many of her old comrades who were now in positions of power: ‘she was but another of the now forgotten rank and file who had answered the call of Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ (Scully, 163).
Ellen Bushell died on 11 August 1948 in her home at 2 New Road, Inchicore, Dublin. Just two days earlier she had applied for the special allowance that the 1946 Army Pension Act provided to veterans who could no longer support themselves, but died before her application was processed. Her funeral mass was held in the Oblate Church, Inchicore, and she was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, Harold's Cross, with full military honours – a tricolour was placed over her coffin, the Last Post was sounded, and a salute was fired over her grave. In contrast to the lonely figure she cut in her final months, her large funeral was attended by many luminaries of the theatrical world, including Lennox Robinson (qv), and a huge contingent of old comrades. As a mark of respect, a dress rehearsal of ‘The playboy of the western world’ was postponed – Bushell had been present at the play’s opening night on 26 January 1907 when she was almost crushed in the ensuing riots.
Like many women who took part in the 1916 rising and the subsequent fight for independence, Bushell’s contribution has remained largely unacknowledged. Although she received the 1916 medal and the service (1917–21) medal, the state had been very slow to process her pension application and then awarded her the lowest possible pension, its inadequacy clearly apparent in her need to apply for the supplementary special allowance while on her death bed. In 1966 a small plaque was unveiled in the foyer of the Abbey Theatre to commemorate the seven staff and company members who participated in the rising. Three of the seven were women: Helena Molony, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh (qv) and Ellen Bushell.