Concannon, Helena (1878–1952), historian and politician, was born 28 October 1878 in Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry, one of two daughters of Louis Walsh, hotel owner in Maghera, Co. Londonderry, and Elizabeth Walsh (née Donnelly); there were also three sons. Louis Walsh had been a member of the IRB in the 1860s, and in the 1880s was the principal activist for the Land League and the Irish parliamentary party in south Co. Londonderry. Helena's younger brother Louis J. Walsh (qv) became a Sinn Féin activist and, after the establishment of the Irish Free State, a district justice in Donegal. He was also a playwright and essayist.
Helena Walsh was educated at the Loreto convents in Balbriggan and Dublin. She was awarded a scholarship by the RUI to study modern languages. She studied at the Sorbonne, the Collège de Paris, and the universities of Rome and Berlin before graduating BA with first-class honours from the RUI (1900), and MA (1902). In 1929 she received an honorary D.Litt. from the NUI. She became active in the Gaelic League, where in 1900 she met her future husband, Tomás Concannon (also known as Tomás Ó Concheanainn) a native of Inis Meáin, in the Aran Islands. He had emigrated in 1885, but had returned to Ireland from Argentina for the 1798 centenary celebrations; he was a lifelong activist for the Irish language, and later was a government official and writer. They married (23 July 1906) in Maghera, and moved to Salthill, Co. Galway. Patrick Pearse (qv), who was her Irish teacher when she first joined the Gaelic League, named their home Lios na Mara (house by the sea). Helena Concannon was an advanced nationalist rather than a home rule supporter; her brother Louis supported Michael Collins (qv) and the Anglo–Irish treaty while she opposed the treaty, but they remained close despite such differences.
In the 1920s and 1930s Concannon published several books on the history of Irish women, including Women of Ninety Eight (1919) and Irish nuns in penal days (1931). She was one of the first historians who focused in any way on women's contribution to life in Ireland; but she tended to highlight the part played by women, not in their own right, but as the mothers, wives, and sisters of the men of Ireland, and she was interested particularly in the nationalist and Roman catholic aspects of life. Her work reflected the prevailing attitude of the catholic church towards the role of women, and was strongly nationalist in outlook. Books such as The queen of Ireland (1938), about Irish devotion to Mary, contributed to the contemporary development of the idealisation of a staunchly catholic and nationalist family, with a devout, brave, and gentle mother at its heart, as a basis for society.
Concannon generally relied on printed sources rather than primary documents, though she did break new ground in research in convent and religious order archives, and she wrote prolifically. More than a dozen books, several frequently reprinted, did much to shape ordinary people's attitudes to Ireland's past. In 1924 she won the Tailteann award for Daughters of Banba (1921) and won it again in 1932 for St Patrick: his life and mission (1931). The Poor Clares of Ireland, 1629–1929 (1929) won the NUI's Irish historical research prize in 1929. Pope Pius XI accepted a specially bound volume of The blessed eucharist in Irish history (1932), and in 1933 sent her an apostolic benediction. She wrote other religious biographies – one, for instance, of Blessed Oliver Plunket (qv) in 1935 – and in 1915 produced a biography of St Columbanus (qv). She also contributed reviews, essays, and devotional articles to the religious magazine the Irish Messenger and to other journals, including the Irish Independent newspaper.
In 1933 Concannon was elected a Fianna Fáil TD for the NUI constituency. She was one of three women TDs, out of a total of 152, in the dáil in 1937; radicals dubbed them the ‘silent three’ for their failure to make any substantive contribution during the debate on the draft of the 1937 constitution (Bunreacht na hÉireann). She supported the constitution because it enshrined a strongly republican and catholic ethos, and expressed her hope during the debate that not one comma of the ‘noble document’ would be altered. She remained a member of the Women's Graduate Association, even though that organisation generally differed from her on the role of women and had been actively involved in opposition to what the WGA regarded as dangerous threats to women's rights in the draft constitution. When the 1937 constitution took effect, the dáil university constituencies were abolished, but Concannon went on to represent the NUI in the seanad from 1938 to 1951. Mainly concerned with supporting de Valera and Fianna Fáil, Concannon was generally unsympathetic to feminist issues and seldom commented on contentious moral questions. Instead, she generally asserted that women should concentrate on maternal and domestic duties. She supported the idea of rural domestic schools in Ireland, similar to those established in Belgium, and expressed her belief that recently established organisations, such as the Irish Countrywomen's Association, would help stop the flight from the land. In a speech in the senate (19 July 1951) she hoped that women would come to appreciate the importance to society of their hard work in agriculture.
She died 27 February 1952 in the Bon Secours Hospital, Dublin, and was buried in Galway. The president of Ireland, Seán T. O'Kelly (qv), attended the removal, and the taoiseach, Éamon de Valera (qv), went to Galway for the funeral. Galway corporation adjourned its meeting for a week as a mark of respect. Her husband survived her; they had no children.