‘Remember me is all I ask, And if remembrance proves a task, forget’ … May Gibney, April 1923
On 2 April 1914, over 100 women gathered in Dublin to discuss the role of women in the lead-up to revolution. The meeting, at Wynn’s Hotel, was presided over by Agnes O’Farrelly.
The first provisional committee of Cumann na mBan included Agnes MacNeill, Nancy O’Rahilly, Mary Colum, Jenny Wyse Power, Louise Gavan Duffy and Elizabeth Bloxham.
They adopted a constitution which stated their aims were:
– To Advance the cause of Irish liberty
– To organise Irish women in the furtherance of that objective
– To assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland
– To form a fund for these purposes to be called the ‘Defence of Ireland Fund’.
All had one aim:
‘To establish and maintain a Republic by every means in their power against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’
Other activities they were to engage in training for included first aid, drill and signalling, rifle practice.
The third and fourth objectives caused immediate controversy, particularly in the pages of the suffrage newspaper the Irish Citizen, where members of Cumann na mBan were referred to as ‘slave women’.
There were accusations from feminists that the Cumann na mBan women were ‘handmaidens’ to the Irish Volunteers, which was seen as a retrograde step for the women who had been campaigning for female emancipation. In their defence, Mary Colum said that Cumann na mBan ‘decided to do any national work that came within the scope of our aims’. ‘We would collect money or arms, we would learn ambulance work, learn how to make haversacks and bandolier… we would practise the use of the rifle, we would make speeches, we would do everything that came in our way—for we are not the auxiliaries or the handmaidens or the camp followers of the Volunteers—we are their allies.’
On the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Cumann na mBan stated that urging any Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British army was ‘not consistent with the work we have set ourselves to do’. Like the Volunteers, Cumann na mBan split on this issue, with many women backing John Redmond and the National Volunteers.
However, while numbers may have declined post-split, those women who remained were committed to the cause of Irish freedom and dedicated to growing the organisation. They rendered service as couriers (known as ‘basket girls’ or ‘pram women’) delivering dispatches to IRA commanders throughout Ireland. They organised céilís, cultural productions, first aid classes, rifle training and signalling. They had participated in the Howth gun running, having helped raise money for the guns that were smuggled in. Almost all of the women (other than those in the Irish Citizen Army) who participated in the Rising were members of Cumann na mBan.
They were active in all the outposts, except for Boland’s Mill. At the Four Courts they helped to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and to destroy incriminating papers. This was exceptional; more typical was the General Post Office (GPO), where Pearse insisted that most of them leave at noon on Friday, 28 April. The building was then coming under sustained shell and machine-gun fire, and heavy casualties were anticipated. The following day the leaders at the GPO decided to negotiate surrender. Pearse asked Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O’Farrell to act as a go-between. Under British military supervision she brought Pearse’s surrender order to the rebel units still fighting in Dublin. In the Marrowbone Lane Distillery outpost, Rose McNamara, leading the Cumann na mBan women there, presented the surrender of herself and 21 other women. The women of the garrison could have evaded arrest but they marched down four deep in uniform along with the men. Over 70 women, including many of the leading figures in Cumann na mBan, were arrested after the insurrection, and many of the women who had been captured fighting were imprisoned in Kilmainham; all but 12 had been released by 8 May 1916.
In 1916 there were three branches in Dublin: central, with headquarters at 25 Parnell Square; Inghinidhe na nÉireann, based at 6 Harcourt Street; and Columcill in Blackhall Place. In contrast with other organisations, the Cumann na mBan preserved its position after the Rising and it is probably because of its existence that the struggle for independence continued. The commitment of women before, during and after the Rising helped to bring the Irish nation to support the separatist movement. The widows of those executed in Kilmainham Gaol after the Rising did more to draw attention to the independence movement than any other group. The widows and female relatives of the executed and captives filled the voids in leadership and ensured that Irish independence did not die with their loved ones.
At its 1918 convention, the members reaffirmed their role in fighting for an Irish Republic, but also insisted that they would ‘follow the policy of the Republican Proclamation by seeing that women take up their proper position in the life of the nation’ – that is, to be full and equal citizens of the new republic.
During the War of Independence, Cumann na mBan played vital and front-line roles against the forces of the British state. They participated in gun running, message carrying and running safe houses. They faced constant raids on their homes by the Black and Tans, and were often violently mistreated.
Lil Conlon, in her memoir, stated that in April—September of 1921, ‘Attention had been focused on the Women very much at this time by the Authorities… they realised fully that Women were playing a major part in the Campaign. The going was tough on the female sex, they were unable to ‘go on the run’, so were constantly subjected to having their homes raided and precious possessions destroyed. To intensify the reign of terror, swoops were made in the night, entries forced into their homes, and the women’s hair cut off in a brutal fashion as well as suffering other indignities and insults.
With members such as Mary and Muriel MacSwiney, Kathleen Clarke, Nora Connolly (daughter of James Connolly), Mabel Fitzgerald (mother of Garrett Fitzgerald) and Countess Markievicz, Cumann na mBan reflected nationalist Ireland and played a crucial role in the politics of the time. Members were invaluable in gathering intelligence, transporting arms, nursing wounded men, providing safe houses, and organising support for IRA men in prison. They also boosted attendance at election rallies, funerals and protest marches. In 1922 the organisation overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty. This resulted in a substantial split and the formation of Cumann na Saoirse (Free State Cumann na mBan) from the minority who were in favour of the Treaty.
The Free State Government’s awareness of Cumann na mBan’s assistance to the IRA after the 1916 Rising resulted in large-scale imprisonment of republican women during the Civil War. But Cumann na mBan had placed equality for women on the political agenda and demonstrated women could be as politically active and capable as men.
The censure of republicans by the Roman Catholic Church did not affect the Roman Catholic member’s commitment to the church of their birth. Their Christian values remained with them to the end.