Eithne Ní Chumhaill (Coyle O’Donnell), from Killult, near Falcarragh, Co Donegal, became a member of Cumann na mBan in 1918. As head of the Co Donegal branch of Cumann na mBan Coyle played a leading role in mobilising her members to canvass on behalf of Sinn Féin for the 1918 general election. Between 1918 and 1919 she lived for a time in Dungannon as a Gaelic League organiser before moving to Co Longford to set up Cumann na mBan branches. She subsequently became Gaelic League organiser in Co Roscommon.
During the War of Independence whilst Coyle was based in the Longford-Roscommon area she became a close comrade of the local IRA, providing them with sketches of a local police station that she knew. Regularly harassed by Black and Tans in Roscommon, with her house twice wrecked by members of the organisation, she was arrested on New Years Day 1921, charged with harbouring seditious documents and sentenced to three years’ penal servitude, mitigated to one year, without hard labour. She was imprisoned in Roscommon, Athlone and Mountjoy. In keeping with Cumann na mBan policy, she refused to recognise the court during her trial. She noted in her private papers, ‘I read a newspaper during the whole comedy and only raised my eyes once to tell the presiding officer that he was wasting his precious time, as I did not recognise his sham court, as I spoke Irish one of the police had to translate my seven words of wisdom’.
Four of these women decided to draw up an escape plan. They were: Linda Kearns from Co Sligo, Aileen Keogh from Co Carlow, May Burke from Co Limerick and Eithne Coyle from Donegal. Linda Kearns was the main organiser; after a wardress left her keys on the table, she was able to make wax impressions which were smuggled out during a visit and the duplicate keys smuggled back in on another visit.
On the evening of 30 October 1921, The female prisoners were participating in a football match, Cork versus the Rest of Ireland (the Rest of Ireland won). The prisoners created plenty of noise, and the four female prisoners plotting their escape seized the moment. Linda Kearns, Eithne Coyle, Mae Burke and Eileen Keogh made their move. Throwing a small perfume bottle over the wall at the agreed spot, a rope ladder was returned. Linda went first, due to ill-health, followed by Eileen Keogh, Mae Burke and lastly Coyle O’Donnell.
During early 1922 Coyle’s activities saw her frequently arrested by pro-treaty forces although on each occasion she was released without charge. However, in September 1922 the Provisional Government decided to crack down on the activities of Cumann na mBan and Coyle was the first member to be arrested as part of this move. Initially held at Ballyshannon she created another first there by becoming the Cumann na mBan member to go on hunger strike, refusing food for seven days as there was no female prison guard. After being detained at Buncrana Barracks for two weeks Coyle was eventually taken to Mountjoy Prison by boat, some eight weeks after her initial arrest.
Eithne was elected as President of Cumann na mBan in 1926, a post she held until her resignation in 1941. She married Bernard O’Donnell, a Donegal IRA man, in 1935.
A letter from Peader O’Donnell dated 19 April 1945 in support of her application for a military service application noted she was targeted severely during the Irish Civil War by the Irish Free State forces who ‘regarded her more as an IRA officer than as Cumann na mBan organiser, which indeed she was’. She would also become notorious for her involvement in two high-profile prison escapes in the 1920s.
Eithne collected many documents and memorabilia about Cumann na mBan which can be found in the Eithne Coyle O’Donnell Papers in University College Dublin. She died in January 1985.
Mrs. Bernard O’Donnell (Eithne Coyle), Bureau of Military History statement: http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0750.pdf#page=2
Photo: May Burke, Eithne Coyle and Linda Kearns in Duckett’s Grove, Carlow, 1921, photo credit: 1916 Easter Revolution in Colour