Women from all walks of life, all over Ireland, were just as interested in Irish Independence as their male counterparts in the Irish Volunteers, The Citizen Army, and Sinn Féin.
Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) was founded by Maud Gonne-MacBride in 1900. It had a political, social, feminist agenda. Its aims were full Independence for Ireland with Gaeilge as its national language, and the study of Irish literature, history, music, and art. This was their attempt to combat in every way possible, the English influences that had permeated all aspects of Irish culture over the past seven hundred years.
It was no surprise that these women, who had been aware of the need to promote Irish Nationalism in all its forms for the good of the country, set out their stall in a manner that they thought would befit a Free State. They became acutely aware that something needed to be done to further the cause of Irish Independence; by force, if it became necessary. The majority of these women came from an educated, professional or semi-professional background. Importantly, however, many working-class women were involved as well. These women wanted to further the cause of education for all girls and women in particular.
In 1913, at a meeting led by Kathleen Lane-O'Reilly (née Shannahan) at Wynn’s Hotel Dublin, a group of like-minded women discussed the possibility of forming an organization for women who would work in conjunction with the recently formed Irish Volunteers.
Cumann Na Mbann (The Irish Women's Council) formally came into being on April 2, 1914, and subsequently subsumed Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). With just over one hundred women in that room, they knew that they were taking on a mammoth task, as the subject of that discussion was the role of women in the lead-up to the revolution.
The woman who presided over that meeting was Agnes O’Farrell, and the first provisional committee of Cumann na Mbann included: Agnes MacNeil, Nancy O’Rahilly, Mary Colum, Jenny Wyse Power, Louis Gavan-Duffy, and Elizabeth Bloxham.
They adopted a constitution with their stated aims being:
The formation of Cumann na mBann, with the stated aims set out above, did not go unnoticed. It caused immediate controversy with the suffragette newspaper The Irish Citizen, who referred to the members as "slave women." For some in the feminist movement, the Cumann na mBann members were seen as "handmaidens" or slaves to the male Irish Volunteers; a backward step for these feminist women who had been campaigning for female emancipation.
Nonetheless, these brave women supported the Irish Volunteers in their call to arms for an Irish Free State. When John Redmond (Irish Parliamentarian) made an appeal to The Irish Volunteers to enlist in the British Army at the outbreak of World War I, there was a stark rebuttal of anywhere between 2000-3000 Irish Volunteers ignoring this appeal. Cumann na mBan stood united in their support of these men – stating as always that their aim was for a Free State.
Over the next two years, Cumann na mBan swelled in their recruitment drive and practiced military drilling, rifle shooting, first aid, and anything else that may be required in a siege situation. They knew only that there would be a Rising, but were not told when this event was actually going to take place. They were not shocked or surprised that, at the eleventh hour, they were advised to be ready for the call of duty to their country the very next day.
On the 23rd of April, 1916, the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood made the fateful decision to go ahead with the Easter Rising (not forgetting that the Rising was initially to have taken place the day before.) Cumann na mBan were at last taken into the confidence of the Military Council. They were told that they (along with The Irish Volunteers and The Citizens Army) were to be integrated into "The Army of the Irish Republic." Patrick Pearse was appointed as the overall Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic and James Connolly was appointed as the Commandant-General of the Dublin Division.
As a united Cumann na Mbann unit, they set out early on the morning of the Easter Rising to be advised in what capacity there were going to be involved, and where they were going to be based. By nightfall, these brave women insurgents had established themselves alongside their male counterparts in all the major rebel strongholds throughout Dublin City (the exceptions being Boland’s Mill and the South Dublin Union, held by De Valera and Eamonn Ceantt respectively.)
Winfred Carney was the first woman through the door of the General Post Office with a Webley Revolver and a typewriter. For the most part, these women worked as Volunteer Red Cross workers, assisting in whatever way they could. Not perceived as any real threat by the British Army, they were able to gather intelligence on scouting expeditions; they carried dispatches from one unit to another and transferred arms from their holding places across the City to other insurgent strongholds. It has been said that Nora Connelly (daughter of James Connolly) did more than make bacon sandwiches for the troops; standing steadfast beside her father every step of the way.
Countess Markievicz (based at St Stephen's Green along with Mary Hyland, Liz Kempson, and other unknown women) had already taken up arms and had already shot a policeman in the head. It was the Cumann na mBann unit of women at St. Stephen's Green who demanded that they be allowed to take the Shelbourne Hotel by force of a bomb if it became necessary.
Unbeknown to them, however, the British troops had entered the Shelbourne at nightfall by the rear entrance on Kildare Street. At dawn the next morning, the British troops opened fire on the unprotected open space at St. Stephen's Green. The fighters there only had dugouts to shelter them from the onslaught, forcing the Irish troops to retreat. Undeterred, a group of twelve Cumann na mBan, including Countess Markievicz, Mary Hyland, Lily Kempson, made their way to Trinity College. They broke in, found fifty rifles and bullets, and made their way back to their unit. By this time, the Irish troops had retreated to a smaller but stronger trench, taking over the College of Surgeons.
Helena Maloney was one of the women who helped form the attack on Dublin Castle and then went on to work with the wounded Irish Soldiers. Along with other Cumann na mBan members, she did everything to ensure the troops had rifles, bullets, and food. All these women combined their skills and their efforts to maintain crucial support to the fighting men. A number of Cumann an mBan died during the Rising, including Margaret Keogh: shot dead outside South Dublin Union.
At the Four Courts and Mount Street Bridge, Cumann na mBan helped in much the same way: keeping the men supplied with rifles and food. They also organised the evacuation of the buildings at the time of the surrender and destroyed incriminating documents, lest they fall into the wrong hands. The destroying of documents also took place at other strongholds, including the General Post Office.
The following day, on the 29th of April, with many casualties of both men and women, the call to surrender was made. Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O’Farrell, a mid-wife, was asked by Pearse to take the surrender order to Dublin Castle. Under British military supervision, and with assistance from the Capuchin Friars, these surrender orders were taken all over Dublin to the various strongholds throughout the City. Some of the leaders had difficulty comprehending the surrender document, thinking that it was either a false document or that Patrick Pease had been put under duress to sign it. Other volunteers who knew Elizabeth O’Farrell and knew the Capuchin Friars had to persuade all the men that it was indeed a true document. De Valera was loath to accept this surrender order, but in the end, he had to command his troops to lay down their weapons.
After the surrender, over seventy women, including many of the leading figures of Cumann na mBan, were arrested and sent to Kilmainham Gaol. All but twelve women were released by the 12th of May, 1916.
After their release from prison, Cumman na mBan members were instrumental in popularizing the memory of all the 1916 Easter Rising Leaders. They also organized prisoner relief agencies, opposed conscription, and canvassed for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general elections. Countess Markievicz was elected Teachta Dála (member of the Dáil.) Still imprisoned at this time, she later became the Minister for Defence of the Irish Republic from 1919-1922.
We mustn't forget women such as Mable Fitzgerald, Muriel McSwiney, Kathleen Clarke, Countess Markievicz, Nora Connolly, and all those other women who have not been mentioned and remain unknown. Female Irish nationalists played a crucial role in the politics of the time. They continued to do so, despite the fact that W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, banned the organization in January 1923, and opened up Kilmainham Gaol as a detention prison for suspect women.
Cumann na mBan had always maintained throughout its short existence that they would not be deterred from doing what they thought was the right thing. They also believed that the only way for Ireland to achieve its goal of becoming become a Free State was to aid and support their male comrades in the Army of the Irish Republic
Mary Colum, one of the leaders of Cumann na mBan, defended their actions by stating that they intended "to do any national work that came within the scope of our aims." They certainly did that, and more.
We salute Cumann na mBan, these forgotten courageous heroes of 1916.
More from this series:
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams. Now available to order at Waterstones USA . England /Ireland