ANALYSIS: Lá na mBan, 9 June 1918
by Mary McAuliffe
On 29 June 1918 the Freemans Journal, under the heading ‘Women and the Menace’, published reports of mass meetings of women, which had occurred throughout Ireland from 9 June. The ‘menace’ referred to was conscription, and Irishwomen had come together on 9 June and in subsequent days, in their tens of thousands, to sign a pledge which reinforced their active resistance to the introduction of conscription in Ireland. The pledge read ‘because the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny, we are resolved to resist the conscription of Irishmen. We will not fill the places of men deprived of their work through refusing enforced military service. We will do all in our power to help the families of men who suffer through refusing enforced military service.’ The names of signatories were entered into ledgers and note books; and the pledge could also be signed on an authorised artistic certificate which, the organising committee said, would be ‘a reminder of a unique incidence in the life of the women of Ireland’.
Lá na mBan / Women’s Day, was planned and organised by the Women’s Day General Committee, presided over by the long-time activist, nationalist and historian, Alice Stopford Green. In response to the passing of the Military Service Bill in April (it became law on 18 April), there had been a gathering in the Mansion House on that day, called by Dublin’s Lord Mayor, Lawrence O’Neill. Attended by Sinn Féin, the Irish Party, the Labour Party, and other nationalist parties, a strategy of resistance to the Bill and to conscription was agreed on. A Sinn Féin pledge which declared that conscription was ‘a declaration of war on the Irish people’ was adopted and all present swore to ‘resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal'. The Catholic Church could provide an effective framework of mass mobilisation, the pulpit and the parish network. As historian Charles Townsend noted, this ‘fusion of clerical and political leadership transformed Irish politics’. With the backing of the Church, Sunday 21 April was a day of anti-conscription activism, fund raising, incendiary speech-making and pledge-signing outside churches, in parishes, towns and villages across the country; with priests stating that they would ‘lead their people to death, sooner than accept conscription’. Hundreds of thousands signed the pledge, over £250,000 was collected for the Defence Fund and a surge of new membership of the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan and other nationalist organisations was noted around the country.
Other effective methods of resistance were provided by the trade union movement, the Labour Party and the women’s organisations. On 20 April, a special meeting of the Irish Trade Unions Congress (ITUC), attended by about 1,500 members, affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription. In all areas except north-east Ulster the strike was hugely successful: pubs, shops, railways, newspapers, factories closed and all transport ground to a halt. Organised and led by the unions and the Labour Party, much of the country was shut down while, despite a ban, almost every town and city had marches. At City Hall in Dublin, thousands converged to sign the anti-conscription pledges. Interestingly women, organised by the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU) and Cumann na mBan, took their own pledge which included the promise not to ‘fill the places of men deprived of their work through enforced military service’. Indeed, the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) reinforced this pledge by hanging a banner from the window of its headquarters, which read ‘Conscription - No woman must take a man’s job’. This was a promise that, should forcible conscription occur, women would not blackleg. So successful was the general strike that the Irish Times noted that ‘April 23 will be chiefly remembered as the day on which Irish Labour recognised its strength’. It was, as Townsend noted, ‘the final nail in the coffin of the conscription project’.
This mass mobilisation of resistance brought an end to any active attempts to impose conscription, but also an intensification of repression from the authorities which continued to impact on republicans. In May 1918, some 73 prominent Sinn Féiners, as well as three prominent women activists - Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke - were arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), charged with conspiring with Germany (the so-called ‘German Plot’) and deported to prisons in England. The Lord Lieutenant, Lord French, stated he was willing now to accept 50,000 ‘volunteers’ in lieu of outright conscription, and initiated a coercive recruitment campaign. Resistance to this campaign continued from all the groups who had rejected conscription. One of these groups was a resurgent and growing Cumann na mBan. Drawing on its pre-1916 experience of running anti-recruitment campaigns, the women organised flag days, with the slogan ‘Women won’t Blackleg’, and anti-conscription meetings in various places throughout the country. Initially, the plans for a Women’s Day in June, against conscription, came from the Women’s Day Committee which was set up in late April by the more pacifist Irishwomen’s International League. Their aim of was to launch a ‘women’s covenant’ to resist conscription. Presided over by Alice Stopford Green, the original committee included Louie Bennet, Madame Nancy O’Rahilly, Susan Mitchell, Helen Laird, and Helen Chenevix. They decided that 9 June, the feast of St Colmcille, would be the Women’s Day of peaceful protest about conscription.
However, without the support of the largest women’s nationalist organisation and the women’s trades unions, the Women’s Day Committee would have had difficulty bringing about a countrywide mass movement of civil disobedience. Representatives of Cumann na mBan, the IWWU, The IWFL the International League, the Drapers’ Assistants, Shirtmakers and Tailoresses, Catholic Votes and Brushmakers were brought on board. Cumann na mBan and the IWWU were the two biggest organisations capable of bringing large numbers of women out in protest. Cumann na mBan, in particular, was anxious to take over proceedings and, as one of its executive members, Nancy Wyse Power, wrote: ‘Cumann na mBan feared that the demonstration [planned by the Women’s Day Committee] might conceivably prove inadequate.’ Wyse Power had to explain to the Women’s Day committee ‘that Cumann na mBan proposed to take over the project and run it themselves’. The committee made little resistance to this, she added, because, as she pointed out, Cumann na mBan ‘were in a position to arrange a nation-wide demonstration’. While all the different women’s groups on the committee had been involved in the General Strike on 23 April, Lá na mBan would be a spectacular culmination to their ongoing resistance to conscription, and Cumann na mBan, resurgent and growing in numbers, was, indeed, best placed to deliver on country wide involvement.
On the day itself, in Dublin, it was, however, the women of the IWWU and other women’s trade unions and professional bodies who provided the largest numbers of signatories. Over 2,400 Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) women, who ‘made the biggest show’, marched on City Hall, while over 700 uniformed members of Cumann na mBan, many carrying haversacks and water bottles, and marching in military formation, converged there as well. The Irish Times reported that over 1,000 of the Dublin Tailoresses signed, as did women members of the Irish Citizen Army, the IWFL, National Federation of Women Workers, the Catholic Business Girls, as well as a contingent of girl munition workers who ‘marched in a body to City Hall and signed the pledge’. The Times also reported that ‘delegates attended from various convents with lists of nuns’ names’. About 13,000-14,000 women came to City Hall throughout the day to sign the pledge, and over 40,000 signed it in the Dublin area. In the rest of the country, Cumann na mBan dominated proceedings.
Interestingly, the City Hall Lá na mBan pledge signing was one of the few places which did not include a religious aspect. The Women’s Day Committee had recommended that women turn out to sign the pledge in every town and parish and then ‘form a procession to a church or place of pilgrimage, or local memorial of national history’. In most places, the signing of pledges was accompanied by marches to local churches or holy wells, sometimes led by a marching band, where the rosary was said or mass was celebrated. For instance, in Clonegal, Co. Carlow, 400 women who had signed the pledge, received benediction from the local priest, and, accompanied by the Clonegal band, marched to the ‘half parish of Kildavin’. In Cahir, Co. Tipperary, 1,204 women signed the pledge and ‘walked in procession from the Convent grounds to the church, where Benediction was give and the Rosary recited’. In Sneem, Co. Kerry, after 12 o’clock mass ‘Cumann na mBan and other local women’s societies [signed] the pledge, and an address was given by Fr J. O’Donoghue C C’. After a procession to a local holy well, all gathered in the Church to hear a sermon on ‘the Life and Times of St. Columcille’.
In Cobh, Co. Cork, 800 women, ‘having signed the pledge, marched in procession through the principal streets headed by the Belvelly Pipers Band…after a stirring address by Mrs Mary McGillesen in the Town Hall, the rosary was recited’. The Donegal News reported that there was a splendid turnout ‘of the women of Derry, who marched from St Columb’s Hall to Long Tower Church where devotions were conducted’, while, in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, 2,000 women went ‘in processional order to the Church of the Immaculate Conception’. Only in the mostly unionist north-east of Ireland was the response to the Women’s Day / Lá na mBan pledge signing slow. Outside of the north east, from Donegal to Waterford, Galway to Dundalk, this was the pattern of pledge signing on 9 June, and in subsequent days, as pledge signing continued into July. For instance, in Cork the pledge was not signed until 7 July, when Cumann na mBan members were ‘at every church door’ getting women to sign. In the end, it is estimated that two thirds of Irishwomen signed the Women’s Day / Lá na mBan anti-conscription pledge.
As noted by historian Senia Paseta ‘Woman’s Day signified that women’s protest had become a fact of Irish political life by 1918’. It also signified that the resurgent Cumann na mBan was now the biggest, most influential women’s organisation in the country. The religious aspects of the pledge signing in rural areas and small towns, were also obvious, as noted in the Irish Citizen, ‘it was a glorious movement at once National, Religious and Historic’. The undertones of religiosity which would be prevalent in most Cumann na mBan public acts of civil disobedience during the period 1919-1923 were on display, outside of Dublin especially, during Lá na mBan. Activism on the terrible pay and conditions which working women endured was also seen as secondary to nationalist needs, particularly the need to resist conscription; so much so that women munition workers were organised to signed the pledge not to blackleg. However, for Cumann na mBan, the momentous success of Women’s Day / Lá na mBan was an enormous propaganda coup. The very public demonstrations of its ability to organise nationwide, mass events of civil disobedience brought in new members and gave it the knowledge and experience in mass organising which it could and did put to use in delivering the female vote for Sinn Féin the December 1918, General Election. Women’s place in public political activism, while still contested, was now firmly established.
Dr Mary McAuliffe is a historian and assistant professor in Gender Studies at UCD