In 1922, the women of Cumann na mBan overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty - and played an active role in the subsequent Civil War, from the Battle of Dublin to assisting flying columns. Margaret Ward tells their story.
On 7 January, Dáil Eireann, by 64 votes to 57, ratified the Treaty. The six female TDs, all members of Cumann na mBan, voted against. Four – Margaret Pearse, Kathleen Clarke, Mary MacSwiney and Kate O'Callaghan – had lost male relatives during the years of war, but all rejected accusations that their losses had affected their decision.
On 5 February Cumann na mBan became the first major organisation to reject the Treaty, by 419 votes to sixty-three. Pro-Treaty members formed a new organisation, Cumann na Saoirse, to support the Free State government. Kate O’Callaghan introduced a motion in the Dáil on 2 March calling for 'the equal admission of Irish women to the Parliamentary Franchise on the same terms as Irish men’ before any vote on the Treaty was put to the electorate.
She reminded the deputies that the proclamation of Easter Week had promised a government ‘elected by the suffrages of Irishmen and Irishwomen.’ The defeat of this motion helped to reinforce many women’s opposition to the Treaty settlement.
Cumann na mBan member Máire Comerford, looking at posters announcing ‘Saorstat Éireann’ (Irish Free State), recalled that she and her comrades ‘did not like it. We wanted no change from "Poblacht na hÉireann" (Irish Republic), of the 1916 Proclamation.’
Although some Cumann na mBan members left the organisation after the convention, branch returns of the numbers in 1921 and 1922 show that this was not a significant loss. For example, Dublin retained 75 per cent of its members. The women who emerged were younger militants who favoured the increasing militarisation of the organisation, which now worked very closely with the IRA.
Cumann na mBan membership returns in the Military Service Pensions Collection show a Civil War strength of 12,248 against a War of Independence membership of 17,119, a decline of twenty-nine per cent. These figures are partial, because many branches and district councils did not submit returns to the Irish Government when this data was collected in the 1930s.
The map shows Cumann na mBan branch membership at the outset of the Civil War. The organisation appears healthiest in counties that provided the strongest opposition to the Free State: Kerry, Tipperary, Mayo, and Wexford. The urban areas of Dublin, Cork, and Limerick also appear well-organised.
However, there is little or no organisation recorded in numerous parts of the country. While some of this may be due to a lack of reporting, it also appears that Cumann na mBan either never formed branches in some locales, or that existing branches collapsed owing to a lack of republican supporters.
Civil War Begins
On 22 June, the anti-Treaty headquarters established in the Four Courts was issued with an ultimatum to evacuate or be taken by force. On 28 June bombardment of the building began. Women mobilised quickly. Bridie Clyne rushed to the Four Courts where she drove an ambulance, carrying supplies to the other garrisons.
When Máire Comerford heard the artillery fire she raced out to her bicycle and cycled in. She was given the task of maintaining links between the Four Courts headquarters and the Dublin Brigade. Under the command of Oscar Traynor, members of the Dublin anti-Treaty IRA had ensconced themselves within various hotels along the east side of O'Connell Street.
The Battle of Dublin
After the fall of the Four Courts there was a week-long ‘Battle of Dublin’, with seventy men and thirty women occupying the block of buildings stretching from the Hammam to the Gresham Hotel. Nora and Ina Connolly took charge of a first aid post in Tara Hall, where Leslie Price and other Cumann na mBan women reported for duty.
When the bombardment of shells left the buildings engulfed by flames the entire area had to be evacuated. Linda Kearns, Kathleen Barry (sister of Kevin) and Muriel MacSwiney were the only three women left with Cathal Brugha and his garrison. When they surrendered on 5 July, Brugha refused to give himself up and was shot while rushing out of the building with gun in hand. Linda Kearns, a trained nurse, held his severed artery as he was driven to hospital. The fighting in Dublin left 300 wounded and sixty killed.
On 9 July, Caitlín Brugha made a public request for the women of the republican movement alone to act as chief mourners and guard of honour at her husband’s funeral. Her decision was a protest, she declared, against the ‘immediate and terrible’ civil war that had been instigated by the Provisional Government.
Brigid O’Mullane, who had come from Sligo to report to Tara Hall as soon as word of the attack on the Four Courts had reached her, ended up as despatch rider for Erskine Childers. She was now appointed Director of Propaganda for the anti-Treaty republicans.
Brigid, Maire McKee and Nellie Hoyne established an office and produced a weekly ‘War Bulletin’ newsletter. She also organised Cumann na mBan squads to paint wall slogans with messages like ‘Soldiers of the Republic are true to their oath’, keep records of raids, arrests and shootings and arrange for attendance at IRA inquests. It was, Brigid recalled, ‘secret and dangerous activity, against terrible difficulties.’ She was arrested in November, when National Army troops raided the office, and not released until the final release of prisoners.
The Guerrilla Phase
Anti-Treaty feeling was strongest in the most southern regions, which is where the IRA now found itself being pushed by its opponents. It had to break up into smaller and smaller units and the work of the women became even more vital for the small roving guerrilla bands struggling against the advance of the National Army.
Leslie Price, Director of Organisation for Cumann na mBan, had been engaged in developing military training for members throughout the truce period. She moved south after the fall of Dublin, working with Seán Lemass, IRA Director of Communications.
She organised systems of communication between Dublin and the Southern Command, but her chief work became ‘organising women to assist flying columns, to attend to the wounded and arrange for changes of clothing and transfer of ammunition and arms.’ One hazard was that a flying column was liable to take the women with them, ‘as a kind of blind alley’, and then, ‘travelling with an armed body of men, you might run into ambush.’
Eithne Coyle was given the task of carrying despatches between the First Northern and Third Western divisions of the IRA. She was arrested in September as she arrived by boat outside Donegal town. After spending six weeks at Rock Barracks in Ballyshannon she demanded a transfer, to be told that she had been doing a man’s job and should be prepared to be treated like a man.
For six weeks Ernie O'Malley hid in the Dublin house of the widowed Nell Humphreys. Others living there were Nell’s sister Ȧine (treasurer of Prisoners' Aid), Nell’s daughter Síghle, a prominent member of the Ranelagh branch of Cumann na mBan, and her son Dick. On 4 November, with National Army troops surrounding the house, O’Malley came out firing, accidentally wounding Ȧine O’Rahilly in the face. All were arrested and imprisoned.
Commemoration in Kilmainham
The 1923 commemoration of Easter Week in Kilmainham Gaol was a potent reminder that most of the female relatives of the original leaders were now, seven years later, still fighting for the Republican ideal. The women marched to the place where the executions had taken place in 1916. In front were Nell Humphreys and Ȧine O'Rahilly, representing The O’Rahilly, shot by the British on Moore Street.
Grace Plunkett, widow of Joseph, unfurled the Tricolour. Lily O’Brennan, incarcerated in the same cell that had once held her brother-in-law, spoke on the life and death of Eamon Ceannt. Grace Plunkett then spoke about her husband Joseph and Nora Connolly concluded the ceremony by reading the Proclamation of the Republic and her father James’s last statement. Dorothy Macardle, writing for Éire, the anti-Treaty paper edited by Constance Markievicz, remarked that ‘it was as if the voices of our dead leaders were speaking to us again.’
There were at least 12,000 people in jail, of whom over 500 were women, and female prisoners participated in several hunger strikes throughout this period. We know that there were at least four and probably more female fatalities among women activists, killed by Free State soldiers.
The ill-treatment of women prisoners reached a climax during what became known as the North Dublin Union (NDU) riots, when they received vicious beatings and assaults at the hands of Free State soldiers and guards.
The cause of the riot was the refusal of women in Mountjoy and Kilmainham to accept being transferred to the NDU. In Kilmainham, eighty-one women refused to allow themselves to be removed to the former workhouse because of their concern over the condition of Mary MacSwiney and Kate O'Callaghan, both of whom were on their twenty-fifth day of hunger strike.
On 24 May 1923 Frank Aiken, the new chief-of-staff, issued orders to the remaining anti-Treaty troops to dump arms and cease fire. Cumann na mBan was not consulted. De Valera accompanied Aiken’s ceasefire order with a message to his troops entitled ‘Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard’, which failed to make any mention of the contribution of the women
In December, all the women prisoners and many of the men were set free.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.