At the Cumann na mBan Convention held in October 1921 its president, Countess Markievicz, told the delegates how proud she was 'of the girls who stood in the gap of danger during the time of stress and war last winter'.
Members of the republican women's organisation had been active on the front lines as dispatch carriers, arms smugglers, scouts and intelligence agents and in the provision of food, shelter and care for the IRA.
There was 'a generous chorus of praise,' said Markievicz, 'for their courage, their capacity, and above all, their discretion … The men in the country tell me that they never could have carried on without the help of Cumann na mBan.'
Courage and capacity
The courage and capacity of Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence has long been underestimated. The scarcity of archival material led to the scant treatment of the organisation in the historiography of the Irish revolution.
The releases of the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements in 2003 and the Military Service Pensions Collection from 2014 have been crucial to providing a more detailed account of their manifold activities during the 1919-21 period. Peg Duggan for example, summed up for the Bureau of Military History the work of Cumann an mBan in Cork:
'I and my sisters devoted every spare moment of our time to harbouring wanted men, carrying ammunition and guns for the IRA, visiting prisoners in jails, providing comforts for them and carrying dispatches.'
Cumann na mBan: the early years
Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen's Council) was founded in Wynne's Hotel, Dublin in April 1914 as a female auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers. Its primary aim was to advance the cause of Irish liberty through arming and equipping Irishmen for the defence of Ireland.
Of the 276 women who were active in the 1916 Rising, the majority were members of Cumann na mBan; these women were indispensable as couriers, aides and nurses during Easter week. Like other elements of the Irish independence movement, the women's organisation enjoyed strong growth from the summer of 1917.
Cumann na mBan member Leslie de Barra, née Price, discusses her experiences in 1916. She later married Tom Barry, leader of the 3rd West Cork Brigade flying column
Delegates at the 1918 Cumann na mBan Convention, held over two days in late September, welcomed reports of the expansion of the organisation from 100 branches in 1917 to 600 branches by September 1918.
This growth, the delegates were told, was due to the 'rapid spread of republicanism throughout Ireland', the efforts of organisers such as Aine Ceannt and Leslie Price and 'to the national uprising occasioned by the Conscription threat last spring…'
Election 1918: the Cumann campaigns
Within two months of the 1918 Convention, Cumann na mBan set to work in support of Sinn Féin's election campaign. The Executive distributed leaflets setting out the new electoral rights of women as a result of the Representation of the People Act (1918), as well as providing clear instructions on how to register and where and how to vote.
Across the country, members printed and circulated election leaflets, canvassed households and arranged representatives to address public election meetings for Sinn Féin.
On polling day in several rural areas, the members helped their local Volunteer companies to provide transport and refreshments for older people, and they worked at polling booths throughout the country.
Cumann na mBan at war
Once the Dáil was established in January 1919, most of its secretarial staff was drawn from the ranks of Cumann na mBan, and the women's organisation proved invaluable in publicising and collecting for the Dáil Loan after its floatation in the summer of 1919.
Members participated in the RIC boycott, 'refusing to dance with, or even to greet the police on the street,' and a small number of women were involved in the administration and the judiciary – at district court level - of the republican courts.
Propaganda activity was a primary function of Cumann na mBan from its inception and was vital to Sinn Féin and the IRA during the 1919-21 period. As outlined in the Convention Report, 1921, Cumann na mBan's propaganda efforts took two definite directions:
'One, and our main one, was to keep up the morale of the civilian population and to let it be clearly understood that all Ireland was behind its army, no matter what the consequences. The other was to put our case before other countries.'
'The names of reliable girls...'
As well as the often-dangerous work of disseminating propaganda materials, the women of Cumann na mBan were tasked by Propaganda Director Mabel FitzGerald to collect details of British atrocities at local level for publication in the Irish Bulletin.
Senior members of the organisation travelled to the US and Europe in order to highlight the increasingly desperate conditions in Ireland. During a period of eight months in 1921, Mary MacSwiney, 'representing the Republican Women of Ireland,' visited fifty-eight cities and addressed over 300 meetings.
At home, Cumann na mBan developed in tandem with the Irish Volunteers, with a similar organisational structure. For organisers like Brighid Mullane, the first point of contact when seeking to establish a branch of Cumann na mBan was often to contact the local Volunteer officer for 'the names of reliable girls.'
The levels of cooperation between the branches of Cumann an mBan and the local Volunteer units varied across the country. In some areas, tensions arose when local IRA commanders failed to recognise the independence of Cumann na mBan or preferred not to operate alongside its members.
In many cases, however, strong familial and social ties facilitated mutual trust and support. Tom Barry, leader of the 3rd West Cork Brigade flying column, described the Cumann na mBan members he had worked with as 'sisters, relatives or friends of the Volunteers'. Barry married the aforementioned Cumann na mBan organiser Leslie Price in 1921.
The level and nature of Cumann na mBan activity also varied from place to place. It depended on local conditions and 'was intrinsically linked with the geography of the revolution.' As Nancy Wyse Power explained:
In fighting areas such as West Cork where Cumann na mBan was particularly well-organised, the members worked in direct contact with the flying columns, providing shelter, catering, carrying messages [and] hiding arms… but in general the Branches devoted themselves to whatever activity seemed most suitable to the needs of the particular area in which they were situated. Strict supervision or control from HQ was impossible.'
'Men would not have a hope...'
Less likely to be searched or arrested than their IRA counterparts, the role of women as scouts, intelligence gatherers and dispatch carriers was vital to the survival of the republican communications network during the War of Independence.
As Cumann na mBan officer in Leitrim Brigid Doherty explained, 'we could get through very often with dispatches where men would not have a hope. The enemy did not always have lady searchers with them and then only in very limited numbers.'
Despite being supressed in parts of Munster during the summer of 1919 and banned nationwide in November, Cumann na mBan maintained a visible presence on the streets of urban Ireland. According to Nancy Wyse Power 'it was felt that open activity on the part of women would help maintain public morale.'
When republican prisoners demanding political status began a hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail in April 1920, Cumann na mBan was to the forefront of the public manifestation of outrage and grief.
As the conflict intensified and republican funerals, executions and hunger strikes became more common, Cumann na mBan frequently organised prayer vigils as a form of public protest.
At a time when the Crown forces aggressively dispersed civilian demonstrations, these vigils created a safe space to express messages of solidarity and defiance. Their expression of respectable Catholicism also undermined government depictions of the independence movement as dangerous and communist-inspired.
'It was nothing unusual for me to take two or three revolvers at a time'
The intensification of hostilities after January 1920 also signalled a change in the frontline work of Cumann na mBan. One of the more dangerous activities was scouting for the IRA during road-blocking operations and the preparation of ambush sites.
To avoid encirclement by Crown forces, the women moved around the perimeter of a column, reporting any movements of nearby British forces – 'work that could only be performed by girls, as men would be quickly picked up'.
Other duties included the acquisition and transportation of arms, particularly in towns and cities where the British authorities maintained a higher presence. 'It was nothing unusual', said Mollie Cunningham, 'for me to take two or three revolvers at a time from one company area to another. In the transfer I had to pass by the sentry at the lower gate of Macroom Castle and was liable to be challenged at any moment'.
Cumann na mBan women transported ammunition from GHQ in Dublin to regional brigades, concealing it in their luggage or underneath clothing. Máire Comerford 'learned from experience that a Lee Enfield service rifle could be carried under my coat without protruding at the bottom of the muzzle was held under my ear.'
Cumann na mBan women like Peg Duggan in Cork city often hid armaments in their own homes as well as 'carrying arms from place to place before and after ambushes carried out by the Volunteers.'
Arms smuggling by women was of particular concern to the British authorities. In an interview with the Manchester Guardian in January 1921 Major General Strickland complained:
In many cases arms would be brought out for use at the scene of an ambush or other attack by women, who concealed them in their skirts. The army was not making war on women and soldiers never interfered with women unless they had direct evidence against them, so that the difficulty of getting hold of arms which were disposed of in this way could be imagined.
The intelligence war
Another vital aspect of Cumann na mBan's front-line activity was its participation in the intelligence war. Its members were of limited use when it came to information gathering in government and military circles, as their 1920 Constitution prohibited members from 'doing any kind of work for the English enemy.'
In rural areas, however, intelligence provided by Cumann na mBan was often useful to the IRA in the field. Dublin Castle documents described the women in Tralee as being very inquisitive around British personnel and always forwarding any information they acquired to the rebels.
Women who lived near RIC stations and barracks were a vital link in the intelligence chain for the local IRA and, as Marie Coleman points out, 'postmistresses played an especially important role in interrupting communications intended for the police and military and warning the local IRA of the Crown forces' plans.'
Indignities and insults
As the war progressed, the British authorities began to recognise the importance of Cumann na mBan women to the guerrilla war effort. The arrest of Linda Kearns in Sligo in November 1920 for transporting arms, ammunition and three IRA suspects meant that the organisation came under increased scrutiny.
Female searchers were introduced in late 1920 and raids on the homes of Cumann na mBan members became more frequent. Unlike the IRA men, the women of Cumann an mBan could not go on the run, leaving them exposed to threats, abuse and interrogations and later the full brutality of reprisals conducted by the Crown forces.
Brigid Brophy and some of her comrades in Carlow were threatened with being shot by British military for distributing propaganda pamphlets. 'Shortly after that, I was told by the RIC that my house would be blown up and that I would be blown up with it.'
As Lil Conlon, a member of Cork Cumann na mBan, wrote in her memoirs, 'swoops were made at 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.'
The home of Mollie Cunningham in Macroom 'was being raided and searched two or three times each week by enemy military and police forces' and when Brigid Doherty's home was raided, she 'was undressed almost naked by two female searchers'. 'I am positive', she said, 'that one of the searchers was a man dressed up as a woman'.
Running guns and knitting socks
As Peg Duggan later recorded, the perilous nature of their work did not deter the republican women from 'assisting by every means in our power in the fight for freedom.'Fundraising for the Volunteers had been a principal Cumann na mBan activity since 1914.
As well as carrying dispatches and scouting, the women in Mary Walsh's Bandon branch organised concerts and flag days, cooked and knitted socks for the flying columns, and organised a weekly chapel gate collection after masses in Kilbrittain during 1920-21 period.
Funds collected locally during these and other fundraising activities were often dedicated to providing comforts to republican prisoners, the women regularly supplementing their prison rations with parcels from the outside. Significantly, they also provided information to the prisoners' families as to their whereabouts in the early days of their detention.
'Behind the scenes of glory'
Where Cumann na mBan was not directly involved with the IRA in either combatant or support roles, it was often in the background providing support of other kinds. Its members, for example, were central to the various relief schemes administered to victims of the War of Independence.
Established in January 1921 to distribute funds raised by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, the White Cross organisation contained a number of key Cumann na mBan personnel. At local level its members were well placed to assess the families most in need to aid due to the devastation caused by the war.
Despite the passage of years, Máire Comerford could not forget her 'calls at the homes of fighting men, or dead men, where the wives or widows were learning lessons which, too often, are behind the scenes of glory'.
An episode of The History Show celebrating the centenary of Cumann na mBan, first broadcast in March 2014
This article is based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo, and its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ