APRIL’S WARRIOR WOMEN
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY Historian
In early 1900, Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein, broke a cane over the head of the editor of the society paper Figaro for writing that his friend, Maud Gonne, was an English spy. Granted, she was English-born, but Maud was no Brit. She arranged a meeting of 15 women in the Celtic Literary Society Rooms in Dublin on Easter Sunday, 15 April 1900 for the purpose of presenting the gift of a blackthorn stick to Griffith to replace the one he had broken. Discussion at the meeting turned to the coming visit of Queen Victoria and the women decided to organize a Patriotic Children’s March the same day to protest the royal visit which was to encourage Irishmen to enlist in the British Army to fight in the Boer War; Griffith and Gonne supported the Boers. More that 50 women joined the committee, raised funds, obtained gifts of sweets and drinks and led 30,000 children and parents in a march across Dublin to Clonturk Park for a picnic and anti-recruitment speeches. It was so successful they were reluctant to disband and so set up a new organization for women to continue anti-British activities, they called it Inghinidhe na hÉireann (in-NEE-ne na-HAIR-in), the Daughters of Ireland.
Their strong leanings towards nationalism with elements of feminism soon found expression in their paper Bean na hÉireann which carried articles by leading nationalists from Pearse and Connolly to McDonagh and Markievicz and was edited by Helena Molony. Their aims were to encourage Irish language, Irish culture and Irish products and boycott all that was British. They opposed Home Rule, opting instead for full independence and the concepts of self reliance preached by Sinn Féin but, they did so much more than that. They politicized a whole generation of Irish women, many of whom were in favor of more active opposition.
Then on 25 November 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed to counteract the Ulster Volunteers formed in 1912 and: to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland. In 1913, a group of women, inspired by Bean na hEireann, met in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin to discuss organizing women to work with the new Irish Volunteers. They wrote a constitution and on 2 April 1914, a meeting, chaired by Agnes O’Farrelly, formed Cumann na mBan (CUM-un na-MAHN): The Council of Women. Recruits pledged to the Constitution of the organization which contained explicit references to the use of force by arms if necessary. The primary aims of the organization were to: advance the cause of Irish liberty, to organize Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object, assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defense of Ireland and form a fund for these purposes to be called ‘The Defense of Ireland Fund’. Branches formed throughout the country and in 1914, Inghinidhe na hÉireann was absorbed into Cumann na mBan while some members who were more labor-oriented, like Helena Moloney, joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. As Cumann na mBan members supported the Defense of Ireland Fund, they recruited from white-collar workers, professional women and a significant proportion of the working class.
On 23 April 1916, when the Military Council finalized preparations for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan with the Volunteers, Citizen Army and Hibernian Rifles into the Army of the Irish Republic. At the close of the first day of the Rising, Cumann na mBan members were in all the major patriot strongholds throughout the city except Boland’s Mill and the South Dublin Union held by Éamon de Valera and Eamonn Ceannt. They worked as nurses, gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions, carried despatches and transferred arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds. They and the Citizen Army women were also combatants; Constance Markievicz killed a policeman at St. Stephen’s Green at the start of the hostilities and carried out sniper attacks on British troops with Mary Hyland and Lily Kempson. Helena Molony was among the Citizen Army company which attacked Dublin Castle and occupied City Hall as snipers. At the General Post Office, Pearse insisted that most of the women leave at noon on Friday, 28 April as the building was being shelled and many casualties were anticipated; Winnie Carney refused to leave the wounded James Connolly. Pearse said that: when the history of this fight would be written, the foremost page in the annals should be given to the women of Dublin who had taken their place in the fight for the establishment of the republic. He told the women that their presence had inspired the men whose heroism, wonderful though it was, paled before the devotion and duty of the women of Cumann na mBan and he prayed that God would give them the strength to carry on the fight.
The next day, 29 April, the leaders surrendered to prevent the deaths of more innocent civilians from the indiscriminate shelling. At the Four Courts, the women organized the evacuation and destroy all incriminating papers while at the now HQ in Moore Street, nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was asked to act as a go-between.
Nurse O’Farrell carried the surrender to General Lowe under a white flag and under British military supervision, brought it to the various units still fighting across the city. More than 70 women, including many leading figures in Cumann na mBan, were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail.
After the Rising, the women did carry on the fight as Prearse knew they would. A revitalized Cumann na mBan, led by Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Daly Clarke, took a leading role in lionizing the memory of the 1916 leaders, organizing prisoner relief and canvassing for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, in which Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. She refused her seat and sat instead in the revolutionary Dáil Éireann as a Teachta Dála (TD – Delegate to the Dail). She was Minister for Labor from 1919 to 1922. During the War of Independence, the women hid arms and provided safe houses for volunteers, helped to run the Dáil Courts and produced The Irish Bulletin, official newspaper of the Republic. In the Irish elections of May 1921, Markievicz was joined by fellow Cumann na mBan members Mary MacSwiney, Dr. Ada English and Kathleen Daly Clarke as Teachtaí Dála.
On 7 January 1922 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by 64–57. On 5 February a convention was held and 419 Cumann na mBan members voted against as opposed to 63 in favor. In the ensuing Civil War, most of its members supported the anti-Treaty forces. More than 400 of its members were imprisoned by the Provisional government which became the Irish Free State in December 1922. Some who supported the Treaty changed their name Cumann na Saoirse (Council of Freedom), while others kept the name and supported the Free State.