Women’s rights and the national struggle, 1916-1922

by Philip Ferguson; this is chapter 9 of the thesis

 

In this chapter, I will be looking at the role of women in the national struggle between 1916 and 1922, the activities of women’s rights organisations – especially the IWFL – during this period, the interconnections between the “national question” and the “woman question” and how these were reflected in the activities and debates which went on within and between the organisations involved.  I will show that women were involved on a substantial scale in radical political activity – in feminist, republican and labour struggles – and gained in both practical experience and self-confidence.  At the same time, women were affected by the limited goals of much of the male leadership of the independence movement.  This leadership’s social views acted as an obstacle to women’s progress and ensured, at the time of Treaty settlement, that women’s large-scale involvement in national political life was no longer wanted.  The conservatism of much of the male leadership will be contrasted with the radicalism of many of the women activists.

…………………………………..

When the Irish Volunteer leadership, most especially Hobson and MacNeill, capitulated to Redmond in June 1914, the leadership of Cumann na mBan had been horrified.  Not surprisingly, when the split between the Redmondites and the IRB/MacNeill group came, with most of the IVs siding with the Parliamentarians, the vast majority of Cumann na mBan stayed with the Irish Volunteers.  In these cases, and again in the future, the republican women stood to the left of much of the male leadership of the movement.[1]

 

Women and the Easter Rising

By 1915, despite the continuing criticisms of the IWFL, Cumann na mBan had, to some extent, moved beyond its initial role of fund-raising for the men-only Irish Volunteers.  For instance, the branch to which Kathleen Clarke belonged now “ran lectures, classes in first aid, signalling and rifle practice, lessons in cleaning and loading rifles and small arms.”[2]  In Belfast, rifle practice was carried out and a number of the women became excellent shots.  Belfast Cumann na mBan even challenged the local Irish Volunteers to a shooting competition.  Winifred Carney, one of Connolly’s chief associates in organising female mill workers and present in the GPO during the Rising, won one of the competitions.[3]  However, the nature of these branches can be explained in large part by the fact that Clarke’s branch was the one which the Inghinidhe women had joined, while Nora Connolly was the Belfast organiser for Cumann na mBan.  These women ensured that activities were implemented which challenged accepted notions of women’s role, but overall the organisation remained separate from and subordinate to the all-male Volunteers.

In contrast, the Irish Citizen Army, the workers’ militia, involved both sexes at all levels – in the ranks and the leadership.  Markievicz was a member of the seven-person Army Council, Dr Kathleen Lynn held the rank of lieutenant and was in charge of the medical section, and Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen was a sergeant.  Interestingly, the class background of the women who held ICA rank was entirely different from both the men and women in the ranks and the men at officer level.  ICA males were entirely working class.  Markievicz, Lynn and Ffrench-Mullen were all women of independent means – the latter two solidly middle class, the former an ex-member of the upper class itself.[4]

The fact that such women were welcomed in the ICA, and readily accepted as officers, is indicative of the lack of gender and class narrow-mindedness of Connolly and Mallin and the working class rank-and-file.  Of course these women from privileged backgrounds had already shown where their class sympathies lay, by taking the workers’ side during the 1913-14 labour dispute.  This dispute had played the key role in bringing together the most militant sections of both women’s groups and organised labour.  However, it is also probably indicative of the position of working class women.  Working class women were involved in the ICA, especially via the ITGWU/IWWU, but the nature of their position in society placed severe limits on their ability to be involved on the same terms as their male fellow workers or as their better off sisters.  (Indeed women such as Markievicz, Lynn and French-Mullen were better-placed to devote time and energy to the ICA than the average male industrial worker.  The main influence acting against such women’s involvement would have been the disapproval of their class and they had already shown that they were not at all bothered by that.)  For working class women, however, constraints on involvement were conditioned by family responsibilities and the precarious nature of their paid employment.

Most of these women “worked at sewing or in factories”,[5] even more ground down than their male counterparts.  It was difficult enough for the men to have the time and energy for training, drilling, midnight route marches, or to be able to walk off the job at any time a mobilisation order was issued by Connolly at Liberty Hall; for working class women it was nigh on impossible.  Nevertheless they took part in most ICA activities, including many route marches and the bomb-making at Liberty Hall.[6]  Markievicz, for instance, has described women in the ICA as being “absolutely on the same footing as the men.  They took part in all marches, and even in the manoeuvres that lasted all night. . .  Connolly made it quite clear to us that unless we women took our share in the drudgery of training and preparing, we should not be allowed to take any share in the fight.  You may judge how fit we were when I tell you that sixteen miles was the length of the average route march.”[7]  When the ICA hoisted the Irish flag over Liberty Hall, it was raised at the top of the building by a woman Army and IWWU member – Mollie O’Reilly.[8]

During the Rising itself, the main roles played by women were as couriers, nurses and cooks, although Citizen Army women were generally armed and a number of them took part in the fighting.  ICA member Margaret Skinnider was seriously wounded while on a mission to fire several buildings.[9]  About half the small revolutionary contingent which attacked Dublin Castle were Citizen Army women.[10]  Although the ICA composed only one-tenth of the total rebel force in Dublin, ICA women made up a third of the total number of women who took part.  Their formidable activities are given testimony in the diary of Douglas Hyde.  The entry for Sunday April 30 mentions a priest telling him that at the Stephen’s Green surrender there had been “a good many women” and that they “shot as well as the men”.  Hyde noted, “I suppose they were the Countess Markievicz’s girls.”[11]

While some of the work done by Cumann na mBan – such as couriering – was highly dangerous,[12] these women generally played a more background, supportive (and traditionally “feminine”) role than their ICA sisters.  At the start of the Rising many Cumann na mBan women were left unclear about the roles they were supposed to play and, upon turning up at some rebel posts, were sent home.  When Pearse, Connolly and Clarke were informed of this on the Monday night they immediately sent off an order making clear that women must be accepted at all the posts.  Even then de Valera, commanding Boland’s Mill, ignored the order – an indication of things to come.[13]

The top leaders’ attitude to women’s rights, however, was clear in their record of support for female suffrage, the involvement of women in the Rising, the enshrining of gender equality in the Proclamation, and their decision to make Hanna Sheehy Skeffington a member of the five-person civilian government to be established if the Rising could be sustained.[14]  The attitude of de Valera found its counterpart in the horror of the Irish establishment at the involvement of women in insurrection.  The Irish Times declared, “It is deeply to be deplored that amongst the rebels, working their insensate folly, women were found doing unwomanly work. . .”  Amongst these “Judases and Brutuses of the race” committing “Treachery and Treason”, the paper particularly noted Markievicz.  Repeating a Mrs Nelson it related that even in her youth Markievicz had shown “eccentricity”.  In her adulthood, she “is said to have had a room for her spiritual exercises, the shelves of which contained many human skulls.  Although connected with some of the noblest families in England, she appears to have cut herself completely adrift and to have consorted with a class of persons of a kind very different from those with which she associated in early youth.”  The shocked Mrs Nelson had recently seen her often, “sometimes in such shabby attire as would almost cause one to offer her charity.”[15]

About ninety women had participated in the Rising, a number of them slipping away amidst the surrender.  Seventy-seven women were, however, arrested at the end of the Rising and in the swoops which followed.  Of these, six – Markievicz, Moloney, Carney, Marie Perolz, Brigid Foley and Nell Ryan – were held for longer than token periods.  All were ICA women.[16]  Markievicz herself may have been lucky to escape execution, as Sir Horace Plunkett recorded in his journal meeting the Provost Marshall, Lord Powerscourt, who told Plunkett that he had been begging the authorities to shoot her.[17]

Prison life for the women, especially Markievicz who was held the longest, was hard.  In Aylesbury where she was confined with ordinary criminals, one of the few bright spots was the presence of the suffragist Mrs Wheeldon who, although protesting her innocence, had been convicted of attempting to assassinate Lloyd George.  Markievicz greeted her warmly.[18]  She would subsequently give a vivid description of the conditions in that prison, writing of baths so dirty prisoners refused to use them until they were washed, vermin crawling all over the prison, the porridge ladle left for the night in a dirty pail with the brush which was used to sweep the lavatory, mattresses indescribably filthy, disgustingly dirty tins to eat from, and regular suicide attempts by inmates, one by cutting her throat, another by setting fire to her cell, others by trying to hang themselves with the ropes used in making mailbags, while more swallowed buttons and huge needles.[19]

 

Women and the revival of the national struggle

If women had played an important part in regenerating the revolutionary spirit in Ireland – through Inghinidhe na hEireann and activity in nationalist organisations, through militant suffragism, and through class organisations such as the ITGWU/IWWU – and therefore helped make the Rising possible, their role after its defeat was, if anything, more important.  For, as Ward has noted, “Only the women remained free to consolidate this new mood and generate a new movement; it all depended upon their energy and their commitment.”[20]  Farrell also has commented that the women now “became the spearhead of militant nationalism in Ireland.”[21]  These remarks do not exaggerate the situation; virtually the whole male leadership core and much of the rank and file was in prison.[22]  If the movement was to survive and ensure that the Rising was not just another glorious defeat, it would be up to the women.

The organisation which stepped in to the breach was Cumann na mBan, while the key individual was probably Kathleen Clarke.  The republican women’s group had masses said for the dead rebels and also organised after-mass meetings.  (It must be remembered that military rule made it impossible for most organisations associated in any way with republicanism to function, public meetings and republican activity generally was banned.  Masses and associated meetings were amongst the few means through which opponents of British imperialism could organise.)  Clarke, the keeper of the IRB resources – both financial and organisational – organised the Irish Volunteers Dependants Fund, keeping it independent from an attempt by figures associated with the IPP to take over the field.[23]  Cumann na mBan activists took on the arduous collecting and distributing of funds.  They organised fetes, flag-days, church gate collections and other fund-raising efforts, often in defiance of the authorities.  Shortly after the Rising, republican women also organised a march of 400 in Dublin.  Three women and four men were arrested, following an affray with police.[24]

The arduous work of reorganising the IRB and making contact again with the Clann na Gael in the United States fell to Kathleen Clarke.  She worked to find IRBers still at large and sent out instructions to local areas to continue drilling, arming and organising for the renewal of the struggle.[25]  She, along with William O’Brien of the ITGWU, also organised a short-lived and unsuccessful campaign to have the bodies of the executed leaders returned to their families.  At the funeral of her uncle, the old Fenian John Daly, in Limerick in July, Irish Volunteers appeared in public in military formation for the first time since the Rising.[26]

This work must have been extremely difficult for her, given that she had just lost her husband, had three children to look after, little money of her own, and that she was ill several times following the Rising.  Moreover these illnesses appear to have been connected with losing the baby she was carrying at the time of the Rising.[27]

Women also took the message of Irish republican resistance abroad.  Citizen Army women such as Nellie Gifford (another former Inghinidhe activist), Skinnider and Nora Connolly, addressed successful meetings in the United States, as did Min Ryan of Cumann na mBan.  Skinnider wrote an account of her involvement in the Rising, which was published in New York in 1917.  Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, formerly a strong critic of aspects of republicanism, became one of the most ardent and powerful republican speakers and propagandists in the US.  She spoke at 250 meetings and even gained a brief audience with President Wilson.[28]

However, as the growing public sympathy for the rebels’ cause – and probably a desire to smooth the way for recruitment and, possibly, conscription, and woo the United States – encouraged the British to begin releasing prisoners, republican men began taking over control of the movement again.  Michael Collins for instance took charge of the National Aid and Volunteers Dependants Fund, a key stepping-stone in his rise to political prominence.[29]  He was given this post by Kathleen Clarke and, with it, she probably also gave him the IRB money, contacts and other information with which she had been entrusted by the Supreme Council on the eve of the Rising.  Although Clarke continued to play an important part in the movement she essentially receded from the top level to the second-tier political level.

As the Irish Volunteers became increasingly important, essentially calling the shots, and women could not be members, the sphere of women’s activity and their possibilities to be part of the leadership and to influence the political development of the movement and struggle were limited.  The spaces left open for them were Cumann na mBan, which was still an auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers, and the reorganised Sinn Fein.  This limiting of opportunities was exacerbated by the disorganisation of the one group in which women could play a military role and in which support for gender equality was strongest – the Citizen Army.  The execution of Connolly and Mallin effectively beheaded the little workers’ army and the ITGWU leaders who came after Connolly showed little inclination to reform or revitalise it.

Helena Moloney and some other ICA women tried to do something to raise the banner of the ICA.  For instance, on the first anniversary of Connolly’s execution they planned a public event to commemorate him and thus militant labour’s role in the Rising.  The event was banned by the British and in the end Moloney and half a dozen other women barricaded themselves on the roof of Liberty Hall with a huge banner.  Most of the 1916 women, however, directed their energies away from the disorganised Citizen Army.  Apart from the general problems of having virtually no resources, no leadership and lacking support from the ITGWU leaders, the ragged remains of the ICA after the Rising appears to have recruited some new women members who had questionable backgrounds as far as the 1916 women were concerned – some of the new women had scabbed during the 1913-14 labour struggle.[30]  Newer members also lacked the same social and political views as the ICAers who had fought in the Rising.

The veteran ICA women tended to move to other groups.  Lynn, Markievicz, Ffrench-Mullen, Moloney and Carney, for instance, went to the reconstructed Sinn Fein.  (It appears, however, that Markievicz maintained nominal membership of the ICA Army Council and Kathleen Lynn presided at the court-martial of O’Neill, the main ICA leader in the immediate post-Rising period.[31])  Moloney also played an important role in the labour movement, being president of the ILPTUC in 1918.  What happened to the rank-and-file working class women in the ICA is less clear, although it appears that they generally continued to play an active part in the republican struggle during the War for Independence.  Fox records that twenty women took part in ICA active service operations during the war for independence and civil war (where they fought on the anti-Treaty side).[32]  It seems certain that other ICA women, although no longer involved in “active service” operations took part in other ways in the struggle during these years – some possibly as members of Cumann na mBan, as militant trade unionists, and in providing safety for republican weapons and republicans on the run.

In June 1917 the final Irish prisoners were released, Markievicz being among the very last group.  Her return to Dublin, like that of the men the day before, was an immense triumph for the republicans.  But it was also an immense triumph for herself and for women.  Huge crowds turned out to welcome this fighting, revolutionary woman, clearly something quite new in an Irish society still rooted in a combination of British Victorianism and traditional Irish Catholic ideas about women.  (It is important to remember that she, like –  but probably even more than – the other 1916 women, had broken all the taboos of their society about class, gender and national politics.)  Interestingly, Markievicz’s return, which took place several months after the February Russian Revolution, was marked not only by the symbols of resurgent Irish republicanism but also those of proletarian revolution.  Ella Young has recorded how the bridges over the Liffey were “a-toss with red flags, and the people were singing The International.”[33]   Although the release of the male prisoners limited the areas of women’s leadership, it did mean that women would have to be more assertive in the remaining areas of political activity open to them.

In April 1917, when Count Plunkett convened the All-Ireland Conference, the IWFL asked to attend.  The IWFL, probably to their own detriment, refused Plunkett’s reasonable request that in order to attend they would have to declare as an openly nationalist organisation.  Thus they were not admitted as an organisation, but individual IWFL members took part.  In May, a group of old Inghinidhe members initiated a women’s conference.  Representatives attended from the executive of Cumann na mBan, along with ICA women and IWWU members.  This gathering established Cumann na dTeachtaire, a coalition of women aimed at ensuring that the independence movement promoted an understanding of women’s concerns and enabled women to participate in its leadership.

 

Women and Sinn Fein

In September 1917, following requests from Cumann na dTeachtaire that a group of women be added to the executive which had undertaken to reorganise Sinn Fein, Aine Ceannt, Jennie Wyse Power, Helena Moloney and Grace Plunkett were co-opted.  Kathleen Lynn, who had been standing in for an ill Countess Plunkett, was kept on the executive after the countess’ recovery.[34]  Thus, briefly, there were six women on the organising executive.   The October 1917 reorganisation convention of Sinn Fein, making it the mass political movement of opposition to British rule and for Irish independence, saw the election of four women – Markievicz, Lynn, Clarke and Grace Plunkett – to the party’s executive.[35]  While the women made up one-sixth of the executive, probably far more than any other large political party in the world at the time, this was less than previously.  More significant that the change in numbers on the executive however was a defeat on an important political issue, one which provided an example of the attitude of a significant number of men and which was a foretaste of things to come.  This was the fight over Eoin MacNeill.

MacNeill topped the poll in the executive elections, although Markievicz wanted to keep him out of the reorganised republican movement altogether and had openly denounced him at the convention for the role he had played in 1916.  Before the ard fheis Markievicz had visited Kathleen Clarke to discuss the question of how best to attack and isolate MacNeill, whom she saw as representing the most conservative and wavering, and therefore treacherous, elements in the nationalist movement outside the IPP.  Tom Clarke, in his cell shortly before his execution, had already urged upon his wife in relation to MacNeill, “I want you to see to it that our people know of his treachery to us.  He must never be allowed back into the National life of the country, for so sure as he is, so sure will he act treacherously in a crisis.  He is a weak man, but I know every effort will be made to whitewash him.”[36]  In the run-up to the ard fheis Clarke had invited de Valera and MacNeill to her house and there, on July 28, she confronted the latter over his actions in 1916 and told the two men what her husband had said.  MacNeill denied that he had signed the Proclamation;[37] de Valera urged her to keep quiet in the name of unity.  She initially agreed and therefore refused Markievicz’s suggestion that she, as Clarke’s widow who had directly been instructed about MacNeill, should open the attack on him at the ard fheis.  Markievicz then said that, if Clarke would not launch the attack, she would do it herself.  Although Clarke advised against this and told the countess that she would not back her, Markievicz launched a fiery attack on MacNeill at the convention anyway.  Far from gaining a sympathetic hearing, she met with such a hostile response that Clarke decided she would have to join in the attack on MacNeill and give her fellow revolutionary sister some support.

“It seemed,” Clarke wrote later, “that the meeting was so hostile to her for attacking MacNeill that if there had been rotten eggs or anything else handy they would have been flung at her.  This amazed me; here was a woman who had come out and risked her life, had been sentenced to death and imprisoned for her participation in the Rising, and Irishmen were ready to do violence to her for attacking a man whose action had caused the failure of the Rising, and who had not participated in it.  The thing was hard to understand, and under the circumstances I felt bound to stand by her.”[38]  In Clarke’s view the anger directed at Markievicz had been because, in attacking MacNeill, she had ignored the wishes of the Irish Volunteers.[39]

The ominous nature of this incident, in relation to women, was that it showed that, in the eyes of many of the male would-be “revolutionaries”, it did not matter what revolutionary credentials a woman had, she and her opinions were not worth those of a man even though he might be completely lacking in such credentials.  It signified that republican women would play no part in determining the politics of the post-1916 movement.

Not surprisingly, MacNeill’s champion at the convention was de Valera, the man who ensured that MacNeill and, more importantly, the anti-revolutionary politics and instincts which he embodied, would rule over the revolutionary stance embodied by Markievicz.  In this sense, the incident was ominous not only for women but also for the working class, the rural poor and anyone seeking complete national liberation.  It made clear that socially conservative middle class elements, who had already proven their hostility to revolutionary action, were to be welcomed and provided with central leadership positions and influence while women and workers who had shown their total commitment to Irish freedom, and without whom national freedom could simply not be won, were to be tolerated while they were needed and attacked when they pressed their own political views and/or their class and gender interests.  It was indicative of the politics which were to hold sway in the pan-nationalist alliance which carried out the post-1916 struggle.

Formal commitment to women’s rights, in line with the Easter Proclamation, was, however, reaffirmed at the convention.  Moreover, this was not a ruse or simply politicking – whatever the socially conservative views of sections of the male leadership, the bulk of republican activists clearly were genuinely sympathetic to the democratic and egalitarian spirit of the Proclamation.  This was, we must remember, a new generation, much of which rejected the moral hypocrisy of those who had driven Parnell from Irish politics a generation earlier.  Furthermore, many of these young activists had been through the Gaelic League, one of the few organisations in which sexual segregation was not practised.  The men’s views were reflected in their preparedness to welcome women as fellow comrades in the struggle for national freedom, in the continuous and obviously deliberate inclusion of the word “women” alongside “men” in policy statements and declarations of general intent, in support for women’s right to vote, and in the advancement of women within the political movement.  (Of course, this is not to suggest that they were entirely unaffected by the dominant notions of women’s place, nor to suggest that their commitment was always consistent or deep-rooted in a conscious, ideological sense.)

Before the convention Cumann na dTeachtaire women put forward a resolution for the SF executive itself to present at the ard fheis calling for an emphasis on gender equality “in all speeches, leaflets and pamphlets for the benefit of women hearers and readers who, so far, have had no political training.”[40]  At the convention the resolution was actually strengthened by the addition that gender equality was to be part of the rules of Sinn Fein and through the deletion of the words beginning “for the benefit. . .”  Thus, equality for women was now to be emphasised in all speeches and leaflets, regardless of who they were for.  Griffith, chairing the session, supported the motion, declaring “From the day we founded Sinn Fein we made no discrimination as to sex for any office in the organisation” and that “It must be made clear that women are just as eligible as men for any position in the country.”[41]  The adoption of this resolution was welcomed by Irish Citizen, which offered “hearty congratulations” to the republicans for “endorsing and embodying. . . in the most unequivocal terms, the democratic principle of the complete equality of men and women in Ireland” although it was also disappointed by the small number of women delegates.[42]

 

Women’s rights organisations and the national question

Following the Sinn Fein convention, Cumann na dTeachtaire became formally established, its aims being the safe-guarding of women’s rights, ensuring adequate female representation in the republican government, urging the appointment of women to public boards, and educating women in their rights and duties as citizens.  In February 1918, the whole executive of Cumann na mBan was co-opted into Cumann na dTeachtaire and all republican women on public boards were also invited to join.  The organisation produced leaflets and articles on women’s rights and promoted the appointment of women to positions both within SF and on public bodies.  The IWFL and Cumann na dTeachtaire drew particularly close.  After 1916, the IWFL and Irish Citizen, now edited by Louie Bennett who had also taken over the IWWU after Helena Molong’s imprisonment, had become increasingly nationalist.

The Rising and its aftermath, while dividing women’s groups along the lines of the national question, had tended to bring even closer together the most radical women (and men) from the pre-1916 years.  This united energy went into campaigns such as opposition to conscription.  At the end of April a mass meeting of women took place in Dublin pledging women’s opposition to any attempts to introduce conscription into Ireland.  The IWFL, along with the explicitly republican women’s groups, backed the April 23 general strike against conscription.  On June 9 women held their own national day of action on the issue and also pledged not to take the jobs of conscripted men.  Among the women’s marches were one of 1500 in Waterford and 3000 in Tipperary.[43]  Hundreds of thousands of women also signed the anti-conscription pledge.

The Easter Rising appears to have been a watershed for the IWFL.  Not only did many of the men whom it felt most sympathetic to their cause end up being executed by the British, but IWFL leader Francis Sheehy Skeffington was also a casualty of British brutality.  British rule became more clearly seen as the obstacle to liberation.  As McKillen notes of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s political evolution after the Rising, “Like the separatists at whom she had previously scoffed, Hanna became convinced that Irish independence was the key to emancipating women.  The Easter rebels’ endorsement of equal citizenship for women reinforced this belief.”[44]

The IWFL’s paper, Irish Citizen, noted several months after the Rising, “The ranks of the suffragists have been sadly depleted by the events of Easter Week; the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army were suffragists almost to a man, the women prominent in the movement were all convinced and practical exponents of the doctrine of equality of the sexes. . . what they practiced (sic) they preached themselves.”[45]  This was certainly a far cry from both earlier attacks on Cumann na mBan as glorified collecting boxes and criticism of the IV movement as militarist.

Criticism has been made of the way republican separatism allegedly got in the way of the building of a mass women’s movement around purely feminist goals during these period.[46]  Apart from the fact that national liberation and women’s rights were linked by the very nature of Irish society – and neither one was achievable without the other – there were some substantial immediate impediments imposed by British imperialism to the organising of purely feminist activities.  For instance, the Annual Report of the IWFL for 1918 remarks that the Conscription Act and “the militarist reign of terror” by the British authorities made it impossible to carry on normal suffrage activities.  All the group’s energies were, by sheer force of circumstances, “diverted into Anti-Conscription Propaganda.”[47]

This fact serves to reinforce the view that the national and women’s questions could not be dissevered.  Women’s issues, like those of the working class, existed in the framework of a society conditioned by foreign imperialist rule.  Every institution and facet of Irish society – from patterns of land ownership, to the form of capitalist development, to institutions such as the Catholic Church – were products of British rule and struggles against that rule.  Every struggle for progress, democracy, modernisation and so on, eventually had to confront the reality of British rule.  The IWFL which, before 1916, had kept a certain critical distance from organised republicanism now had either to become part of the broad movement for Irish independence, and fight for women’s rights within that framework, or acquiesce in British rule and discredit itself amongst the majority of Irish women.  That it kept going in the very difficult circumstances it confronted, that it in effect joined the mass movement against British rule while maintaining both its commitment to women’s rights and a critical perspective towards much of the male leadership of the national liberation movement, seem to me points very much in its favour rather than points to criticise.

This involvement was also not without immediate benefits for the IWFL.  McKillen, who carefully scanned the “IWFL Notes” section of Irish Citizen from 1916-mid 1919, comments that involvement in the prisoners and anti-conscription campaigns “apparently gained the IWFL increased popular support” and that attendance at its meetings increased during this three-year period.[48]  At the same time, the organisation continued campaigning for voting rights for women, organising several demonstrations and a number of deputations to the British prime minister.  McKillen sees as one of the gains of this continuing suffrage agitation that the Representation of the People Act, passed at Westminster and made a part of British law in January, was extended to Ireland.[49]

Further evidence of the inter-related nature of women’s and national liberation and the effects of this on women’s groups is furnished when we look at attempts to unite women outside of the national question.  A range of women’s groups, for instance, were able to co-operate in 1918 in campaigning around the issue of venereal disease and against Regulation 40D of the Defence of the Realm Act.  this regulation allowed any women to be arrested and subjected to medical examination “on suspicion” by the police or on the word of a soldier.  Ten women’s groups sent representatives to a conference on this issue, while another 18 sent supportive messages.  Active opposition to this regulation, along with campaigns for the vote, opened up the possibilities for merging some of these women’s groups, especially the IWFL and the IWSLGA.  But as the 1918 general election approached, the question of who was to rule in Ireland – the Irish people or the British government – was posed.  Political differences between women, as between men, on the future of the country could simply not be avoided.  One of the results of these differences was the collapse of the proposed IWFL-IWSLGA unification, as the IWFL put it, “Owing to the disturbed state of the political atmosphere.”[50]

It might also be noted that IWSLGA founder Anna Haslam voted Tory in the 1918 general elections, while a partial indication of the thinking in the IWFL can perhaps be gleaned from one of their meetings, on “The Future of Feminism”, in early 1919.  Mrs Connery told the IWFL meeting that the present social and economic system was the root of the problems facing women and that a “social revolutionary movement” was “the most hopeful outlook” for “advanced feminism”.  Women could not rely on any body of men, but had to be in a position to ensure their own liberty, she said.  She also noted that during the war “women’s work and energy had been exploited – that was, they had been called out of the home and out of the various so-called women’s spheres to do work, and now that the war was over they had been cut adrift, and sent back to their old sphere of economic dependence.”[51]

While Cullen Owens is right on one level that divisions amongst women meant “the possibility of a potentially effective women’s movement in the new state diminished”,[52] she fails to come to grips with the reasons for these divisions and see that they were inescapable.  She is therefore left simply mourning the fact of their existence.  Women at the time, however, did not have this luxury of present-day feminist academic writers.  They could not throw their hands up in the air at the political divisions created by the national question – they had to take them into account and work out strategies on that basis.  In short they had to get on with it and find ways of advancing women’s rights in the actual conditions of the time.  Additionally, as McKillen has noted, “it is unlikely that various suffrage groups would have united to work for women’s causes after 1918 even if there had not been a nationalist struggle in Ireland.”[53]  Many Irish suffrage groups closed after the partial winning of the vote while, in countries like the United States and Britain, where quite different political conditions existed to those in an oppressed nation with a national liberation struggle in full swing, franchise reform spelt the end of feminism as a major public movement anyway.[54]  I would argue that the granting of the vote served to reveal the class and political differences among women which had been obscured while all women were denied such a fundamental right.

One organisation specifically concerned about the conditions of working class women was the IWWU.  Its secretary, Helena Moloney, was imprisoned after the Rising and her place in the union was taken by suffragist, pacifist and labour organiser Louie Bennett.  Whereas Moloney had seen the organisation of a women’s trade union as a temporary measure and was primarily committed to an overall revolutionary perspective in which national, labour and women’s issues were combined, Bennett was a strong supporter of the idea of industrial organisation of women and keeping the IWWU clearly separate from male workers’ and nationalist organisations.  The IWWU appears to have registered significant growth after the Rising, with an increase in strike activity – in 1916 it engaged in five strikes, in 1917 it won strikes in laundry and printing – a campaign for equal pay and other organising work.  In October 1917 the IWWU meeting at the Mansion House attracted the largest audience of women workers ever recorded.[55]  Yet the IWWU, like the IWFL, could not help but be drawn into the national political struggle.  For instance, the campaign against conscription clearly affected working class women.  The IWWU involved itself in this and in campaigns for the release of political prisoners.  Bennett, as well as leading the IWWU, took over the editorship of the Irish Citizen.

The rights of women as women, and as workers, were both expressed in the newspaper.  Given that Cumann na mBan, by far the largest anti-establishment women’s organisation, had no paper of its own – and, given the nature of the censorship and general repression, was probably not in a position to establish an open publication – Irish Citizen played an essential role in articulating the interests of women.  The resurgence of women’s, labour and republican activity drew Cumann na mBan, the IWFL and IWWU closer together in the several years after the Rising.  But, as the repression intensified and the war dominated much of Irish society, and having achieved the vote, the IWFL went into decline.  Membership slumped and Irish Citizen went from a monthly to quarterly schedule in 1920.  In the end, it was raided and smashed up by British forces, never to reappear.  Writing in the final issue, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington noted,     “. . . now in Ireland the national struggle overshadows all else. . .  There can be no woman’s paper  without a woman’s movement, without earnest and serious minded woman readers and thinkers, and these have dwindled perceptibly of late partly owing to the cause above mentioned and partly because such a measure, however limited, of suffrage has been granted, women are forging out their own destiny in practical fields of endeavour.”[56]  Indeed, while the IWFL was fading away, thousands of young women were joining Cumann na mBan.

The IWWU continued through 1919 and early 1920 to make headway, winning notable wage increases for female printers, tobacconists and laundry workers and helping form the Irish Nurses Union and the Domestic Workers Union.  Given the fragmented nature of domestic work, the way in which these workers were more at the mercy of employers than were most other workers, and that almost a third of women in paid employment were domestic workers the establishment of the latter union was a substantial achievement.  From mid-1920 the picture becomes unclear, with IWWU Minute Books for the period between then and the end of the civil war giving no record of strikes or growth.[57]

 

Women and the 1918 elections

The 1918 British general elections brought with them the question of women candidates.  There appears to have been a reluctance to nominate women candidates – in particular a certain duplicity could be seen at the level of the IRB and Sinn Fein executives to keep Kathleen Clarke from being a candidate.  For instance, Harry Boland and Richard Mulcahy told the local Sinn Fein organisation in north Dublin city, where she had been nominated, that she had already been ratified as a candidate in Limerick, although this was untrue.  The north Dublin city organisation then made Mulcahy himself their candidate, not knowing that someone else had been ratified in Limerick.  Clarke rightly noted, “the present leaders were not over-eager to put women into places of honour or power, even though they had earned the right to both as well as the men had. . .”[58]  Women, however, tended to show what Connolly had described as a “damnable patience” and usually accepted this situation in order not to jeopardise the unity of the movement.

One woman who could not be kept out of the list of candidates was Markievicz.  As the most notable fighting woman of the Rising and President of Cumann na mBan, it would have been almost impossible to have excluded her.  Nevertheless it appears that the men had no desire to give her a cabinet post.  She told Clarke shortly after her appointment as Minister of Labour that she had threatened the male leaders that she would go over to the Labour Party if she were not given a place in the Cabinet.[59]  Interestingly the other SF female candidate was another ICA/Connollyite and Cumann na mBan executive member, Winifred Carney, who stood in Belfast.  Her seat was strongly Unionist so there was little chance of winning.  Carney also complained about a lack of support from SF nationally; in the end, critical too of SF’s lack of a class perspective, she put forward her own views and called openly for a workers’ republic.[60]  While the selection of only two female candidates – and the skulduggery around Kathleen Clarke – showed some of the limitations to the male republicans’ commitment to gender equality, it must be recalled that the position of women in Sinn Fein was well in advance of that of women in most non-revolutionary parties in the world at the time.  Also, many women took heart from Markievicz’s election and from the defeat of the IPP.[61]

These were also the first general elections in which any women could vote, women over 30 having just been enfranchised by act of the British Parliament.  Sinn Fein issued an appeal to Irish women voters, pointing to the role women had played in the various struggles for freedom and promising that “in the future the womenfolk of the Gael shall have a high place in the Councils of a freed Gaelic nation.” The appeal was couched in rather mystic terms, invoking non-existent “Gaels” and one can only wonder who wrote it and what women in sweated industries and poor rural areas might have made of its flowery and scarcely relevant terminology.  A much more business-like injunction to Irish women was issued by Cumann na mBan, urging the use of the weapon (the vote) which “Generations of Irishwomen have longed to possess” in order to show the world “our determination to be free” and offering practical voting information. [62]

The size of the Sinn Fein victory suggests that it drew massive support from women.  There was certainly little reason for Irishwomen to vote for the IPP and, welcoming the demise of the Parliamentary Party, Irish Citizen delightedly saw “an element of ironic justice in the fact that women, whose claims it so long opposed with such unbending hostility, should have played so large a part in its final annihilation.”[63]

Women fared rather better in the municipal elections.  In late 1919, Kathleen Clarke was selected as a SF candidate in Dublin and elected alderman in two wards.  Male voters, who would have been a majority of those eligible to vote, showed that they were rather ahead of the male revolutionary leaders in accepting women in important public political roles.  In the local government elections of January 1920, in which Sinn Fein again swept the board, 43 women were elected.  Maria Curran took the chair of Arklow District Council, which met in her home until it was wrecked in one of the British forces’ regular weekly raids; Alice Cashel became vice-chair of Galway County Council; and Anita McMahon chaired the Westport Board of Guardians.  Among the republicans elected to Kerry County Council was Albinia Broderick, the sister of Lord Midleton, the leader of the southern Unionists.  In Dublin, five women – among them Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen –  were elected to the 80 seats on the local government authority, Dublin Corporation.  The total number of women elected, while still small, was quite significant for the time, especially considering the nature of Irish society and the powerful hold of the most conservative forms of Catholic and Protestant doctrine.  Nevertheless there had been problems getting women to stand, Markievicz, for instance, complaining to her sister Eva that she had not been able to get any woman to stand in her area.  All the elected Sinn Fein women now became targets for harassment by the British authorities.

 

Women during the war for independence

As the Dail began to establish its own set of institutions, women found a role in these.  For instance, they played an important part as judges in the republican courts, often adopting a more sympathetic attitude to workers and the landless than their male counterparts.  In my view this is not a reflection of any “natural”, “feminine” tendency to be more sympathetic to the poor, but a reflection of the fact that republican women were generally more left-wing than their male counterparts.  Many of these women had participated in struggles before 1916 – in the nationalist, labour and feminist movements – and had to challenge the established order if they were to take any active part in society.  This made them less accepting that the existing order was the best, or only, possible form of society.  The women’s idea of freedom was not the British social, economic and political system dressed in green, but something rather different.  As Aine Heron, presiding over a republican court told a barrister aggressively cross-examining a witness , “You must be fair, this is not a British court.”[64]  Their experience as judges not only provided excitement, since these were illegal bodies meeting in secret, but also gave the women the chance to actually make decisions.  When Aine Ceannt, making her first appearance as a republican court judge, in a labour dispute in Clare, asked about the procedure and was told it would be “Whatever madam decides”, these must have been words rare to any Irish women of her generation outside the upper class itself.

Nevertheless it is important not to exaggerate the radicalism of the courts; while they did make rulings in favour of disadvantaged members of society, they also frequently upheld the property rights of landowners.  As Ward has commented, republicans – including Markievicz – later romanticised them as fountains of egalitarian justice, but “The courts were far from being instruments of social revolution;” more often they represented “the process of transferring power from British hands into those of an emerging Irish elite. . .”[65]

Women took major responsibility for organising relief funds for the families of dead and imprisoned republican men, for the repair of buildings and goods damaged by British raids, and for the provision of employment.  Irish White Cross was set up to conduct this work.  Its nominal president was Cardinal Logue, but it was the women on the committee – Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Kathleen Clarke, Maud Gonne, Molly Childers, Mary Spring-Rice, Madame O’Rahilly and Mrs Kent – who did the actual organising.  From late 1920 until August 1922, White Cross distributed  1,500,000.  Of the staunchness of the women left destitute, Cumann na mBan leader and long-time radical republican Maire Comerford wrote later, “The thought that they were rearing the first generation of children who would live their lives out in a free country was enough to support us.”[66]

Over these years Cumann na mBan expanded enormously. Although it was still an auxiliary of the male armed organisation, it afforded an opportunity both for women to become involved in the national struggle and to do at least some things which went outside of the sphere to which they had been restricted in Ireland.  At the October 1917 convention of the organisation, Markievicz was elected President.  This election, and the influx of radicalising younger women, were probably the two main factors leading to an important change in the organisation’s policy.  Its collecting fund was now for “the arming and equipping of the men and women of Ireland.”[67]

In December 1917 there were 100 branches, but by September 1918 500 new branches were registered and the organisation had spread all over the country. The organisation saw its growth as being largely a by-product of the spread of republicanism in general throughout the country over that period (essentially the period from the reconstitution of SF up to the general elections), the massive opposition to the threat of conscription, and the work of its own organisers and executive members in making extensive organising tours  throughout the country.[68]   The British had shown their appreciation of the importance of Cumann na mBan by banning the organisation in different parts of the country and proscribing their conventions.  On October 19,1919 armed police prevented the organisation from holding its convention in public at the Mansion House in Dublin – the women then held it in secret elsewhere – and, at the end of the year, the authorities banned the organisation altogether.

As the war intensified Cumann na mBan had to cease public meetings and lectures anyway.  Its members increasingly played key roles in intelligence work for the IRA, scouting, couriering, nursing the wounded and organising safe houses.  A number of women were also convicted on weapons charges for instance,  Aileen Keogh, matron at Mount St Benedict school in Wexford received two years hard labour for possession of an incendiary device; Linda Kearns, captured driving a carload of weapons and IRA members, received nine years; and 14-year-old Mary Bowles was sentenced to five years for trying to save an IRA machine-gun from being captured by Crown forces.  On February 21, 1920 Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen was arrested for keeping a military patrol under surveillance.  As of April 7, 1921 there were ten women serving sentences – including Markievicz who had recently been given two years hard labour for her role in founding the Fianna in 1909![69] – 15 awaiting trial and another five recently released.[70]  In late 1921, after the Truce, two women republicans – 17-year-old Madge Cotter and 20-year-old Lily Cotter were given life sentences and sent to England to serve them,[71] while the Cumann na mBan convention at the end of 1921 was told that during the previous year fifty women had been through prison.[72]

Members also helped organise prison protests, assembling outside barracks when republican men were due to be executed, as in Cork on February 28, 1921, or in general protests against the imprisonment of republicans.  “Women were largely in the majority” of the 20,000-strong demonstration outside Mountjoy Jail in Dublin two weeks after the Cork protest.[73]  On November 27, 1921 thousands of women again marched past Mountjoy in protest at the continued detention of republican prisoners.  Maud Gonne, Kathleen Lynn and Charlotte Despard – the socialist/feminist/republican sister of Lord French – were among the speakers.[74]

Throughout this period, life was extremely difficult for women activists and, in fact, for many women who were not actively involved but who, simply being Irish, were viewed as the enemy by the British forces.  As Conlon writes, “The going was tough on the female sex, they were unable to ‘go on the run’, so were constantly subjected to having their homes raided and precious possessions destroyed.  To intensify the reign of terror, swoops were made at night, entries forced into their homes, and the women’s hair cut off in brutal fashion as well as suffering other indignities and insults.”[75]  The report of the commission sent to Ireland by the British Labour Party also noted the “rough and brutal treatment of women”.[76]Although the British forces were less likely to kill women than men, being a woman was no sure safeguard.  For instance, two women were among the ten dead when the Black and Tans opened fire on spectators at Croke Park on Saturday, November 20, 1920; Eileen Quinn was shot dead by fire from a passing military lorry while sitting on a wall by her home in Gort one afternoon, with a child on her lap and two others beside her.

The way in which involvement in the national liberation struggle brought women out of traditional confines can also be seen in some of the social events of the time.  For instance, in December 1920 the IRA’s East Limerick brigade decided to organise a late night dance at a rural mansion vacated by Lady Fermoy.  One hundred and forty men and 100 women took part.  In an uncharacteristic burst of liberated outlook, Conlon says “here was no fragile damsel. . . (but) a more durable mould, attuned to the exigency of the period and eager to throw in her lot with her male companions.  All we scions of a warlike race, vibrant living creatures, imbibed with the national spirit, consorting daily with danger and ready for the supreme sacrifice.”[77]

The Cumann na mBan convention of October 1921, which could now be held openly due to the Truce of July, showed a very different organisation from the “collecting boxes” and “flag makers” of 1914.  The membership was much younger than the women who had founded it, most members now being in their early twenties.  Ward has described them as “now experienced activists with a new maturity of understanding, confident of the importance of their work and determined to ensure that the war would be won on their terms.”[78]  Markievicz, in full martial mood, was clearly exceedingly proud of them, telling the convention, “These girls did daring and brave things that nobody ever heard of from anyone. . .” and urged them to go back to their local areas and work as if war was going to return the next week.[79]  The radicalism of its membership was evident when delegates voted in favour of universal 18-year-old suffrage and declared that any election organised about Ireland’s fate on any other basis “would be unjust and its decisions not binding.”[80]

Despite the harshness of the war and repression, and being an illegal organisation, Cumann na mBan had also continued to grow.  The convention was attended by 400 delegates, representing 800 branches and district councils – 100 more branches than three years earlier on the eve of the armed struggle.  The organisation had a wide geographical spread, with 375 branches and district councils in Munster; 188 branches and 18 district councils in Leinster; 93 branches and 12 district councils in Ulster; and 46 branches and 4 district councils in Connacht.  Given that Leinster, which includes Dublin, was rather more populous than Munster, the south-west was clearly a far stronger area for the organisation.[81]

Women also played an important part in the Irish Bulletin, the chief organ of the Dail Publicity Department.  The publication had to move its base frequently to avoid being captured by the British and was often based in the homes of sympathetic women.  In its final issue, under the headline “Makers of the Republic” it featured the figure of “The Dail Girl” with a cudgel in one hand and a revolver in the other.  Lower down the page was a picture of de Valera with the caption “The Mere President”.[82]

 

The backlash

Involvement in the struggle for national freedom, then, had opened up a whole new world for many women, outside the confines of the domestic hearth.  But this had opened a can of worms as far as the existing social order went.  Just what had been festering inside the can during the war for independence became evident in the debate over the Treaty and its aftermath.  The backlash was expressed in often vituperative attacks on women’s involvement in public affairs and the way they were increasingly doing things which had previously been the domain of men alone.  Involvement in the struggle was said to have undermined their “femininity” and “women in men’s clothing”, acting as the equals of men, came under fierce attack.

Katherine Tynan complained, in A Trumpet Call to Irish Women, “Of late years the energies of the young women of Ireland have been absorbed in politics.  There is plenty of room for women in politics in Ireland as elsewhere. . . but a whole generation of political women would be a nightmare, and that is what we have been seeing in Ireland.”  For Sinn Fein leader P.S. O’Hegarty, one of those most anxious to put the lid back on the social ferment which accompanied the independence war, and have everyone play their respectable part in bourgeois society again, women were a particular scourge.  “As the war lengthened,” he claimed, “it became more brutal and more savage and more unrelievedly black.  But the worst effect was on the women.  They were the first to be thrown off their base, and, as the war lengthened, they steadily deteriorated.  They took to their hearts every catch-cry and every narrowness and every bitterness, and steadily eliminated from themselves every womanly feeling.”[83]  The chief offender was Cumann na mBan, whose members took on supposedly male attributes, especially in the capital – “Dublin was full of hysterical women” who cut “themselves loose from everything which their sex contributes to civilisation and social order.”[84]  As the war for independence continued, “the gunwoman came to be the dominating figure of the woman’s side of the movement.”[85]  Such “gunwomen” mixed only with other “gunwomen” and “lived for nothing save war. . .”  This bred in them “intolerance, swagger, hardness, unwomanliness – captured the women, turned them into unlovely, destructive-minded, arid begetters of violence, both physical violence and mental violence.”[86]

O’Hegarty’s venom poured out again over the opposition of the women to the Treaty.  During the Truce the women “took not to drink, but to war. . .  They became practically unsexed, their mothers milk blackened to make gunpowder, their minds working on nothing save hate and blood.”[87]  The women, in his eyes, had quite remarkable powers in this unsexed state, and were able to make things worse than they might otherwise have been.  Moreover “it is women who were responsible for the bitterness and ferocity of the civil war.”[88]  Men, left to themselves, are “comparatively harmless”, in O’Hegarty’s view.  “It is woman, woman adrift with her white feathers or whatever else fulfils in other conditions the same purpose, with her implacability, her bitterness, her hysteria, that makes a devil of him.  The Suffragettes used to tell us that with women in political power there would be no more war.  We know better now.  We know that with women in political power there would be no more peace.”[89]

IRA commanders during the war had been rather more appreciative of women’s contribution and the qualities attacked by O’Hegarty.  Among those giving praise to the women was Michael Brennan, Commandant of the First Western Division of the IRA who sent a message to the 1921 Cumann na mBan convention stating, “The Flying Columns would have collapsed early this year were it not for the assistance of the women. . .  at the height of the terror we found that the more dangerous the work the more willing they were to do it.”[90]

Needless to say, the women themselves also saw things rather differently from Tynan and O’Hegarty.  As Markievicz noted in her contribution to the Dail debate on women’s enfranchisement, “It is the work they have done during the last couple of years, where they have been dragged out of their shells and made to take their place as citizens at the polling booths, helping at the elections and helping men on the run. . .  that has brought to birth in them a great desire for this small privilege – the right of citizenship in Ireland.”[91]

The debate over the Treaty threw into sharp relief the general social radicalism of the women and the conservatism of a powerful section of the male leadership.  All six women TDs opposed the Treaty and spoke during the Treaty debate in the Dail.  Kate O’Callaghan declared, “The women of An Dail are women of character, and they will vote for principle rather than expediency.”  Mary McSwiney denounced the male IRA TDs who supported the Treaty claiming women were unaware of the realities of war.  She pointed out, “it is the women who suffer the most”, but they would “not find in Ireland a woman who has suffered who today will talk as the soldiers here today have talked, and I ask the minister of defence, if that is the type of soldier he has, in heaven’s name send the women as your officers next time.”  After the vote, male leaders on either side tried to paper over the differences, de Valera and Collins for instance assuring each other of their respect.  McSwiney ripped through such pathetic male sentimentality and falseness, declaring she would have no part in assisting the pro-Treaty element in carrying “this glorious nation which has been betrayed here tonight into the British Empire.”  (De Valera then called for a meeting of the anti-Treaty TDs and started crying.)

Cumann na mBan overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty.  The organisation’s executive voted 24 to 2 in opposition to the Treaty and at its subsequent convention delegates voted 419 to 63 to reject it.  It also began a campaign against the pro-Treaty forces, demonstrating outside the Mansion house when the southern parliament met and attempting to snatch the Tricolour any time it appeared on pro-Treaty platforms.  In contrast to the overwhelmingly youthful and independent radicals of Cumann na mBan, the pro-Treaty section formed its own women’s group, Cumann na Saoirse.  This consisted mainly of wives of the male pro-Treaty leaders and some women who had not joined Cumann na mBan such as Alice Stopford Green and Alice Spring Rice.  Ward notes, “The organisation represented the aspirations of the emerging elite, and it looked with horror and distaste on the wild women of Cumann na mBan.”[92]

The pro-Treaty republicans, busy abandoning the programme for which they had purported to stand during the struggle for independence, were clearly worried about the role women might play in the struggle over the Treaty.  They were, for instance, reluctant to enfranchise all women over 21 for fear of how they might vote.  Cumann na mBan’s policy of votes for everyone from the age of 18 must have seemed like mad anarchism to them.  In any case, the new regime refused to alter the register for the elections arguing that the British would not accept an election held under any terms other than those already accepted in the Treaty.

While a number of feminist historians have been mystified at the rejection of the Treaty by radical women, and have also argued that the refusal of the anti-Treaty female TDs to take their seats in the Free State parliament set back women’s rights,[93] it seems to me that this betrays a lack of understanding about what the Treaty and the establishment of the new “Free State” meant for women – and for workers, the rural poor and the overall national liberation movement.  The revolution gave way to a counter-revolution and it was the nature of the new society which emerged from that counter-revolution which determined women’s subsequent role in political life, not the decision of Markievicz and other republican women to boycott the Free State parliament.

The position of the majority of women involved in the struggle is both coherent and logical.  The Easter Proclamation had guaranteed “absolutely equal rights” to women, the struggle for independence had brought women out of the narrow confines of traditional Irish society, given them self-confidence, opened up whole new vistas for them and provided a greater (although still not equal) role in society.  The Treaty was welcomed by all the forces most threatened by women’s rights – from the Catholic hierarchy, to the old ruling class elements, to the new bourgeoisie – and determined to put women, and all the rest of the uppity lower orders, back in their proper place.  As Ward, one of the few feminist writers with an appreciation of the situation, notes, opposition to the Treaty made sense from both republican and feminist viewpoints.  “(R)ecognition of the Republic was inextricably linked with recognition of women’s right to equality.  The fight for both had to continue.”[94]

O’Hegarty’s views are important for they are not just the rantings of a lone, misogynist fanatic.  O’Hegarty was an important political figure throughout the revolutionary years and in the early Free State.  While a number of the other males associated with the Treaty and Free State may have been less strident in their views, they shared his fundamental disdain for women stepping outside their traditional realm and into the sphere previously occupied by men alone.  O’Hegarty and other Free State figures were quite happy for women to do “constructive and social work”, such as care for the poor, sick and needy; it was when they took it upon themselves to start acting the equal of men that things got out of hand.  That he wrote these words in 1924, in the formative period of the Free State, gives an indication of what was in store for women in this new state.  We might note here what happened to the pro-Treaty women’s group Cumann na Saoirse.  Although it had originally declared that there would be much work for women to do in the new state – as, indeed there would have been if it had been a revolutionary all-Ireland republic – it soon found this was not the case at all.  Having accepted the Free State, it then went along with one of the ideological cornerstones of the state – that the place for women was in the family, not in paid employment and/or politics – and dissolved itself.

We might note, too, the incredible contrast between the account of Cumann na mBan written by Lil Conlon, a Treaty supporter, and articles and books by women opposed to the Treaty.  Conlon’s account evinces no political analysis of anything and places its emphasis on the most traditionally feminine work carried out by Cumann na mBan women in Cork.  Conlon was a leading Cumann na mBan activist in Cork and yet the national independence struggle for her appears as just a bit of youthful excitement, during which she did her bit, and then happily withdrew to let the important people – bourgeois men – get on with the real business, the affairs of state.  Conlon simply notes that after the Treaty there was little for women like her to do so they organised commemorations for a few years until, after the 1925 commemoration of the Easter Rising, the Cork Executive (of the pro-Free State Cork group calling itself Cumann na mBan) “unanimously agreed to discontinue the Organisation as it was the considered opinion we had conscientiously performed our duty to the Government and the Nation.”[95]

In contrast the articles, memoirs, books, interviews, recollections involving republican women who opposed the Treaty show a far more wide-ranging politicisation.  These were social radicals – political activists in revolt against the whole system which held down women, the working class and Ireland as a country.  A substantial hard-core of these republican women – such as Nora Connolly, Helena Moloney, Maire Comerford, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Sheila Humphreys, Eithne Coyle, Margaret Buckley and many more – were prominent political activists in the following decades, many of them involved as leaders of left-wing initiatives in the 1930s.  Their social radicalism helps explain why most of the politically active women in the movement were so strongly opposed to the establishment of this new state.  In my view, it certainly confirms Connolly’s prediction that partition would bring about “a carnival of reaction” with the most right-wing forces in control of both northern and southern states.  The reaction against women, however, was just beginning and would find later expression in the implementation of the most conservative brand of Catholic social teaching as official state policy.


[1] By “to the left” I mean that they were more determined and militant in their opposition to British rule.  They were less inclined to make compromises with those, such as the IPP, whom republicans saw as collaborators with British imperialism.  The women also tended to be more progressive socially, especially compared with male leaders such as MacNeill, Griffith and, later, de Valera.

[2] Clarke, Revolutionary Woman, p50.

[3] Irish Volunteer, January 1, 1916.

[4] While Markievicz received an allowance throughout these years, she had essentially cut herself away from her class background.  Most of her resources went into the revolutionary movement in one way or another.  Before the Rising it appears she was helping finance the ICA’s munitions factory.  Frank Robbins has recorded that on one of her regular trips to the weapon-making centre, in the basement of Liberty Hall, she mentioned having received a letter from her bank manager that morning informing her that she was considerably overdrawn on her next quarter’s allowance.  She commented, “if this bally revolution doesn’t take place soon, I don’t know how I’m going to live.”  Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p65.

[5] Fox, History of the Irish Citizen Army, third page of introduction (the introduction pages are un-numbered).

[6] It is important to distinguish between this and certain war work by women.  Work in munitions factories in England and other powers, for instance, was respectable since it was part of the war effort of the very governments which had so steadfastly opposed granting the vote to women.  In contrast, working class women making bombs in a militant trade union centre, bombs for the liberation of their class and their sex (which was the aim of the ICA) was clearly sanctioned by neither established authority nor social custom.

[7] Constance Markievicz, “The Women of Easter Week”.

[8] Fox, History of the Irish Citizen Army, pp126-7.

[9] Skinnider had also come up with a plan for throwing bombs at the Shelbourne, where British soldiers were sniping at the rebel forces in Stephen’s Green.  She seemed particularly annoyed that her wounds – which came close to killing her – prevented any further activity on her part.

[10] Ten men and nine women took part.

[11] Markievicz herself was a crack shot, a fact probably connected to her upper class background.  She taught the Fianna boys how to shoot, and she and Skinnider tested explosives outside Dublin before the Rising.

[12] Couriers were fired upon in a number of instances.  Skinnider recounts bullets hitting her bicycle while taking messages from Stephen’s Green.

[13] In the spirit of republican unity after 1916, women did not raise objections to his actions during the Rising.  It was only many years later, when de Valera was in power – and especially when his 1937 Constitution officially confined women’s role to the domestic sphere, that his actions in banning women from Boland’s Mill were bitterly recalled.

[14] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p107.

[15] Weekly Irish Times of April 29, May 6 and 13, 1916.  This was a single issue of the paper, publication being disrupted by the Rising.

[16] Anderson, James Connolly, p76.

[17] Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p210.  At the time of the executions, Markievicz appears to have regarded the decision not to execute her as an unwonted piece of discrimination.  After Connolly’s execution, her sister Eva and Esther Roper visited her in Kilmainham and, uncharacteristically, she broke down asking, “Why didn’t they let me die with my friends?”  Seeing a wardress nearby, she quickly recovered, saying, “Well, Ireland was free for a week.”  Ibid, p212.

[18] Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p222.

[19] Markievicz in San Francisco Examiner, December 7, 1919; see Marreco, The Rebel Countess, p223-4.

[20] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p118.

[21] Brian Farrell, The Founding of Dail Eireann: Parliament and Nation-Building, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1971, p11.

[22] The only significant leader to get away was Liam Mellows and he had had to flee to the United States.

[23] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p119

[24] See, for instance, Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p38-9.

[25] Clarke, Revolutionary Woman, p134.

[26] Ibid, p135.

[27] In her autobiography she mentions that she was pregnant at the time of the Rising, but did not tell her husband in order not to give him additional worries.  No further mention is made of this pregnancy, however.  Since the three sons produced by her and Tom Clarke were all born before the Rising, the youngest being already several years old, she presumably suffered a miscarriage.  I have not come across mention of this anywhere else, however.

[28] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p121.

[29] This was a fusion, largely on Clarke’s terms, of the IVDF which she had founded and the National Aid organisation set up by IPP-associated figures.

[30] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p202

[31] Ibid, p216.  O’Neill was court-martialled for selling to the IRA weapons which the ICA had agreed to give them.

[32] Fox, History of the Irish Citizen Army, p241.

[33] Ella Young, Flowering Dusk, p134.

[34] Cullen Owens, Smashing Times, p116.

[35] Once again, we might note the ICA women being involved far out of proportion to their actual numbers.

[36] Clarke, Revolutionary Woman, p94.

[37] See this thesis, chapter six, for an outline of the issue of the Proclamation signing.

[38] Clarke, Revolutionary Woman, p148.

[39] Ibid, p149.

[40] This quote, and documentation regarding Cumann na dTeachtaire is contained in the Sheehy Skeffington papers in the National Library of Ireland.  The quote is cited from Cullen Owens, Smashing Times, p116-7.

[41] Sinn Fein Convention Report 1917, Dublin, c1918.  Available in National Library of Ireland.

[42] Irish Citizen, November 1917.

[43] Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p62.

[44] McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p72.

[45] Irish Citizen, September 1916.  Cited from McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p73.

[46] See Cullen Owens, Smashing Times, and McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, for instance.

[47] Annual Report of the IWFL for 1918, Irish Citizen, April 1919. As British repression intensified, the IWFL was drawn into additional campaigns – for example, for the release of political prisoners such as Markievicz and Thomas Ashe and for better conditions in prison.

[48] McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p76.

[49] Ibid, p77.

[50] Annual Report of the IWFL for 1918, Irish Citizen, April 1919.

[51] A report of the meeting appears in the Irish Times, April 2, 1919.

[52] Cullen Owens, Smashing Times, p125.  McKillen offers a similar view.

[53] McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p79.

[54] There was some consideration in Ireland of launching a women’s party, the idea being that “woman’s programme is sufficiently wide and vital to brook no admixture with the game of self-interest and trickery which men have dignified by the name of politics.”  (L.A.M. Priestly McCracken, “Our New Power”, Irish Citizen, November 1918.  Cited from McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p78.)

[55] McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p81; Irish Citizen, October 1917.

[56] Irish Citizen, September-December 1920.

[57] McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p85, fn48.

[58] Clarke, Revolutionary Woman, p170.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Later Carney withdrew from Sinn Fein altogether and was involved in the Northern Ireland Labour Party during the 1920s.

[61] Although, according to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, there was a lack of organisation on the part of the men on the election committee in Markievicz’s constituency.  She and other women became the driving force in a second committee which ensured that the campaign was placed on a serious footing.  See letter from Sheehy Skeffington to Nancy Wyse Power, 1919, Sheehy Skeffington Papers, MS 24091, National Library of Ireland.

[62] Sinn Fein, An Appeal to the Women of Ireland; Cumann na mBan, The Present Duty of Irishwomen, both Dublin 1918, copies held in the National Library of Ireland.

[63] Irish Citizen, April 1919.  The paper, while delighted in the success of Markievicz (whom they clearly saw as sharing their interests), also regretted the fact that she was the only woman elected.  Unionist women voted overwhelmingly for the Unionist party although this had opposed women’s suffrage.

[64] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p141.  Other judges sympathetic to labour included Clarke, Aine Ceannt and Albinia Broderick.

[65] Ibid, p140.

[66] Maire Comerford’s unpublished memoirs, see Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p149.

[67] Cumann na mBan leaflet, National Library of Ireland.  Cited from Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p127.

[68] Cumann na mBan, Convention Proceedings 1918, copy in the National Library of Ireland.

[69] Markievicz was captured in September 1920 in Dublin and charged with conspiring to promote Fianna Eireann with the purpose of killing police and soldiers, being unlawfully involved in drilling men, unlawfully carrying and using arms, and furnishing and training recruits for the IRA.  Tried on December 2, she refused to recognise the court, declaring that they could do what they liked with her, it was immaterial as she stood “for honour against England and for the right of a small nation to fight for its freedom and I am ready to sacrifice everything for Ireland, but my good name. . .”  See, for example, Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p151, and Markievicz’s biographies.

[70] Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p223.

[71] Ibid, p245.

[72] Ibid, p240.

[73] See ibid, p183-4 and p205 for the Cork and Dublin protests.

[74] Ibid, p245.

[75] Ibid, p224.

[76] Extracts of the report are quoted by Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p163.

[77] Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p168.

[78] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p155.

[79] Cumann na mBan, Convention Report 22-23 October 1921, copy in National Library of Ireland.

[80] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p163.  The quote is from the Cumann na mBan resolution.

[81] See Conlon, Cumann na mBan, pp238-42; Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, pp156-7.

[82] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p153.

[83] P.S. O’Hegarty, The Victory of Sinn Fein, Dublin, Talbot Press, 1924, p56.  Ironically, he viewed Inghinidhe favourably, curiously misconstruing it as an organisation which did “constructive and social work” such as “look after poor children”, whilst it “never forgot that it could not and should not do men’s work.”  In fact, Maud Gonne initiated Inghinidhe na hEireann because women could not join groups such as the Irish National Literary Society and the IRB; it was designed to allow women to do work on the same terms as men.

[84] Ibid, p57.  While taking on men’s work, these women nevertheless, in his view, managed to maintain at least one supposed female characteristic – hysteria!

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid, p58

[87] Ibid, p102.  This chapter, on women during the civil war, is titled “The Furies”.

[88] Ibid, p104.

[89] Ibid, pp104-5.

[90] Cited from Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p159.

[91] Dail Eireann Report, August 1921-June 1922, p206.

[92] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p173.

[93] McKillen, for instance, argues “Republican women refused to take their seats in the Dail, forfeiting the only chance women had for a voice in government. . . it does seem plausible to assume that the failure of five of the first six women elected to the Dail to take their seats must have hurt the cause of women politicians in Ireland.  The failure to capitalize on women’s participation in the revolution and establish a place for women in Irish politics from the beginning made it that much harder for later generations of Irish women to establish a place for themselves in politics, independent of male relatives.” (McKillen, “Irish Feminism”, part two, p89.) In fact, the first six women elected to the Dail were all anti-Treaty; presumably McKillen is referring to the elections of 1922 to the new southern Dail.

[94] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p178.

[95] Conlon, Cumann na mBan, p298.

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Posted on August 31, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, Thesis chapters, War for Independence period, Women, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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