From Unity, 24 April 2004

Irish women and the First World War, part 3

Women and the 1916 Rising

By Lynda Walker

Turning now to look at one of the most well-known women’s organisations, Cumann na mBan, described by T. A. Jackson as “the Women’s Auxiliary Army of the Irish Volunteers,” they were formed in 1914 and incorporated much of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”), an organisation established to promote Irish culture by, among others, Maud Gonne in 1900 in reaction to women being excluded from many organisations. Cumann na mBan was criticised by people like Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington for supporting the Irish Volunteers, led by Redmond, who was firmly opposed to votes for women. They were seen as an auxiliary organisation in support of an army that was fighting for home rule that was not inclusive of women, and they were not allowed to join the Irish Volunteers. Margaret Ward (Unmanageable Revolutionaries, 1983, p. 94) quotes Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, a member: “Essentially Cumann na mBan was founded to help in establishing the Volunteers. Apart from frequent classes in first aid, stretcher bearing and occasionally field signalling, a great deal of time was given over to gathering funds in support of the rapid expansion of the Volunteer organisation.”
     Margaret Ward gives a comprehensive account of Cumann na mBan, their formation and their part in the Easter Rising. The number of women who participated is not totally known, as there must have been those whose were part of but peripheral to it, if we count those who made food, took messages, and so on. However, the numbers given by Margaret Ward are sixty who were in Cumann na mBan and thirty in the Citizen Army. She states that none of Cumann na mBan took part in the fighting. A recent RTE programme put the number of women involved at two hundred. There are varying descriptions of the involvement of women and explanations that “we were not camp followers.” Diane Urquhart (Women in Ulster Politics, 2000, p. 111) also notes that Nora Connolly was responsible for the establishment of Cumann na mBan in Belfast and that it “included several women who worked closely with James Connolly and were well acquainted with his family. Winifred Carney attended the first meeting of Cumann na mBan in 1914 and became one of its most active members.”
     It is evident that Constance Markievicz, as a commandant in the Citizens Army and leader in Cumann na mBan, did play a leading role in 1916, though there is some suggestion that she could have done more to enhance women’s role. Some of the male leaders, like de Valera, refused to have any women with him. Elizabeth O’Farrell was given the job of taking the surrender note to the different fighting points; but many of the leaders still fighting refused to take orders from a woman.
     An estimated 2,600 people were interned after the rising; many of their families were left with no means of support. Cumann na mBan turned to helping to support these families. They also strongly opposed the threat of conscription.
     The uprising was to take advantage of Britain at war. Yet it could not have been Ireland’s working-class opportunity, even if the guns had arrived and the orders were not confused. Most Irish women were not considered comrades in arms. Large numbers of Irish workers were in the trenches in Europe; those left behind were fragmented; political divisions existed north and south.
     R. Palme Dutt (The Internationale, 1964) writes of this time: “With the insight of genius Connolly saw how the struggle in Ireland during the war could be a starting point to kindle all Europe: ‘Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.’ ” On the same pages Palme Dutt quotes Lenin, writing in 1916 (p. 141): “The misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat has not yet matured.”

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