Ailin Quinlan explains why Irish women failed to stay on the national political stage despite making such an impact during the early 1900s and the War of Independence

By Ailin Quinlan
Independent.ie
25 August 2012

During the War of Independence, more than 10,000 women were active campaigners for the cause of Irish Republicanism. Yet within 20 years, only a handful remained in national politics — by 1940, there were virtually no prominent women of power on the political stage in Ireland.

What happened?

The causes were many: divisions caused by the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty led to a fatal splintering of the women’s Republican organisation Cumann na mBan, while the effects of internment during the Civil War on female prisoners and the growing dissension within remaining Cumann na mBan members over policy and ethos all played a part in the disappearance of women from the national political stage.

And it had started so well.

Women first started to emerge on the Irish political scene in the 1890s and early 1900s in various cultural, nationalist and suffrage organisation.

Then, explains author and historian Ann Matthews, the founding of the Irish Suffrage Movement in 1908, and the establishment of Cumann na mBan six years later, saw women become increasingly politically active.

Cumann na mBan was the first female military force in Ireland. Its function was to support and help the Irish Volunteers who were actively seeking the freedom of Ireland.

However, it was not until about 1916, when Cumann na mBan became involved in the Easter Rising, that women really came to the forefront.

The years 1917 and 1918 saw the organisation grow rapidly, and women were elected to the executive council of a reformed Sinn Fein party, which had Eamon de Valera as president.

Britain’s threat to extend conscription to Ireland — meaning that Irishmen would be forced to join the British army to fight in World War One — was strongly opposed.

“Cumann na mBan joined in the wholesale opposition to this proposal right across the country, and the organisation was very much to the forefront in this campaign,” says Ann Matthews.

As a result, its profile was significantly heightened, and it attracted even more members and expanded rapidly.

The general election of late 1918, after which Sinn Fein set up the first Dail, also helped its profile. What’s more, Cumann na mBan was very vocal in support of Sinn Fein candidates in the election campaign, which further boosted public awareness.

By now, the organisation had 600 branches around the country. Throughout the War of Independence in 1919, the organisation was very active in support of the IRA. Members carried guns to ambush sites, acted as couriers and nurses, carried out first aid and supported Michael Collins’ intelligence system.

Some members — women ranging in age from their late teens to mid-30s — hid men who were on the run, while others carried guns and ammunition in their prams and in their voluminous underwear.

“You could carry an armalite in your knickers,” says Matthews. “They wore bloomers that stretched down to the knee and women sometimes carried guns inside them, because the bloomers were gathered by strong elastic at the knee.”

Records show that by October 1921, Cumann na mBan had up to 12,000 members and more than 800 branches.

Very much perceived as the female arm of the IRA, they were not, however, a visible force. “In rural areas you could be arrested for membership,” explains Matthews.

Nevertheless, women such as Jennie Wyse-Power, who had been the first president of Cumann na mBan, were well known.

Sinn Fein had more than 8,000 female members, including high-profile figures such as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington who was a founder of the Irish Suffragette movement, Dr Kathleen Lynn, a member of the Sinn Fein Party, and Countess Markievicz, who was Minister for Labour in the first Dail.

However, in 1921 storm clouds also began to gather. Eamon de Valera signed a truce with Lloyd George and the Anglo Irish Treaty was negotiated, resulting in partition and the creation of the Irish Free State.

Dail Eireann voted in favour of the Treaty, but there was a major split and the issue created discord in the wider republican movement.

“The IRA and Cumann na mBan divided into three parts: those who supported the Treaty, those who opposed it and those who maintained a neutral stance,” says Matthews.

“Cumann na mBan effectively splintered into three groups; a development which signalled the demise of the organisation.”

The anti-Treaty group was the smallest faction, and although it was the one to keep the name Cumann na mBan, it quickly declined into a rump organisation.

“Those who adopted a neutral stance simply stepped back from the political stage, and those who supported the Treaty formed a new organisation called Cumann na Saoirse,” explains Ann Matthews.

Meanwhile, 645 members of Cumann na mBan were interned for opposing the Free State.

The organisation had started to crumble and by 1924, when the Civil War ended, Cumann na mBan was a fraction of its former self.

Determined to rebuild, in 1926 the organisation created the Easter Lily symbol to commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.

However, the organisation never regained its former influence and its decline continued to such an extent that by 1932 there were more British Legion Ladies Clubs in the Irish Free State than Cumann na mBan branches.

Then, in 1925, Cumann na mBan was rocked by another split: Countess Markievicz left the organisation to ally herself to Eamon de Valera, and Fianna Fail was formed in 1926. Kathleen Clarke, another leading light, and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington followed suit.

Following the formation of Fianna Fail, the Republican movement splintered in many different directions, and by 1934 both the wider Republican movement and Cumann na mBan were in disarray.

In 1934-1935, another major convulsion rocked the organisation, this time over the group’s political ethos. Leading light Mary McSweeney left, accompanied by 16 prominent members, to form Mna na Poblachta.

“Eamon de Valera dismantled the Irish Free State, created the Presidency and wrote the 1937 constitution we have today,” Matthews says.

“But because of the fragmentation of the Republican movement in general and the decline of Cumann na mBan and Sinn Fein, the unified female voice represented by both organisations had effectively disappeared.”

There was no strong female voice, no influential women’s lobby group to object to to the controversial Article 41, which perceived women’s role in society as a subordinate one very much confined to home and family.

“By 1940 there were no prominent political women of power on the political stage in Ireland,” says Ms Matthews, “primarily because of the infighting and disagreements in the Republican movement over the previous 20 years.”

• ‘Dissidents: Irish Republican Women 1923-1941’ by Ann Matthews is published by Mercier Press. €18.99

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