A History of Cummann na mBan – the Part played by the women soldiers of Ireland

Eithne Ní Chumhaill

FIRST PUBLISHED in An Phoblacht over three issues in April 1933 (8th, 15th and 22nd) the following are extracts from a lecture given by the President of Cumann na mBan, Eithne Ní Chumhaill, to the Dublin members.

We have reproduced them as they appeared in An Phoblacht at the time, including the original spellings.

Eithne Ní Chumhaill (Coyle O’Donnell), from Killult, Donegal, became a member of Cumann na mBan in 1918. Eithne with other Cumann na mBan members escaped from Mountjoy Jail in October 1921 and are famously pictured in Duckett’s Grove, Carlow, at a training camp while on the run. She was elected as President of Cumann na mBan in 1926, a post she held until her resignation in 1941.

Eithne collected many documents and memorabilia about Cumann na mBan which can be found in the Eithne Coyle O’Donnell Papers in University College Dublin. She died in January 1985.

Cumann na mBan Duckett’s Grove 1

*May Burke, Eithne Ní Chumhaill and Linda Kearns in Duckett’s Grove, Carlow 1921


THE UNPERISHABLE SPIRIT of freedom which lay dormant owing to centuries of oppression, and the despondency caused by the Fenian failure of 1867 was once more revived. This national revival was largely due to the publication of a stirring and fearless little organ known by the appropriate name of ‘An Sean Bhean Bhocht’, which was edited by two illustrious Irishwomen from the North of Ireland – Eithne Cranberry McManus and Alice Milligan. This little paper voiced the gospel of nationality, fearlessly and unmistakably, in the latter part of the 19th century.

The centenary of the ’98 struggle for freedom, together with the efforts of the South Africans to secure the independence of their country in 1899, caused the people of Ireland to turn their eyes once more towards the dawn. Centenary Clubs were formed all oven the City of Dublin. These clubs were known as the Fireside, the Oilver Bond, the Michael O’Dwyer, the Brothers Sheares, the Confederates, and the Craohhin Aoibhinn Clubs; the latter club later developed into the Craohhin Aoibhinn Branch or the Gaelic League.

Gaelic classes
The Irish language, which was thrown in the rubbish heap for years owing to England’s tactics and the anglicised system of education in this country, was taken up. Gaelic classes were formed and our people took pride once more in our native tongue. Irish games and ancient, pastimes of Cuchluain and the Red Branch Knights, were revived. Home manufactures, native Irish dancing were encouraged, and trusanna to places of historic interest, which were almost forgotten by the people was one of the many activities of these clubs.

Later the Leinster Literary Society was formed, and William Rooney, an ardent advocate of Ireland’s rights, eventually succeeded in capturing the elements of national thought in that group, and he at once formed the Celtic Literary Society. This society consisted of people of advanced ideas and high intellectual minds who used all their efforts in educating the masses of the people and in getting them ready for their national emancipation. The will to be free made itself daily manifest and in order to meet the growing demand for freedom the Irish representative in the British House of Commons introduced a wobbly Home Rule Bill which was favourably received by the more liberal elements in that Assembly.

Carson’s guns
The unionists in the north-east corner of Ireland, ably assisted by British money and influence, prepared to oppose by force of arms the passing by this little measure of freedom. Sir Edward Carson (later rewarded by the title of Lord Carson for perpetuating the Union and helping England in her old policy of dividing and conquering the people of Ireland) succeeded in landing thousands upon thousands of arms and ammunition in secret at Larne. These guns were to be freely used against their Catholic countrymen if and when Home Rule be passed for Ireland.

The Southern Gaels, inspired by the spirit of the men of 1798, 1803, ’48 and ’67, realised the danger of allowing an armed and undisciplined mob to be let loose on unarmed and helpless citizens, determined to meet force with force. Consequently, a private meeting was arranged for Wynn’s Hotel, in Abbey St, on November 13th 1913. This meeting was addressed by P. H. Pearse, Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill, L. Kettle and the late Dr Michael Davitt. A discussion arose regarding the menace in the North and it was there and then decided to organise a body of men who were to become the Irish Volunteers.

In 1913, a few ladies decided to hold a meeting in Wynn’s Hotel for the purpose of discussing the possibility of forming an organisation for Women who would work in conjunction with the recently formed Irish Volunteers and who would be pledged to help that body in any action which they would decide on for breaking the connection with England.

Cumann na mBan Constitution

In the following May, at a representatives meeting which was held in the Pillar Room in the Mansion House, Cumann na mBan was launched. The first branch of the organisation which was formed was the Ard-Chraobh. These women held their first meetings in Brunswick Street, in fact they met there continually till after the Rising in 1916.

Inghinnidhe na hÉireann Club was in existence for over 20 years previous to the formation of Cumann na mBan, and its members, really the pioneers of our organisation, did magnificent work at an unpopular period when to hold an Irish outlook or to profess nationalism was not only “unladylike” but “disreputable”. These women were mainly responsible for the loyal reception which was given to our noble king and queen – George and Mary of England – when they honoured this distressed country of ours by their royal presence on July 8th 1911.

George’s picture
Amongst the other Punch and Judy side shows which were organised by the Castle hacks and time-servers in this country was a large illuminated photograph of his Majesty which was displayed at the foot of Grafton Street for the edification of the mere Irish. It is evident that his Majesty’s beauty did not appeal to the members of Inghinnidhe na hÉireann for it is recorded that monstrous outrage was committed by one bold disloyal lassie who seized a fat, comfortable brick and smashed poor George’s photograph. This disloyal subject was, of course, lodged in Mountjoy Jail for the safety of the realm.

It is worth quoting William Rooney’s remarks on the women of Ireland during this period. “The women,” he says, “who succeeded in gathering together 30,000 children to signify their contempt for the Queen of England and her satellites will, I am sure, do much more.

“You know,” he continued, “how much the women with Irish hearts who will recognise the duty of sacrifice and glory in the cause they love, who have men’s courage and men’s determination to do the right thing when the time comes, I think that Inghinnidhe na h-Éireann will go far in creating such a generation of Irish women.”

Cumann na mBan Badge

Shortly after the formation of Ard-Chraobh, Inghinnidhe Branch became affiliated with Cumann na mBan. Subsequently, Craobh Cholm Chille was formed in Blackhall Street and then the Fairview Branch was formed. The formation of four branches provided an organised group of women for each Volunteer battalion. The country soon followed and branches sprung up in Killarney, Cork, Limerick, Tralee, Dingle, Enniscorthy and Wexford town.

In 1914, the Redmondite Party became alarmed at the rapid growth of the militant organisation over which they had no control. They, therefore, decided to seek representation on the Volunteer Council in order to curb the growing militant spirit and to induce the Irish Volunteers to abandon their efforts in seeking to overthrow the might of England by force of arms and to seek concessions from the robber instead.

Decision regretted
The members of the Executive Council, who were always anxious to prevent a split and ill-feeling amongst Irishmen, granted representation to the Redmondite Party. They very soon had occasion to regret their decision. John Redmond, the leader of that party in the British House of Commons, in a speech delivered in the territory of the famous outlaw, Michael O’Dwyer, declared that the Irish Volunteers would fight and die for England in the fields of Flanders and Gallipoli. Well, indeed, might the men and women of our race blush with shame when hearing from this man, who was in a responsible position at the time, that our Volunteers were willing to help England in her campaign of bloodlust and greed.

This outrageous statement, which was made without the sanction of the Volunteers, aroused the fiercest indignation in their ranks and the controlling council of that body broke into two different camps. The faithful members immediately issued a manifesto reiterating their objective to fight for Ireland and against her hypocritical oppressor who whined for poor little Belgium and canted about the liberty of small nations while she, herself, held Ireland, one of the most ancient nations of the earth, in bondage.

Manifesto issued
Cumann na mBan during this crisis stood firm and watchful, holding to the Constitution and agreeing with the men who issued the manifesto repudiating Redmond and his nominees on the Executive Council. Owing to the steadfast attitude of our organisation, we lost some members, but adherence to principle always brings its rewards, and hundreds of recruits flocked to our ranks. A scheme of activities was drawn up about this time which embraced:-

(1) First aid lectures;

(2) Home nursing;

(3) Signalling;

(4) Arms: The use, care, cleaning, loading and unloading of rifles and revolvers was taught;

(5) A miniature rifle practice in the Father Mathew Hall in Fairview, and in the Inghinnidhe Hall, in Camden St was keenly taken up by some of our members;

(6) Physical drill was practiced at each branch meeting because Cumann na mBan realised that discipline was one of the most essential things in the organisation;

(7) Irish classes were held and our members were requested to acquire knowledge of their own language.

Punctuality was insisted upon, and misfortune overtook anyone who dared to turn up one minute after the hour fixed for parade.

Work with Volunteers
In 1915, the Volunteers were an efficient body, route marches, army manoeuvres, sham battles were fought and members of Cumann na mBan were specially selected to accompany the Volunteers on these activities.

An Aeridheacht Mhor at St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, was the first proud occasion on which our members wore their distinctive uniform. They were congratulated on their smart appearance by some of the men who later led the fight for freedom and whose names will be forever immortalised in the history of our country. Some of the British soldiers’ wives pelted mud and stones at the girls when they saw them appearing in their green uniforms and called them by the undignified name of “grasshoppers”.

Cumann na mBan marching

On Easter Sunday 1916, Cumann na mBan, like the Volunteers, were mobilised, but owing to John MacNeill’s peculiar action in cancelling the mobilisation orders, some of our members could not be got in time for the general order which the Executive issued to all members of the organisation in Dublin but many of them found their way back to the firing line when the fighting started. Some of the girls who were mobilised for the central areas (O’Connell St, the Four Courts and Church Street) met in Dominick Street on Easter Sunday, but owing to some misunderstanding, Comdt Ned Daly, afterwards executed, advised the girls to disband.

Later in the day, two of the members got in touch with Pearse, Connolly and Clarke in the GPO and a hurried mobilisation was sent out. Most of the girls turned up and took up positions in the fighting areas, and they fully responded to the faith which the men of Easter Week placed in them, and well may we, in Cumann na mBan today, be proud of our old members who participated in this glorious epoch and who risked their lives in order to help· the soldiers of Easter Week to break the chains of slavery.

Easter Week
Their work was hard and heavy, sleep and rest impossible, food irregular and. insufficient. They nursed and tended the wounded, carried dispatches, arms and ammunition, night and day, through showers of shrapnel, picking their way through broken walls and burning houses, caring less for their own safety than for the war equipment and dispatches they carried for the Volunteers.

On the Friday of Easter Week, the different positions occupied by the Volunteers and by our members were becoming hourly unsafe and untenable; the buildings around were one mass of red flame which lit up the countryside for miles outside the city. It was eventually decided by the men that some of the women should leave the buildings. This decision brought tears to the eyes of many of the girls who were willing to share the fate of the men.

Cumann na mBan training

The Commander-in-Chief, P. H. Pearse, seeing their sorrow and grief, spoke to them in that high-souled and idealistic tone which characterised this soldier of Ireland and raised him above his fellow men during his life service to the cause of Cait Ni Dhuibhir. He briefly thanked them for their great help during the week and said that when the history of that fight would be written the foremost page in the annals should be given to the women of Dublin who had taken their place in the fight for the establishment of an Irish Republic. He told them that by their presence there they had inspired the men of the Irish Volunteers with hope and courage and without that inspiration they could not hold out so long against such overwhelming odds.

Pearse’s work
He reminded them of the heroism of the women of Limerick in Sarsfield’s days, of Ann Devlin in Emmet’s time, of the great devotion of the wife of Tone, but said that such heroism, wonderful though it was, paled before the devotion to duty of the women of Cumann na mBan.

Pearse, concluding his address, begged of the God of Justice to bless, guard and protect the women of Cumann na mBan to carry on the fight until Ireland would be free. He then shook hands with each girl in turn and it was with heavy hearts they turned away from that sad, pale, aesthetic face, always gazing on that faraway vision of a free Ireland. They knew that they would never again see this man except in a better land to ours.

Their part in Easter Week
Two of the members of Inghinnidhe Branch, who were appointed members of the staff of Comdt James Connolly in Liberty Hall the night before the Rising, remained with the men until the final evacuation. One girl who served in the Citizen Army during the fight was badly wounded and had to be removed to hospital while the other members of the organisation who occupied other buildings with the Volunteers surrendered with the men. Many of them were arrested and taken to Kilmainham Jail for ten days, where they listened to the merciless daily volley which sent their comrades in the Irish Volunteers before a higher and a more just tribunal than that of General Maxwell.

Our late President, Madame de Markievicz, was sentenced to death for her part in the Rising. She fought with Comdt Mallin in the College of Surgeons and was given the military title of staff captain and Mallin’s second in command. Many a British sniper had occasion to regret her steady aim, which never missed its mark.

Madam’s surrender
Her surrender with the men in the grounds of the Rotunda was one of the most pathetic stories in connection with the Rising: this tall, aristocratic-looking woman, dressed in man’s attire, kissing her rifle and with tears in her eyes she laid it down at the foot of the English officer in charge of the surrender. No wonder she, who had spent her life in the service of Ireland, found it difficult to surrender and to realise that any hope for a military success for that period, at least, was doomed to despair.

Her sentence was later commuted to penal servitude for life owing to her sex and to the outcry which was raised against the execution of our leaders. She spent a long time in Aylesbury Jail, scrubbing the floors, browbeaten and tortured in every inconceivable way by her jailers. These women delighted in throwing dirt and dust of every description on the floors, which Constance de Markievicz scrubbed until the flesh was falling off her hands and the nails torn from her fingers. She was compelled to do the same work, over and over again, by her jailers who amused themselves at her expense.

Care of dependants
Many a time she related to me, when a prisoner in Mountjoy Jail, how the fierce unceasing pangs of hunger compelled her to steal filthy bone, orange skins and potato peels from the rubbish heap, wash and eat them in order to curb the gnawing hunger which was caused by insufficient food.

After the surrender and evacuation of Easter Week, thousands of our men were arrested and deported to English prisons, leaving their dependants in most cases unprovided for.

Cumann na mBan set to work and collected money for the National Aid so that the dependants of these men should be saved the horrors of starvation, and in order to keep their homes together until they were released from the enemy prisons.

The short space of time between the surrender of Easter Week and the renewal of the war for freedom was utilised by Cumann na mBan to perfect and spread their organisation. In the autumn of 1916, a general meeting was called and it was decided to establish the organisation in every area.

The people of Ireland gradually rose to indignation at the execution of their fellow countrymen and the imprisonment of thousands of non-combatants. Sinn, Féin, the civil wing of the revolutionary movement, spread rapidly. The return of Count Plunkett, for South Roscommon in 1917 at a by-election, on the clear and unmistakable abstentionist policy, was the first great victory for Sinn Féin, followed by the return almost immediately of the late Joe McGuinness in South Longford.

The general election saw the almost complete annihilation of the Redmondite Party. The people of Ireland declared themselves on the side of those who followed the teachings of Tone. Dail Éireann was set up and the Republic of Ireland, proclaimed and baptised by the blood of the martyrs of 1916, was ratified.

Cumann na mBan Duckett’s Grove 2

Linda Kearns, Eithne Ní Chumhaill and May Burke in Duckett’s Grove, Carlow, 1921.

British powerless

The old courts, the pride of the Englishman the world over, were neglected and left to the judges and their solemn-looking attendants.

Truly the people of Ireland struck at the very foundation of the glorious Empire. The army of occupation was powerless and, eventually, like a thunderbolt, the floodgates of England’s hatred and wrath were let loose.

An undisciplined mob, mostly ex-army officers and ex-jailbirds, were sent to Ireland with full licence to put the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell to shame by murdering the citizens, looting, robbing and devastating everywhere.

The sacking of the towns of Cork and Balbriggan is only a small part indeed of their achievements. It is a true saying that to produce terror is the delight of degraded souls. These men burned schools, creameries, co-operative society buildings, Gaelic colleges, the homes of republicans and their sympathisers.

The murders of Father Griffin, Canon Magner and hundreds of others too numerous to mention was part of the murdering campaign of these terrorists and, in spite of all, the people of Ireland were not submissive.

Cumann na mBan during this time set up depots all over the city, where supplies of food and clothing were distributed to the Volunteers throughout the country. They were active all over Ireland, nursing the wounded, procuring arms and ammunition for the fighting men.

They spent sleepless nights travelling across the mountains, bringing dispatches and warning the men of the approach of the enemy.

It was about this time that the people of Ireland were compelled to enforce a rigid boycott against all goods manufactured in England. Cumann na mBan worked magnificently during this campaign. They first approached the merchants in a friendly way and explained to them privately and also by a public statement to the people of Ireland that England’s reign of terror in this country must cease and that the most practical means of bringing this tyrant to a realisation of the futility of the persecution was to prevent the exploitation of our country by England’s centuries-old practice of dumping her foreign shoddy in our home markets year after year.

Cumann na mBan Cathal Bruagh funeral 1

*Guard of Honour at Cathal Brugha’s funeral

Many of the merchants were favourably disposed towards our native products, while others were inclined to smuggle in these articles secretly. Our Intelligence Department got after the latter in a very short time and, after due warning had been given to these people, all their illicit goods were dragged from their shops and burned in the public streets. Cumann na mBan canvassed all the shops for Irish manufacture, examined all materials, foodstuffs, etc, displayed in the shops for sale.

Some of our girls raided the boats and dumped all undesirable goods into the water.

English and Belfast travellers who persisted in selling their wares were firmly advised to stay at home until their callous countrymen learned to treat Ireland with humanity.

Black and Tans
In 1921, England’s murdering Black and Tan policy in Ireland became a byword in many lands, and her commercial enterprises were met with determined hostility by the lovers of liberty in America and elsewhere. She was eventually compelled to call a truce and signified her willingness to negotiate with the leaders of the Irish Movement but, unfortunately, our plenipotentiaries were mere children at the game of politics compared with the wily English politicians, and when Lloyd George threatened that on their individual heads would rest the responsibility of renewing immediate and terrible war upon the Irish nation, Arthur Griffith was like wax in the hands of their bully.

He and his associates, in a weak moment, signed this infamous treaty of surrender with partition and all the other evils in its trail, and, for the first time in 750 years, Irishmen and women were to give willing allegiance to the English monarch.

Evil days
Truly, this land of ours fell on evil days when our people had to bend a submissive knee to that symbol of oppression which was responsible for the Flight of the Earls in the 17th century, for the murder and torture of our people in’98, 1803, 1807, 1916 and again in 1921, which was responsible for the Famine of 1847, when the emigrant ships were crowded from bow to stern with famine-stricken and plague victims who were carried away from their native shore, away from the heart-rending scenes of mothers dead in dozens on the wayside, their mouths green from eating grass and watercress, their dead babies clasped to their breasts, and their glazed, pitiful eyes turned upwards beseeching the Rule of all Things to take them to Himself and to release them from their sufferings.

Cumann na mBan picket

• Picket in Dublin

Before the Dáil met to discuss either the acceptance or the rejection of the Articles of Agreement, Cumann na mBan, at a memorable convention convened for the purpose of discussing the situation, decided by an overwhelming majority to reject the Treaty and all that it stood for.

Civil War
In June 1922, shortly after the elections which were fought under England’s unashamed threats to exterminate the whole people of Ireland, the domestic enemies of the Irish Republic – acting on orders from Downing Street and supplied from that quarter with cannon, armoured cars and thousands of brand new rifles wherewith to shoot down their brother Irishmen – launched an attack on the Irish Republican Army.

Well, indeed did these weak-minded men play into the hands of the British politicians who declared gleefully and shamelessly in the British House of Commons that it was better and cheaper for the already-shattered prestige of the Empire to allow Irish rule this country in the interests of England.

The troublesome Irish question was at last disposed of: Free State soldiers were now carrying out the work of the army of occupation, and so the Wizard [British Prime Minister Lloyd George, nicknamed ‘The Welsh Wizard’] could afford to smile at us from his luxurious armchair. But let Lloyd George and his associates remember that we in Ireland will rise again.

Thrown into prison
Cumann na mBan once more stood in the breach and helped the IRA to prevent the auctioning of our national honour. Hundreds of our members were thrown into prison. Their work was faithfully carried out outside by those who escaped arrest.

Cumann na mBan prisoners

Petty tyranny was frequently employed by their jailers, firing at the prisoners, want of proper food, long and numerous hunger strikes for political status was the lot of those women who were arrested for their fidelity to the Republic, while the elements of the ordinary rudiments of decency and humanity were sadly lacking.

Some of our members got into bad health and, unfortunately, many of them have since died as a result of their prison hardships.

Selfish whine
In 1926, some of the businessmen and farming community clamoured for a stronger position in the usurping junta in Merrion Street as a means of checking the enormous extravagance of the people who were ruling their country in the enemy’s interest. Many republicans who once served Ireland listened for a while to the selfish whine of those who were themselves responsible for placing this usurping parliament in power, and who had not the moral courage to overthrow it and to empower the lawful and faithful custodians of the nation’s honour to carry on the democratic programme of the Irish Republic.

Took oath
After a time, those ‘republicans’ began to waver in their allegiance to Ireland and eventually they persuaded themselves that in order to save the country they must accept the Treaty position as it stood and take the Oath of Allegiance to the King of England.

Cumann na mBan Cathal Bruagh funeral 2

*Members link hands as part of the crowd control at Cathal Brugha’s funeral

Vainly did they try to convince themselves and their followers that this oath was not an oath. Ah, late in the day was this discovery made when so many of our people had been murdered in cold blood, when the most constructive and creative minds of Liam Mellows, Cathal Brugha, Erskine Childers and many other soldiers of freedom were lying rotting in the earth into which they were flung by their brother Irishmen at England’s instigation.

Empty formula
Even the bleached bones of Noel Lemass on the Dublin Mountains, the massacre of Ballyseedy and Countess Bridge, all the wayside crosses which I painfully witnessed recently in County Kerry, were all forgotten, and well may we, members of Cumann na mBan, feel ashamed when our comrades of yesterday tried to convince us that all these brave and unselfish men had given up their promising young lives for the sake of an empty formula.

This insane reasoning was aided by the Irish newspapers, which clamoured for the blood of Comdt Connolly and his comrades in 1916, and which again advised Cosgrave and his associates to use a firm hand when dealing with Erskine Childers and his companions before their ruthless murders of 1922.

The duty of Cumann na mBan was again perfectly clear. They made up their minds that they could not recognise the Constitution of the Free State or its laws.

Cannot compromise
For them the Republic proclaimed in 1916, ratified by the overwhelming masses of the people in 1919 and sanctified by the blood of all the dead generations, was a living reality. They could not then, and they cannot now, recognise the Free State Constitution, with or without the Oath of Allegiance to the English King. Consequently, members of Cumann na mBan could not and cannot give any moral or practical support to the Fianna Fáil policy or help their departure from the high road of principle in any way whatsoever.

Be always true to that glorious tradition, be true to your country, to your old comrades, who were responsible for bringing Cumann na mBan safely through the stormy seas which the organisation had to encounter since its inception 19 years ago.

Be true to the language of your country, take pride in its beauty and unequalled culture and civilisation. Do not waver for one instant in your allegiance to the Republic. Above all, do not support any policy which may be detrimental to the republican position.

Selfish politics
Remember that selfish and practical politics did not hold this world for Christ for the past two thousand years. Christianity prevails because men and women were unselfish enough to die for it.

The Roman Empire fell before the Barbarians of the North, the Macedonian Empire broke up, the Czar of Russia fell, we have nothing now left of the glorious Kingdom of Spain. Why did Napoleon fall?

Why did the great French Empire crumble to dust? Because they were, like the Free State, founded not on ideals but upon usurpation and sustained by brute force.

But remember that no earthly force can forever hold the free-souled, unselfish, liberty-loving patriots of Ireland

With many thanks to: Eithne Ní Chumhaill –Irish Republican News – An Phoblacht.