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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)


History of Cumann na mBan

By Michael Purcell 1982

Source:  Mr Michael Purcell - Feb 2010


In 1983 I presented the following to the Kilmainham Jail Restoration Committee, where it hangs to this day. As far as I know it was one of the first attempts by anyone to write a history of the Cumann. Extracts from this history formed part of the obituary of Mary Malone, the last surviving member of Carlow / Laois Cumann na mBan, who died in 1997.

[Note by M Brennan:
Cumann na mBan (English: Irishwomen's Council) is an Irish republican women's paramilitary organisation formed in Dublin on 2 April 1914 as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Although it was otherwise an independent organisation, its executive was subordinate to that of the Volunteers:]
Short history of Cumann na mBan.
(Women's Army / Gathering of Women)
by Michael Purcell , 1982.

I commenced this article with the intention of tracing the history of the Cumann na mBan "Republican Flag" that my mother and her comrades made when they were interred in Kilmainham Jail in 1923. During my research I interviewed several Cumann na mBan survivors living in Carlow . I also spoke to Marie Comerford, Sighle Humphreys, Nora Connolly O' Brien, and May Gibney, all veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising. Before I knew it the history of the flag was developing into a history of the Cumann na mBan organisation itself.

I am aware that this is not a complete account but I hope this effort will encourage others to research the organisation before all the survivors have passed away. In my youth the Cumann na mBan Republican Flag embroidered with the motif of a rifle, interwoven with the initials C. na mB., in its worn, torn and tattered state was removed from storage whenever a local Republican died. Draping the coffin at the graveside, it was usually accompanied by the playing of the Last Post and with a volley of shots, fired over the grave by a Firing Party from the Curragh Command of the Irish Army.

As I grew older the flag came to represent a last link to the fast disappearing generation of republicans who had fought for Irish independence. It was made in Kilmainham Jail by a group of women who in compliance with a directive from the leadership of Cumann na mBan, had opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 and who were then during the ensuing Civil War (1922 - 1923 ) imprisoned by their former comrades. In British occupied Ireland Cumann na mBan members had been active as auxiliaries to the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Volunteers, Sinn Fein and later to the Irish Republican Army whose flying columns they assisted by providing information, food, shelter, clothing and medical assistance. All members were required to attend First Aid courses and Irish Language Classes and were also encouraged to take part in Signalling, Marching, Drilling and Target practice.

They rendered service as couriers (known as "basket girls" or "pram women") delivering dispatches to IRA commanders throughout Ireland. They helped to provide and smuggle guns, cartridges and equipment for the volunteers. Later, at great danger to themselves and their families, they concealed the same arms, ammunition and uniforms in their homes.

Members acted as organisers and recorders in the Republican Courts set up by the First Dail in 1919. They assisted in distributing pamphlets, posting handbills and organising public meetings. The members were also active selling Dail Bonds and in other fund raising activities such as organising dances, concerts and campaigning on behalf of political leaders. They provided "safe-houses" for men on the run, served on prison relief committees, provided practical assistance for the prisoner's families, sourced employment for them upon their release, collected petitions, protested and maintained a prayerful presence at executions.

They consoled families who had lost loved ones in the struggle. Dressed in their homemade "Volunteer green" tweed uniforms, crossed with a Sam Browne belt and topped with a slouch hat, they formed Guard of Honour columns at the funerals of their comrades. Also during this period some members were encouraged to maintain or establish friendships with British army personal or sympathisers of British rule as a means of gathering intelligence for the IRA and the IRB.

When one considers that association with any republican movement could result in the participant being severely punished and deprivation and persecution for their families, it illustrates just how brave they were by their actions .They had to contend with the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army, the notorious Black and Tans, informers and with, what at times was, a generally disinterested if not hostile population.

Certainly the Republican movement was not widely supported in the Carlow area . Cumann na mBan was founded in April 1914 in order to involve women in the furtherance of the cause of Irish liberty. Later that year they opposed the introduction of conscription for young Irishmen to join the British Army. Those who joined Cumann na mBan came from diverse backgrounds and hailed from all over Ireland. Some had professional qualifications, doctors, teachers, nurses, others were shopkeepers, publicans, some were only schoolgirls. There were also a sprinkling of representatives from the "Gentry" class , but the majority were working-class women. They were of all religious persuasions and even the odd atheist signed up.

All had one aim:
"To establish and maintain a Republic by every means in their power against all enemies, foreign and domestic".

With over seventy members taking part in the 1916 Rising the organization played an important role during that Easter week. Despite the fact that they were unarmed at least one member was killed and several others were wounded by the British troops during the fighting. It was a Cumann na mBan member, Nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell, wearing her Red Cross sash that delivered Patrick Pearse's surrender note to General Lowe. Later accompanied by a "bodyguard" of British soldiers she delivered the surrender terms to de Valera and the other commanders at their posts scattered throughout Dublin.

Cumann na mBan members were refused representation on the Irish Army Executive Council when they were discussing the treaty negotiations in 1921. The following year they were the first national organisation to oppose the Anglo-Irish treaty. The executive committee of Cumann na mBan overwhelmingly passed a motion in February 1922 reaffirming their allegiance to The Republic and to Eamonn de Valera (despite the fact that he had disappointed the Cumann na mBan membership when he refused to have women serve in his 3rd Battalion during the 1916 Rising , he was the only 1916 commander not to avail of their assistance).

Following the February meeting there was a fateful parting of the ways and one of the saddest chapters in the history of the fight for Independence came about as former comrades fought, imprisoned, tortured and killed each other during the Civil War or as the Republicans called it - The Counter Revolution.

Later the women were treated badly by the Irish Free State Government. The organisation was banned. Because they had served side-by-side before the spilt , Cumann na mBan members were vulnerable to detection and arrest , their names, addresses, families and roles easily identified by their former comrades.

It was at the hands of the " Free Staters" that they suffered the greatest deprivation and suffering when several hundred members were arrested and detained without charge during, and for months following, the Civil War. Nevertheless, this brave group of women carried out their tasks with unrelenting determination and sacrifice for the republican movement.

They firmly believed in the inalienable right of Irish people to govern themselves in a country free and at peace.

The censure of republicans by the Roman Catholic Church did not affect the Roman Catholic member's commitment to the church of their birth.

Their Christian values remained with them to the end.

I am reminded of an entry in my mother's autograph book dating from her own imprisonment in Kilmainham Jail:

"Remember me is all I ask, And if remembrance proves a task, forget" ...
(signed) May Gibney, April 1923.
 
We will not forget....
(signed) Michael Purcell, November 1983.

Provided by kind permission of Michael Purcell - Feb 2010.

The above picture is of Eithne Coyle , Mae Burke and Linda Kearns standing on a Union Jack, (the flag now forms part of the PPP collection). All three were members of Cumann na mBan - the Women's Army wing of the Irish Republican Army. A short time before this picture was taken the three women had escaped from Mountjoy Jail, where Lina Kearns was serving a 10 year penal servitude sentence and survived a prolonged hunger strike before her escape.
None of the women were from Carlow but were in hiding at the then training HQ of the Carlow Battalion of the Irish Republican Army. The picture was taken circa late November 1921 just before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and shortly before the members of Cumann na mBan took a oath of allegiance to President Eamon de Valera.

The photo was used in a book by Liam O’Duibhir’s about "Donegal and the Civil War". http://www.donegaldaily.com/2011/03/04/letterkenny-author-makes-history-with-book-on-donegals-part-in-civil-war/

On rechecking the notes for Linda Kearns I see that it was indeed from Mountjoy Jail that they made their escape in October 1921. Linda was from Sligo, Mae from Cork and Eithne from Donegal.

Source: Michael Purcell and Terry Curran


Kilmainham Gaol


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