On Saturday, April 29, 1916, after leaving the burning GPO for their substitute Moore Street HQ, Pádraic Pearse said that, when the history of this 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 the republic. He also told the women that their presence had inspired the men whose heroism, wonderful though it was, paled before the devotion and duty of the women of Cumann na mBan and he prayed that God would give them the strength to carry on the fight. Just who were these Irish Amazons that Pearse thought of so highly? They were just a group of Irish women, but they were far from ordinary.
On Easter Sunday, 1900, 15 women met in the Celtic Literary Society Rooms in Dublin. With the exception of anti-British activist, Maud Gonne, they were all working girls with not much to give Ireland but willing hearts and determination. They met to present an inscribed blackthorn stick to Arthur Griffith, who had thrashed a newspaper editor for maligning Maud. The meeting turned to planning a Patriotic Children’s Treat in opposition to the Children’s Treat in the Phoenix Park which had been planned as part of Queen Victoria’s April visit to Dublin. More than 50 women joined the committee and after soliciting funds from the general public, a parade of 30,000 children was followed by a picnic and nationalist speeches. The funds left over were used to establish Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) as a permanent organization. Maud Gonne was elected President; Vice-Presidents were Alice Furlong, Jenny Wyse Power, Annie Egan, and Anna Johnston (Ethna Carbery) and among the founders were Helena Molony, Sinéad O’Flanagan (later wife of Éamon de Valera), actors Máire Quinn, Molly and Sara Allgood, physician Kathleen Lynn and Mary Macken. Later members included Mary MacSwiney, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Margaret Buckley, Ella Young, Máire Gill, Rosamond Jacob, Hannah Sheehy, and Alice Milligan, as well as many working-class women. When Maud was away Helena Moloney effectively ran it from 1903 onwards. Helena established a newspaper Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland), of which she became the editor in 1908 advocating militancy, separatism, and feminism. She also recruited Constance (Countess by her marriage to a Polish Count) Markievicz into the organization and with her, became a founding members of Na Fianna hEireann (an Irish scout movement).
In 1913, a number of women held a meeting in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, to discuss forming an organization for women who would work with the recently formed Irish Volunteers. It was to be called Cumann na mBan (Council of Women). The primary aims were to advance the cause of Irish liberty and to organize Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object, to assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland and to form a fund for these purposes, ‘The Defence of Ireland Fund’. On April 2nd 1914, a meeting led by Kathleen Lane-O’Kelly (née Shannahan) marked the foundation of Cumann na mBan as they absorbed Inghinidhe na hÉireann and became an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Their constitution contained explicit references to the use of force by arms if necessary.
On 23 April 1916, when the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood finalized arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan, along with the Irish Volunteers, the Hibernian Rifles and the Irish Citizen Army into the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’. Patrick Pearse was appointed overall Commandant-General and James Connolly made Commandant-General of the Dublin Division. On the day of the Rising, Cumann na mBan members, including Winifred Carney who arrived armed with both a revolver and a typewriter, entered the GPO with their male compatriots. By nightfall, Cumann na mBan women were in all the major strongholds except for Boland’s Mill and the South Dublin Union. They worked as Red Cross nurses, couriers, gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions and carried arms across the city to insurgent strongholds. Countess Markievicz, during the opening phase of the hostilities, shot a policeman in the head near St Stephen’s Green. Later she, along with Mary Hyland and Lily Kempson, was among a force twelve who raided Trinity College and found fifty rifles. Helena Moloney was among the soldiers who attacked Dublin Castle where she worked with the wounded. A number of Cumann na mBan members died in the Rising, including Margaretta Keogh who was shot dead outside the South Dublin Union. At the Four Courts they helped to organize the evacuation at the surrender and destroy incriminating papers. At the GPO on Friday, Connolly ordered the ladies to leave and they reluctantly did so except for Winifred Carney, Julia Grennan and Elizabeth O’Farrell. The following day when the leaders decided to negotiate surrender, Pearse asked Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O’Farrell to act as a go-between with the British which she succeeded in doing. Under British supervision she brought Pearse’s surrender order to all the garrisons still fighting across the city. At the end, more than 70 women were arrested and many were imprisoned in Kilmainham; all but 12 had been released by 8 May.
Revitalized after the Rising, Cumann na mBan took a leading role in popularizing the memory of the 1916 leaders, organizing prisoner relief agencies under Kathleen Daly Clarke (Tom Clarke’s widow) and later in opposing conscription and canvassing for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, in which Countess Markievicz was elected Teachta Dála (TD) member of Dáil Éireann. Jailed at the time, she later became the Minister for Labor of the Irish Republic from 1919 to 1922. During the War of Independence, Cumann na mBan remained active, hiding arms, providing safe houses for volunteers, helping to run the Dáil Courts and local authorities and in the publishing of the official newspaper of the Irish Republic.
In the Irish elections of May 1921, Markievicz was joined by fellow Cumann na mBan members Mary MacSwiney, Dr. Ada English and Kathleen Clarke as TDs. These are the women that Padraic Pearse praised so highly for their devotion and duty and long may their memory be enshrined with those of the men of Easter week. To that end, the Ladies AOH has designed a beautiful pin to remember the women of the Rising. Go to the ladiesaoh.com website to see and order it.