Cumann na mBan is translated into English as the League of Women. The group was formed in 1914 and went on to play a major role in the 1916 Easter Rising. It was also prominent in the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, and has remained active in one form or another right up to the present day.
Some of its better known members include Countess Markievicz and Winifred Carney, who was secretary to James Connolly and famously refused to leave him when ordered by the Easter Rising leaders to evacuate the burning GPO building. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell was another prominent member who also refused to leave the GPO, and was later given the task of delivering the surrender notice from the leaders of the Rising to the British.
Cumann na mBan had its roots in an earlier women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) which had been formed in 1900 with the nationalist actress Maud Gonne becoming president. The Inghinidhe had concentrated on promoting Irish culture but as the century saw the continuing rise of nationalism, many members wanted a more radical agenda. Some were inspired by the formation in 1913 of the Irish Volunteers – a paramilitary group set up Eoin MacNeill to back the campaign for Home Rule for Ireland.
On 2 April, 1914, members of the Inghinidhe met in Dublin and decided to dissolve the organisation and set up new, more radical group to be called Cumann na mBan. Its aims were to provide a platform for women to campaign for Irish liberty and to “assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland”. It also set up a Defence of Ireland Fund to raise money for its objectives.
In 1916, it was absorbed as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. On 23 April, on the eve of the Easter Rising, the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan became the new Army of the Irish Republic, with Patrick Pearse in overall command.
This put Cumann na mBan right at the heart of the Easter Rising. It’s thought up to a hundred were involved, Some fought alongside the men but most acted in auxiliary roles gathering intelligence, acting as couriers, transferring arms from one site to another, nursing the wounded, providing food and provisions and so on.
The women served at every major site taken by the rebels except for two – the South Dublin Union, which was under the command of Éamonn Ceannt, and Boland’s Bakery, where Éamon de Valera was the commanding officer. De Valera declined the offer of having women stationed with him because he didn’t think it was a fit place for them to be. He later said he regretted the decision because if women had joined him, it would have prevented him having to waste some men on cooking duties!
Most of the other commanders and were grateful to have the women helping them as they attacked strategic sites like Dublin Castle and the GPO.
The best known woman in the Rising was Constance Markievicz, who was also a member of the Irish Citizen Army. She was second in command to Michael Mallin at the College of Surgeons/St Stephens’ Green site. She was armed and ruthless when necessary, shooting a police officer after some of her men had baulked at the task.
Winifred Carney was secretary to James Connolly and is said to have entered the GPO building with a typewriter in one hand and a gun in the other. She was involved in the only serious act of insubordination committed by Cumann na mBan. It happened when the GPO was subjected to heavy shelling by the British and caught fire.
Patrick Pearse ordered the women to leave for their own safety but they refused saying they wanted to finish the job. Carney also wanted to stay with Connolly, who had been shot twice and was in severe pain. Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell also refused to go saying she wanted to stay and care for the wounded. They and the other women insisted that Pearse withdraw his order, which he reluctantly agreed to do.
After six days of fighting, the rebels accepted that the cause was hopeless and accepted that they would have to surrender to avoid further bloodshed. Pearse asked Nurse O’Farrell to deliver the message to the British. She then acted as a messenger between the two sides, playing an important role in bringing an end to hostilities.
Several women died during the Easter Rising and more than 70 were arrested afterwards. Most were released within a few weeks but Countess Markievicz was tried for treason by a military court and sentence to death. The sentence was commuted a few days before she was due to be executed as the British did not want to risk public outrage at putting a woman before the firing squad. The Countess was not impressed and was reported to have said: “I wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”
Cumann na mBan remained active after the Rising and retained its nationalist fervour. It opposed conscription into the British Army and campaigned on behalf of Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election. Countess Markievicz was elected as a member of the British Parliament but, like all the other Sinn Fein candidates, she refused to take her seat and joined the newly formed Dáil in Dublin instead.
Three Cumann na mBan members, Mary MacSwiney, Ada English and Kathleen Clarke were elected to the Dáil in 1921. The organisation opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which set in place the partition of Ireland and left six counties in Ulster as part of the UK. It took the anti-treaty side during the Civil War and was later banned by the newly formed Irish Free State government in 1923.
It fragmented after that and lost most of its members but it still remains as a nationalist group and celebrated its centenary in 2014.