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Women and the Irish Revolution


Women and the Irish Revolution         Gerry OShea

In 1893 New Zealand was the first self-governing country to allow  women over age 21 to vote. The suffragist agitation was a major issue in many countries and a dominant theme in British life at the turn of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the 1918 election that women over 30 were allowed to cast a ballot in a general election. Men over 21 were also enfranchised by the same 1918 Act of Parliament in Westminster.

Irish women played an important part in the movement for change led by Anna Haslan who, when she was 90 years old in 1918, cast her first vote in a general election in Dublin. She and many of the Irish suffragist leaders were from establishment Unionist families, but Anna’s achievement in voting at a late age after a long struggle was loudly cheered by nationalist leaders in Westminster as well as by Sinn Fein.

The Ladies’ Land League (LLL) was set up in January 1881 at the behest of Michael Davitt, the committed Fenian and founder of the National Land League. It was led by Anna Parnell, a sister of the parliamentary leader Charles, who was at the height of his political power in those years. Ironically, Anna’s appointment was opposed by her brother who considered his sister’s ideas too radical.

Miss Parnell was a great organizer and no less than 330 branches of the LLL were started in the first six months. They provided prefabricated huts for evicted families as well as financial help for dispossessed tenants and a helping hand too for members and supporters in jail. Their financial records reveal total expenditures of over 70,000 pounds during the 18 months of their existence.

 They folded in July 1882 mainly due to Charles Parnell wanting the political focus on achieving Home Rule but also because Anna was grieving the premature loss of her sister, Fanny, at age 34 in New York. The disbandment was seen by some as a power play by Charles and his parliamentary friends and Anna was estranged from her brother for the rest of her life.

In 2000 Inghinidhe na hEireann (INH), the Daughters of Ireland, was started to promote a strong nationalist agenda by the charismatic Maud Gonne. They opposed the recruitment of young Irishmen for the British war against the Boers in South Africa. In addition, they advocated for changing the curriculum in Irish schools to include local art, music and writing, and while they supported the suffrage movement, Gonne and her friends said they wanted a parliament in Dublin and they weren’t interested in voting for any Irish person to take a seat in Westminster.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) in 1908. A fine orator, she made clear that suffrage for women came at the top of her priorities, but she also preached that Irishmen had to learn to treat women as equals – heady talk at a time when both Irish and British culture viewed female work as confined to cooking and child rearing. She argued that “until the women of Ireland are free, the men will not achieve emancipation.”

While Hanna was a militant who did not rule out violent methods to achieve her goals, her husband, Francis, was a convinced pacifist who strongly supported his wife’s efforts for promoting women’s rights but ruled out violent protests in any circumstance. In 1914 when “The Guns of August” initiated the First World War and all the establishment focus was on convincing young Irishmen to enlist in the British Army, Francis’s memorable headline in the IWFL newspaper the Irish Citizen read “Votes for Women Now! Damn Your War.”

Anna Parnell, Maud Gonne and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were not the only prominent female leaders in Ireland in the years before the 1916 Rising. For instance, Alice Milligan, a literary activist in Ulster and her friend the poet Anna Johnston, together set up the Henry Joy McCracken Literary Society, promoting a nationalist agenda and open to men and women. Also, the important newspaper editor, Helen Molony, stood out as a propagandist for progressive causes, and Countess Markievicz, mostly referred to without including her unusual surname, played a senior role in the 1916 Rebellion and was hailed and respected for her leadership and bravery in subsequent years.

Sinn Fein was founded in 1905. INH members played an active role in its development. It broke new ground because it was the first nationalist organization to have men and women on its executive.

In 1914 Cumann na mBan (CnamB), literally, The Organization for Women, was founded, and most of the members of INH decided to fold their organization and join the new more assertive nationalist group, although a minority, mostly trade unionists, opted for James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army.

This was the first women’s organization that was explicitly militaristic, approving the use of arms, when necessary, in its constitution. Their main concern was that the Home Rule Bill, which passed parliament but whose implementation was postponed until the war ended, would be diluted to placate the Unionists in the North. This was exactly what happened when the government in Westminster agreed to a second parliament in Belfast.

For Irish nationalists this was a betrayal that played a major part in the decision for a military insurrection in 1916. The Proclamation of a Republic, read by Patrick Pearse at the start of the revolt, affirmed gender equality in the new era he envisaged for Ireland. CnamB played an active role in the Rising, mostly as nurses and couriers, but also some in active combat. The Countess famously shot dead a bewildered constable in Dublin’s Stephen’s Green who didn’t seem to know that there was a revolution in progress.

When the War of Independence started in January 1919 the members of the CnamB were ready to support the insurgency. Providing first aid for injured Volunteers, as they did in 1916, remained a pre-eminent part of their work.

They were the eyes and ears of the movement led by what was now called the Irish Republican Army (IRA), carrying messages, sometimes alerting the male leadership of local rumors about police and British army movements. For instance, a member informed the local volunteers that a contingent of soldiers would be changing trains in Headford Junction, a small station about ten miles from Killarney, County Kerry, on March 21st 1921.

 The resulting ambush by a flying column from the Kerry No 2 Brigade turned out to be the biggest IRA event in Kerry during the War of Independence. At least nine soldiers were killed and some more seriously injured while the IRA lost two men and three civilians also died.

Big prayer gatherings were often organized by CnamB outside of prisons where IRA volunteers were held. Large groups, mostly women, would pray the rosary - interspersed with some astute political promptings – in town squares and other open public areas in towns and villages. Funerals of volunteers provided another opportunity to heighten people’s awareness and emotions. CnamB showed great skill in politicizing gatherings like these.

Attitudes to women among the British forces and the IRA were predictably backward. While CnamB members were rarely executed, close to fifty were imprisoned in early 1921 at the height of the conflict. Women’s hair was sheared in barracks to humiliate and diminish the person, and, despite the pleading of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, some IRA commanders used the same tactics with females who were deemed to be too friendly with soldiers or policemen.

At the height of the conflict in 1921 about 20,000 women had joined Cumann na mBan, but the number who were seriously active was much lower. By 1944, 1243 members had been assessed as eligible for a military pension by the Board that made the determinations on this controversial matter.

The strength of the women’s organization more or less corresponded to the numbers in the IRA in any place. So, they were strong in Munster and Dublin and Longford, but not in Ulster. The vast majority of the members was Catholic, although their most famous person, the Countess, was a Protestant and Estella Solomons, a prominent member in Ranelagh in Dublin, came from a Jewish background.

Countess Markievicz was appointed Minister for Labor in Sinn Fein’s Provisional Government in 1919 and served in that post for two years. After independence, the Irish Government veered between two parties that were descended directly from the Sinn Fein revolution, but strong conservative forces sent women back to the kitchen, a betrayal of the idealism and promise of the joint struggle for independence and the selfless progressive work of many women besides.

It would be 1979 before the next female, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, was appointed a minister in a Dublin government.

Gerry OShea blogs in


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