A new battlefield

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

It was at this point that international feminist pacifist ideals came into direct contact with burgeoning domestic militarism. A public meeting was held in Dublin in May 1915 to protest against this government action, with James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh among the speakers. In a letter of support Pádraig Pearse declared that much good would be done if the incident aligned more women with the national forces. Bennett was troubled at the militarist tone of this meeting, writing that “militarism in the most subtly dangerous form has is hold upon Ireland”. MacDonagh’s address to the meeting was particularly controversial. Stating that, as one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, he had taught men to kill other men, he also declared himself an advocate of peace, because everyone was “being exploited by the dominant militarism”.

In response, Francis Sheehy Skeffington enunciated clearly the view of pacifist feminism towards militarism: “High ideals undoubtedly animate you. But has not nearly every militarist system started with the same high ideals?” Shortly before the Easter Rising, he and Bennett took part in a public debate with Constance Markievicz on the motion ‘Do we want peace now?’ Of the 500 to 600 attending, only a handful supported Sheehy Skeffington’s view. The murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington during the rising was a severe loss for pacifists. Bennett sought to uphold his ideals through her Irish Citizen writings and international work.

At the 1915 Hague Congress, the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP) was formed. Bennett, initially included as part of the British branch, argued that “the peace movement in Ireland must be indigenous and independent to be in any sense successful”. The Irish section took the name Irishwomen’s International League (IIL), and was accepted as an independent organisation in December 1916.

At the second ICWPP Congress in May 1919, Ireland was represented for the first time, with Bennett its delegate. The ICWPP was renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and its headquarters were moved to Geneva. An ‘Appeal on Behalf of Ireland’ issued to the Congress sought support for Ireland’s “legitimate struggle for the rights of self-determination”.

These were tempestuous times for a pacifist organisation. Writing to WILPF’s international secretary in October 1920, Bennett noted “things are very difficult here and we are hard put to keep our little group together”. Acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by Dáil Éireann and the ensuing Civil War posed difficulties for both the IIL and individual members trying to ally pacifist convictions with political commitment. Bennett told Geneva “the civil strife in the past few months has driven the larger majority of people into one or other political camp: both sides have raised objections to the attitude of the IIL”. A meeting was held to consider Bennett’s resolution that “membership of the Irish section is open to all who hold that, in resisting tyranny or striving for freedom, only such methods may be used as will not involve the taking of life”. After heated discussion the resolution was lost by just one vote.

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