A role in Home Rule
The War of Independence began on January 21st 1919 and continued until a Truce was declared on July 11th 1921. Cumann na d’Teachtaire had planned to press for more women to be nominated as candidates for the local government elections, but by late 1919 all nationalist organisations were declared illegal, meetings forbidden and the dangers in opposing British rule intensified, making it impossible to meet.
Dáil Éireann courts were created and many women served as judges in this underground network. Cumann na mBan developed in strength, with 600 branches throughout Ireland. They provided safe houses, carried food and clothing to men hiding in hillsides, transported weaponry, scouted for targets, undertook intelligence work and formed guards of honour at funeral processions.
In 1920 UK legislation partitioned Ireland into two Home Rule states: six-county Northern Ireland and 26-county Southern Ireland.
In December an American Committee for Relief in Ireland organised fund-raising and the White Cross organisation was formed in Ireland to help the 100,000 people left destitute. Nationalist women formed the backbone of the organisation, headed by Áine Ceannt, widow of one of the 1916 leaders.
Women were elected to local government positions in 1920 and in elections to the second Dáil in 1921, six were returned: Markievicz, Kate O’Callaghan (whose murdered husband had been mayor of Limerick), Mary MacSwiney (sister of Terence, the lord mayor of Cork who died after a lengthy hunger strike), Kathleen Clarke, Margaret Pearse (mother of Patrick Pearse) and Dr Ada English of Cumann na mBan.
Women were invaluable in producing the underground Sinn Féin paper The Irish Bulletin, which defied censorship laws by providing information about the war. Around 50 women were imprisoned during this period, comparatively few compared to the male figure of 4,000. This reflected the nature of their work and difficulties in getting evidence for conviction.
After the July 1921 truce, no women were included among the Dáil delegates chosen to negotiate with the British government, although Lily O’Brennan (sister of Áine Ceannt), former secretary of Cumann na mBan, was a secretary for the Irish delegation. The final terms did not give a republic, requiring members of the Dáil to take an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarchy, and leaving partition in place unless changed later by the Boundary Commission. Cumann na mBan was the first organisation to declare its opposition. All six female deputies also opposed the Treaty, which was accepted by the Dáil in January 1922.
A motion by Kate O’Callaghan to enfranchise women between the ages of 21 and 30 before the country voted on the issue was defeated. This symbolised the nature of the new “Free State” in some anti-Treaty quarters. Nevertheless, both pro- and anti-Treaty nationalist feminists continued to press for women’s full equality in the new state’s constitution, calling on the commitment in the 1916 Proclamation and women’s contribution to the nationalist struggle. The 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State gave full citizenship to all women and men over 21.