A role in Home Rule

Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to parliament.

Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to parliament.


While women throughout Ireland prepared to confront the unionists, the English militant organisation the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) went further. They had already established an “Ulster Centre” in Belfast and in March 1914 they sent over full-time organisers who began an arson campaign.

On March 27th there was an attack on Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey, in the grounds of which the UVF had been drilling. Damage was estimated at £20,000. While the suffragettes were arrested, the UVF ran 24,000 guns into Larne without any arrests. The double standard infuriated women and escalated militancy. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Society dissolved as women flocked to the WSPU ranks. However, in Dublin the WSPU was received with hostility and soon closed.

Venues associated with male leisure pursuits and also unionist targets came in for attack. In August, following an explosion at Lisburn Cathedral, more arrests were made. Before the case came to trial the first World War had broken out. The WSPU halted its campaign, and by August 22nd had pulled out of Ireland. Many disagreed strongly with that decision, arguing that the home rule question and women’s enfranchisement remained unresolved. Belfast activist Margaret McCoubrey tried to set up a branch of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) as a feminist and anti-war organisation, but by 1915 this petered out.

The Irish Citizen, the paper of the suffrage movement, edited by Francis Sheehy Skeffington, declared, “Votes for women now – damn your war,” and the IWFL refused to engage in any relief work that might prolong the war.

They continued to organise speaking tours and suffrage meetings, but divisions caused by the war had a detrimental effect on the cause. Supporters of the war withdrew subscriptions from The Irish Citizen. The Munster Women’s Franchise League raised funds for an ambulance for France and the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association sponsored a bed for wounded soldiers and campaigned for Belgian refugees. Pacifists were in a minority. In 1915 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington of the IWFL and Louie Bennett of the Irish Women’s Reform League were among Irish delegates to an International Congress of Women at The Hague, aimed at uniting women to try to negotiate peace.

The British government refused permits to all except Bennett, and a ban on travel prevented her attending. In protesting against this government action, IWFL militants became politically closer to republicans like Thomas MacDonagh, then Director of Training for the Irish Volunteers.

Before the Easter Rising, James Connolly told Hanna Sheehy Skeffington she would be a member of a civil government which the leadership intended would come into existence if the insurgents managed to hold out. She described the Rising as “the first time in history that men fighting for freedom had voluntarily included women”. The Proclamation of the Republic guaranteed equal opportunities and equal citizenship for women and men. Women in the Irish Citizen Army, commanded by Connolly, were given equal status. Notoriously, Cumann na mBan women were refused entry to Boland’s Mill, commanded by Eamon de Valera, future president of Ireland. Almost 200 women are reckoned to have contributed in some way to the Rising, but numbers are difficult to calculate as many left their outposts before the final surrender.

Seventy seven women are listed as subsequently imprisoned by the British. Members of the IWFL brought supplies to outposts and carried messages. After Francis Sheehy Skeffington was arrested and executed by British troops while attempting to organise a citizen’s militia to stop the wide-scale looting he feared would discredit the ideals of the Rising, Hanna spent months in a crusade to force Prime Minister Asquith to hold an inquiry into the circumstances of his death. After surrender only five women were detained for lengthy periods, all Citizen Army members. Constance Markievicz’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because of her sex.

The execution of 16 leaders and the work of bereaved women relatives in holding memorial masses and supporting released prisoners did much to change public opinion, initially hostile to the Rising. Grace Gifford married her fiancé Joseph Plunkett before his execution in Kilmainham Jail. Kathleen Clarke, whose husband Tom was the first signatory to the Proclamation, distributed relief to bereaved families. A resurgent nationalist Ireland successfully resisted attempts by the British to impose conscription. Women were at the forefront of opposition. In addition, nationalist women from different organisations joined forces to ensure they would be effectively represented in the reorganisation of nationalist forces.

In April 1917 a group of women came together at the home of Countess Plunkett. They included members of Cumann na mBan, widows of the leadership, women from the Irish Citizen Army, from the Irish Women Worker’s Union and others. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington joined on her return from America.

They formed a group, the League of Women Delegates, Cumann na d’Teachtaire, determined that the Proclamation’s promise of equal citizenship would be adhered to.

Their first task was to campaign for increased representation for women within Sinn Féin. However, as only 12 women out of 1,000 were selected as delegates to the October 1917 Sinn Féin Convention, Cumann na d’Teachtaire did well to have four women elected on to the executive, all of whom had some connection with the Rising. They were dismayed at the lack of women candidates in the parliamentary elections of December 1918. The Representation of the People Act had given women over the age of 30 in Ireland and Britain the right to vote and another act allowed women stand for election.

Only two women were selected: Constance Markievicz in Dublin and Winifred Carney in Belfast. Both had been members of the Irish Citizen Army. Kathleen Clarke had hoped to be a candidate. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington rejected the offer of an unwinnable seat. Members of the IWFL and Cumann na nBan worked hard for a Markievicz victory, criticising Sinn Féin for its lack of support. Anna Haslam, 89, led a victory procession of women in Dublin as she cast her vote for the first time, supporting a Conservative candidate. Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to parliament, although she did not take her seat. Despite jubilation over her victory The Irish Citizen commented, “Under the new dispensation the majority sex in Ireland has secured one representative. This is the measure of our boasted sex equality.” The elected Sinn Féin members boycotted the British Parliament in favour of a new Irish assembly, Dáil Éireann. Markievicz became Minister for Labour.

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.

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