Women in 1919: The ‘eyes and ears’ of the conflict
Female activists provided safe houses, procured arms, visited prisons and spied
Constance Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn at Earlsfort Terrace probably taken at the treaty debates, circa Dec 1921-Jan 1922. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images
In May 2018 another tranche of pension records were released, bringing the total number of applications for pensions submitted by women released to date to 600. This substantial number far exceeds the amount I expected when I began my own research in this area more than 20 years ago, when the collection was closed and the contents were still secret. The number was surprising to me, especially given the countless times I was told of women who refused to apply for a pension.
In the coming months and years the full extent of women’s contribution in 1919 and beyond will be investigated and evaluated by historians, bringing new insights into their contribution but also an understanding of the silences and suffering of that generation for Ireland over the past 100 years.
The Government-led programme of the Decade of Centenaries now enters its sixth year. The aspiration at the start, of bringing to the public a more complex story and deeper understanding of the era, has been made possible by new source material, none more so than these invaluable first accounts of those who made history; the ordinary citizens who never featured in my school books, the rank and file, both men and women.
At the first sitting of Dáil Éireann in 1919, the only female elected of the 17 candidates in the British general election, Constance Markievicz, was in jail.
When she was elected she was in Holloway Prison, arrested for involvement in what was called the German Plot. She wrote at the time “my present address alone will make an excellent electoral address”, while elsewhere she wrote: “There are many roads to freedom. Today we may hope that our road to freedom will be a peaceful and bloodless one.”
It was not to be. The campaign of independence began in January 1919 and over the next three years would be a conducted as a guerrilla war, with groups of fighters known as flying columns. Elizabeth Cooney described her contribution in 1919 as being active in setting up Cumann na mBan branches “to meet IRA requirements”.
The women provided safe houses, distributed the “dependents’ fund” and monies from the White Cross. Women activists were involved in procuring and smuggling arms, visiting prisons (bringing in messages) and the dangerous work of espionage, which in the report of the Cumann an mBan convention (1921) members were complimented as being “the eyes and ears” of the conflict.
In the report to the convention it was stated that there were 50 women arrested during this period, but beyond this, to ascertain the extent of the contribution of women has been problematic with no complete contemporary or retrospective statistics of numbers of women active 1919-1921. The pension records allow for the first time a more complete survey of women’s role.
One of those who was imprisoned from October to December 1919, and held in solitary confinement, was Brighid (known as Bridie) O’Mullane. The Sligo native had become politicised the previous year. She had been selling flags (tiny printed labels with words or an image that was attached to clothing with a straight pin) “for the starving of Central Europe”.
She was arrested for selling without a permit. She was imprisoned in Sligo jail because she refused to pay the fine imposed. After this, when Josephine, Countess Plunkett visited Sligo she met Bridie and told her about Cumann na mBan and urged her to set up a branch in the town. Thereafter “headquarters” asked her to set up branches throughout the county and her success was noted, and soon she became an official organiser.
As she described in her pension application, during 1919 she was asked to do “special work in each district”. That year she was arrested in Lisnaskeagh, Co Fermanagh for a “seditious speech”. She became a member of the executive of Cumann na mBan, who held a reception for her when she was released. Over the next couple of years, Bridie continued to recruit women members as freedom fighters.
In 1919 the fight for freedom was a conflict alongside the programme of democratically elected members who formed Dáil Éireann (which became illegal and went underground). They set up an alternative government, a judiciary and public administration. In accordance with the policy of Sinn Féin, Markievicz (Madame Markievicz as she now became known to those in the movement) did not take her seat in Westminster when she was invited to do so by David Lloyd George on February 5th, 1919.
Dr Mari Takayanagi, in her History of Parliament, has argued someone who had taken part in armed rebellion and had been accused of treason from which she had not been pardoned, would have been in-eligible to take her seat. There was also another reason she may have been prevented from taking her seat, had she chosen to do so, because she had lost her British nationality when she married a Polish man.
A new cohort of politicised women
In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising a new cohort of politicised women came to the fore, they had pledged their allegiance to the Irish Republic, as articulated in the proclamation issued during the Rising in 1916, which was confirmed and further asserted at the First Dáil in 1919.
Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench Mullen had raised money by selling a flag flown during the rebellion to print miniature copies of the Proclamation, which they distributed. They wanted it to be read by a wider public so it would introduce them to the ideals contained within it.
However, by 1919 the aspirations contained in the 1916 Proclamation were already under threat. Within the two years of that document being written, new activists had come to the fore, different to the men who had envisioned a Republic in words. As Margaret Ward has argued for the women activists “the realisation began to dawn if they did not insist upon a voice in this process their male comrades would have reorganised and determined future polices without consultation or inclusion . . .” .
Women members of organisations such as Cumann na mBan, the Irish Women Worker’s Union and the Irish Citizen Army formed the Cumann na dTeachtaire (League of Women Delegates).
Members included Markievicz, Dr Lynn, Rosamond Jacobs, Dulcibella Barton, Mary Perolz and Margaret Kennedy (later a Senator) and Alice Ginnell amongst others. The organisation’s minute book survives and is in the National Library of Ireland. It contains some revelatory information including the minutes of a meeting held by the group in the ladies’ lavatory of Dublin’s Mansion House.
She details that Markievicz insisted on this position, telling her colleagues if they did not appoint her she would go over to Labour. She was imprisoned for much of time she held this position, as Dáil Éireann was a proscribed organisation.
When the Dáil Cabinet was reorganised in 1921, she was left out of the inner circle of ministers. Mary MacSwiney, the sister of Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in 1920, expressed a concern, somewhat prophetically, that she hoped that this was not setting a precedent.
Sinéad McCoole is an author and historian specialising in women’s history. She is a member of the Government’s expert advisory group on the decade of centenaries and the curator of many exhibitions on Irish history and art.