Civil War violence against women was ‘brutal, persistent and continuous’, expert says

Targeting of anti-Treaty Cumann na mBan women in Kerry is highlighted by Dr Mary McAuliffe

Gender-based violence was “brutal, persistent and continuous” during the War of Independence and the Civil War and was used particularly by the National Army against anti-Treaty women, an authority on gender studies said.

Historian Dr Mary McAuliffe, Director of UCD Gender Studies, said the extreme treatment of militant anti-Treaty women during the Civil War was a continuation of the physical and sexual mistreatment of women by all armed male groups during the War of Independence.

In a paper entitled Unmitigated Blackguardism – The Treatment of Militant Anti-Treaty Women in Kerry by the National Army during The Irish Civil War, presented at a recent conference in Co Kerry, Dr McAuliffe looked at the physical and sexual violence perpetrated on women by Free State soldiers.

Among the most notorious was “the Kenmare Incident” when, early on the morning of June 2nd, 1923, a party of armed men in trench coats went to the home of Dr Randall MacCarthy at Erinville in Kenmare and dragged his two daughters, Flossie and Jessie from their bedrooms into the garden.


“Both women were dragged out to the garden where they were flogged with a Sam Browne belt and had ‘thick motor grease’ or ‘dirty motor oil’ rubbed into their hair and faces – the effect of the motor grease subsequently caused their hair to fall out in clumps,” said Dr McAuliffe.

“The three men identified in the attack were Major General Paddy O’Daly, Captain Edward Flood and Captain Jim Clarke,” she said.

The Kenmare incident, while “an outlier” because it targeted a pro-Treaty family, was notable in that it exemplified the misogyny of O’Daly and most of his men in their treatment of women in Kerry during the Civil War, said Dr McAuliffe.

“I would argue that violence against women in Kerry, from the arrival of the National Army and especially the Dublin Guard, was brutal, persistent and continuous, being a specific tactic of the army to contain the threats posed by militant anti-Treaty women,” she said.

“Therefore, violence against militant women in the Civil War has also to be understood as part of a systemic and fundamental process of gendered violence in war and as being on a continuum of gendered and sexual violence which marred both the War of Independence and the truce period.”

Dr McAuliffe said the majority of Cumann na mBan women in Kerry were anti-Treaty and as most of the urban centres in Kerry fell to the Free State, many of these women remained in their homes watching the barracks, providing intelligence and carrying dispatches for the anti-Treaty side.

The Free State troops quickly recognised the importance of women to the anti-Treaty cause and treated members of Cumann na mBan callously. One member, Kathleen Walsh – who had written the note that lured a party of National Army troops to an anti-Treaty IRA landmine at Knocknagoshel in which five soldiers were killed and a sixth badly injured – was later arrested for questioning about the booby trap device.

Although the Free State interrogators were unable to connect Walsh to writing the note, she and her sisters “had their hair shaved under torture” – forcible hair cropping having been a significant type of gendered violence during the War of Independence, said Dr McAuliffe.

The misogyny of the Civil War in Kerry, she said, is well summed up in a letter from O’Daly to GHQ in Dublin in May 1923 when he wrote, “a general round-up of these women is essential”.

“Consideration for their sex should not be entertained for a moment,” he said, adding they are looking for trouble and “should get it”.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times