‘The main cause of disloyalty in the county,’ wrote the RIC inspector for Galway East 1916, ‘were the priests and the women of Athenry!’
Well might he complain. Although history has not been kind to the contribution of women in Ireland’s fight for its freedom, yet, from the very beginning, Galway played a role in national Cumann na mBan* affairs. The same RIC inspector reported that there were two branches of the organisation in Galway, with a joint membership of 46. In September 1918, however, Galway East Riding had a total of 317 members; and by 1921 there were 6,569 in the whole of Connacht.
The activities of Cumann na mBan in Galway during the Rising mirrored that of its members elsewhere. For the most part they cared for the wounded, sourced and cooked food, and carried messages; while others carried packages and smuggled ammunition. Brigid Malone brought a package from Dublin by train for Liam Mellows (leader of the Galway Volunteers ), which she suspected was either a revolver or a uniform.
Bridgit Morrissey packed first aid kits and collected food; Kathleen Cleary was in Galway during the Rising and became an IRA courier in Liverpool during the War of Independence. Mary Higgins smuggled ammunition for the rebels in Athenry. Mary Kate Connor worked directly with Liam Mellows, cooking and packing haversacks, and smuggling arms and ammunition in east Galway.
When she heard that fighting had broken out in Dublin on Easter Monday, Eva O’Flaherty cycled from Caherlistrane to Dublin. She talked her way past the checkpoints surrounding the rebel-held areas, and acted as a courier between the Volunteer outposts, and the rebel held General Post Office.
The prominence of Cumann na mBan during the Rising changed perceptions of the organisation among nationalists and the British. Along with Sinn Féin, and the Volunteers, Cumann na mBan was banned, its offices were raided and its organisation suppressed. One of the charges against Ada English, whom I wrote about in recent weeks, was that she had in her possession, ‘seditious’ Cumann na mBan leaflets and literature. She was sentenced to Galway gaol for nine months.
Peg Broderick-Nicholson’s house on Prospect Hill was raided by the Black and Tans. She was a known Cumann na mBan member. She was forced into the street, and publically had her hair cut back to her scalp.
Before the Rising one of the main activities of Cumann na mBan was to collect money to support the Volunteers. The crossover between sport and nationalism was always evident. The RIC noted that one particular member, Deirdre Lowe, collected money at a GAA match in Athenry. She also attempted to stage a Sinn Féin demonstration on the train to Kilcolgan.
A Cumann na mBan camogie team challenged a team from UCG to a match at South Park in May 1918. It lost 6-0, but gained valuable publicity.
Cumann na Saoirse
Remarkably, Cumann na mBan was the first republican group to reject the Treaty. At a special convention in February 1922, a proposal to back the Treaty was overwhelmingly defeated by 413 votes to 63. The pro-Treaty supporters were expelled who in turn re-organised themselves into Cumann na Saoirse and continued their activities supporting the Free State Army.
There were controversial episodes with the involvement of Cumann na Saoirse in the Civil War. Its members knew the value of using women to smuggle weapons and documents; and were used by the pro-Treaty forces to search women suspects. The organisation was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Cumann na Searches’ by its opponents.
As a result it was attacked by the IRA and members had their homes burned, or their offices raided. On a number of occasions members were physically assaulted, usually having their hair ‘bobbed’, or cut off, tactics which deliberately mirrored those of the British forces.
Demands were ignored
In the meantime the original Cumann na mBan actively supported the anti-Treaty side. During the siege of the Four Courts in Dublin, the anti-Treaty forces were heavily dependent on Cumann na mBan members to carry messages out by bicycle. Others ferried dispatches between isolated IRA units by car, or drove leading anti-Treaty figures who were on the run.
The organisation became increasingly assertive. In September 1922 its members demanded to be represented at any negotiations between the IRA and the Free State, or pro-Treaty side. Their demands were ignored. Membership began to fall away. The organisation was banned by the Free State government in January 1923.
Little recognition was paid to the organisation. In Galway a total of 19 members of Cumann na mban were eventually awarded military pensions, compared to 223 IRA men. After the men had received theirs, women had to wait at least ten years for their pensions to be paid.
Next week: Peg Broderick-Nicholson tells her story
NOTES: *Cumann na mBan, founded in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, in April 1914, was one of the most significant republican organisations in 20th century Irish history. Dr Bernard Kelly (a research fellow at the School of History, Edinburgh ) tells us that it reflected the fact that both nationalism and feminism were on the rise in Ireland at the turn of the century. It was not self-consciously a feminist organisation. Its first objective was to advance the cause of Irish liberty, and to help the Irish Volunteers achieve their purpose.
But the organisation was criticised by many Irish feminists and suffragettes, who deplored its perceived submission to the Volunteers, which did not admit women into its ranks.
For this week’s Diary I am leaning heavily on Dr Bernard Kelly’s introduction to the excellent book and CD, Cumann na mBan - County Galway Dimensions. Edited by Marie Mannion and Jimmy Laffey, and produced by Galway County Council, this is an interesting record of the brave women in Galway who risked their lives during very difficult times from 1916 to 1922.