Cumann Na mBan

Posted: March 1, 2009 in Hired Guns, IRA, ireland
Tags: , , , , ,

March is a month near and dear to this Agent’s heart. Hailing from a hard-core Mick family (and not of the Only-On-St.-Patrick’s-Day varietal), March is a month of cultural celebration and a sort of history month of relatives past.

You’re going to be reading a lot about the Irish ladies of the Spy-Dame variety in the next 30 days, so I suggest you hunker down with a good Shamrock Shake and brace yourself.

Cumann Na mBan Constitution

Cumann Na mBan Constitution

The Cumman Na mBan (Irish Gaelic for Women’s League) was formed in April 1914 as an organizational off-shoot of the Irish Volunteer force in the early days of the Irish War for Independence. Though the men would condescendingly refer to it as a “ladies auxiliary” they forgot to read the fine print of the group’s constitution which supported the brandishing of arms (read: guns) and the encouragement of armed insurrection, which is exactly what came to be.

Recruitment was fairly democratic and members of the Cumann Na mBan hailed from white collar professions, well-to-do families and working class backgrounds.  Women were trained in medical care, what we would today refer to as signals intelligence, and performed drills with weaponry as it was available.

Of Cumann Na mBan’s exploits, the most famous is the participation of no less than 40 members in the infamous Easter Rising of April 1916. Skirts armed with guns entered the General Post Office in Dublin alongside the men and can be counted among most of the strongholds the rebels took throughout the city by the end of the day. I write “most” because Eamon de Valera, rebel leader and future President of Ireland, refused to allow women to fight alongside his own self out of the some misguided attempt of chivalry…or chauvinism…take your pick.

(I think de Valera had a highly mistaken notion that the oppression of the English over last 800 years had only affected the Irish men-folk)

Woman wearing Cumann Na mBan uniform

Woman wearing Cumann Na mBan uniform

And the ladies didn’t just sit along on the sidelines feeding the men. Women acted as scouts, gathering intelligence of British troop movements, and couriers, transferring messages and arms across town to various encampments. More than a few of the dames also acted as snipers at locations such as St. Stephen’s Green and Dublin Castle.

And of course, many women of Cumann Na mBan also died during the fighting.

Of the 70 women arrested for the Easter Rising, more than half were of Cumann Na mBan. They served as “guests” of the British government at the notorious Kilmainham Jail for their efforts.

Following the Easter Rising, Cumann Na mBan was a galvanizing force in the community raising relief funds for families of the Easter Rising participants. They also entered the political process as they campaigned fr the Sinn Fein in the 1918 elections in which Countess Markiewicz, one of their most esteemed members, was elected Teachta Dala. Countess Markiewicz, a captured Easter Rising participant, was in prison during this time.

For the duration of the war, members ran safe-houses, collected arms, served in local government, and ran the Irish Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Irish Republic.

Following the end of the war, Cumann Na mBan members were highly vocal in the vote against the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty with Britain that resulted in the separation of Northern and Southern Ireland. 419 of 482 voting members passed ballots to negate the treaty which, unfortunately came to pass regardless.

Members on the march in 1916

Members on the march in 1916

The group continued the cause for Irish freedom and associated with other groups such as Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army and the Fianna Eireann that sought the unification of Ireland. However, the government had other ideas and banned the organization in 1923, imprisoning suspected members in Kilmainham Jail.

The Cumann Na mBan still exists. Over the last 20 years or so, the group aligned or dis-aligned itself with various Irish paramilitary organizations that sought to “continue to the cause”. Numerous leaders have been caught and jailed for gunrunning amongst its more common activities. In 2000, the British Government officially listed the group as a terrorist organization, as of 2008, the US government has yet to follow suit.


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