Irish Democrat

**Thanks to Seán at IRA2 for the heads-up on these next two articles:


Sally Richardson examines the intertwining of feminism and revolution in Ireland


THE EASTER Proclamation was as revolutionary in its inclusion of women as it was in other respects. It made its appeal to Irishwomen as well as Irishmen, and promised universal suffrage, 'equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens'.

The seven signatories were, of course, all men. However, they had appointed a woman -- the feminist and socialist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington -- to the Provisional Government. We have it on the authority of Kathleen Clarke, wife of Tom Clarke, that all the signatories agreed with the inclusion of women on an equal basis with men, except one. She refused to say who it was, except to ensure that it was not her husband.

James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh and Padraig Pearse had all made explicit their commitment to equal rights for women. Eamonn Ceannt and Joe Plunkett both married women who were active in republican and feminist politics, and are unlikely to have had any problem with women's rights. Sean MacDiarmada seems to be the most likely dissenter, if only by the process of elimination. Kathleen was very fond of Sean, which may explain her reluctance to name the culprit.

James Connolly's commitment to women's rights is well known. However Pearse (who drafted the Proclamation with help from Connolly and MacDonagh) may have been responsible as much as Connolly for the automatic inclusion of women. Pearse had long worked with women on terms of equality in organisations such as the Gaelic League and accepted them as his intellectual and social equals. He supported the aims of women's suffrage (if not always the more militant methods) and promoted women's right to equal education.

So what was behind this unprecedented and overwhelming endorsement of women's rights -- not to mention the progressive and open-minded attitudes that the leaders of the Easter Rising displayed in other areas?

It is important to understand that the radicalism as well as the inclusiveness of the Easter Proclamation was a culmination of extensive women's involvement in political campaigns going back several decades.

The Irish Parliamentary Party tried to defend their role in helping to defeat the Conciliation Bills of 1910 and 1912 (which would have given limited suffrage to women) by asserting that to rock the Parliamentary boat and annoy prime minister Asquith might put back the cause of Home Rule. But many women (and men) were not convinced.

The fact was most of the Irish Parliamentary Party (including its leader, John Redmond) were opposed to votes for women on principle. The issue of the women's franchise exposed the Irish Parliamentary Party's reactionary nature for what it was almost as much as the Woodenbridge incident did a few years afterwards.

There had been a moderate, non-militant and mainly Unionist women's suffrage movement in Ireland since the 1860s. This had achieved the franchise for Irish women in local government in 1898, six years after similar rights had been granted to British women. The militant Irish Women's Franchise League was founded in 1908.

Women were increasingly a presence in Irish political life in other areas. The Gaelic League and Sinn Fein admitted women on the same terms as men and allowed them to take an active and equal part. Even so, the Gaelic League, for all its merits, had a staid image, and many women were looking for something different.

Republican women formed their own group, Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900. Independent and autonomous, they scorned the whole idea of demanding votes for women along with Home Rule. Instead, they put their considerable energy and enthusiasm into campaigning for an independent Irish state, in which they would as a matter of course take equal citizenship.

Their magazine, Bean na hEireann, founded in 1908 and edited by Helena Molony, became 'the ladies' paper that all the young men read'. It tied together the issues of feminism, republicanism and eventually socialism into a coherent and integrated message.

As an editorial in June 1910 put it, 'the expression of militant nationalism by women must do much to command the respect of men and compel them to re-adjust their views on women as a possible force in the fight against foreign domination.'

Inghinidhe were colourful, theatrical and anti-authoritarian, and the seriousness of their mission was combined with humour and a great sense of fun. A characteristic prank was the affixing of an anti-recruitment leaflet to the Viceroy's car.

The foundation of Cumann na mBan in 1914, in response to the formation of the Volunteers, was seen by many feminists as a retrograde step. Although Cumann na mBan took pains to insist right at the start that they were a separate and independent organization, in effect they were an auxiliary force, making themselves useful to the Volunteers in whatever way they could. What is clear is that the organisation was set up as a response to women's exclusion from the Volunteers and that many Cumann na mBan women would have joined the Volunteers had they been allowed to do so.

There was uncertainty about their role to begin with. Early Cumann na mBan literature even suggested that as well as nursing and first aid, women could 'do all the embroidery that may be required, such as badges on uniforms' but as their confidence increased, so did their perception of what women were capable of doing.

The Ladies' Land League had been formed in order to step into the breach while the (male) Land League activists were in prison; in the words of Constance Markievicz, 'it ran the movement and started to do the militant things that the men only threatened and talked of' -- and was eventually forced to disband. As Tim Harrington MP put it, 'some of us found they could not be controlled'.

Anna Parnell was one of several women who proved to be capable administrators and courageous campaigners and set a pattern for subsequent women's political involvement. As the Land League came to realize, women's activism was inherently revolutionary as it challenged the very structure of society and their role within it, and women would continue to take the radical lead.

Editorials in The Irish Citizen (paper of the IWFL) referred to Cumann na mBan as the 'Slave Women' for putting themselves at the service of men without demanding anything for themselves, while Cumann na mBan pointed out that a vote in a British parliament would be of little use.

But the divisions were not as deep as the verbal mud-slinging would suggest. Many Cumann na mBan women were or had been members of women's suffrage organisations. Mary MacSwiney had left the Munster Women's Franchise League because it was Unionist-dominated, and Kathleen Lynn was one of quite a few who came to republicanism from the background women's suffrage.

The effect of this debate, heated as it often was, was not negative; it forced women to clarify both their feminism and their republicanism, and brought their concerns to the attention of men as well.

In the confusion following Eoin MacNeill's countermanding of the order for mobilization on Easter Sunday, the women who had taken part in the preparations were frequently forgotten. They turned up anyway, and found work for themselves to do. Even so, the impression gained from the accounts written by participants is that there was a real sense of comradeship, the men for the most part accepting the women and valuing their contribution.

It is true that most of the women of 1916 performed duties that accorded with the conventional view of women's role; they tended the wounded, they did the cooking. But they also commandeered supplies and carried dispatches, frequently under fire. If they were reluctant to complain about being sidelined into 'women's work', it was largely because above all they wanted to serve the republican cause and were prepared to make themselves useful in whatever way they could.

They certainly showed remarkable resourcefulness and initiative. Chris Caffrey, captured and strip-searched by British soldiers, ate the dispatch she was carrying to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Eighteen-year-old Rose Anne Murphy was given the job of mobilizing the Volunteers in Dundalk; finding her railway journey interrrupted by a blown-up bridge, she disembarked and walked the remaining forty miles.

The surrender of the insurgents brought out instincts of chivalry and protectiveness even in the most progressive men, who were anxious that the women should be evacuated before the surrender took place. The women were reluctant; they were anxious to share the burden of responsibility and had no wish to avoid the consequences of their actions. Most agreed to leave only because they wanted to avoid causing more stress and worry to the men.

Even if there was sometimes a tendency to slide back into the conventional gender roles it should be remembered that even the most progressive-minded Irish republicans were operating in a society where old structures were still in place. However, women brought a radical edge to the struggle that could well have been lacking in an exclusively male campaign. Perhaps their own experiences of exclusion had helped to radicalise many of them. They challenged authority in ways that broke down many of the old gender roles and social boundaries, and opened the way to a genuinely egalitarian, open and tolerant society.

If, as James Connolly said, the cause of labour and the cause of Ireland could not be dissevered, then the causes of women and republicanism are undoubtedly equally indivisible.


Irish Democrat


In the final part of her series on the role of women in revolutionary Ireland, Sally Richardson looks at their role in 1918 and beyond


THE EASTER Rising lit the touch paper of revolution, but in the immediate aftermath it was left to women to prevent it from fizzling out. Of the seventy–seven women arrested after the rising, all but six (all Citizen Army) were released almost at once. While the men were forced to pursue their further education at the University of Revolution, Frongoch internment camp, the women were left to reorganize and regroup.

If the Volunteers’ dependents’ fund provided a conventionally charitable outlet for their activities, women also maintained the revolutionary momentum with vigorous and imaginative propaganda campaigns. These took several women to the United States, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who got access to president Wilson to present him with a Cumann na mBan petition.

The Conference of Women Delegates, set up in April 1917 by women including Kathleen Clarke, Aine Ceannt, Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, demanded adequate representation of women on Sinn Féin’s Executive not just in the light of the Easter proclamation’s commitment to equality and the women’s efforts during the Rising but also on account of ‘the necessity of having their organized cooperation in the further struggle to free Ireland and the advantage of having their ideas on many social problems likely to arise in the near future.’

In other words, women’s inclusion was not only their right; their contribution was of particular value, too. A Convention of Women Delegates resolution affirming women’s equality within Sinn Féin was passed at the Sinn Féin convention in 1917.

The General Election of 1918, in which Constance Markievicz was elected, did not appear to be much of a triumph at the time. One seat in the Dáil seemed a pitiful harvest. Many women had assumed that their hard work and commitment would automatically lead to nominations for winnable constituencies. Markievicz’s nomination for the Dublin constituency of St Patrick’s was followed only by that of Winifred Carney for a largely unionist Belfast constituency which she had no chance of winning. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington refused the equally unwinnable constituency of North Antrim. Kathleen Clarke, then in Holloway Prison with Markievicz, found her hopes of standing dashed by the machinations of Richard Mulcahy.

Sinn Féin were mindful of the impact that newly–enfranchised women could have on the election and were prepared to use this in their publicity (‘You can save Ireland by voting as Mrs Pearse will vote’). The resulting landslide owed much to women’s efforts, although there was anger at the lack of resources given to Markievicz’s campaign.

Cumann na mBan’s separate status gave it autonomy and gave the women the chance of leadership. If it had been absorbed into the Volunteers it is likely women would still have been confined to their traditional roles and would have had no voice of their own. If, like the Irish Citizen Army, the Volunteers had been established with the principle of gender equality at the outset, perhaps more progress would have been made. However, Cumann na mBan had grown in confidence; they aspired to be more than just ‘animated collecting boxes’ and sought to ‘participate in the public life of their locality and assert their rights as citizens.’

Looking through the records of this amazing period, one cannot help but be struck by the modernity of these women. For all their studied antiquarianism and the plundering of Ireland’s distant past for inspiration, these women were very much of their own time. Many were highly educated (three out of the six women in the Second Dáil were graduates). They earned their own living (and demanded equal pay); they were independent minded, bold and confrontational; they were prepared to defy convention and break rules. It was to warlike heroines such as Granuaile and Maeve rather than more conventionally ‘feminine’ women like Emer that they looked for role models.

According to IRA commandant Michael Brennan, the flying columns would have collapsed without Cumann na mBan. “In despatch carrying, scouting and intelligence work, all of which are highly dangerous, they did far more than the soldiers . . . the more dangerous the work the more willing they were to do it.”

They were anxious to prove their worth and determined to show that they could share the dangers and responsibilties of war. If women accepted traditional ‘women’s work’ and did it willingly and without complaint, it was not because they ‘knew their place’ but because they were prepared to do anything that needed to be done. If they weren’t given the chance to fight, then they could still cook, launder, nurse and carry despatches.

IRA memoirs are dominated by men’s activities, but women get some positive mention. Tom Barry, while relegating Cumann na mBan to the “sole purpose of helping the Irish Republican Army”, acknowledged that they were “indispensible to the Army” and paid tribute to their work. If women were given the drudgery of the armed struggle, at least they were not taken for granted. It is worth mentioning that Barry’s wife, Leslie Price, served in the GPO during Easter week while he was in Mesopotamia with the British Army.

Women also set up a network and framework of safety and security for the IRA to operate in. Housewives provided safe houses and went short themselves to feed the Volunteers. Cork IRA man Connie Neenan’s mother (a "fighting type") and aunt were two of many who transported and hid IRA weapons. Volunteers’ mothers gave much support, often in the absence of or without the knowledge of their husbands. The ‘separate spheres’ culture that then still largely obtained meant that while fathers usually involved themselves little in family life, mothers were often close to their children and shared their subordinate position. Perhaps this fostered the rebelliousness which they taught their children — instead of the ‘slave mentality’ that Connolly so despised, these women were transmitting rebellion down the generations.

Women’s hardline stance, evident before the Easter rising, continued after it. Cumann na mBan members opposed the Treaty by a huge majority. Women certainly stood to lose by a compromise settlement; it was clear that their rights would only be guaranteed by a Republican victory. The General Election of 1921 saw the election of six women to the Second Dáil. It is perhaps significant that strongly Republican Cork and Limerick selected and returned women candidates (Mary MacSwiney and Kate O’Callaghan). Republican strongholds — especially in urban areas — had a more progressive attitude towards women.

These women all voted against the Treaty. It was remarked on (then and ever since) that four had lost brothers, husbands and sons in the Easter Rising and the Tan War; but the assumption that they were little more than the mouthpieces for dead men was patently unfair. As Kate O’Callaghan explained, she had been a separatist since girlhood. Mary MacSwiney and Kathleen Clarke were also committed republicans of many years’ standing.

The vote against the Treaty was lost in the Dáil, but the women scored an important victory in securing the franchise for all women over twenty–one. The vote had been granted in 1918 only to women aged thirty or over. Thus Irish women were fully franchised from 1921 onwards; Thus Irish women were fully franchised from 1921 onwards; women in Britain had to wait until 1928 before they got the vote on equal terms with men.

The occupation of the Four Courts by the anti–Treaty IRA — "Easter week in reverse" as Desmond Greaves called it — echoed Easter week in more ways than one. Women like Maire Comerford carried despatches under fire and Linda Kearns risked her life tending the wounded. Though wishing to share the discomfort and dangers equally with the men, the women were disconcertingly treated with a rather touching chivalry and shielded as much as possible from danger. On surrender, Comerford tore off the Red Cross band placed on her arm by a priest.

Louie Bennett and Rosamond Jacob were among a number of republican women who joined the campaign set up by feminists to oppose the First World War that was to become the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (the ‘Peacettes’ as the Daily Express derisively called them). Irish women, at least, unlike feminist peace campaigners in Britain, were able to oppose the war and conscription without accusations of being unpatriotic. As the women at Greenham Common would find out, objections to men’s right to kill one other without good cause brings down opprobrium onto feminist heads.

If women tended to fill gaps left by men’s absence, or to do the work men would not do, Ireland’s fight for freedom gave Irish feminists an arena to continue to operate in which prevented the feminist movement from fizzling out once the vote had been won. Often engaged on several fronts at once, women played a vital role in bringing together the different strands of the revolutionary movement: the military, political, feminist and socialist causes were thus integrated.

Much had been achieved. The most progressive republican men had on the whole been ready to treat women as comrades and to accept them as equals. The conservatives who took power in the Free State did their best to exclude women from public life and power. It was a cold climate for a lot of men as well. But precedents had been set. Women’s voices had made themselves heard. They still speak to us today.

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