Cumann na mBan

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Cumann na mBan

Cumann na mBan—literally, "league of women"—was founded in Dublin in April 1914 as a women's auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers. The founders were Agnes O'Farrelly (one of the first women professors in the National University of Ireland), Agnes MacNeill, Nancy O'Rahilly, Louise Gavan Duffy, Mary Colum, and Mary McSwiney. Cumann na mBan members were to train in signals and first aid, and their role was envisaged as a noncombatant one. Although it had its own command structures, the Cumann as a whole was subordinate to the Volunteers' organization. Leading Irish suffragists of the day criticized it, claiming that these "slave-women" would become nothing more than "animated collecting boxes." Prominent Cumann member Helena Molony spoke for many members when she responded that there could be no free women in an enslaved nation. Initially the membership was drawn from the leisured middle class, but gradually, more and more lower-middle-class and working-class women came to be represented in the organization. Typical was the trained hospital midwife Elizabeth O'Farrell, who delivered the surrender at the end of the 1916 Rising.

The Volunteers split in the autumn of 1914 when the majority of its members voted to answer Britain's call to arms. In Cumann na mBan, however, the majority voted to stay with the minority of the Volunteers who served "neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland." The Cumann played an important role in the 1916 Rising, performing vital life-maintenance work in the garrisons and carrying messages. From 1916 to 1918 it was women who were largely in charge of revolutionary nationalism, campaigning for prisoners' dependents' relief, upholding the cult of the dead 1916 leaders, sustaining the anticonscription movement, and electioneering for Sinn Féin's landslide victory in the 1918 election. The number of branches of Cumann na mBan soared from 100 in 1917 to 600 in 1918. During the War of Independence the women played vital yet hidden roles as keepers of safe houses, dispatch riders, and firstaid workers. The truce and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty saw the country bitterly divided, but Cumann na mBan was the first nationalist organization to publicly reject the treaty. The Cumann were active during the Civil War, during which many of its members were imprisoned, and it continued to be the most politically radical (usually left-wing) political organization in Ireland until the revolutionary generation died out.

SEE ALSO Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921; Clarke, Kathleen; Markievicz, Countess Constance; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century


Ward, Margaret. Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. 1983.

Caitriona Clear

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Cumann na mBan

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