The Role of Women in the Revolutionary Decade

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Cumann na mBanSometimes we forget that much of what we take for granted today was achieved by the struggle of people who fought against huge obstacles, whether it was in the national struggle for independence that we are commemorating in this decade of centenaries or in the striving to achieve decent working conditions, equality for all citizens and wide-ranging social justice. Despite the fact that women played a significant role in most of those struggles, too often the perception lingers that they were only the passive beneficiaries of men’s activities. One of the reasons for that misperception was the social policy that underpinned the institutionalisation of gender inequality, even after women gained access to the vote in 1918.

In January 1919, the first Dáil adopted a Democratic Programme which was based on the republican and semi-socialist ideals of the pre-war years. It asserted that the nation’s sovereignty extended ‘to all men and women of the nation’ as well as to its material wealth; that the country should be ruled according to the principles of ‘Liberty, Equality and Justice for All’; that ‘every man and woman’ had a right to ‘an adequate share’ of the produce of the nation’s labour; that the ‘first duty’ of the Republic was to provide for the well-being of the children and it was a duty of the Republic to ‘safeguard the health of the people’. While that Democratic Programme was not the basis of the state that emerged from the War of Independence and the Civil War, many of the women who had been active in the struggle to establish that state still believed in the ideals that it represented.
Members of First Dail
Portrait of members of the first Dáil

The 1913 founding manifesto of the Irish Volunteers had conceded that ‘there will be work for the women to do’ but did not say what that work would be. Since all the founding documents and the rhetoric at inaugural meetings referred to Irish manhood it is hardly surprising that women who did not want to be in the Volunteers in a subsidiary capacity decided to create their own organisation and Cumann na mBan was set up in April 1914, albeit as an auxiliary body. They wore uniforms and participated in a number of activities that would prepare them for involvement in armed conflict, such as drilling and first aid, but not as combatants.

The Irish Citizen Army was founded as a workers’ defence militia during the 1913 Lockout and women joined on an equal basis with men, although they also organised themselves into a women’s section. One of the key points of the constitution of the ICA was the demand that members must also join a trade union, if at all possible. The cause of women and the cause of labour was one of the main points of co-operation between middle and working class women in this period. 

The release of applications made under the Military Service Pensions Acts in recent years sheds light on the breadth of activity undertaken by women in the course of the War of Independence and subsequently in the Civil War. Nevertheless, the Military Pensions Act 1924 made it extremely difficult for women to meet the criteria for a pension in its definition of eligibility:

            In this Act the expression “military service” means active service in any rank, whether as an officer, non-commissioned officer, private or volunteer in any of the following forces, that is to say—“Oglaigh na hEireann” or the military body known as the “Irish Volunteers” or the military body known as the “Irish Citizen Army” or the body known as “Fianna Eireann” or the body known as the “Hibernian Rifles” or the “National Forces” or the “Defence Forces of Saorstát Eireann” or any branch of any of those forces.

The language of the application forms assumed that the potential pensioner was male. When Margaret Skinnider - a member of the Irish Citizen Army who should have been eligible on several grounds, applied for a pension on foot of being shot on active duty during Easter Week 1916 she was refused on the grounds that the Act was only ‘applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense’. She re-applied in 1937 following changes to the Acts and this time she was awarded an annual pension of £30, in respect of eight years’ pensionable service.
Portrait of Margaret Skinnider

The Military Service Pensions Act 1934 widened the criteria for inclusion:

This Act applies to every person:

  1. who served in the Forces at any time during the week commencing on the 23rd day of April, 1916, or who served in the Forces continuously during either of the following periods, that is to say, the period commencing on the 1st day of April, 1920, and ending on the 31st day of March, 1921, and the period commencing on the 1st day of April, 1921, and ending on the 11th day of July, 1921, and
  2. who served in the Forces at any time during the period commencing on the 1st day of July, 1922, and ending on the 30th day of September, 1923, and
  3. who is not a person to whom the Act of 1924 applies.

Cumann na mBan was now listed as a qualifying organisation but the types of activities covered by the Act still excluded many women. It was not until 1949 that the two acts were amended by widening the criteria to such an extent that military activity included running safe houses, intelligence work and delivering weapons, much of which had been undertaken by women.
Portrait of Cumann na mBan
Portrait of members of Cumann na mBan

Dr. Mary Muldowney, Historian in Residence, Dublin City Library and Archive.

Dublin City Council Historians in Residence are available to meet groups and schools, give talks, walks etc, run history book clubs and advise on historical research.

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