‘Revolutionary Women’

It is difficult to accurately assess how many women were ‘involved’ in the many direct and indirect plots, plans, attacks, events, and interactions related to the period we know as Revolutionary Ireland for a number of reasons. Primarily, much of conflict between Republican forces and the British (and then anti and pro-Treaty Irish forces during the Civil War [1922-1923]) involved guerilla warfare, where fighting was not in pitched battle but in squirmishes, ambushes and short-term affrays. Therefore, many of those who were actively involved in ‘Revolutionary Ireland’ did so covertly, were not directly involved in the fighting but rather assisted by maintaining networks or were never located, arrested or imprisoned.

Members of Cumann na mBan, Kilmainham Gaol Archives

Members of Cumann na mBan, Kilmainham Gaol Archives

This was particularly the case for the women involved in the period as many held important but often hidden roles of facilitators, provisioners, communicators and maintaining safe houses rather than as active combatants. Whilst the most well known female figures from this period – including Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne MacBride and Mary McSwiney – where publicly involved in either military interactions, high-level politics or public protest the majority of women helped their comrades in more mundane but equally important ways. The central involvement of women in maintaining networks of communications, safe houses and concealing of weapons and secret documents (McCoole 1997) were often undiscussed by the women and underplayed by the men at the time. As Margaret Ward suggests, there was often an implicit acceptance of gender relationships being ‘man the leader and woman the auxiliary’ (1995: 197). This reticence has persisted ever since. Furthermore, Ann Matthews has suggested there has been a lack of ‘real engagement’ with women’s participation within nationalist and republican movements from this period due to the over-promotion of such exceptional female figures mentioned above and there is a need to explore what the ordinary women contributed (2011: 9).

One means of gaining a partial insight into how many women were involved in the different periods of Revolutionary Ireland is to look at those imprisoned. Of course, the women arrested and interned can only provide the smallest indication of the true numbers involved. Those who came to the notice of authorities were either known as previous comrades, involved in public protests, in positions of real or perceived power, or were related to men who were ‘on the run’ or known belligerents. However, these figures are a most interesting indicator when the gaolers move from being the British to a Free State administration. It is clear that the number of women imprisoned by the Free State during and after the civil war jumped dramatically from those held in the preceding conflicts. Margaret Ward argues that whilst only c50 women were arrested and detain  by the British Forces c1916-c1921, c400 were held and arrested by the pro-Treaty forces (1995, 190). This change in numbers probably indicates that recent allies were more aware of the importance of women to the success of the guerrilla movements rather than a sudden leap in the numbers involved.

Women were held as political prisoners throughout this period, often for short amounts of time and frequently moved around various holding centres. It is notable that many women who were arrested outside Dublin were frequently moved to the capital within a short amount of time. They were moved around a number of prison, most notably Kilmainham Gaol, North Dublin Union (NDU) and Mountjoy Prison. The women maintained many of their organizational structures from Cumann na mBan, a political, women’s organization that many were members of, and they actively performed their political status. There were examples of collective actions such as hunger strikes and tunnel digging, as well as more mundane activities such as partaking in games of rounders, performing pageants or commemorations or protesting the quality of the food!

 

Buckley, M. 1938. The Jangle of the Key. Dublin: James Duffy & Co. Limited.

McCoole, S. 1997. Guns and Chiffon. Dublin: Stationery Office Books.

Matthews, A. 2011. Renegades: Irish Republican Women, 1900-1922 Dublin: Mercier Press.

Ward, M. 1995. Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish Nationalism. Dublin: Pluto Press.

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