Researched & Written by Christina Knight & Eddie Cantwell © Waterford County Museum
April 2nd 2014 marked the centenary of the first meeting in Wynne's Hotel, Dublin of Cumann na mBan. The women's league was formed following the exclusion of women from the National Volunteers, as an auxiliary, in a supportive role. Cumann na mBan's objectives were fourfold:
Much has been written of the organisations founding members and activists in Dublin over the past one hundred years. But what of the women outside of the Capital, who also risked their lives for the cause of Irish freedom. The centenary anniversary is an opportunity to examine the periods 1914-1923 from the women's perspective in Waterford and their undocumented involvement and stories. The number of women involved in the Cumann na mBan in Waterford was significant and will continue to grow as more research is conducted. The profiles we have a completed give an insight to the evolving roles undertaken by Waterford women from 1916 - 1923. Some of these activities include: Nursing, safe houses, dispatches, and later gun running, developing ammunitions, hiding/delivering arms and intelligence.
After the reorganisation of the Irish Volunteers in 1917, when prisoners had been released following the Easter Rising, Waterford women began forming Cumann na mBan branches in towns and parishes throughout the County. The research has to date discovered twenty two branches around the County with over 150 women involved. This number is likely to increase with further research as an official RIC report in 1918 estimating 68-100 members in Dungarvan. The majority of the women researched had close family that actively participated in the cause for Irish freedom or extended family members supportive of Nationalism. Many of the women profiled married volunteers during or after the Civil War. Young women from late teens to early thirties were encouraged to join to support local volunteers. Initially involved with fundraising and dispatches but as war intensified the roles developed and many women were undertaking far more risky activities. This generation were unique in the history of Irish working class women as active participants and supporters of a War for Independence. Their stories are a valuable resource and it is important both the male and female collectives are understood and recorded to fully understand this turbulent period of Irish history locally and nationally
A small proportion of Waterford Women were involved in the movement prior to formation of any Cumann na mBan branches in their areas. The pension files of Nora O'Keeffe (Melleray) document her involvement from the inception of the volunteers in 1915, only joining Cappoquin Cumann na mBan in 1919 1. National Archives.
During the Civil War, she worked directly under the command of the local IRA Commander. She was awarded a pension for service during the Civil War, although she was no longer in an established Cumann na mBan branch. Following the treaty around the country and in Waterford there was a split within branches and many Free State women left Cumann na mBan branches. There were a minimum required number of ten women per branch and as a result in many smaller areas groups ceased to exist.
At the Annual Cumann na mBan conference in 1921, there were eleven Waterford branches represented 2. The following year only four Waterford branches voted anti-treaty and only two of the 1921 attendees were represented in the anti-treaty vote, 3 Waterford & Tramore other votes included Clonea, Stradbally, and Tallow branches "The anti-treaty branches were likely to be the rumps of old branches that were re-organised and re-named as the treaty split took hold. The executive of Cumann na mBan announced their anti-treaty position, Free State women walked away, and predominantly republican branches many of which were newly re-organised by republican HQ reps touring the country at that time sent delegates to a caucus convention" 4.
Throughout the War of Independence and Civil War Waterford women were imprisoned in jails around the country, working as Intelligence Officers, hid and dispatched arms, manufactured ammunitions and were exceeding the roles described in the 1914 Cumann na mBan Constitution. The women were unable to go on the run and many endured the constant harassment of raids and destruction of properties and businesses. Each of these women continued to maintain homes, in some cases reared children, kept business afloat and supported families in the tragic aftermath of war. Their stories and contribution has remained quietly unspoken and undocumented. Many Waterford women played a unique and important role in the creation of an Irish republic.
1. National Archives, Pension Records collection, Cumann na mBan, Nora O'Keeffe.
2. Cumann na mBan Annual Convention, Dublin Report -22nd/23rd October 1921. National Museum Ireland.
3. The Sighle Humphreys Papers, National Museum Ireland, Cumann na mBan special convention on 5th Feb 1922.
4. Cal McCarthy, 2007, Cumann Na MBan and the Irish Revolution: 1914-1923, Collins Press.
Author: Chrissy O'Connor Knight & Eddie Cantwell