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Redressing the airbrushing of our female revolutionaries

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

The symbolism of Elizabeth Farrell being air-brushed from the photograph of Patrick Pearse’s surrender to General Lowe after the Easter Rebellion 1916 is obvious. It has been widely cited as an example of the subjugation of the role that women played during this seismic time in our history. Fortunately, this injustice is being redressed during the many celebrations marking this decade of centenaries which define the establishment of our State.
By all accounts, this was a heady time in the historical narrative of female activism in this country, and beyond, with the fight for suffrage a universal theme in the so-called developed world.
Foremost among the many groups founded during this time was Cumann na mBan – the Irish Women’s Council.  
Founded in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, on April 2, 1914, Cumann na mBan supported the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, in which it had a landslide victory, mortally wounding the more conciliatory and conservative Irish Parliamentary Party.
Many of the cumann’s members already had associations with another feminist group established 14 years earlier by leading activist Maud Gonne. She had founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann ‘out of the frustration of being excluded, as a woman from advanced nationalist clubs’. This organisation’s ethos was more broadly cultural and, for example, played a crucial role in the emergence of the Irish National Theatre where ‘the cause for freedom’ was the subject of many of its early plays. Indeed, the centrality of the revival of a national literature, language and culture is key to understanding this period in our history.
However, this was a time where direct political action was a priority. So many of the members of Inighindhe na hÉireann would become activists in Cumann na mBan in the lead-up to the Easter Rebellion of 1916.       

Revolutionary spirit
AS historian Sinéad McCoole writes in her outstanding book, ‘No Ordinary Women’: “The work of Cumann na mBan in the aftermath of the Rising had a major effect in shaping the revolutionary spirit of the years 1917-1921. While the internment camps have been termed the ‘universities of revolutionists’, producing men who returned to Ireland as ‘a core of dedicated politicised soldiers and idealists’, it was the women who spread the doctrine of Republicanism throughout the country during the period when the men were interned.”
During this period the women of Cumann na mBan provided safe houses for men on the run; brought supplies to those hiding out on the hills; gave medical assistance to the wounded and sick.
“They acted as lookouts and scouts, hid weapons and documentation and when the need arose formed guards of honour at funeral processions,” McCoole writes.

Black and Tans
OF course, as the War of Independence continued and the guerrilla warfare tactics masterminded by Michael Collins left its mark on the RIC, leading to the arrival of the notorious Black and Tans in Ireland on March 25, 1920, the operations these brave women undertook became increasingly dangerous.
Despite regular curfews, martial law in many areas and increased dangers to their lives, these Cumann na mBan women continued their activities unabated.
As McCoole writes: “One of the reasons these women were not arrested more frequently was that many of them collected and distributed materials from their babies’ prams. They showed no compunction in using their children to allay suspicion; on one occasion, Catherine Wisely Daly, a member of Inghinidge na hÉireann and later Cumann na mBan, carried 20 rounds of ammunition hidden in her baby son’s clothes.’
Of course, these women had to have certain characteristics such as cool nerves and ingenuity. In one case, while four IRA activists were hiding out in the home of the Punch family in Co Clare and the house was raided, ‘the young women of the house immediately invited the soldiers to join them for tea and began an impromptu singsong. The result was the house was never searched and the men evaded arrest’.        
It may be past time that these armies of brave women are now being honoured as we celebrate so many important dates in the founding of our State, but isn’t it simply wonderful to discover their stories? Haven’t contemporary women a lot to live up to? Shouldn’t we be humbled and proud to learn from their legacy of political activism, principled stands and that most interesting gift to our gender: creative female ingenuity?

MORE ‘No Ordinary women, by historian Sinéad McCoole, is published by O’Brien Press.