When Separation Women ran riot

County View

County View
John Healy

It was just over a century ago that a general election changed the course of Irish history and saw Sinn Féin overwhelm the venerable Irish Party to become the dominant voice of a resurgent nation. But it was also the run up to the 1918 election that saw the emergence of what was called a new element in Irish elections – ‘rowdy, boisterous, separation women, famed as window breakers and stone and bottle throwers’.
The Separation Women were the wives of men serving with the British army in the Great War, and who were in receipt of weekly Separation Allowance payments from the War Office. Urged on by the RIC and the British administration, they were encouraged to attend at and disrupt Sinn Féin meetings, to harass and heckle and, if necessary, to physically attack supporters of the new national movement.
Although their activities were short lived, the Separation Women did not stint on their hostility to the up-and-coming Sinn Féin until the watershed election of 1918 – and, more significantly, the end of the war – brought an end to their raison d’etre.
In Athlone, 18 young women, wives of soldiers, were arrested for having attacked with bricks, stones and bottles a Sinn Féin contingent on its way to a party rally. One of the defendants pleaded that it was hard for those whose husbands were dying on the battle fields to be taunted by Sinn Féin flags and marchers.
In Sligo, a contingent of Separation Women attacked the vehicles of the dignitaries attending a public reception for Countess Markievicz at which the Freedom of Sligo was conferred on ‘the Joan of Arc of Ireland’. Mud and stones were thrown at the mayor and his party, while one of the guests was left so badly dishevelled that he had to retreat to a private house for a change of attire, much to the amusement, it was claimed, of the police who ‘stood laughing at the spectacle’.
Indeed, the leniency shown by both the police and, if the women were brought to court, by the magistrates, was a remarkable feature of their activities. On the same day in Sligo, a young man was charged with riotous behaviour when he retaliated to the insults of the Separation Women. In Longford, six young Sinn Féin supporters who got involved in a row with the Separation Women were given four months jail for ‘inciting violence and breaching the peace’.
Not surprisingly, the actions of the Separation Women attracted withering criticism from the media, which, by then, were turning resolutely in favour of Sinn Féin. One columnist condemned the payment of ‘separation monies to wanton women, who have come into receipt of money far in excess of anything they were accustomed to, and who dissipate it in riotous living’. There was criticism for ‘paying out large sums to irresponsible women who spend it recklessly, leading to debauchery and human degradation’.
So concerned was Sinn Féin by the activities of the Separation Women that, come the vital East Mayo election of 1918, it recruited 150 Volunteers from Clare to head off any possible disruption. John Dillon, the long-serving Irish Party candidate, in turn berated the influx as ‘imported rowdies from Clare brought in to beat and bully the people of East Mayo’.
It was a watershed election in more ways than one. De Valera, the Sinn Féin nominee, roundly defeated John Dillon breaking forever the power of the old Irish Party. And the Separation Women faded away out of Irish history, never to be heard of again.