The Burning of Ballylongford, Feb,. 23rd, 1921

A Commemorative Reflection

Less famous than the burning of Cork but no less violent, Ballylongford, a small market village in North Kerry, with a crooked cross at its center, home place of poet Brendan Kennelly, was burned by the Crown Forces of February 23, 1921. As lockdown has prevented any public commemoration of this event, I offer a reflection on it here. Ballylongford is the hometown of my maternal family and I grew up with memories of the burning of the village by the ‘Tans’. Like many others this vison of the village in flames impacted on my understanding of the War of Independence, its victims, its heroes, and villains, etc.  Of course, research shows this to be a more complicated story, the killing of two members of the Crowns Forces in the village on Feb 22nd, immediately followed by violent reprisal in the early hours of Feb 2rd 1921. The story as told in memory is a battle between two groups of men, the Crown Forces and the North Kerry Flying Column of the IRA. It ignores for the most part the experiences of the militant women of Cumann na mBan, and of the civilians who were most impacted by the destruction in the village. In this blog I offer a corrective to that.

Unlike Cork, my research has unearthed evidence that Ballylongford was burnt twice, firstly in November 1920 and secondly in February 1921. As we move through the Decade of Centenaries, and particularly now as we commemorate the War of Independence, it is vital to remember the history of small places, places like the village of the crooked cross, for it is these places that national and local politics play out at their most intimate and often violent level.

Ballylongford ‘crooked cross’.

Like so many other towns and villages throughout Ireland, the nationalist politics of most inhabitants of Ballylongford had become more militant after the 1916 Rising. The revolutionary war in Ireland impacted on Ballylongford as early as 1916, when a native son – Michael Joseph Rahilly, The O’Rahilly, born there in 1875 – was killed in Dublin during Easter Week. Within two years, north Kerry and Ballylongford were active in resisting conscription into the British Army and had returned a Sinn Féin TD, James Crowley, in the 1918 General Election. A branch of Cumann na mBan and a branch of the Irish Volunteers (now known as the IRA) had also been set up in Ballylongford, and by this time, the local Irish Volunteers branches were attempting to arm themselves. In January of 1918, the Ballylongford, Ballydonoghue and Moyvane Volunteers, led by Brian O’Grady and Eddie Carmody, raided farmhouses around the area and twenty-five shotguns were collected. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390).[i]


North Kerry Flying Column

The Ballylongford Company of the IRA was part of the 6th Battalion, Kerry No.1 Brigade. By 1919, there were over one hundred and forty members, under the leadership of John Enright (Captain, 1921), Roger Mulvihill (Captain, 1917), Brian O’Grady (Captain, 1918) Thomas Carmody (First Lieutenant), Eddie Carmody (First Lieutenant), John Creedon (Second Lieutenant), John Barrett (Intelligence Officer), John Creedon (Quartermaster), and John O’Sullivan (Second Lieutenant).  In his witness statement, Brian O’Grady described the re-formation of the Company in Ballylongford in October 1917 when a Dublin-based IRA organiser came and gave a talk to the local men. As O’Grady wrote: ‘with about fifteen men … I joined after the meeting. Each of us signed a declaration to be loyal to the Republic proclaimed in 1916. Among those who joined were Tom Carmody, Michael and Matt Brassil, Paddy Cox, Thomas Creed, Dan Finucane, Richard Murphy, Ger Hunt, Michael and John Moroney, Patrick McNamara and John Heaphy. I again became acting company captain, Eddie Carmody, 1st lieutenant, and Tom Carmody, 2nd lieutenant’. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390)

 At the same time, Cumann na mBan was re-organising and expanding throughout the county. The Listowel District Council of Cumann na mBan included the Ballylongford branch which in 1920 had between fifteen and twenty members. These included the Captain, Mrs J. Harte (née Collins), Secretary, Mrs Jer Aherne (O’Brien) of Ballyline, Miss O’Sullivan, Treasurer, as well as members Hannie Carmody, Misses A. and R. Collins, Miss Josie Walshe, Ballyline, Mrs P. Moriarty (née Creedon), Mrs M. Heaphy (née Enright), Mrs N. O’Grady (née McDonnell). The women and men collaborated on operations over the course of the War of Independence.

Violence had broken out in Kerry in 1918. An attack by the IRA, while searching for arms, on Gortatlea Barracks near Tralee in April 1918 saw one RIC constable wounded, while two IRA men, John Brown and Richard Laide, were killed. In January 1919, what are generally accepted as the first shorts of the War of Independence were fired at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary. Violence continued to be sporadic in Kerry throughout 1919 and, by early 1920, it had reached Ballylongford. On 3 January 1920, RIC Constable Clarke was shot at by local Volunteers, Thomas Ryan, Mick McNamara and Thomas Carmody. The three held the Constable up at the bridge on Bridge Street. They called on him to surrender his weapon and, when he didn’t, they fired and wounded him. Clarke survived but the men involved had to go on the run. The Ballylongford Company now became very involved in the events in and around north Kerry. In March 1920, as part of the large-scale attack on Ballybunion Barracks, carried out by the Listowel, Ballyduff and Ballybunion Companies, the Ballylongford Company trenched all the roads leading into Ballybunion from Listowel, Tralee and Ballylongford.

As part of these activities, the women in Cumann na mBan served as dispatch carriers and intelligence gathers. They ran the safe houses and delivered and hid arms and ammunition.. Attacks and reprisals by both the IRA and the RIC were increasing, and in response to this, the Black and Tans were deployed in the county in July 1920. This led to an escalation of violence, in particular violent and intimidating reprisals on the civilian population. An incident, which led to the kidnapping the two RIC men took place on the last Sunday in October 1920. John McNamara, a member of the RIC, gave evidence to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland where he described the incident; ‘two men from the barracks in Listowel went to the church in Ballylongford while two or three hundred residents were at evening devotion. They stationed themselves at the gate of the church and, armed with batons, they beat the people as they came through the gate. Many women and children were beaten up that evening’.

St Michael’s Church, Ballylongford

The two RIC men were detained by the IRA and held overnight in Moyvane. While they were eventually released, their kidnapping was a humiliation for the local Crown Forces who were determined on revenge. This kidnapping was part of a county-wide response to violence and intimation by the Black and Tans.

The First Burning of Bally and the Killing of Eddie Carmody

In early November 1920 two RIC men (Constable William Muir and Constable Coughlan) were captured by the Ballylongford Company of the IRA, and held prisoner in the nearby village of Moyvane.  The Crown Forces issued an ultimatum that Ballylongford would be razed to the ground if two men were not released, and they were released on orders of the Kerry No. 1 Brigade HQ. Brigade HQ also insisted that the local IRA place their arms in an arms dump temporarily, which they did.  Early in the morning of 21 November 1920, however, the village was flooded with a large force of Black and Tans and RIC members, under DI Tobias O’Sullivan who travelled in five or six lorries to search Brian O’Grady’s house and elsewhere for arms. Their arrival heralded a day of violence, forced entries in homes, physical intimidation and beatings, interspersed with visits to pubs where alcohol was forcefully requisitioned from landlords. The local IRA, unarmed as their had put the arms in the arms dump,  and Cumann na mBan members, tried to shield the civilian population from the violence by moving them away from where the Tans were congregating. By evening, the Black and Tans were drunk and even more unruly, emerging from pubs and firing their guns in the air while also smashing in widows.

Eddie Carmody, one of the leaders of the local IRA unit, had been helping throughout the day and was stationed at the Doctor’s Cross just outside the village that evening. He was waiting there for the return of one of the IRA men – Hayes – who had gone to Rusheen to retrieve rifles from a safe house. Suddenly he heard footsteps. Thomas Carmody later described what happened at the Doctor’s Cross: ‘It was a moonlight night and they assumed that the footsteps were those of Hayes and other men of the company returning with arms. [Eddie} Carmody said: “They are the lads”, meaning that they were our own lads. Carmody advanced towards a bend in the road about fifty yards away. As he neared the bend. he discovered that the footsteps were those of a party of about six Tans. He turned and ran, the Tans opened fire, shooting him in the back. He managed to throw himself across a low wall in front of the doctor’s house. The Tans immediately raided the doctor’s house but found nothing there. As they were leaving they found Carmody behind the wall, pulled him out on the road and shot him dead on the spot’. (Thomas Carmody, BMH WS 996)
The Black and Tans took Eddie Carmody’s body back to the local barracks where they put it in a turf shed. They then proceeded to burn down Collins’ creamery and timber yard, a public house and some private houses; they also broke many windows. As Brian O’Grady later said, the people of Ballylongford ‘went through a terrible ordeal’ that night. Eddie Carmody’s remains were retrieved the next day by his father and he was laid to rest in Murhur Cemetery with full military honours

Grave of Eddie Carmody

The Secord Burning of Bally; February 23rd, 1921

This was not the end of the violence that the people of Ballylongford were to experience during the ‘time of the Tans’. The relationship between the people of north Kerry and the Crown Forces continued to be violent and on 22 February 1921, at 9.20 pm, Constable George Hewlett, aged 22, was shot in an IRA ambush in Ballylongford village. He had been in the company of Naval Rating Charles Wills, who was severely wounded but survived. Wills cried out that he could not use his gun as he had fired all his bullets, so the IRA men left him. This ambush had been carried out by the North Kerry Flying Column, led by Denis Quill. In June 1920 the RIC is Listowel, led by Constable Jeremiah Mee, had mutinied rather than follow orders to ‘shoot to kill’ IRA suspects from Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster. However, since the summer of 1920 violence and reprisals had escalated in Kerry. Now, in early 1921 no attack, especially a fatal attack, on a member of the Crown Forces could happen without an equally violent response.

For Ballylongford, that, that response came in the early house of the following morning 23 February, 1921 and the violence of the attack had been printed indelibly into local memory. Local IRA Commandant, Brian O’Grady reported that the Black and Tans ‘burned down the local hall, the private house of Tom Carmody, his mother’s private house and that of Eugene O’Sullivan, Mrs McCabe’s, Mrs Barrett’s, Martin Collins’, as well as Martin Collins’ public house, Michael Morris’ butcher shop and Mrs Enright’s sweetshop. Two houses on Well Road were also burned. All shops were looted, and barrels of stout and whiskey were machine-gunned. Shops looted included the drapery houses of Messrs. Lynch, Banbury and Finucane’. (Brian O’Grady, BMH, WS 1390).

The Freeman’s Journal reported that when the bakery of Mr Jeremiah McCabe was on fire ‘the occupants had a very narrow escape as eight children were sick in bed with the mumps. They had to handed out though the back window into the arms of their terrorised mother’. (Freeman’s Journal, Feb 28, 1921) Newspaper reports vary, with some reports of seventeen houses burned and some reporting over twenty or more houses burned. Many houses in Ballylongford were thatched cottages and fire spread easily between them, and many people on the Well Road were rendered complete homeless.

Thatched Homes in Ballylongford

In this attack what was obvious is the fear and intimidation that was visited on the people. Thomas Carmody, a Lieutenant in the Ballylongford IRA, reported that the Black and Tans: ‘… looted and raided almost every house in the village. They filled the lorries with groceries, whiskey, cigarettes and anything they could lay their hands on. They then went from one house to another setting fire to each. The women were terrified and many of them threw their children from the top windows into the street. In all, fourteen houses were completely burned out, while several others were partly damaged’. (Thomas Carmody, BMH WS 996).

The Manchester Guardian reported that seventeen properties had burned in Ballylongford and named the following properties: ‘John Collins’ licensed grocery stores and creamery, M. Collins’ public house, E. Sullivan’s hardware store, M. Bambury’s drapery store, S. Barrett’s grocery store, J. McCabe’s bakery, and the private houses of Edward Brandon, John Farrell and Mr Heaphy, John Moran, and Mrs Kennelly’s house, together with ‘several labourers’ houses’ that were also burned’.

Some premises were spared, including that of Mrs Barrett, as her late husband had served in the British Army. Edmond J. Walsh, in his witness statement, stated that the Black and Tans also ‘took out several residents and severely ill-treated them’. (Edmond J. Walsh, BMH, WS 1170) A report in the Irish Independent on 26 February 1921 had a stark headline, which read ‘Almost Wiped Out: Ballylongford Ruined’. It further read that ‘in the history of reprisals, no place has been proportionally visited with such wholesale destruction as the prosperous little town of Ballylongford. What was once the business centre of N. Kerry, the wealthiest district in the county because of its port, Saleen Harbour, is now little more than a smoking ruin’

Report on the burning of Ballylongford, Irish Independent, February 26, 1921

Later on, individuals did receive compensation for the destruction of their property, and the local parish Priest, Rev M Allman wrote to the White Cross in Dublin for funding to help ameliorate the suffering of the local people. The terror of that night stayed long in the memory of Ballylongford people. The village experienced no more large scale reprisals for the rest of the War of Independence, and the people of the area helped in the recovery of the village. In March, the Freeman’s Journal and the Kerryman reported that Rev Allman had collected £100 locally with farmers in the area contributing £1 each and ‘the more fortunate in the village, through seriously affected themselves’, also contributing to the fund, while the White Cross in Dublin contributed £50 towards reconstruction and ‘alleviation of distress’. (Freeman’s Journal, March 11, 1921, The Kerryman, March 19, 1921). On the other side Constable Howlett’s mother in Middlesbrough received £1,000 in compensation for his death

Unrest continued in Ballylongford after its burning. On June 10th 1921 a large force of rebels attacked the local RIC Barracks but were beaten back. On 11 July 1921, a nation wide truce was called. By then, over three hundred people had lost their lives in Kerry, and untold damage to homes, businesses and lives had been done. The men and women of the IRA and Cumann na mBan lay down their arms, only for many to take them up again in the subsequent Civil War. The Anglo-Irish Treaty caused bitter division between former comrades, and Ballylongford did not escape this. However, the village itself,  ‘the Phoenix of North Kerry’ (as the Listowel writer John B. Keane described it)  did arise again from its own ashes.

Ballylongford in the 1940s

In this decade of centenaries, it is vital to remember the experiences of small communities, many of whom borne the brunt of reprisals during the revolutionary war. Dozens of young men and women from Ballylongford joined the republican cause, their community suffered for their allegiances, and their business and homes were destroyed. One image from the Truce period shows how complicated these histories can be – as the Truce was declared the men of the North Kerry Flying Column were photographed at the crooked cross in the village speaking with a member of the local RIC, men they had known before the War, men they had fought during the War and now, men with whom an uneasy peace existed.  

Local IRA men speaking with an RIC Constable, July 1921

The memory of what happened in February 1921 stayed long with the people of Ballylongford. In the Schools collection housed in UCD children from the area told the story; ‘The only burning of any consequence in this locality happened in Ballylongford about … 1921. It was the year of the war between Ireland and England. This country was infested then with military and Black and Tans who carried out several murders and burnings. They visited Ballylongford in the early morning when people were in their beds and started to burn house after house until they had a lot of the village demolished. It was a very sad sight to look at from the country to see smoke and flames going up in the sky’. (Duchas.ie)

The histories of their small places add to the complicated narratives of the Independence struggles and should not be forgotten.

‘Life, if you wish, may not be worth

One passing game of pitch‐and toss;.

And yet a nation’s life is laid

In places like the Crooked Cross’.

Brendan Kennelly


[i] The Bureau of Military History Witness Statements which included several men who were active in North Kerry can be found http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/bmhsearch/search.jsp Thomas Carmody (Ballylongford Company)and Brian O’Grady (Ballylongford Company) gave statements and others from surrounding companies in north Kerry mention events in Ballylongford.

Remembering Caitlín Brugha, TD for Waterford, 1923-1927

(extract from a paper given by Mary McAuliffe at the Remembering Cathal Brugha Conference, Dungarvan, November 2018)CB

For Helena Molony, a revolutionary, 1916 rebel, and trade union activist, the participation of women in the Rising was not extraordinary. As a political woman, involved in radical politics for at least a decade prior to 1916, she believed her part was no more or less than that of her comrades, male and female.. She complained to Seán O’Faoláin that many men ‘seem to be unable to believe that any woman can embrace an ideal –accept it intellectually, feel it as a profound emotion and then calmly decide to make a vocation of working for its realisation’.  She despaired that men could not understand that women could embark on a journey of politicisation and come to believe in and fight for a cause (of nation, of gender, of class). Women, she said, were not necessarily involved in events like the Rising because they were ‘in love with some man or looking for excitement, or limelight, or indulging their vanity’.  She believed it was self-evident that a woman could work ‘as a man might work’ for a cause, in this case, the cause of Ireland.  It was unthinkable that she, a political woman who had worked for Ireland from the early part of the twentieth century, needed the imprimatur of a man to motivate her.

In looking at Helena Molony’s words now, over 50 years after that interview, we have to ask the question wherether we still consider these revolutionary women, mainly in the light of their connections to and work with male revolutionaries, where we still fail, oftentimes, to consider them as historical subjects in their own right and, indeed as, historical subjects worthy of deeper study or biography.  One such women is Caitlín Brugha, TD for Waterford, 1923-1927.  At the funeral of her husband Cathal Brugha, who had been died in the Mater Hospital on July 9 1922, after being seriously wounded during fighting in Dublin, Caitlín Brugha was surround by and had the support of Republican women.

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Cathal Brugha

Cathal Brugha, who had been elected Sinn Fein TD for Waterford in 1918, opposed the Anglo- Irish Treaty in 1922.  Having cast his vote against the Treaty, Brugha walked out of the Dail, with his anti-treaty comrades, including de Valera, Austin Stack, Robert Barton and Erskine Childers.  When violence broke out in Dublin in June 1922, and the shelling of the Four Courts began on (28 June), he reported for duty to the Hammam hotel in Upper O’Connell St., which had been taken over by anti-treatyites. The hotel, and other buildings taken by the anti-treaty forces soon came under heavy fire and by 5 July were untenable. Most of the defenders surrendered, but Brugha fought on. With the buildings blaze, he charged into the street that now bears his name, firing a pistol, and was shot in the thigh and seriously wounded.  He subsequently died in the Mater, leaving behind a wife and six children, all under the age of 10.

The history and exploits of Cathal Brugha are well known and form an important part of the historical narrative of the revolutionary decade.  His activities as an Irish language campaigner and member of the Gaelic League, his activities in the IRB and subsequently in the 1916 Rising (when he was also badly wounded), his political activities as a Sinn Fein member and then TD, and later Minister for Defence are all written about. From 1912 onwards of course Cathal Brugha had a companion and supporter in his activities, his wife Caitlín Brugha, nee Kingston. After his death she successfully ran for his seat in Waterford and would remain TD for the constituency until 1927.  But who was Caitlín Brugha and why is it important that we also know more about her than simply the fact that she was Cathal Brugha’s wife.

And what more do we know of women like Cathlin Brugha who were married to revolutionary men, killed in the period 1916-1923, men whose widows took their place in the public realm.  The women who were left behind often became the official mourners and keepers of the male patriot dead flame. These widows, with their young children, became one of the most potent symbols of the sacrifices of Rising and made excellent propaganda material.  For instance, the 1916 Christmas issue of the Catholic Bulletin featured pictures of these widows and their children.

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Kathleen Clarke and her children (December, 1916)

A series of commissioned photographs of the widows and orphans of the dead signatories. Aine Ceannt, Muriel McDonagh, Lillie Connolly, Agnes Mallin and Kathleen Clarke, all photographed in their widows weeds, surrounded by their young children. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was photographed with her son Owen, while Nannie O’Rahilly, whose husband, The O’Rahilly had been killed in the charge up Moore St on Easter Friday as the GPO garrison prepared their retreat, was photographed with her four sons, one of whom, Rory, had been born in June 1916, weeks after the death of his father. Agnes Mallin also held a baby (Maura) who was born four months after the Rising.

Caitlín Brugha knew many of these women.  Áine Ceannt, wife and then widow of Eamonn Ceannt, an executed signatory, had spent most of Easter week in Brugha house.  Both were women with small children, both married to and supportive of revolutionary men. On Easter Friday, 1916, the Brugha house in Dartry was raided, because, as Áine Ceannt later reported, it was so full of women.  However, Caitlín convinced the troops who raided the house that her husband was a commercial traveller – which technically, he was! Of Course, Caitlín did not yet know that, on Easter Thursday, her husband had been badly wounded in an attack by British tropps on the outpost where he was stationed, at the South Dublin Union.  He would take a long time to recover from these wounds.  Like Kathleen Clarke, Agnes Mallin and Nanny O’Rahilly, Caitlín Brugha was pregnant when her husband went off to join the fighting on Easter Monday 1916.  Unlike the other women, however, her husband did return home, albeit to a long recuperation from his wounds. Like many of the women, excluding perhaps, Kathleen Clarke, we know little of Caitlín Brugha, other than her position as wife of Cathal.

And this is the challenge of women’s and feminist biography.  As Sara Alpern, Elisabeth Israels Perry, Ingrid Winther Scobie write in The Challenge of Feminist Biography ‘few biographies of men highlight the gender issues in men’s lives. They generally focus instead on a man’s preparation for and fulfilment of his life course in the public arena…. Whereas … no matter how biographers sort out the complexities of any one individual woman’s response, they accept as a given that gender will always, in some way, be central to the understanding of a woman’s life, even if the woman is not conscious of that centrality or even denies it’.

In 1916 Caitlín and Cathal Brugha were the parents of several small children, and expecting another one, yet little comment is made of that fact that Cathal left his wife and children at home, headed off to fight, in the expectation that he might be killed or imprisoned (or, as happened, wounded).  The was never a question of how Cathal, and indeed many other of the male revolutionaries, were able to do this, the invisibility of their wives roles, their caring of the children, remaining at home without question, was expected. Yet, when Cathal does die in 1922, Caitlín Brugha came out of the domestic, as did many of the 1916 widows earlier, and played a very specific and gendered public role, that of political Republican widowhood.

Was is simply her marriage to Cathal that forced Caitlín, as the widowed Mrs Brugha, into this very public role?  In order to answer this we need to know who she was, outside of her role of wife and widow, and of course, mother.

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Kathleen Kingston was born in 1879 in Birr, Co Offaly, to William Kingston, shopkeeper, and his wife, Catherine, née Roche. She had a comfortable upbringing and she and her sister were educated at the  Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea.  In 1910 the Kingston family moved to Dublin, when Kathleen was 31.  She had been an organisor with the Gaelic League in Birr and continued those activities in Dublin. The League was one of the first organisations which welcomed women members, on the same terms as men.  Women were not restricted to subordinate roles, and could and did take leadership roles.  The League provided an opportunity for women, urban and rural, to engage in public life and it is through the league that many women developed their politics, in particular their nationalist ideas.  The fact that the League also organised mixed social and cultural events meant that many of this young. politicised, generation, a generation influenced by cultural nationalism, feminism, militancy, and socialism, met at these events.

And so it was with Kathleen Kingston and Cathal Brugha – who met at a Gaelic League event and were married by 1912. At the time Brugha was a partner in the Lalor brothers’ company, a candle manufacturer, but he spent a lot of his time engaged on political activities through his membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers.  From what we know of Caitlín, she was fully supportive of his activities and held the same ideologies as her husband.  Through the years from the Easter Rising to the War of Independence the Brugha family life was disrupted by illness (Cathal was badly wounded in 1916) and long absences when he was about his political and revolutionary work.  During the War of Independence, like the homes of many people associated with the leadership of Sinn Fein, the Brugha house was watched. In a statement written by feminist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in 1920 on the Atrocities on Women in Ireland (from Margaret Ward (ed) ‘Hanna Sheehy Skeffington; Suffragette and Sinn Féiner’, p. 183) she writes about the raids by armed and drunk soldiery or police’ on the ‘ wives, widows, mothers and sisters’ of prominent Sinn Feiners, many of who are on the run.  …When a man is on the run, is not his wife, sister etc frequently threatened, separated for hours from her terrified children, and sometime compelled to stand in the street under the rain barefooted in her nightdress when her house is sacked and dismantled and even burned’ … recently blood hounds accompanied these searches and added to their terror. Among such case I mention the frequent raids in Mrs Maurice Collins, Mrs Kent [Ceannt], widow of Eamon Kent shot in 1916, Mrs Pearse, Mrs Cathal Brugha, wife of the speaker of Dáil Eireann (to her house blood hounds brought), Mrs Wyse Power etc…’

Cathal Brugha and his family were a target and having received word that his family home might be burned so he moved Caitlín and their children, first to the Ring Gaeltacht in Waterford and then to Ballybunion in north Kerry, where they would remain until the Truce. In fact, in the months between the Truce and the Treaty Debates, Caitlín and Cathal and the family were finally, for the first time in years, able to spend some quality time together. They went on picnics to Howth and generally enjoyed some family life. This did not last long however, politics as ever called Cathal away, and within a few months he would be dead.

On the 9th of July, 1922 the publicity Department of Sinn Fein issued a request from Mrs Cathal Brugha.  She requested that ‘apart from family relations and intimate friends, the chief mourners and the Guard of Honour should include only the women of the Republican Movement.  She [made] the request ‘as a protest against the ‘immediate and terrible’ civil war made by the so-called Provisional Government or the Irish Republican forces.  She did not desire ‘the presence of any of the representatives of the Free State or its officials at the funeral’.

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Republican Women standing Guard over the body of Cathal Brugha

Like her husband, Caitlín Brugha was deeply opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and with this statement she set down a definite marker of her political position. In a letter in the National Library of Ireland, (MS 49,552/1) to Edmund Downey she said after Cathal’s death her one consulation was he died for Ireland.  She wrote ‘Cathal’s death is the deepest sorrow God could have given me yet is my consolation to know that he died for Ireland. May God send us that freedom for which he died & may his example keep our people from selling our beloved country into slavery’.

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Caitlín and Cumann na mBan women at the graveside of Cathal Brugha, 1922

We know that Caitlín herself had played a role in the Civil War with anti-treaty Cumann na mBan member, Elizabeth Dorman, remembering delivering arms to her Fitzwilliam Place.  These arms were for use by the anti-treaty forces. The request from Caitlín that only Republican women form the Honour Guard at Cathal’s funeral demonstrated again, as Jason Knick written in his book (Women of the Dáil, Gender, Republicanism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty)  ‘the role women took in controlling the memory or commemoration of the dead’ (p.134-125), a role they had been playing since after the 1916 Rising.  Suffering, as Knick, further writes, ‘really seemed to create a feeling of solidarity among these women; it united them and gave them shared experiences in which to draw’(ibid). And in the years ahead it is obvious that Caitlín Brugha was a prominent among several women who had lost family, for example, Mary MacSwiney, Mrs Mellows, Mrs Pearse, Aine Ceannt and others like Molly Childers.  Some like Caitlín Briugha and Mary MacSwiney took a more prominent public Republican role than others, but they did often reach out to each other, privately and publicly.

Over the next five years Caitlín Brugha was to play a very public role as the widow of an unrepentant Republican martyr, standing in his Waterford constituency in 1923 for Sinn Féin. It was not easy for these Republican women – often derided as intransigent, as furies, as unrepentant harridans, unhinged and un-womanly. In January, 1923, W T Cosgrave, the President of the Free State Executive, had this to say about Republican women ‘… Die-hards in Ireland are women, whose ecstasies at their extremist can find no outlet so satisfying as destruction – sheer destruction’. According to him the women sought to keep the bloodshed going. For the women, their meetings and voices were often ignored. A  report of a gathering of Republican women at the Wolfe Tone memorial in Bodenstown in June 19223, which included Caitlín was reported as ‘small’.  The writer of the report noted that the women knew why it was not a large gathering… it was composed almost entirely of women.  They stood there to renew for all true Republicans their pledge of undying fidelity to the Republic, their undying hatred of the British Empire ….they longed for peace but their could never be real peace while the King of England clamed authority in Ireland or Irishmen swore allegiance to him’.

However, despite these prevailing attitudes,  Caitlín  was selected by Sinn Fein to run in the General Election 1923 as a Republican candidate.  At a meeting in Dungarvan prior to the election she said ‘it was with mixed feelings that she decided to go forward as a representative of republicanism I …she had not expected this great responsibility being cast upon her as a standard bearer of Sinn Fein, yet her greatest feeling was one of pride that she had been chosen to following in Cathals footsteps’.

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She further stated that the aim was that the people of Ireland should ‘be masters in their own house’…. And she trusted the people of Dungarvan ‘to give the cause of Republicanism, which stood for freedom and unity in Ireland, their wholehearted support’. She topped the poll in the 1923 election, at 8,265 votes with Captain Redmond, the Independent candidate coming in second at 6,441 votes, despite his popularity in Waterford.   In common with the other members of her party, Caitlín abstained from the Dáil, as a protest against the oath of allegiance. In fact, despite winning two elections, she would never actually take her seat in the Dail, because of the Oath.

One of the issues which Caitlín campaigned on and would be active on for the coming years was the welfare and release of Republican prisoners. In speeches she complained about the privation faced by the prisoners, and worries for their health were uppermost in her mind. She noted that the families of prisoners were destitute and that they ‘wanted peace and they could not have this until the prisoners were set free’. She attended a deputation to Dublin Cooperation in October 1923 with Dr Kathleen Lynn, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dr Alice Barry, and others to persuade the Corporation to send their health visitors to set for themselves the treatment of Republican Prisoners in Mountjoy. Caitlín took umbrage when people suggested that the hunger strike the prisoners were on was ‘a fraud’, stating that anyone who knew Austin Stack and those others who were on hunger strike must know that they did not take on a hunger strike without realising what they were doing’.

As well as continuing her political and activist work for prisoners, Caitlín was raising and providing for her six children, although she did have the assistance of her sister Maire. She worked on the Sinn Fein executive, being its treasurer for several years, she continued her work on prisoner releases. Writing to Edmund Downey in 1923 as prisoners were being released she wrote ‘The prospects are now looking very good for the prisoners, it is only a matter of time until Dev [Eamon De Valera] is back again. … Sinn Féin at present working on a policy which will be practical & workable for the country, with the addition of Sean T. [Ó Ceallaigh] & the others we expect to make some headway now that the awful hunger strike is over & the prisoners coming out”. In fact, she often met prisoners as they were being released and helped them settle back in at home. Caitlín ran again for election in June 1927, and was elected again, although she did not take her seat.  She refused to leave Sinn Fein and join Fianna Fail as, in writing to Edmund Downey (who did join Fianna Fail) again,  she said ‘I understood that De Valera had declared that if Fianna Fáil were to get a majority he would set up a Republican government. Now I understand that he has declared that majority or minority he was prepared to take over the Government, which in plain language is the Treaty. You will understand that it is not possible for [Sinn] Féin to cooperate with Fianna Fáil, if De Valera speaks for all its members”.

Like so many of the Republican women, especially the Republican widows, she was unprepared to compromise, and she held true to those republican principles for the rest of her life. In the second General election of 1927, Caitlín did not run as a candidate, as Sinn Fein were out of funds, and this marks the end of her formal political career, but not her activism – and indeed her success as a business woman.  She had established a drapery business, Kingston’s Ltd, in 1924 and following her exit from politics devoted much time to the venture. She died in 1959. Her son Ruari followed her into politics.

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Caitlín Brugha

In order to write the lives and histories of women like Caitlín Brugha we need an understanding of  her own life, of the motivations which drove her political ideology, separate from and in collaboration with those of her husband.  We need to fully understand the power of her position as a Republican widow, and her use of that power in the political arena, as well as the underlying explanations for her lifelong commitment to the Republic.  All of this is vital to understanding her own political and activist journey.

Women’s contributions to the revolutionary period, are as we know now, far more complicated and nuanced. A focus on the female life cycle where marriage and motherhood impact in ways that marriage and fatherhood don’t for male subjects is vital.  It is also vital to understand the solidarity of female experiences, as here with the solidarity of the Republican widows (I would include women like Mary MacSwiney, who lost her brother and others who lost family members not necessarily husbands), in standing together for causes and in remaining true to those causes. It is also vital to understand that the domestic will, mostly, form a large part of a women’s life story, even for the women who operate also in the public realm. Looking behind the men, to the women, who were also there and who were also ideologically moved by revolutionary ideals will help cultivate a better understanding to the broader narratives of Irish revolutionary and early Free State histories.

Amelia Wilmot (1874-1955) – recovering a lost revolutionary (her)story

One of the best sources of Irish women’s history in the Revolutionary Period (1916-1923), are the military pension applications files, digitised by the Military Archives and available online.[1] While many of the women who were in leadership positions in Cumann na mBan or the Citizen army are already well known, the military pensions give us the voice of the unknown women, working class women, rural women, ordinary members of Cumann na mBan.  These are women whose contribution to the War of Independence, 1919-1921, was vital but often hidden. They were the intelligence gatherers, they were the spies and message carriers, they ran safe houses and took care of arms dumps, they transported arms and bomb making equipment to ambushes, they collected and buried the war dead, they were the essential backbone of the military operations.  They were also the ones most in danger from the Crown Forces as they could not, usually, go on the run.  One of those women was a north Kerrywoman, Amelia Wilmot (nee Canty), daughter  of a blacksmith, born in 1874, in  Lyracrumpane, near Listowel.

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1901 Census, NAI

Like many daughters of tradesmen in rural Ireland she attended the local school for a few years, and by 1901 she was 24 and living, at home, with her widowed father and siblings. This is when her life takes an somewhat unexpected turn. By 1905, she was in Aldershot in England, where she married John Wilmot, a Private in the 8th Hussars (The King’s Royal Irish), on April 9th.  This is not as unusual as it seems however, as John Wilmot was  also from north Kerry, from Knocknagoshel, where he was born in 1877, the son of Daniel Wilmot, an agricultural labourer, and his wife, Mary Bunworth.  There could be several reasons why John joined the 8th Hussars in December 1899, at Tralee.  The Boer war was on at the time, but there was no conscription. However, as the son of an agricultural labourer, his prospects in Lixnaw would not have been  good. There is also a report in Kerry Sentinel of March 3rd, 1900, which might give us another reason.  At the Petty Sessions of that month, Mary Wilmot of Lixnaw had her husband Daniel charged with abusive language and bound to the peace.  In her evidence Mary Wilmot said that her husband had threatened her life on previous occasions and that they were not ‘six months married when he beat her’ first.[i] It is possible that John joined up to get away from what was a violent home.

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John Wilmot, Military Record

Amelia and John possibly knew each other before he joined up and sometime in early 1905 she travelled to Aldershot. John had seen service with the Hussars in South Africa between 1900 and 1903 and was back in Aldershot with his Regiment by 1905.  In 1906, the couple had their first child, John James.  Later that year John transferred to the Army Reserves and the family returned to Kerry. Their second son, Daniel, was born in Tralee in 1908, and another son, William, was born in Listowel in 1911. John is described as a coachman on Daniel’s birth record and as a labourer on William’s birth record. The family moved around and may not have lived together during all of this time.  John is recorded in the 1911 census as a servant/car driver at an Hotel owned by the Hartnett family in Castleisland.  Amelia, who was pregnant at the time, and her sons John and Daniel, are not recorded here, nor could they be found in the census. John re-enlisted to active service with the Army (the 7th Hussars) for a year in April 1911 and returned to Kerry in 1912.  The couple reunited and Amelia gave birth to her last child, a daughter, Julia, in 1914 in Listowel, where the family were then living. Their life was not easy however.

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Listowel 1900, NLI Laurence Coll

John was tried in March 1914 at Listowel for drunkenness and fined.  He was then called up to his regiment in August 1914 as War had broken out.  With John of serving, Amelia now had responsibility for their young family in Listowel, and while she would have received a separation allowance as the wife of a serving soldier, it was not enough for herself and four young children, so by 1916, she had a job as a housekeeper and cook in the RIC Barracks at Abbeydorney.

As the wife of a soldier, she would have been trusted by the RIC; but Amelia had politics of a different kind, as her service for the North Kerry Flying Column was to show. When war broke out in 1919, while working in Abbeydorney RIC Barracks, Amelia was in a great position to supply information to the North Kerry Flying Column (part of 1st Kerry Brigade of the IRA) on RIC movements, in and around north Kerry.

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She was also able to get arms and ammunition out – between April 1920 and December 1920, she ‘procured’ 2 bombs, 1 service rifle, 1 shotgun, 1 miniature rifle’ as well as 500 rounds of rifle ammunition (.303) and several rounds of shotgun ammunition from the Barracks, for the Abbeydorney Company of the 1st Kerry Brigade, IRA.[3]  More importantly and usefully, for the North Kerry Flying Column on the run, she supplied information about the movements of the ‘enemy forces as regards arrests and raids’.[4]

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The North Kerry Flying Column (with Mai Ahern, Cumann na mBan)

In January 1921 she transferred to the Listowel RIC Barracks as cook and housekeeper. Taking ‘her life in he hands’, she continued to supply information, arms and ammunition.  In June 1921 she stole a Webley revolver from a ‘drunken Tan’ and sent it to the Commander of the local Column, Denis Quill.

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Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473, Military Pension Application

She continued to supply information, and this seems to have caused some suspicion in the Barracks about her. However, Denis Quill sent her a threatening letter from the IRA, ‘warning her to leave Listowel Barracks at once’, as a ruse to deflect from any attention from her movements.  The ruse worked, so much so that she had a bodyguard of RIC escorting her to and from work!

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Listowel RIC Barracks, burned during the Civil War

It is perhaps ironic that Quill used what was a common tactic to control women during this period, attacks by the IRA, on girls and women suspected of consorting with the RIC or Crown Forces, to keep Amelia safe in her position in Listowel. She continued to supply arms, ammunition and information until after the Truce, when she was dismissed, finally, from her post in September 1921, doing all this ‘at dreadful risk to herself’ and she ‘had several narrow escapes’.   Such was her work for the IRA that Patrick McElligott, Comandant of the Old IRA said that ‘it would have been nearly impossible for us to carry on, in such a hotbed of spies and informers, without her aid’.[5]

What happened to Amalia after the War of Independence is less clear, although what is in the records shows she did not have an easy life. Her husband, John, had been discharged from the Army in 1919, but he does not seem to have returned to the family home. In October 1929 a case before the Listowel District Court mentioned that a Mrs Wilmot, ‘a woman until recently employed by the Civic Guards in Listowel’, summoned her husband, an ex-soldier, for desertion of her and their four children.[6] Amelia have obviously returned to her job with the Civic Guards after the setting up of the Irish Free State.  However, John had deserted his family and left Amelia responsible for their children.

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Kerry News, Friday, October 24, 1924; p. 4

In 1934 in a letter to the Military Pension Board, Amalia said that she ‘was crippled  (with Rheumatics) and cannot manage to exist any longer on my present income’. One by one her children had left for England for work, and by the 1940’s, Amelia was living, on her own, in lodgings in Listowel. In December 1946 she wrote to the secretary of the Department of Defence that ‘all [she had was] this pension of £7-10-00 a yr, plus the old age pension of 10 per week; ‘I am 73 years of age now and unable to do anything. I find it impossible to live on my present income-I have to pay rent for a room (5/ per week) and but food, clothing and fuel. As I am crippled I cannot manage to exist any longer on my present income and I trust that the Minister can see his way to increasing my pension’.  She was awarded 1 and ½ years for pension purposes in April 1941.  Amelia Wilmot, an ordinary, working class woman, a wife, a mother, a member of Cumann na mBan, died in 1955, at the home of her daughter Julia, in the UK. Julia applied for a funeral grant stating that her mother had left no will, as ‘she had nothing to leave’.

This above is a brief glimpse into the life of an ordinary women who gave extraordinary and dangerous service to a cause she believed in.  She had a hard life, a life of poverty, desertion and some violence, but she also played an indispensable role in the conduct of the War of Independence by the North Kerry Flying Column. Her pension application also reveals that the State she worked to bring into being did not fully appreciate or compensate her for her work. Her pension also reveals a courageous, committed women, and gives a snapshot of the lives and histories of some many ordinary women, who provided similar service throughout the revolutionary period. Amelia’s story and their many stories can now be rewritten into our histories.

[1] http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection/search-the-collection

[2] The Kerry Sentinel, March 3rd, 1900

[3] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473, Military Service Pension application, http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/MSP34REF32473AMELIAWILMOT/WMSP34REF32473AMELIAWILMOT.pdf

[4] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473

[5] Amelia Wilmot, MSP34REF32473

[6] Kerry News, Friday, October 24, 1924; p. 4

Flowers for Magdalens Commemoration New Ross, March 11, 2018

Flowers for Magdalens Commemoration, 2018, New Ross

Reflections – Mary McAuliffe

Last year, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Magdalen Laundry in New Ross, and 2016, marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of the last Magdalen Laundry still operating, at Sean McDermot St in Dublin.  2016, of course, also marked the centenary of the Rising, and this year, 2018, marks the  centenary of some Irish women finally achieving the vote.  Since the beginning of the decades of centenaries in 2012 we, as a nation, have commemorated the centenaries of many formative moments in the journey towards the formation of this State.  In 1912 there was the centenary of the passing of the 3rd Home Rule Bill, which seemed to indicate that Ireland would finally achieve a form of self-government, in 1913 we had the commemoration of the Lock-out Strike and the achievements of the trade union movement. In 2013 / 2014 we had the commemorations of the founding of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, in 2015 the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse made the resounding call of republicanism ‘the fool, the fools they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’.Funeral_of_Jeremiah_O_Donovan_Rossa.jpg

Pearse making the speech at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa (Glasnevin Museum)

In  2016 we had all the national and local commemorations of the Rising, we had the army deliver the tricolour to every school in the country, we had the spectacular march down O’Connell St on April 24th, we had gardens, roads, roundabout renamed after signatories of the proclamation, after women in Cumann na mBan,  we had even in 2013 had a bridge over the Liffey named after a young working class trade unionist and rebel, Rosie Hackett. We had museum exhibitions, we had a wonderful new purpose built permanent exhibition, finally, in the headquarters of the Rising, the GPO, we had the 77 women of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen army, arrested after the Rising, commemorated in the re-purposed Richmond Barracks – we had an entire day in 2016, 8th March, International Women’s Day, given over to commemorating the more than 300 women who participated in the Rising, and all female guard of Honour, and speeches from the President, Michael D Higgins, and dignitaries as well the launch of the 77 women of 1916 book and quilt. It was an amazing day for all who attended, RTE even came and filmed the event.

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As the radical generation of young women and men, inspired by what Countess Markievicz called the three-great movements, the women’s movement, the national movement and the labour movement were campaigning and planning and putting into action their fight for nation, gender and class freedoms, young girls and women were still being confined to Laundries.  In 1913 when a young Jacobs factory girl and Irish Women’s Worker Union member, Mary Murphy, was arrested on the strike line and sent, in lieu of there being no borstal of girls, was sent to the Drumcondra Magdalen. There was general hue and cry about this, and many marches and meeting, at one of which the great socialist James Connolly stated that Mary Murphy had to be released, not simply because of her innocence but because of the type of institution she was in.  d2f4a64476c6a51c47f8d909bd1694e7

High Park Margalden Laundry, Drumcondra, after the fire which destroyed it.

In 1914 in Limerick, a group of Irish Volunteers presented their colour, a beautiful blue flag with a golden sunburst, to their nominal leader, the Irish Parliamentary Party Leader, John Redmond – on the flag we can see that it was made by the ‘girls’ in the Good Shepherd Laundry in Limerick.

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The Limerick City Regiment Irish Volunteers Flag. ( Limerick Museum)

This beautiful flag was, wrote historian Liam Hogan, was ‘suitably representative of the Volunteer movement in 1914 – Nationalist and Patriarchal’.

These examples show that as the feminist, nationalist and socialists campaigned for their rights, a parallel and sometimes intersecting history was happening, a history of women and girls incarcerated for some perceived sins against societal norms. As the signatories, Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada and the others, signed the Proclamation which promised equality for men and women, did they also mean the women in the Laundries?  As Markievicz, Skinnider, Rosie Hackett, Dr Kathleen Lynn and the others campaigned for the equality of women and the right to vote, did they include the women in the Laundry in their considerations?  As all the women and men fought in 1916, and later in the War of Independence, did they include the women in the Laundries among those whose freedom they were fighting for?  As the Constitution of the Irish Free State was signed in 1922, and which guaranteed equality to women, were the girls and women of the Laundries included in this?

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We know the answer…. they were not!  Even the most radical of revolutionaries of our revolutionary struggles, Connolly, the Sheehy Skeffingtons, Lynn, and the others did not bring the women of the Magdalen’s into their consideration. And in the State which did come into being, with many of the radicals dead or sidelined, the most conservative of governments combined with the power of the Catholic Church to accelerate the use of the Magdalen system, along with the other institutions of control, the Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools etc.

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Women from the Sean McDermott St Magdalen marching in a MayDay procession, 1950’s

As an historian of the women of the revolutionary period I am very proud of the work of the many women and feminist historians whose research and writing has recovered the activism, roles and contributions of women in the Revolutionary years and have made it an integral and essential part of that history.  No-one can really write a proper history of this period without including the women.  But I am, very often, reminded that not all the histories of women of that period have been written, considered, included or memorialised. Under the sink in my house I have a bar of soap I got when I went to the powerful site-specific play ‘Magdalen’, put on by Anú Productions, in the Sean McDermott St. Laundry.

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It is carbolic soap and has a very distinctive smell – everything I smell it I remember – I remember that there are histories that remain hidden, that there are histories that remain lost, that there are histories that are still being deliberately kept from us.  But I also know, despite, I would suggest, the sometimes deliberate attempts to make invisible the histories of women who experienced the Magdalen system, that there are ways, powerful ways, of getting around this. We may not have the records that the Orders hold, but we have these graves, and to paraphrase Pearse and his O’Donovan Rossa speech, while we hold and honour these graves, we, and Ireland, will never forget, we will always honour these women and girls.

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We have the memories and oral histories of survivors, and we have buildings, buildings like the Sean McDermot St Magdalen, which should be a site of memory and conscience. We have these commemoration ceremonies, in ways, as powerful as a parade outside the GPO. And we have people, survivors, campaigners, activists, artists, writers, historians who will never allow this history to be forgotten; who will in time insist that it sit central to all the other narratives of Irish history.  So today, and every day, remember these women, remember their lives, remember their histories and continue to fight for their memories, and for restorative justice.

Women and Anti Conscription in Ireland, 1918

In 1918 the British government decided to extend conscription to Ireland. Nationalist opinion was outraged at what it saw as a violation of the rights of small nations that Britain claimed to be upholding in the war with Germany.  Senior military and police leaders who were aware of the Irish situation warned that conscription would be ‘bitterly opposed by the united Nationalists and Clergy’, but, as Charles Townsend writes, at ‘no point did the cabinet seem to worry about the advisability of training a vast number of potential dissidents’.  Indeed, Field Marshal Lord French, Commander in Chief of the Home Forces was determined to implement conscription, despite recognising that ‘the country would be thoroughly roused by bitter animosity and resolution’.

Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces badly needed 100,000-150,000 reinforcements on the Western Front, and declared himself not afraid to take hundreds of thousands of ‘recalcitrant conscripted Irishmen’ into his army of 2.5 million. Although the Irish political leaders, the church and the media bluntly said that introducing conscription to Ireland was ‘an act of insanity’ (London Times, April 8th 1918), the Military Service Bill was passed by the House of Commons on April 15th, 1918.  Nevertheless, the House of Commons passed all stages of the Military Service Bill on April 16th, when the Irish Parliamentary Party withdrew in a body from Parliament as a protest. The Bill received the Royal Assent and became law on April 18th.

However, the Ireland into which it would be introduced was not at all receptive to this new Bill. Public opinion, influenced by the ongoing propaganda of the republican organisations, the continuing arrests under DORA and the ongoing hunger strikes, as well as high profile deaths such as that of Thomas Ashe, had swung towards Sinn Féin.

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Funeral procession of Thomas Ashe on the Quays, going towards Glasnevin

Sinn Féin was, despite internal wrangling for power and position, was by early 1918, in pole position to influence Irish opinion on this very real threat of conscription; and it wasn’t the only organisation which determined to oppose its introduction. On this single issue the IPP and Sinn Féin temporarily put aside their many differences and stood as one in opposition, while the Catholic Church was also opposed it, on the basis that the Irish had not given their consent to the war in the first place. Crucial to the anti-conscription campaigns, however, would be the trade union movement and the women’s organisations.

On April 18, the Mansion House Committee was formed by representatives of Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the Irish Volunteers, the All for Ireland League and the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (ILP&TUC). The Committee decided to call on ‘all Irishmen to resist by the most effective means at their disposal’ any attempt by the British government to introduce conscription.

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On April 20, at a special conference of the ILP&TUC 1,500 delegates affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription. Held on April 23, the strike brought much of the country to a standstill and, despite a ban by the British government on demonstrations, almost every town and city outside of Ulster had marches. So successful was the strike that the Irish Times said April 23 would ‘be remembered as the day on which Irish Labour recognised its strength’. Women also organised against conscription. Within three days (April 18) a united campaign of all shades of trade unionism, feminism, nationalism and republicanism was coming together to campaign against it. As well as Sinn Féin, the IPP and the Catholic Church, those who actively opposed conscription included the Labour Party, Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU), and the Irish Volunteers.

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On April 18, agreed a Sinn Féin pledge which declared that conscription was ‘a declaration of war on the Irish people’ and all present swore to ‘resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal’.Two million people, men and women, signed the anti-conscription pledge over the coming weeks.

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The National Pledge

Other ‘most effective’ methods of resistance were provided by the trade union movement, the Labour party and the women’s organisations. On 20 April, a special meeting of the Irish Trade Unions Congress (ITUC), attended at about 1,500 members, affirmed Ireland’s right to self-determination and called for a general strike against conscription.  This general strike, which happened on 23 April in all parts of Ireland except north-east Ulster, brought practical effect to the resolutions passed by Sinn Féin, the IPP, the Irish Volunteers and the Catholic hierarchy. Outside of Ulster it was hugely successful; pubs, shops, railways, newspapers, factories closed and all transport ground to a halt.

Organised and lead by the unions and the Labour Party, much of the country was shut down while, despite a ban, almost every town and city had marches. At City Hall in Dublin, thousands converged to sign the anti-conscription pledges.  Interestingly women, organised by the IWWU and Cumann na mBan, took their own pledge which included the promise not to ‘fill the places of men deprived of their work through enforced military service’. Irishwomen were not going to be the supportive ‘home front’ if their men went off to war!  This was a very visible demonstration of their own opposition to the war and a warning to the British government that the economy would be crippled in the event of it pressing ahead with its’ plans.no blackley

While such resistance ended active attempts to impose conscription, it also led to more intensive repression by British authorities. But women kept up their anti-conscription activities. The IWWU, with its expertise to co-organise a huge event, had members on the Lá na mBan (Women’s Day) planning group, chaired by Alice Stopford Green, which represented the different women’s organisations.

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On June 9, 1918, thousands of female activists, many working class women and trade unionists, took to the streets for Lá na mBan. They collected masses of pledges, the Freemans’s Journal reported that 40,000 signed the anti-conscription pledge in Dublin’s City Hall alone.

La na mBan Photo Irish Independent 10 June 1918Report and image, Irish Independent, June 10, 1918

It also reported that the 2,400-plus IWWU women who marched from their great Denmark Street offices to City Hall along with about 400 uniformed Cumann na mBan women ‘made the biggest show’.

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IWWU founder and trade union activist, Delia Larkin signing the anti-conscription pledge in City Hall. With thanks to NLI Ms 40,395, Patricia Lynch / R.M. Fox Collection

On the day and in the following weeks, an estimated two-thirds of Ireland’s women signed the campaign’s ‘solemn pledge’ because ‘the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny’.Women also swore not to ‘blackleg’, that is take the place of men in factories and industry if the men were conscripted.

Lá na mBan’ demonstrated the ability of women’s trade unions and women activists to bring large numbers onto the streets in acts of civil disobedience against imposition of repressive laws. While the threat of conscription was not finally lifted until after the Armistice in November 1918, it was effectively dead in the water by late April/early May of that year. More disastrously, however, from a British perspective was that the anti-conscription campaigns served to heighten nationalist fervour throughout the country, with popular opinion swinging behind republicanism.

Membership of the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, and Sinn Fein surged. The moderates, those who would have been expected to support constitutional nationalism, were, by now, swinging towards Sinn Féin. The beginning of the end of the IPP was in sight, especially as the Church swung its support to a greener shade of nationalism. For Labour, April and the general strike, would prove to be a high point.  Lá na mBan demonstrated that women activists had the ability to organise countrywide acts of civil disobedience.  From June 1918, new branches of Cumann na mBan were being formed all over the country and older one expanded. By December 1918 most were in a position to make a real impact on the campaigns for Sinn Fein in the General Election, 1918.

Lá na mBan Pledge text

‘A Solemn Pledge from the Women of Ireland – Inaugurated on St Colmcille’s Day’.

“Because the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny, we are resolved to resist the conscription of Irishmen. We will not fill the places of men deprived of their work through refusing enforced military service. We will do all in our power to help the families of men who suffer through refusing enforced military service”.

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The Lá na mBan Women’s Pledge form (c. Adams & Sons)