Lord Mayor, Cllr. Deirdre Clune, photographed with Members of Cork City Council, the City Manager, Joe Gavin, Siobhán O'Connor, whose close relatives were active in Cumann na mBan, and Mace Bearers, Pat Russell and John Kenneally,
at the unveiling of a plaque to name the Riverside Walk
Slí Chumann na mBan.
Fellow Councillors, members of the Armed Forces, Teachtaí Dála, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is a great privilege for me as a local representative, as one who has the honour of representing this great city as Lord Mayor and as a woman, to address you here this afternoon at the naming of this Riverside Walk as Slí Chumann na mBan.
Murach an thréanobair a rinne baill de Chumann na mBan I dtosach an fichú chead tá gach seans go dtagadh an votá do mnáibh na hEireann I bhfad níos deánaí na mar a tháininig, ach tiocfaidh me ar ais chuige san níos deanaí.
You will hear much, and may already have heard a great deal over the last few days, about the Easter Rising of 1916, how representative of the will of the people it was (or wasn’t), whether we should celebrate it and how, but I am relatively certain that in all the commemoration, reflection and even perhaps revisionism, that the role played by Cumann na mBan will have played a subsidiary role and may even have gone unrecognised and under- reported. It is fitting therefore that we take this opportunity to commemorate the central contribution made by Cumann na mBan not just in the events of 1916 and the subsequent move towards independence, but in the largely unreported contribution made by its members towards universal suffrage for women.
I don’t propose here this afternoon to give a lesson in the origin and history of the organisation, there are those present far better placed to give such an account, but I will, with your indulgence, outline the more salient points which make them relevant and worthy of commemoration 92 years after their foundation and 90 years after the insurrection which subsequently led to the creation of the Republic.
Cumann na mBan, the ‘League of Women’, was formed in 1914 as an auxiliary corps, to complement the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF). Its recruits were from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar workers and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class.
The Colour Party under the command of Lt Aileen Leonard, 1st Fwd Artillery Regiment, Collins Barracks, at the naming ceremony of Slí Chumann na mBan
On 23 April 1916, when the IRB Military Council finalised arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan, along with the Volunteers and Citizen Army, into the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’; Pearse was appointed overall Commandant-General and Connolly as Commandant-General of the Dublin Division. However, in anticipation of fierce hand-to-hand fighting, some of the rebel leaders - De Valera at Boland’s Bakery and Eamon Ceannt at South Dublin Union - did not permit Cumann na mBan to occupy posts alongside their garrisons.
But elsewhere the organisation played a vital role. They worked at First Aid posts tending wounded, prepared and delivered meals, gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions, carried despatches and transferred arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds. At the Four Courts they helped to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and to destroy incriminating papers.
The occupation of the Four Courts by the anti–Treaty IRA — "Easter week in reverse" as Desmond Greaves called it — echoed Easter week in more ways than one. Women like Maire Comerford carried dispatches under fire and Linda Kearns risked her life tending the wounded.
Cork, as one might expect from a county with a sobriquet “ The Rebel County” also had its part to play. Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence MacSwiney, in whose footsteps I am honoured to follow as Lord Mayor, was a founder member of Cumann na mBan in 1914 and President of the Cork Branch. She was interned after the 1916 Rising, as a result of which she lost her job as a teacher. In 1917 she and her sister Annie founded St. Ita's School for girls in Cork City where all subjects were taught through the medium of Irish.
MacSwiney joined Sinn Féin in 1917 and in 1918 she was elected to the First Dáil for Cork. MacSwiney was appointed to the Cabinet of the Second Dáil in 1922 and was twice imprisoned during the Civil War, undergoing a twenty-one day hunger-strike in Mountjoy Gaol and a twenty-four day hunger-strike in Kilmainham Gaol.
After the Civil War MacSwiney remained active in Cumann na mBan and in republican politics. In 1933 she, together with Albinia Broderick, founded Mná Poblachta to rival Cumann na mBan which MacSwiney believed was moving too far to the left. In 1934 she was a member of the short lived Republican Congress.
The vote against the Treaty may have been lost in the Dáil, but the women scored an important victory in securing the franchise for all women over twenty–one. The vote had been granted in 1918 only to women aged thirty or over. Thus Irish women were fully franchised from 1921 onwards; women in Britain had to wait until 1928 before they got the vote on equal terms with men.
If women tended to fill gaps left by men’s absence, or to do the work men would not do, Ireland’s fight for freedom gave Irish feminists an arena to continue to operate in which prevented the feminist movement from fizzling out once the vote had been won. Often engaged on several fronts at once, women played a vital role in bringing together the different strands of the revolutionary movement: the military, political, feminist and socialist causes were thus integrated. Much had been achieved. The most progressive republican men had on the whole been ready to treat women as comrades and to accept them as equals.
Tréasláiom dos na mnáibh uile a ndearna an obair sin ar ár san agus a chabhraidh agus a chudigh le bunú na Poblachta. Tá sé thar am go mbronnfar an onór seo oththu.
In a time where word “Republican” has tended to have a more negative connotation, it is fit and proper that we remember that the original idea of a Republic, PLATO’s definition and that followed in spirit by the women of Cumann na mBan, is something, through familiarity we have all too often taken for granted. In honouring the women of Cumann na mBan here today with this dedication we remember the sacrifice made on our behalf by those who have gone before us and the debt of gratitude we owe them.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh,
Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr. Deirdre Clune.