Women were active in attempting to heal the rifts in the republican movement but all efforts failed and the country was sliding into civil war by June 1922. Majority support for the Treaty was reflected in a decline in membership of Cumann na mBan. As moderate members dropped out, it became a more hard-line republican organisation and was much criticised and harassed.
The Irregulars occupying the Four Courts and other buildings in Dublin were supplied with food and information by women. In the guerilla warfare that started up again, mainly in the southern counties, remaining members of Cumann na mBan took part as they had done in the Anglo-Irish War. But it was no longer a case of Irish nationalists united in opposition to an outside force. Protecting men 'on the run' and finding 'safe houses' were less easy now in rural networks and people with Republican sympathies were more easily identified.
This time, hundreds of women were imprisoned, hundreds more demonstrated on the streets and Charlotte Despard and Maud Gonne McBride organised a Women's Prisoners' Defence League (WPDL) to protest against the appalling conditions for women in jail.
The weapon of hunger strike had been employed first in England by the suffragettes in 1909 and subsequently in Ireland by Thomas Ashe in 1917 and by Terence Mac Swiney in 1920. It was now used to obtain publicity and put pressure on the Irish Free State Government.
- Mary MacSwiney, whose brother Terence had died on hunger strike in 1920, went on hunger strike herself in Mountjoy Jail in November 1922. She was released after 24 days. Her second hunger strike in April 1923 received noticeably less publicity.
- Her sister Annie MacSwiney who had fasted outside the prison gates during Mary's first hunger strike, began another one herself and was released from prison after 15 days.
- Kate O'Callaghan was released after 25 days.
- Nellie Ryan, sister-in-law of Richard Mulcahy, Minister for Defence, was released after 34 days.
- Maud Gonne MacBride, now 57, was released after 20 days.
- Privileges withdrawn were restored after a week-long hunger strike by 97 women in Kilmainham Jail where over 300 women were imprisoned in the early months of 1923.
- The IRA ordered its men to dump arms on 24 May 1923, but over 8,000 women and men were still in prison the following October. In an attempt to bring about a general release, 5,339 of them went on hunger strike but public sympathy had slackened off by now, even when two of the men died. Most of the prisoners dropped out and the strike was called off after four weeks.
|As had happened in 1916 and during the Anglo-Irish War, women received some degree of special treatment during the Civil War. No women were executed by the Irish Free State, even those arrested in possession of guns, whereas 77 men were executed. On the other hand, Cumann na mBan were not consulted in the cease-fire negotiations that ended the Civil War. They were still seen as auxiliaries to the men.
Prayer vigil outside prison
during the Civil War
National Photographic Archive, Hogan Collection
- Discuss briefly the activities of women during the Civil War.
- 'The Civil War caused immense problems for Cumann na mBan.' Discuss.
- Discuss briefly the use by women of hunger strike in Ireland in 1922-1923.
- Comment on the 'special treatment' women received during the Civil War.
- Write an imaginary letter from one Cumann na mBan member to another at any time in 1923.
- Write a report with suitable headline for a newspaper about the hunger strike in October/November 1923.
- Research the activities of Cumann na mBan during the Civil War in your own area.
- Study Cumann na mBan in Documents at the end of this section.