The Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1913 and imported arms at Larne in 1914 to resist the imposition of Home Rule in the northern counties. In a mirror development, the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913 and imported arms at Howth in 1914 to defend national independence.
Mary Spring-Rice & Mary Childers, two members of the crew on the
Asgard yacht at Howth, July 1914
Women were active in the Unionist cause in Ulster and a women's council was founded in Dublin in April 1914 as auxiliaries to the Irish Volunteers. It was called Cumann na mBan and its main aim at first was to raise funds to arm and equip the men of the Irish Volunteers in the cause of Irish liberty. Many women prominent in Cumann na mBan were related in some way to Volunteer members.
They set to work running flag days and concerts to raise funds, as well as making uniforms and learning first aid. A few did rifle training but they were not officially in arms, unlike the women in the Irish Citizen Army. They marched in uniform at the nationalist funeral of O'Donovan Rossa in 1915. Their patriotic aims and activities attracted thousands of Irish women and by October 1914, Cumann na mBan had 63 branches, some with about 100 members. There would be 100 branches in 1917, climbing to 600 in 1918 and 800 in 1921.
Cumann na mBan brooch
But they had no formal representation on the Irish Volunteer executive and membership of the Volunteers was not open to women. Their role was envisaged mainly as a subordinate one. The status of women was sensitive in 1914 - the issue of women's suffrage had been politically entangled with the Home Rule issue and was yet to be resolved. The subordinate role of women in Cumann na mBan was ridiculed by the Irish Women's Franchise League in their paper, the Irish Citizen. An editorial made scornful comments about extracts from the inaugural address of Agnes O'Farrelly at the foundation of Cumann na mBan:
|The Slave Women
'We offer our homage to the men' - 'Our first duty is to give our allegiance and support to the men' - these are the kinds of phrases that are scattered through it and give its keynote. We are satisfied that this movement, like the movement of Ulster Unionist Women which it is imitating, is a thoroughly reactionary one, and opposed to the best interests of the women's movement in Ireland.
Irish Citizen, 2 May 1914.
There was further embarrassment for Cumann na mBan two months later when John Redmond, opponent of women's suffrage, imposed twenty-five of his own nominees on the executive of the Irish Volunteers. When World War I began, a majority of Cumann na mBan members repudiated Redmond's National Volunteers and actively discouraged enlistment in the British Army.
The aims of Cumann na mBan were amended later. The experience of many members during 1916, as well as the presence of suffragists in the ranks led to a restatement of their aims in 1917. Now they included the 'arming and equipping of the men and women of Ireland' and a commitment to 'follow the policy of the Republican Proclamation [of 1916] by seeing that women take up their proper position in the life of the nation.'