Women’s experiences during the Irish Civil War
Some women joined resistance groups, some remained in the home, but most of them suffered, writes Dr Fionnuala Walsh, University College Dublin
In his 1924 book, The Victory of Sinn Féin, PS O’Hegarty described the response of women to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in damning terms, referring to them as hysterical ‘furies’. Instead of women performing the role of peacemaker as promised by the suffragist campaign, he believed women had contributed to the escalation of conflict. Similar concern at the ‘impassioned pleas for the rejection of the treaty’ made by women in the Dáil debates were expressed in Irish Life magazine in early 1922: ‘We used to be told that woman’s influence in politics would be pacific. But is that really so?... A horrid doubt steals over my mind’. Mary MacSwiney referred to the opposition of the ‘women of Ireland’ to the Treaty and indeed all six women TDs in the Dáil rejected the Treaty, four of whom had lost close male relatives in the conflict. Cumann na mBan were the first republican organisation to reject the Treaty at their convention in February 1922. The remainder of the membership who accepted the Treaty formed Cumann na Saoirse, however it did not last beyond 1923.
Although women took an active part in the Civil War in large numbers, this is overshadowed by the gendered criticism of women’s anti-Treaty stance and by the backlash against women in the Irish Free State. In the first two decades of the new Irish State various efforts were made to confine women’s role to the domestic sphere and to limit their contribution to the workforce and public life. While feminist activism continued through a range of different organisations, notably focused on the 1937 constitution, this is generally seen as a grim period for women’s rights in Ireland and a betrayal of the ideals of equality expressed in the 1916 Proclamation.
By 1922 women in Ireland had lived through the upheaval and distress of the First World War as well as the turmoil of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. It had been a long period of conflict where violence intruded into domestic spaces and women’s lives were disrupted by the impact of global war. Thousands had suffered bereavement and the pain of prolonged separation from loved ones in the armed forces or in internment camps; many more had struggled to manage their household budgets in a time of inflation and shortages. The war had also brought opportunities for women to enter the workforce in higher numbers, participate in civic mobilisation for the war effort and to take a more visible role in activism and politics. Although most women over the age of thirty received the vote in Ireland in 1918, many women’s struggles worsened after the Armistice in 1918. The influenza pandemic raged across Ireland in 1918 and 1919, resulting in the loss of more than 23,000 lives, almost ten thousand of whom were women. Demobilisation and the closure of war industries led to high unemployment for women and increased rhetoric that women’s place was back in the domestic sphere.
Celebrated and praised for their wartime role in the workforce and in civic society, women who attempted to transgress those boundaries in the aftermath of war were vilified. There was some acceptance of women’s role with Cumann na mBan in the War of Independence and Civil War but this was expected to be primarily confined to gendered supporting activities. Indeed, as noted in a recent work by Aidan Beatty, O’Hegarty blamed the Civil War on the involvement of women in Cumann na mBan who had violated the gendered division of labour. He believed that ‘left to himself, man is comparatively harmless’ but was convinced that ‘with women in political power there would be no more peace’.
It is important to remember however that most women in Ireland were not actively involved in the War of Independence or Civil War. In many cases, they were preoccupied with managing their households and supporting their families. Life continued with the mundane everyday concerns jostling for space in the press with reports of political intrigues and the latest news on conflict. According to the magazine Irish Life in January 1922, conversational topics included important matters such as the arrival of the ‘New Woman’ (who would apparently be an efficient ‘sharp angular female person, rattling with keys, attaché cases’) and whether women should play sports. The re-opening of Clery’s Department Store on O’Connell street in August 1922 was a brief moment of respite and excitement in a month more typically associated with the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.
Conflict brought disruption and inconvenience, notably in the railway and postal strikes in 1922. The intermittent stoppage and dislocation of the railways resulted in food scarcities and increased prices in urban areas, making life more difficult. By October 1922 the Irish Life magazine was reporting on the postal strike with resignation, noting it added to ‘our many burdens’. The violence could not be escaped entirely. Cecilia Daniel, an elderly farmer living with her sister in county Westmeath wrote to an Australian relative in October 1922 about a recent traumatising incident in her locality:
‘There was a very horrible murder, worse than a murder: it was butchery, close to us. Four of these Free State boys in a motor car were "ambushed"... Three of the boys were killed in the most horrible way, and the car burned. The monsters who committed the crime were primed with whiskey. The bottles and glasses were found broken where the first attack was made. Several people saw the attackers, but no one dare say who they were…’.
Earlier that year Cecilia was badly frightened by a threat to burn down her house, a threat she took seriously in ‘this crime-ridden country’.
Non-combatants were caught up in the crossfire or were occasionally targeted. Women were less likely than men to be murdered or physically assaulted but were at risk from sexual and gendered violence including forcible haircutting. They also suffered greatly from the fear of attack and the psychological effects of violence and raids on their home. Those considered to be loyalists were subjected to particular intimidation and assaults.
In August 1922 Deborah E. Ball from King’s County was tied to a gate outside her home for three hours following a raid. She subsequently fled the country. She was a loyalist and had participated in war relief work in the Great War. Some of the attacks were in belated retaliation for actions in the War of Independence, rather than relating to the ongoing conflict over the Treaty. In May 1922 Ursula Bingham and her husband Dennis were subjected to a ‘terrifying night-time search’ at their home in Mayo. The raids were allegedly in response to suspicions that the Binghams had informed on IRA activity to the Royal Irish Constabulary in April 1921. The raids and tension took a toll on Ursula’s health and she underwent a hysterectomy in October 1922. By February 1928 the couple were living in very ‘straitened circumstances’ and were in debt.
As is apparent from these accounts, the legacies of the conflict were long lasting and devasting for many families. This was especially true of those bereaved. Daniel Bell was serving in a railway protection role with the National Army in March 1923 when he was accidentally shot and killed by a fellow soldier at Portarlington railway station. His widow Maggie and four children all suffered emotionally and materially in the aftermath of his death. They wrote repeatedly to the Army Pensions Board seeking financial help; an allowance was eventually granted to the widow and youngest child. Another accidental shooting involved a newlywed couple which illustrates the danger associated with the increased prevalence of lethal weapons in domestic spaces. James Conway was in the National Army and had brought a revolver home with him in May 1923. His bride of a few short weeks, Ellen, had not known it was loaded when she pointed the gun and shot James in the face, killing him. Her application for a military service dependent’s pension was denied as James was found negligent in his own death. Michael J Baker also served with the National Army. He was shot in an encounter with ‘Irregulars’ in 1923 in Dun Laoghaire. He had been married just three years and left behind two infant children. His widow Frances received a pension but the family were nonetheless reported to be in poverty and struggling by 1927. Frances died in 1932 with the children left to the care of relatives. There are many more such cases in the Military Service Pensions Collection which reveal the trauma endured by families and the lasting impact of the civil war violence on the wives and children left behind.
– This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 –