Cumann na mBan

Any time the subject of women in the armed forces being put into the front line gets raised I think of a young woman in Mayo in 1920.

My grandmother, then newly married, like her husband took up arms against the British state.

The organisation she was part of Cumann na mBan is 100 years old today.

It was the female branch of the Irish Volunteers or Oglaigh na hÉireann.

I have often heard western feminists smugly state that war is a form of male only sport and that women are natural pacifists.

Once more I think of my grandmother and I demur.

The Cumann na mBan was the first Republican organisation to reject the Treaty.

Derisively the anti-Treaty faction was then called “the women and Childers party”, after Erskine Childers by the pro-Treaty side.

It was quite clear if the Free Staters prevailed in the Civil War then the revolutionaries of the Cumann na mBan would be pushed back into the kitchen.

My grandmother told me when she was very close to giving birth to my uncle Michael that the local GP visited her.

He noticed something under the pillow and she tried to push it behind her head.

However, it was too late and he saw what it was.

When he realised he was reading  brigade dispatches to GHQ IRA about the Carrowkennedy ambush he was utterly aghast: “Well Julia you’re a bloody awful woman!”

His shock was based on the unwitting role that he had played in this little insurgency drama.

The previous week he had demanded the assurance from the local British Army commander that there would be no more raids on the house as my grandmother was heavily pregnant and she and the child were in danger.

The GP threatened to go up the chain on command if he didn’t get the officer’s word that the house was off limits until the child was born.

She closed her eyes when she was telling me about the raid that had precipitated the Doctor’s intervention.

The house was wrecked and one detail stuck in her head down the decades; the mattress of the bed being ripped open with bayonets.

The Doctor’s intervention was indeed crucial to her health and that of her unborn child.

However that was secondary consideration to herself.

She was a soldier at war and her house being off limits to the enemy was an advantage not to be missed.

My grandmother, telling me this tale said; “well a grá I got some amount of work done that week!”

She didn’t mean housework.

When she was gifted a new son it wasn’t long before she was mobile and walking through check points  in Westport with a big Webley revolver in her skirts for one of the lads to do a job.

By the time my ten year old ears were processing this sceal it was 1968 and Ireland’s unfinished revolution was about to re-ignite.

Her volunteer husband and her son, my father, were by then at their rest in the shade of Croagh Phádraig, but she was there to tell me what many in modernising revisionist Ireland wanted forgotten.

However, her contribution in those dangerous days was well remembered by the old brigade.

Two years earlier on the 50th anniversary of the Rising they wouldn’t start the celebrations in the town until she arrived.

The Cumann na mBan women were in the GPO when shells rained in on them and they asked for no special treatment when evacuations were being planned.

The first woman ever elected to the Westminster Parliament was Constance Georgine Markievicz.

She was a commander of insurgent troops during Easter week and a Cumann na mBan officer.

Women were crucial to the intelligence war against the British in Dublin when Mick Collins had the chaps in Dublin Castle chasing their imperialist tails.

In the countryside the Flying columns couldn’t have operated so effectively without female eyes spying on the enemy forces.

The IRA was an army of the people and that means women.

When the uprising against Stormont Rule exploded in 1969 it was women that were to the fore.

In the Northern War female volunteers were among the most competent operators as they quickly moved from dustbin lids and insults thrown at squaddies in the street to Armalites and detonators.

When I read of western military types anguishing over women in combat roles I think of these women and I smile at the sexist naiveté of the retired generals.

My youngest daughter carries many of the mannerisms of that Mayo lady.

I have also noticed, on more than one occasion, that she has also inherited Julia’s resolve, a determination to see things through that appears to be constructed out of reinforced concrete and bullet proof belief.

100 years ago today in Wynn’s Hotel in Abbey Street in Dublin the first meeting of Mná na hÉireann under arms took place.

Anyone who has ever attempted to argue with an Irish woman will know that, from that point on, British rule in Ireland was finished.

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