Cumann na mBan

Cumann na mBan (English: Women's League), abbreviated CnaB, is an Irish republican women's paramilitary organisation formed in Dublin on 5 April 1914 as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Although it was otherwise an independent organisation, its executive was subordinate to that of the Volunteers.


In 1913, a number of women decided to hold a meeting in Wynn's Hotel, Dublin, for the purpose of discussing the possibility of forming an organisation for women who would work in conjunction with the recently formed Irish Volunteers. On 5 April 1914 Cumann na mBan was launched at a meeting held in Wynne's Hotel Dublin and was led by Kathleen Lane-O'Kelley (née Shannahan). The first branch was named the Ard Chraobh, which held their meetings in Brunswick Street, before and after the 1916 Easter Rising.


The constitution of Cumann na mBan contained explicit references to the use of force by arms against crown forces in Ireland. Under its constitution, the primary aim of the organisation was to "advance the cause of Irish liberty" and "assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland".


Its recruits were from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar workers and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class. In September 1914, the Irish Volunteers split over John Redmond's appeal for its members to enlist in the British Army. The majority of Cumann na mBan members supported the rump of 2-3,000 volunteers who rejected this call and who retained the original name, the Irish Volunteers.

Role in 1916 Easter Rising:

On 23 April 1916, when the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood finalised arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan, along with the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, into the 'Army of the Irish Republic'. Patrick Pearse was appointed overall Commandant-General and James Connolly as Commandant-General of the Dublin Division.

On the day of the Rising, 40 Cumann na mBan members, including Winifred Carney, who arrived armed with both a Webley revolver and a typewriter, entered the General Post Office on O'Connell Street in Dublin with their male counterparts. By nightfall, women insurgents were established in all of the major rebel strongholds throughout the city - bar one. Éamon de Valera steadfastly refused, in defiance of the orders of Pearse and Connolly, to allow women fighters into the Boland's Mill garrison.

The majority of the women worked as Red Cross workers, were couriers, or procured rations for the men. Members also gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions, carried despatches and transferred arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds.

Constance Markiewicz for example - armed with a pistol - during the opening phase of the hostilities shot a policeman in the head near St Stephen's Green. Later, Markiewicz along with other female fighters - after a day of carrying out sniper attacks on British troops in the city centre - demanded that they be allowed to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel. Helena Moloney was among the soldiers who attacked Dublin Castle, where she worked with the wounded.

A number of Cumann na mBan members died in the Rising, including volunteer Margaretta Keogh who was shot dead outside the South Dublin Union.

At the Four Courts they helped to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and to destroy incriminating papers. This was exceptional; more typical was the General Post Office (GPO), where Pearse insisted that most of them (excluding Carney, who refused to leave the injured James Connolly) leave at noon on Friday, 28 April. The building was then coming under sustained shell and machine-gun fire, and heavy casualties were anticipated. The following day the leaders at the GPO decided to negotiate surrender. Pearse asked Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O'Farrell (a mid-wife at the National Maternity Hospital) to act as a go-between. Under British military supervision she brought Pearse's surrender order to the rebel units still fighting in Dublin. Over 70 women, including many of the leading figures in Cumann na mBan, were arrested after the insurrection, and many of the women who had been captured fighting were imprisoned in Kilmainham; all but 12 had been released by 8 May 1916.

After the Rising:

Revitalized after the Rising and led by Countess Markiewicz, Cumann na mBan took a leading role in popularising the memory of the 1916 leaders, organizing prisoner relief agencies and later in opposing conscription, and canvassing for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, in which Countess Markiewicz was elected Teachta Dála. Jailed at the time, she became the Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic from 1919 to 1922.

During the Anglo-Irish War, its members were active. They hid arms and provided safe houses for volunteers, helped run the Dáil Courts and local authorities, and in the production of the Irish Bulletin, official newspaper of the Irish Republic.

In the Irish elections of May 1921, Markiewicz was joined by fellow Cumann na mBan members Mary MacSwiney, Dr. Ada English and Kathleen Clarke as Teachtaí Dála.

The Treaty:

On 7 January 1922 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was approved by the Second Dáil by a close vote of 64-57. On 5 February a convention was held to discuss this, and 419 Cumann na mBan members voted against as opposed to 63 in favour. In the ensuing Civil War, its members largely supported the anti-Treaty Republican forces. Over 400 of its members were imprisoned by the forces of the Provisional government which became in December 1922 the Irish Free State. Some of those who supported the Treaty changed the name of their branches to Cumann na Saoirse, while others retained their name but gave allegiance to the Free State Government.

After the Treaty:

Cumann na mBan continued to exist after the Treaty, forming (alongside Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Army, Fianna Éireann and other groups) part of the Irish republican milieu. The government of the Irish Free State banned the organisation in January 1923 and opened up Kilmainham Jail as a detention prison for suspect women.

Its membership strength was adversely affected by the many splits in Irish republicanism, with sections of the membership resigning to join Fianna Fáil, Clann na Poblachta and other parties. Máire Comerford, a life-long member from 1914, reflected in later years that it became a 'greatly weakened organisation' that 'gathered speed downhill' from the founding of Fianna Fáil in 1926.

Present day:
Cumann na mBan supported the Provisional wing in the 1969/70 split in the IRA and Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin vice-president and leading Cumann na mBan member Máire Drumm was killed by loyalists in 1976. In Northern Ireland Cumann na mBan was integrated into the mainstream Irish Republican Army during the conflict, although they continued to exist as a separate organisation in the South of Ireland.

In 1986, the Cumann na mBan opposed the decision by the IRA and Provisional Sinn Féin to drop the policy of abstentionism and aligned itself with Republican Sinn Féin and the Continuity IRA. In 1995, RSF general secretary and Cumann na mBan member Josephine Hayden was jailed for six years on charges relating to the possession of a shotgun and a revolver.

The U.K. Terrorism Act 2000 currently lists Cumann na mBan as a "Domestic Terrorist Group". However it is not so listed in 2008 by the U. S. State Department.


Countess Markiewicz (1914-1927)
Jennie Wyse Power
Eithne Coyle O'Donnell (1897-1987)
Margaret Langsdorf (1915-1956)

Other prominent members:

Ada English
Margaret Buckley
May Caffrey, mother of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh
Charlotte Despard
Mary McSwiney
Helena Moloney
Kathleen Lane-O'Kelley (née Shanahan)
Kathleen Clarke, widow of Tom Clarke
Máire Comerford
Sheila Humphreys
Polly Cosgrave
Elizabeth Bloxham