Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 3 February 2022
Journeys to a Free State: The Cumann na mBan Meets
On 5 February 1922, near500 delegates attended the annual convention of Cumann na mBan held in the Mansion House, Dublin. Many of the delegates wore the official uniform of the organisation. Countess Markievicz presided. The proceedings began shortly after 11am.
The Cork Examiner records that whilst opening the convention, Countess Markievicz said that as president she could not make her statement a political speech. All she could say was that they were asked that day to reaffirm their allegiance to the Irish Republic. The question before them was whether they would remain Republican or accept Dominion Home Rule as provided in the Treaty signed in London. She asked them to give the question their careful examination, and “hoped God would give them level heads there that day”.
Following the opening statement Cork’s Mary MacSwiney TD arose and made her proposal – “That the Executive of Cumann na mBan reaffirms its allegiance to the Republic of Ireland, and therefore cannot support the articles of agreement signed in London on December, 6th 1921”. She explained that several telegrams had been received from delegates and branches unable to be represented owing to the railway strike in the South of Ireland, with many indicated support of the idea of the Republic.
Proceeding Mary said the Cumann na mBan was an independent body of Irish women pledged to work for the Republic and its recognition among the nations. She asked if they were going to stand by the Republic or for Dominion Home Rule, or whether they were going to be “sitters on the fence”. She put forward that women were the backbone of the nation and asked them to reaffirm their allegiance to the Republic and “not to be led astray by those who talked of the Treaty being a step towards the Republic”.
Discussing the Dáil decision on the Treaty, Mary asserted that all those in Dáil Éireann took an oath of allegiance to the Republic and swore to help the interests in every way. She held that: “The people who would take that oath were people who do not believe in the oath to the Republic, and therefore were not the people to lead the country to its goal and force its recognition as a Republic by the nations”.
The Treaty, Mary held, was a subversion of the Republic and they could not accept it without turning down the Republic. Therefore, she asked them to “think carefully, and to think bravely”. She pointed out that the strongest plea abroad was that Ireland was not a domestic question for Britain, but the “case of a small nation fighting for its life”. She further noted: “If we accept the Treaty we would be accepting the position of Ireland as a domestic question, and the nations of the world would be able to say when approached – this is a domestic question, we cannot interfere”. Concluding, Mary MacSwiney highlighted: “we have the Republic, and we will never give it up”. Mary’s motion was seconded, and several delegates spoke briefly in support of the resolution.
The principal rebuttal was given by Jenny Wyse Power. Wicklow-born Jennie was a prominent member of Sinn Féin from its very outset of its creation as a party. Jenny set up a branch of the Gaelic League in Dublin and was its first secretary. In 1914 she was a founder member of Cumann na mBan.
Jenny proposed the following amendment to Mary MacSwiney’s motion: “That we reaffirm our allegiance to the Republic, but, realising, that the treaty signed in London will – if accepted by the Irish people – be a big step along the road to that end. We declare we will not work obstructively against those who support the treaty – (1) either in their putting the treaty before the people, or (2) in the subsequent working of it, should the majority of the people accept the treaty at a general election; and we also declare that in such an election this organisation shall not take a party side as between men who have worked so nobly and given such proof of their loyalty to the Republic”.
Jenny further noted it required some courage for her to say what she intended to say at the meeting. She noted: “I have nothing to put before you in the way of a heroic record except that my life had been spent in drudgery for the service of Ireland”. She held the perspective that the decision they were called upon to make there was unfair and premature. She felt until the IRA declared what they were going to do it was premature for the Cumann to register a decision. Jenny held that they would be in a “very curious position” if they decided on a policy that would be different from the policy of IRA.
Jenny argued that the amendment she proposed would save the Cumann as an organisation and keep it out of what she deemed “dirty election work in Ireland”. She articulated the question: “Were they going today to decide to support only Republican candidates and go out in the open against Irishmen who had fought and worked for the Republic?” Such action, Jenny contended, would obstruct the mechanics of the “Free State”. She also added: “If the Free State is not accepted British government returns to this country and the military.
A formal vote was taken and 419 Cumann na mBan members voted against as opposed to 63 in favour. Jenny’s amendment fell. Ultimately a split in the Cumann na mBan occurred. In March 1922 the Pro-Treaty women, headed by Jennie Wyse Power set up the organisation called Cumann na Saoirse. Some of those who supported the Treaty changed the name of their branches to Cumann na Saoirse, while others retained their name Cumann na mBan, but gave allegiance to the Provisional Government.
1136a. Photograph of Cumann na mBan Executive, 5 February 1922 (source: National Library of Ireland, Dublin).