Speech at the State Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Foundation of Cumann na mBan
Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 2nd April 2014
A Aire / Minister,
A Cheann Foirne agus a Óglacha na hÉireann / Chief of Staff and members of the Defence Forces,
A bhalla de hIontaobhas Ghlas Naíon / Members of the Glasnevin Trust,
A Dhaoine Uaisle / Ladies and gentlemen,
Tá muid tagtha le chéile inniu i gcuimhneachán ar Cumann na mBan, mná a lorg agus a throid ar son saoirse na hÉireann.
[Today we are gathered to honour the memory of the women of Cumann na mBan, who sought and fought for Irish freedom.]
As we remember this great Organisation of women, founded on Thursday 2nd April 1914 at a public meeting in Dublin’s Wynn’s Hotel, we are also invited to reflect on the part played by women in the great collective struggle for national independence, a century ago.
These were women who rose up to vindicate the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations for liberty of previous generations; women who were deeply committed to live up to their responsibilities, as they saw them, towards future generations. Yet, their stories have often been silenced in our national narrative, relegated to the shadows by a version of history which attributed solely to men’s characteristics of heroism derived from military action.
This special commemorative occasion offers us with a valuable opportunity to acknowledge that Irish women have always assumed a central, active and direct role in shaping the great issues and struggles of the day. This is reflected in the activities of Cumann na mBan. These women did not limit their efforts to fundraising and first aid. They also held passionate debates of ideas. They undertook foot drill and fire-arm maintenance training. During military operations, they took on nursing and cooking, but also scouting, delivering messages and, simply, fighting the enemy.
At the time of Cumann na mBan’s foundation, Irish female activists had, for several decades already, asserted their voice in the cultural revival, in the campaigns for Home Rule and land reform, and, for the more radical among them, in the labour and suffrage movements.
Of course in the question of the appropriate place for women in the pursuit of national independence, and in Irish public life more broadly, the question of the relative priorities of nationalism and women’s suffrage – these were highly contentious and divisive issues in early 20th century Ireland, even among the female members of Cumann na mBan.
In the organisation’s founding meeting already, there were various dynamics at play, between constitutional nationalism, advanced nationalism, and feminism, reflecting the different strands of the Irish political debate of that era.
In fact, the foundation of Cumann na mBan was seen by many feminists as a retrograde step. Agnes O’Farrelly, the first President of the provisional committee, was a very prominent figure in the Gaelic League, a friend of Douglas Hyde, and a strong supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which had vigorously opposed the inclusion of female suffrage in the 1912 Home Rule Bill.
O’Farrelly’s speech at Wynn’s Hotel made it clear that the members of Cumann na mBan were to act as “auxiliaries” to the Irish Volunteers, fulfilling roles which were considered appropriate to their sex, such as fundraising and nursing.
Suffragists argued that it was not enough for women to endorse the cause of Irish freedom if they were going to be disenfranchised, second class citizens in an independent Ireland. Editorials in The Irish Citizen, the weekly suffrage paper of The Irish Women’s Franchise League, referred to Cumann na mBan as the “slave women” who put themselves at the service of the Irish Volunteers.
Conversely, in the eyes of a number of nationalists, there could be no genuine emancipation for women in an enslaved country, hence the fight for Irish freedom had to come first.
Such consuming ideological discussions were further enacted through the various splits which tore at Cumann na mBan, as early as October 1914, when the Central Branch sided with the Irish Volunteers against the Redmondites and launched an anti-conscription campaign, and then again during the Civil War, when hundreds of Cumann na mBan’s anti-Treaty members were imprisoned.
All this shows that Cumann na mBan was far from being a mere echo chamber for the great historical upheavals of the previous century; it was one of the fora where that history was made.
Lena chontrárthachtaí, lena ndeighiltí agus lena léamha chontrártha ar ról na mban agus ar a réim gníomhaíochta, bhí feidhm lárnach agus tabhachtach ag Cumann na mBan ar stair na hÉireann.
[With its contradictions, its splits, and its rival interpretations of the role of women and of the likely course of events, Cumann na mBan is, therefore, an integral and important part of Irish history.]
Often engaged in several organisations, committed to several causes at once, its members played a vital role in bringing together the various revolutionary strands of their time, in articulating various possible modes of relations between the nationalist, the feminist and the socialist endeavours.
A century later, the time has come, then, for a more nuanced understanding of the complex participation of Cumann na mBan’s women in the events of the decade 1914-1923.
The time has come to make space for several narratives directed at the same past.
Although many of the women who had joined Cumann na mBan subsequently remained silent about their deeds and accomplishments, historians now have a wealth of new sources to draw from, including the recently released Military Service Pension Files. They can throw new light on the great emancipatory struggle which the women of this country have led with such courage, determination and vision.
That vision found fulfilment in the achievement of Ireland’s political freedom – making it possible for all of us to stand here today – but that national independence did not yield all the fruits the women of Cumann na mBan had hoped for.
Although Constance Markievicz, a short-lived but emblematic President of Cumann na mBan, was elected Ireland’s first female Member of Parliament in 1918, it took six more decades for Ireland to see a woman – Maire Geoghegan Quinn – appointed as Cabinet Minister, in 1979.
Fiú sa lá atá inniu ann tá go leor leor le déanamh i réimsí éagsúla de sochaí na hÉireann chun comhionannas a bhaint amach idir fir agus mná, go háirithe i dtéarmaí leibhéal ionadaíochta i dTithe an Oireachtais.
[Even today, much remains to be done in many areas of Irish society to achieve genuine equality between men and women, not least in terms of representation levels within our national Parliament.]
Thus, the vision that animated the women of Cumann na mBan a century ago, at one of the most soul-stirring junctures in the history of Ireland, does not just evoke past struggles; it holds a promise which remains available to us as a tool for our present and for the future.
That vision calls upon us to overcome any destructive sense of helplessness, to become the conscious architects of the world we inhabit.
The greatest moments in our history were always those when our people turned towards the future and were motivated by a sense of what might be possible. It is such a vision that sustained the workers of Dublin throughout the Lockout. It is that spirit which inspired the Cumann na mBan women and their male comrades during the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. It is that same vision of a better future, of the future reclaimed as an arena of hope, which calls forth resilience and sustains the Irish people during every period of hardship.
The centenary of the foundation of Cumann na mBan thus enables us to recall the possibilities and promises which the subsequent unfolding of history may have forgotten. It enables us to envisage again how the ideals encapsulated in the Republican promise – ideals of equality, justice and freedom for all – can be restated and further pursued.
We live in a world very different from that of the generation of 1914, that fateful year when European nations and empires sleepwalked into mutual destruction. One century later, Europe is at peace; Ireland’s relations with its nearest neighbour, its place in Europe and in the world, have been transfigured.
We – the generations of peace and freedom – are called forth to fulfill a new promise, to grow and make blossom a state of relations which few of our 1914 forefathers would have anticipated.
One hundred years on, many wounds have healed; new possibilities are opening up. In this month of April 2014, we are now ready, not just to cherish the memory and stories of those who fought for Ireland’s freedom, but also to endorse, in imagination and sympathy, the narrative of the other.
Let us cultivate memory, then, as a tool for the living, and as a sure basis for the future – memory at peace.