The Irish nationalist women’s organisation, Cumann na mBan (CnamB), was formed in 1914, effectively a branch of the Irish Volunteers and explicitly supporting the use of arms. Despite carrying some weapons in the 1916 Rising, much of CnamB’s engagement was in intelligence gathering, procurement of rations, and as couriers, doctors or nurses. The organisation attracted a broad spectrum of women although its 6 pence per week membership fee deterred many less well-off women from becoming official members. After the Rising, more than 70 women were arrested.
The First World War had created such a strain on military manpower that military conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916. By 1918, the shortage of personnel on the battlefield was becoming critical. Conscription was extended to a wider group of men in Britain while, for the first time, its introduction was planned in Ireland.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Ireland had supported both the war and Irish involvement in it, and had provided a huge number of volunteer recruits. In 1918, however, the British parliament’s decision to link Irish conscription to a Home Rule bill was a move that alienated Irish Nationalists and Unionists alike and created a backlash.
The Irish Volunteers declared they would resist conscription. Sinn Fein and the Irish Party formed a committee to direct opposition. Following a resolution of Dublin Corporation, a meeting was held in the Mansion House, 18 April 1918, and an Irish Anti-Conscription Committee was formed. The Catholic church rowed in with support, as did Cumann na mBan.
New branches of CnamB were immediately formed, ostensibly so women could receive first aid instruction and train as ‘Green Cross’ nurses should an attempt be made to enforce conscription. A one-day general strike was called for 23 April 1918. All over the country, women began publicly marching in the company of other nationalist organisations.
Women’s day, La na mBan, was organised for 9 June 1918 by a not-wholly CnamB group chaired by Alice Stopford Green. A pledge was agreed that women all over Ireland were encouraged to sign. As part of the nation-wide anti-conscription campaign, CnamB held meetings, distributed leaflets, painted walls and advised people outside the churches to sign anti-conscription sheets. Flag days were held to raise funds for the campaign with the slogan ‘Women Won’t Blackleg’.
In Dublin the pledge was first signed on 9 June at City Hall. Thousands of women, including many trade union members, marched. CnamB “effectively organised, marshalled and led all other participants ….. June 9th was the feast day of St Columcille and it had been recommended that, having signed the pledge, women should form a procession to some place of veneration or pilgrimage” (McCarthy pp 95-96).
In the succeeding weeks, signatures were collected throughout the country. Different areas collected signatures on different dates during June and July. Donegal collected 2,700 signatures over a number of weeks; Granard had a March on 9 June and collected 120 signatures. ‘Kilkenny Cumann na mBan ladies made a fine display in leading the procession through the city and creating substantial floral displays of green, white and orange’ (McCarthy p 96). In Cork, there was no public march; signatures were collected at church doors on 9 July.
The Kilkenny People of 15 June 1918 p 3 carried a small paragraph on Women’s Day in Carrick-on-Suir: ‘A very large number of women and girls signed the Women’s Anti-Conscription Pledge at the Town Hall, Carrick on Suir on Sunday. The arrangements were in the hands of the local branch of Cumann na mBan which now has a large membership. The signing of the pledge was preceded by a procession of the members of Cumann na mBan through the streets.’
However, matters outside Ireland were reaching a head. By late June, following American entry into the war, the army’s manpower crisis diminished. Irish conscription, and Home Rule, was quietly dropped.
While not explictly mentioned in the ledger (now in the KAS Archives) in which the signatures were recorded, it is most likely that Cumann na mBan members were the principal canvassers of the signatories to Kilkenny’s Lá na mBan pledge in June 1918. The names and addresses of over 1000 Kilkenny women are entered in the ledger. It was presented to KAS by Edwin Stallard and Anna DeLoughry in 1977. IE KAS Q030.