Cumann na mBan, 1921: Cecilia Keeble’s Story

Left to right: Cecilia Keeble (née McDonnell), captain of the Mullingar branch of Cumann na mBan during the Irish War of Independence, pictured in the early 1960s; Brigid O’Mullane, the Sligo-born republican and Cumann na mBan organiser who helped to set up Cumann na mBan councils in Westmeath in 1917; and Annie M. P. Smithson, the novelist whose anti-Treaty activities saw her briefly interned by the National Army at Mullingar military barracks in 1922.

In 1921, the captain of the Mullingar branch of Cumann na mBan was a native of Co. Meath, Cecilia McDonnell, who occupied a position as chief night nurse at what was then known as the Mullingar Asylum (later St Loman’s Hospital).

Baptised Rosaline McDonnell, in later years she became better known in public life as Cecilia Keeble. A founding member of Fianna Fáil, she was elected to Dublin Corporation in 1960, and a year later, made an unsuccessful bid for election to the Dáil in the Dublin South West constituency. Over the years, she served on the boards of various charities and municipal and national organisations.

Keeble was a daughter of Christopher and Mary McDonnell of Stamullen, Co. Meath. Qualifying as a psychiatric nurse, she became a member of the nursing staff at Mullingar Asylum where she was later appointed to the role of chief night nurse.

In her application to the Army Pensions Board in the late 1930s, Keeble claimed that she was elected president of the Mullingar branch of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary counterpart to the Irish Volunteers, when it first convened in 1917, and that she held this role until April 1921. This, among other details of Keeble’s service record in Mullingar, was disputed in the years following her application for a pension in 1937. What is certain, however, is that Keeble held the military title of captain, overseeing the military dimension of the Mullingar branch.

The creation of the organisation’s Mullingar and Athlone District Councils in 1917 was the work of Brigid O’Mullane, the Sligo republican who toured a vast swathe of the country following the 1916 rising to organise new Cumann na mBan structures. The Mullingar branch of which Keeble was OC was one of several which O’Mullane helped to organise in north Westmeath, including branches in Castlepollard, Ballynacargy, Rochfortbridge (Kilbride) and Tyrrellspass.

The most senior figure in Cumann na mBan in Mullingar was Dr Kathleen Dillon, a psychiatrist at Mullingar Asylum. A native of Co. Mayo, Dillon was a daughter of John Blake Dillon of Ballina, a descendant of the eponymous Young Irelander and a relative of his son, the Irish nationalist leader John Dillon. Dillon and Keeble (then McDonnell) were part of an intimate network of revolutionaries working in the asylum, which also included James Tormey, the Moate native who went on to command the Irish Republican Army’s Athlone Brigade active service unit. With Dillon’s authority, Keeble could “get time off” from her day job as night nurse and lead training, route marches, drilling and weapons practice among members of the c. 75-strong Mullingar branch. The members of this branch included, among others, the Delvin natives, Elizabeth, Mary and Margaret (Peg) Leonard (who operated a café on Earl Street), Alice McCoy, Mollie Hynes (sisters of prominent Mullingar IRA officers Michael McCoy and Ned Hynes), Rose Cassidy of Mount Street and Mary Ellen Clarke of Earl Street.

O’Mullane, providing references for Keeble in her interactions with Army Pensions Board, stated that on top of her position as OC for Cumann na mBan’s Mullingar branch, she was adjutant to the organisation’s Mullingar (North Westmeath) District Council. Under this heading, Keeble’s work took her outside of Mullingar, carrying dispatches to Castlepollard, Ballinagore and the greater Athlone area. She also visited the prison in Mullingar and carried messages to and from republican prisoners. Consequently, the district asylum was the scene of numerous searches by Crown forces. Keeble later told pensions adjudicators:

… female searchers searched me, and during that raid while searching my private apartments I was under revolver all the time, and I had some papers, and I managed to save the whole situation by moving them to the top of the wardrobe.

Keeble claimed to have played a prominent role in the March 1921 liberation of an IRA prisoner, Charles Begnall, from the military barracks in Mullingar (the subject of a forthcoming video on this blog), an operation organised between members of the IRA’s Meath Brigade and, on behalf of Cumann na mBan in Mullingar, the Leonard sisters of Earl Street. Keeble claimed to have distracted two officers of 1st East Yorkshire Regiment – the battalion commander, Lt Col T. A. Headlam and his adjutant, Captain C. C. Wallace – while Begnall and the Leonard sisters made good their escape.

Keeble’s testimony to the Army Pensions Board also highlights the medical work undertaken by Cumann na mBan volunteers. She recalled treating several wounded IRA men using the facilities of the district asylum, including one officer who had ‘blown the palm out of his hand’. At this point, c. April 1921, Keeble claimed to have resigned the presidency of the Mullingar branch, which passed to Dr Dillon.

Among the other Cumann na mBan activities undertaken by Keeble during the final months of the War of Independence were her assistance in an IRA raid on the district asylum, and the carrying of dispatches to the imprisoned Longford IRA commandant Seán Mac Eoin, who had been captured by Crown forces in March.

After the truce of July 1921, Keeble resumed fundraising activities for Cumann na mBan, and after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December, she followed many of her comrades in opposing the London agreement. Maintaining contact with Mick Price, OC of the anti-Treaty IRA’s 1st Eastern Division, she was heavily involved with the transportation of arms, ammunition and dispatches in the run-up to and during the Civil War, and claimed involvement in the 1922 destruction of Mullingar’s RIC barracks.

After the revolution

In January 1926, Cecilia McDonnell married Albert Keeble, a widower and native of Kent, England, who first came to Dublin as a soldier stationed at Portobello Barracks, likely with the Royal East Kent Regiment (‘the Buffs’). Keeble subsequently left the army to work as a brewery labourer. He married in 1911 and settled in Kimmage, but was widowed in 1925. His second wife, Cecilia, parted company with Cumann na mBan to get married, and months later, she joined the embryonic Fianna Fáil party and became a lifelong supporter, founding its Napper Tandy cumann in south-west Dublin.

Continuing to work in the Mental Hospital, Mullingar until the 1930s, she became a member of Dublin City Council in 1938 where she spent many years before being elected to the Corporation in 1960. She served on the Corporation’s Cultural, Housing and School Meals Committees and was the body’s representative on the Dublin Health Authority. Keeble also served on Dublin’s School Attendance Committee, represented the city council on the National Children’s Hospital Committee, and became a peace commissioner. In October 1961, she contested the general election in Dublin South West but unlike her FF running mates Robert Briscoe and Noel Lemass, was not elected.

Described in her obituary as a “devout Catholic… [who] gave much of her time to advancing the cause of the poor and needy”, she served on the board of Grangegorman Mental Hospital and was a unit officer for the Irish Red Cross Society. She died in January 1965 and was laid to rest in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.

“She died literally in the service of the people,” the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Cllr John McCann, said on her death. “She was immune to advice to slow down. She was always in the City Hall, always trying to help people.”

‘I feel this gentleman is endeavouring to prevent my receiving… a pension’

In 1937, Keeble applied to the Army Pensions Board for a military service pension, assembling an impressive array of referees, including anti-Treaty IRA officer Mick Price, former Mullingar comrade Rose Fallon (née Cassidy), Cumann na mBan organiser Brigid O’Mullane, Mullingar Brigade IRA officers James Maguire and M. J. ‘Joe’ Kennedy (then a Fianna Fáil TD), and the novelist Annie M. P. Smithson. Smithson, an ardent opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was briefly interned by the National Army at Mullingar Barracks during the Civil War, and recalled Keeble’s “kindness” in “bringing comfort and consolation” to her and other female prisoners.

Throughout the application process, Keeble insisted that she had held the rank of president of Cumann na mBan’s Mullingar branch for an extended period. However, the board initially granted her a pension at the lowest grade (rank E) in December 1941 after it emerged that she had not served as president, but as adjutant to the North Westmeath organisation. After appealing this decision and seeking remuneration for a higher grade, the board not only rejected this but voided her original application and rescinded her pension. Members of the Old Cumann na mBan organisation protested vigorously, citing an unprecedented “miscarriage of justice”.

In October 1942, during her appeal against the rescinding of her pension, Keeble expressed exasperation that elements of her account of service to Cumann na mBan in Mullingar were being called into question:

From a recent conversation I have had with Mr. M. J. Kennedy T.D. Castlepollard… I feel that this gentleman is endeavouring to prevent my receiving a military service pension. Mr. Kennedy has informed me that I [did] not participate in the escape of Charlie Beglan [sic] from Mullingar Military Barracks. As Mr. Kennedy was interned at this time, he was not in a position to know who was or was not in this operation, or any others of that period.

Keeble was subsequently granted a pension at ‘D’ rank but with a reduced period of service; her claim of service for all periods between 1917 and 1923 ultimately proved unsuccessful.


Military service pension application of Cecilia Keeble (file MSP34/12199, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); nominal rolls for Mullingar Brigade, Cumann na mBan (file CMB/151, Military Service Pensions Collection, Irish Military Archives); UK/Ireland census records, 1891/1911; birth, marriage and death records at Obituaries: Drogheda Independent, 30 January 1965; Irish Press, 20 January 1965.

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 26/04/2021