In this edition we discuss the activities of Cumann na mBan in Westmeath during the War of Independence, a time in which its members gathered intelligence, carried dispatches and provided safehouses for the local IRA.
As we have seen in earlier blogs, the Conscription Crisis was an important period for republican organisations in Westmeath with Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers both seeing an increase in membership during 1918. At the same time, Cumann na mBan expanded from one to three branches, with the organisation continuing to grow thereafter. According to RIC figures, Cumann na mBan almost doubled its membership in the county from 1919 to 1921 gathering over 100 members. Although these figures are estimates and their accuracy is open to question, it seems very likely that the organisation did gain new members during those years.
In much of the country, Cumann na mBan tended to be strongest in regions where the IRA was also strong. In Westmeath, this meant that Cumann na mBan was most active in the western half of the county, extending into south Roscommon. In some instances, members of Cumann na mBan had brothers who were prominent members of the local IRA. For example, Mary Claffey (later Fanning) of Castledaly was an organiser for Cumann na mBan and two of her siblings were members of the Athlone Brigade’s flying column. As with the county’s IRA, in which a core of members drove brigade activities such as the flying column, Cumann na mBan in Westmeath relied on a relatively small group of active members, some of whom we will discuss below.
In the aftermath of the Conscription Crisis, Cumann na mBan devoted much of its efforts to fundraising with newspapers reporting on a range of activities from organising social events to selling flags. For example, Daisy Mulvihill from Coosan, was charged before the Athlone Petty Sessions in June 1919 for selling flags ‘to aid a fund promoted by the Cumann na mBan Executive for the starving population of Europe’. (The charges, of selling items without a permit, were later dismissed.)
Cumann na mBan also played a prominent role in local political events such as Laurence Ginnell’s visit to Athlone in 1919, as well as during a visit to the town by a delegation of Irish-American politicians that same year. Bridget Reynolds, as ‘President of Cumann na mBan’ in Athlone, provided speeches on both occasions, telling Ginnell that ‘As our forefathers stood on the old bridge that the Sassanagh and tyrant could not pass, it is with you that we, the women of Coosan, stand in the same old fight …’
Such public demonstrations and speeches became illegal after November 1919 when Cumann na mBan was banned (as were the Volunteers, Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League), although local members took part in subsequent public demonstrations, as with those in support of incarcerated republicans in April 1920. During the remainder of the War of Independence, Cumann na mBan members were forced to work mostly in secret, particularly from summer 1920 onwards as the violence intensified.
In Westmeath, Reynolds and others engaged in activities such as dispatch carrying, the provision of medical care and intelligence work. Unfortunately, many of the details of Cumann na mBan’s work were never recorded, particularly with regard to intelligence gathering. David Daly, a volunteer who was based in Athlone, and later Mullingar, stated that intelligence work in the county was done ‘verbally’ since ‘records were a dangerous thing to keep’. This makes it difficult to quantify the extent to which Cumann na mBan doubled as an intelligence service although according to many later accounts – witness statements, pension files, newspaper articles – it was one of the Westmeath IRA’s few successful sources of intelligence and its members were routinely tasked with ferrying documents between IRA battalions.
Patrick Lennon, a member of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, named Nellie Galvin, Cissie Tully and a Miss Connolly as particularly important to the IRA in the Summerhill and Athlone areas: ‘They often carried dispatches for us and were able to get through hold-ups and cordons of the enemy.’ Mary Halligan, of Carricknaughton near Athlone, was another who took on this role, as did her sister. According to Mary’s obituary in the Westmeath Independent in 1954, she ‘was a most active member’ of Cumann na mBan, who ‘risked her life on many occasions carrying dispatches.’
At times, Cumann na mBan members were deployed as scouts and Bridget Reynolds later stated that, in October 1920, she helped volunteers escape capture by the Crown forces after an IRA unit had attacked a military patrol boat on the Shannon. Annie O’Connor (later Dowling), noted for her skills as an organiser, was someone whom the Athlone Brigade relied upon to gather intelligence, transport weapons and scout enemy forces. Such work carried substantial risk and Agnes Shortall, a well-known local member of Cumann na mBan, later described going ‘on the run’ for six months in 1921, a period during which, she claimed, her health was permanently damaged.
Cumann na mBan also aided the IRA by providing safe houses and medical care. Mary Halligan, apart from carrying dispatches, provided ‘shelter for those on the run in her home where they were ever sure of a welcome and safe harbour from the enemy’. Another safe house was provided in Tang by Mary McLoughlin (later Mary McLoughlin Coughlan).
Mary joined the Tang branch of Cumann na mBan in early 1921, subsequently attending first aid lectures and raising funds. Until the Truce on 11 July 1921, her house was frequently used by IRA volunteers. When necessary, she provided food and first aid, stored weapons and carried dispatches. She would later become captain of the Tang branch. According to Mary’s granddaughter, Maree Curran, Liam Mellows was one notable visitor to the home, stopping there while travelling across the country. According to family tradition, the house was raided by the Black and Tans but Mellows escaped by hiding in the chimney breast. He later wrote to McLoughlin, expressing his gratitude.
Mary McLoughlin’s training in first aid was common to all members of Cumann na mBan. In Athlone, Eilis O’Brien, a leading member of the local Red Cross, provided medical care to IRA volunteers as did Bridget Reynolds. Among Reynold’s most notable patients was George Adamson, after he had been badly wounded in a confrontation with Black and Tans in 1921. There were, undoubtedly, many others who similarly provided care and first aid to IRA volunteers but who otherwise kept a low profile or whose contributions went unrecorded. Eileen Walsh (later Murphy), for example, had played an important role in Athlone and Mullingar before the Easter Rising, carrying dispatches from Dublin. However, she got married a few months later, after which she was ‘mostly taken up with the affairs of my family and house’. In the years after 1916, she continued to give ‘any help I could to the National movement without being an active member of Cumann na mBan.’
However, there was one Cumann na mBan member from Westmeath who maintained a very public profile. In our next edition, we will discuss the life and work of Alice Ginnell, from Kilbride near Mullingar. A political activist and diplomat, she joined Cumann na mBan’s London Branch in 1915, before returning to Ireland in 1917 and organising branches in Westmeath, Meath and Rathmines.
Bureau of Military History Witness Statements; Bureau of Military History Military Service Pensions Collection; RIC Chief Inspector’s monthly reports for Westmeath; Westmeath Independent and Westmeath Examiner. For more detail, see: Marie Coleman, ‘Cumann na mBan in the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Cal McCarthy, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution (Collins Press, 2007); and Ian Kenneally, ‘The War of Independence in Westmeath’ in the Journal of The Old Athlone Society, 2013.
Thanks to Maree Curran for information on Mary McLoughlin Coughlan.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 04/11/2020
This article was published on: 4th November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary