Diarmuid Breatnach

The role of women has been often ignored and undervalued in the body of Irish historical writing. Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, a tendency in more recent writing has been, at least to a degree, to attempt to rectify this. In the decades since Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries (Brandon, Ireland, 1983), this rectification has been slowly gathering pace. Dissidents – Irish Republican women 1923-1941, by Anne Matthews (Mercier, 2012), is a contribution to this movement in historical writing; it is essentially the history of an Irish women’s political movement, Cumann na mBan, during the years outlined. A previous work of hers, “Renegades”, deals with Irish Republican women from 1901 to 1922. 

Dissidents Irish Republican Women bookAlthough Dissidents deals with the period 1923-1941, Cumann na mBan was founded on 2nd April 1914 as an auxiliary to the all-male Irish Volunteers’ organisation, which had been founded in 1913. In 1914 the Volunteers split after John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (in Westminster) and the main open Irish political party in Ireland, committed the Irish Volunteers to fight in the British Army in WW1. The smaller section of the split went on to participate in the 1916 Uprising and more coherently later in the War of Independence (1919-1921). Redmond’s party and “constitutional” Irish nationalism was all but wiped out in the British General Elections of 1918, at which time the whole of Ireland was still under British rule and Redmond’s nationalist opponents, then amalgamated under the name of the reformed Sinn Féin, gained the vast majority of parliamentary seats in Ireland.

Today it is common to define the ideology of both both Cumann na mBan and the Irish Volunteers as “Irish Republican” and, although they quickly became so, and the impulse in the formation of the Volunteers in 1913 was of the secret Republican organisation the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), both organisations at first could be more accurately described as broadly nationalist. Both organisations contained prominently in their midst people whose ideology conformed to that of Irish Republicanism as well as those whose thinking did not, people who expressed a strong interest in equality for women as well as those who were against it, people with at least a sympathy for socialist ideas and those who condemned any such tendencies – and of course variations in between.

In the period specifically chosen by Matthews, 1923-1941, the Irish Volunteers had morphed into the political party Sinn Féin and the armed organisation the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and become Irish Republican in ideology, as had Cumann na mBan. They had in fact been that way since 1919, although the period 1921-’23 was to expose some deep fracture lines which found expression in the Civil War (1922-1923) and later again with the founding of Fianna Fáil and its eventual management of the Irish State (the 26 Counties).

In order to compile her history, Matthews has consulted minutes of committee meetings of Cumann na mBan in its various incarnations (she identifies four periods, or versions of the organisation), personal recollections of participants recorded in writings, interviews, comments quoted by contemporaries, newspaper reports and articles, the Republican movement’s own publications, as well as records of prisons and police under both British and subsequently Free State rule. And she has used some of this material to reproduce and also compile lists such as the numbers and names of women convicted and jailed, the women who went on hunger-strike and the length of time on that protest. The lists also include figures on the decline of Cumann branches between 1934 and 1936, as well as a list of “women in organisations listed as dangerous by the Free State CID in 1934”. These lists are a particularly valuable contribution and will be of great use to many writing on the political movements of the period in Ireland.

Looking at some of those lists alone, one is struck by the sheer extent to which the contribution of women activists to the struggle for Irish independence, and the price they had to pay, has been overlooked. In 1930 twenty-nine women were in organisations listed as “dangerous” by the Free State detective branch of the police – twelve of these were in senior positions of Cumann na mBan, three in directing positions in Saor Éire, three for Comhairle na Poblachta, three also for Sinn Féin, one for the Prisoners’ Defence Organisation, two for Women Prisoners’ Defence League and one for the Anti-Imperialist League. The rest were rank-and-file members of those organisations and one was in Friends of Soviet Russia.

The Free State interned 645 women during the Civil War (as against over16,000 men). In her Introduction, Matthews points out that “There were twenty-four strikes in the three (women’s) prisons during the period from November 1922 to November 1923, in which 219 women took part.”  According to the table drawn up by Matthews, one woman was on hunger strike for 35 days, another for 34, seven for 31, many for different amounts of days but the vast majority into double figures. Furthermore, some of them were on hunger strike more than once.

Matthews also provides a list of the occupations of 79 women activists jailed in the North Dublin Union, which were surveyed in August 1923: the highest number for a single occupation were the 19 listed as “at home”, while the next were 11 whose occupations were given as “packer in Jacob’s” (the biscuit factory in Dublin); 10 had been engaged in “printing”; eight were “shop assistants” while 15 were variously listed as “typist” or “clerk”. This list shows quite a variety of social background among what one presumes to be fairly politically-active women which the Free State considered its enemies.

Republican women acting as couriers or delivering weapons made many journeys by bicycle, often at night without lights in order to avoid Free State patrols, “often round trips of up to forty miles” Matthew tells us (p.32).


As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, history writing involves a degree of bias. This bias is exercised not only in explicit judgements but in inferences made, choice of phrasing and so on. Choices are made in what sources to use and what prominence to give them as well as in the opposite, which sources to disregard.

If the Fall of Lucifer and his angel followers were a historical event, for example, we would expect Lucifer’s version to be very different from the Judaeo-Christian story with its sympathy for the Archangel Michael (a great example of history being written by the victors). There might be yet other versions, for example by the Seraphim and Cherubim, one of which might be in partial sympathy with the Fallen side and the other which might be against both sides of the conflict.

Whereas in the ancient past history writing was blatantly partial, in the past century historians have generally claimed to be impartial dispassionate observers recording what they discover. But every one of those writers had views influenced by class, ethnicity, gender, position in or out of power groups, status, upbringing and personal experience. And those views influenced their historical judgements, quite likely their choice of sources and possibly their choice of audience. Written records could only be left by literate people and yet for most of history the majority of people have been illiterate. A more recent trend in history writing is to recognise the inevitability of bias and for the historian to declare which is his or hers.

One should beware of historians who don’t declare their bias at the outset. That will not be a problem with Anne Matthews because although she does not formally introduce her bias to her readers, it very soon becomes clear. Or maybe that is not quite accurate, for in order to have a bias against a group one must presumably also have a bias in favour of another. It is difficult indeed in the pages of this book to find any group for which Matthews has any sympathy or, even more important for a historian, empathy.

To express a bias is expected, as I commented earlier. But unless one is engaged in pure propaganda or character assassination (or glorification), one should present the evidence in favour as well as that against and, in weighing one against the other, make a judgement. When Matthews has anything favourable to say about her subjects it seems to be an accident which will soon be remedied a little later – just keep reading!

A particularly clear and nasty example of this bias is in Matthews’ treatment of Constance Markievicz whom she calls a “self-proclaimed heroine” (p.28) but does not tell us when and where Markievicz allegedly “proclaimed” herself to be a “heroine”. Matthews also inferred that Markievicz was a given to warlike statements but a coward who ran away to Scotland. Whatever the reason for her departure in 1922, one wonders how, no matter how much she may dislike the person, someone could call Markievicz, who prominently took up arms and fought for a week against the British Empire, a coward.

In the Matthews view of the organisation, Cumann na mBan was a largely ineffective body, doctrinaire and full of in-fighting. The leadership and many prominent activists were aristocratic or upper middle class, used to the privileges afforded by their class. The working and lower-middle class members accepted the leadership’s decisions or just deserted.

Some of those things may be true and there might even be some truth in all of them — but where is the counter-argument before coming to judge? One doesn’t find it in Matthews, except by an inference that one can make from the lists I mentioned earlier and other information.

If a woman came from a higher social class and was used to having servants do her cleaning, do those facts diminish in the least her courage in facing bullets in insurrection, the threat of the firing squad, the pangs on hunger-strike and the risk of permanent damage to health, the risk of physical beatings and unhealthy prison conditions? Or on the contrary, in some ways, are those risks and sacrifices not all the more remarkable for one from such a background as that? And if an upper-class mother can pay a nanny to look after her children while she herself in in jail, does that take away from her courage and fortitude? A working-class mother without those resources (though she might be able to avail of extended family) of course has even more obstacles to surmount and deserves our greater praise but that is no reason to disparage the sacrifice or commitment of a woman of a higher class.

And if infighting and bad policy choices were a significant feature of the organisation, were there not others to weigh against them on the scales of judgement? What of transporting, hiding and distributing weapons? Of carrying secret correspondence and intelligence? Or of continuing to feed the flame of resistance while men were in prison, organising pickets and demonstrations, outside jails etc? What of creating the enduring 1916 emblem and Republican commemoration emblem, the Easter Lilly? Or of organising Republican commemorations year after year, as well as funerals of fighters in the midst of repression? Or the work of supporting prisoners and their dependents? Matthews records these and often the difficulties entailed but without a word of approval to balance the censorious words used in her criticisms. Nor do we see an attempt to understand the choices these women made or the constraints upon them, much less see anything to admire; we are shown few lessons to learn from, unless it is something like “don’t be these people or anything like them”.

In Dissidents, Anne Matthews has made a contribution to the story of Republican women but its judgement is clearly skewed and the work suffers as a result. Matthews could have recorded all the negative information that she did but also the points to throw in the balance – had she done so, her book would have been a much better return on her investment in historical research and writing as well as a better reward for the reader.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s