Women’s role in War of Independence revealed

Hiding arms, providing safe houses, and monitoring enemy movements all part of republican women’s role, writes Niall Murray

Women’s role in War of Independence revealed

NEWLY discovered first-hand accounts of the role of rural Cork women in the War of Independence read like the screenplay to a spy thriller.

The collection, being handed over to the public archives in Cork, contains hundreds of letters, formal documents, photographs and other materials from Molly Cunningham, a local leader of Cumann na mBan.

The republican women’s organisation, formed in Apr 1914, was led by Countess Markievicz after the 1916 Rising and was an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers with the aim of advancing “the cause of Irish liberty” by organising women to that end.

The donation by Molly Cunningham’s family makes hers and other relatives’ accounts available for public inspection for the first time. She served with Cumann na mBan in the area from Sept 1916, when she was barely 19, until 1923, and was district president for part of that time.

Cork city and county chief archivist Brian McGee said it is a collection of national importance because so many of the family were part of the republican movement during the period.

“Almost all of it deals with the Macroom area and West Cork, which was very important in the War of Independence. There’s a certain amount of material relating to Cumann na mBan in museums but few collections as big as this,” he said.

“The role of women in the war as supportive and maybe not as glamorous, but in many ways it was as dangerous as at the front lines.”

The archive contains manuscripts, documents and memorabilia relating to the Macroom Cumann na mBan and Irish Volunteers from the War of Independence including correspondence, posters and photographs, as well as later material relating to the establishment of the Fianna Fáil party. They were handed over by Molly’s nephew Ted Cunningham and his cousin Phyllis at the Castle Hotel in Macroom on Saturday, and will be available for reading and viewing at the archive building in Blackpool.

There are handwritten details by another relative Eileen Cunningham, outlining the role of her and comrades that was crucial to the success of the flying columns in the region. Their duties included hiding and moving arms, providing safe houses, fundraising, carrying dispatches, giving medical aid, procuring food and supplies, keeping contact with prisoners, and monitoring enemy movements.

“It was dangerous and demanding work requiring the utmost intelligence, resourcefulness and courage. Several of Molly’s brothers, sisters, and cousins also served in the republican movement in the Macroom area,” said Mr McGee.

He said there is major interest by researchers in this kind of material, as there is a certain amount of material available in museums but few if any such extensive collections.

Another set of documents from the 1930s shows Ms Cunningham’s application for a military service pension for her role in the troubled period.

“She describes carrying dispatches, arranging for the recovery of bodies, moving arms, searching other women, and moving around the area in disguise,” said Mr McGee.

“There may be a lot of collections like this being held by individuals and families and it’s important they think of putting them into the public domain at institutions like ours that will preserve them safely.”

The Cork City and County Archives last year bought a letter written by the city’s lord mayor Terence MacSwiney, who later died on hunger strike in a British jail, while he was imprisoned after the 1916 Rising. Mr McGee said a lot of people had visited already to inspect the letter.

Eileen’s diary

*Edited extracts from the handwritten account of Eileen Cunningham’s activities during the War of Independence and Civil War:

*From 1920-21: Kilmurry Barracks. Carrig Barracks was burned. Military lorry was to be attacked in Macroom. Raids on Crokstown and Dooniskey Mails.

After this, Volunteers expected reprisals at Macroom, and took up positions in and around town. Th-ese positions were held for nearly a week and meant much work carrying arms, intelligence etc...

[Royal Irish Constabulary] was to be attacked in Main Street but did not take place. Fight at Poulna-brou’ Bomb at Town Hall Macroom Lorry’s were to be attacked at Caum. First aid outfits for these.

All these activities meant extra work for me. Carrying small arms [and] intelligence.

On March 5th Volunteer was shot at Toames and several prisoners taken. Took refreshments morning and evening to prisoners while kept at Macroom. Wounded Volunteer died in Macroom...

A big force of soldiers combed out. Macroom and Ballyvourney Bridges were broken and trenches cut. Had to take dispatches and revolvers from A to B Compys in Macroom Town and Country.

Raid in Macroom Work-house.

Father was Guardian and P.C. in Republican Courts. Home raided several times.

*1922-23: “Worked at [Macroom] Castle from 7am until midnight. Scouting for IRA who came in our back way to attack F[ree] State troops on arrival in Macroom... During this period, home was constantly raided by FS soldiers. Local Vol[unteer]s with whom we worked in Tan periods were among raiding parties.

Barricades were erected at all points leading into Macroom and I was not allowed to leave town...

I had to be careful when up the street as local FS used to watch and follow us about. On Nov... I received official notice giving me two hours to leave Macroom Town... I still visited Macroom arriving by night and leaving by night. I did not sleep at my own home.

By day I did washing and collected any intelligence. Home was constantly raided... During Xmas, was seen in street and FS officers with drawn revolvers ordered and escorted me outside barriers. Was refused entrance several times.

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