Women of the Uprising

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Cathleen ni Houlihan

Poster for Kathleen ni Houlihan

In Cathleen ni Houlihan by William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, the play was used metaphorically to encourage young men to resist English ways and fight for their country. Yates writes a play where the old woman, which represents Ireland, pays a visit to an Irish family in order to recruit young fighters for her. The old woman wants action, she has a different set of values. The old woman states to the family upon leaving,


“Do not make a great keening,
When the graves have been dug to-morrow,
Do not call the white-scarfed riders,
To the burying that shall be to-morrow.”

Scene from Cathleen ni Houlihan

Here the old women asked the people to not mourn for men tomorrow, which is a reflection of Robert Emmet. She asserted those who fight for Ireland will automatically be saved, there was no need for extra prayer for the fighting men, nor a wake or feast. The old woman needs young men to help her and give her their whole life. She states it is worth dying for Ireland to become a saint and fathers need not worry about their abandoned children, the nation will take care of the orphan. The new generation does not see an old woman, the old woman is transformed into a young girl once the land is restored. Many Irish did resist the English, not only men but women and children too.

Easter Rising

Monday, April 24, 1916, was the first day of the Easter Rising.  Irish Volunteers along with 200 socialists from the Irish Citizen Army met at Liberty Hall in Dublin.  They seized key locations in the city. Clair Wills described, “the 1916 Rising is seen as the most significant event in modern Ireland.”  The Rising was the founding act of the Democratic Irish State.  A new type of politics was demanded by the leaders of the Rising.  Some of their concerns were socialism, Irish language, women’s suffrage, and progressive education.  The Rising was the first anti-colonist revolt. Guerilla warfare was used and replicated in later conflicts.  

Cumann na mBan

Two hundred women participated in the Rising.  Many times, male comrades were also obstacles.  Roles were gendered and women found themselves washing, cooking, handing out food, and giving first aid.  Men were in charge.  Women were in combat on “the green” but they were mostly unarmed.  Common jobs for women were dispatch, sniper, food worker, transporting ammunition and weapons, and scouting.  Women were less likely to be shot, and they were more likely to be able to talk their way out of a sticky situation.  There were even accounts of women wearing mourning blacks with British emblems in order to bypass the British soldiers.

Women’s uniforms were male like.  A more acceptable gender norm for women would be working in the kitchen or nursing.  Women were expected to hold dying men’s hands and deal with “emotionally demanding tasks.”  Women delivered messages to the wives of British soldiers who were being held captive.  Crossing gender boundaries were made possible by the shared views of their time. The “egalitarian nature of the Proclamation and the active role which women actually played—advanced the status of women within the revolutionary movement and the Irish State that it created.”  Many women experienced Easter week from the back of a kitchen.

Nurses on Lower Sackville Street (1916)

In rural Dublin, women were not allowed in the field to battle.  Those that were there were volunteers. They had feminine duties like cooking and sewing, messengers on bikes.  At the Volunteers’ headquarters, the women’s roles were also gendered.  Women would not always be in the loop. Many messages that they carried, they knew nothing of what it meant strategically.  In jails, women received an indifferent, “benign” treatment.  Many women felt they could leave after being searched.  The British had little desire to arrest women and many were given fares to go home.  Irish women both resented and exploited their being considered inferior. Women could be defiant without being beaten, but the incarcerations were harsh.

In Kilmainham jail, women were held in minimal conditions without even blankets at first.  Women sat in the dirt with nothing else to sit on, there was no furniture. There was no privacy.  Women were forced to use the bathroom while soldiers watched on. Mountjoy jail was better than Kilmainham where many women were sent.   Only five women went on to Britain and the rest were released saying they were misled and that it was just a passing phase.  Women had a hard time being taken seriously that they have political connections, could be intellectuals and control their emotions.  Teenagers were also given leniency.  Prison welfare associations ran by women.


The Daughters of Erin or the Inghinidne na hÉireann

The Daughters of Erin or the Inghinidne na hÉireann as known as “the ninnies” emerged in protest to “the orgy of flunkeyism.” The Warriors of Erin or Na Fianna Éireann was the male counterpart.  The Countess Markievicz worked with the Fianna Boys.  The Daughters wanted to radicalize anyone who was not previously allowed in radical politics.  This meant women, children, and the working class. They wanted to revive the “language, literature, music, dancing, history, customs, games, and industries.”  Furthermore, they wanted to politicize poor Dublin children. At school, classes had field trips to see Republican martyrs. Materials were distributed in the shape of literature and attack symbols of British imperialism.

Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900


Cumann Na mBan

Cumann na mBan Women

Women wanted to do work with the Volunteers.  In the Volunteer’s manifesto, it was stated that there would be work for women.  MacNeill suggested that women could form auxiliaries.  The auxiliary could then help the volunteers.  The result was Cumann Na mBan. Cumann Na mBan was founded in Wynn’s Hotel on April 4, 1914.  They declared themselves an independent organization. They made their own decisions, they did service for the Volunteers, but they were not the Volunteers.  The Cumann Na mBan was established in communities throughout Ireland. They were an armed and equipped body of Irishmen ready to defend Ireland. This caused questions about the role of women.  Margaret Skinnider was a member of Cumann Na mBan.




McGarry, Fearghal. 2017. The Rising: Ireland: Easter 1916. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wills, Clair. Dublin 1916 – the Siege of the Gpo. London: Profile Books, 2010.

Yeats, William Butler. “Cathleen ni Houlihan.” Plays in Prose and Verse, Macmillan Publishers, 1922, pp. 3-18.

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