The O'Neill Sisters
Two of West Cork's Forgotten Cumann na mBan Members
Cumann na mBan (the Irishwomen’s Council) was an Irish nationalist movement founded in 1914 in order to support the Irish Republican Army (IRA) through the provision of assistance, arms and funds. Membership grew following the Easter Rising of 1916, with a considerable number of branches established in 1917. The earliest members were typically the sisters of local IRA Volunteers. While there are many accounts of brothers fighting side by side, there are also lesser-known reports of significant numbers of women supporting, arming and facilitating their brothers and their comrades. The role of women throughout the War of Independence and the Civil War is currently being re-evaluated following the recent release of military pension records. These demonstrate that women of all ranks carried out dangerous activities including carrying and concealing arms, retrieving bodies of deceased Volunteers from workhouses, and collecting and communicating intelligence. The role of the Cumann na mBan cannot be underestimated; they sustained the Volunteers and thus the war through their efforts. This article focuses on the contribution made by two West Cork sisters: Mary and Margaret O’Neill.
Mary Walsh (née O'Neill) of Killountain, west of Bandon, in Co. Cork, joined the Cumann na mBan in April 1917, and rose to the position of captain of the Kilbrittain Company and later the battalion commandant of the First Southern Division. She was one of seven siblings who were active in the republican movement. Throughout 1917 she held drills, made haversacks (soldiers’ backpacks), sold flags and collected money. When training camps were held on family land, Mary helped by making ammunition and filling cartridges. She assisted in the general election of 1918 and held parades against conscription to the British Army. This political expression is notable at a time when (some) women over the age of thirty had just secured the right to vote.
Hostilities were quickly escalating in the district throughout 1918–19, and the Cumann na mBan was now providing for 'men on the run', those who could not return to their homes for their own safety, as well as that of their families. During these years, Mary’s home was supplying up to thirty additional meals per week. While scouting for the IRA and reporting the movements of the British military locally, it was during this period that Mary had her first encounter with the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). In her pension records, she recalled that she was assaulted when the RIC tried to seize a picture featuring Easter week from her home.
During this period, the local IRA was making regular attacks on the RIC and Coastguard stations, and the Flying Column was very active in the area. Interestingly, it was Mary who carried the news of Tom Hales' arrest to local battalion officers. Among her other duties was transporting arms and ammunition from Kilbrittain to Newcestown, as well as tending to injured Volunteers. When she was unable to care for the men herself, she made arrangements for them to be attended to by other members of the Cumann na mBan. In the lead-up to an ambush at Rathclarin, Mary made disguises using horse hair and cloth for the IRA, and later was forced to quickly dispose of them ahead of an impending RIC raid during which she was 'knocked about'. At this time, Mary was in possession of a large sum of money for the IRA's arms fund.
One of the most notable acts of bravery came when the O'Neill family home was surrounded by the British military led by the notorious Percival in February 1920. The family had been sheltering Volunteer Paddy Crowley who was awaiting an operation, as well as Mary’s brother Mick. Under the false belief that raids had ceased, Paddy was brought into the house for meals. When the house was surrounded, Paddy and Mick escaped out the back door only to run into Percival; the men turned and ran with Mary and her sister Margaret in pursuit. The sisters did this believing that the military would not fire on women. Mick stopped running and surrendered to give Paddy the chance to escape. In the midst of the chase, Percival attempted to climb a gate when Margaret grabbed onto his legs; in response, he beat her around the knuckles with the butt of his rifle but she only released her grip when he threatened her brother. Despite their best efforts, Paddy was found dead by another member of the Cumann na mBan who was coming to warn the O’Neill family. A wake was held for Paddy in 'defiance of the military'.
Mary was appointed district council secretary for the First Southern Division. She sent monthly reports to the headquarters in Dublin and was selected to distribute White Cross funds to the families of prisoners in need. She also continued on with her other duties including the provision of first aid, food, accommodation and clothing. Following the ambush at Gaggan, Mary and her family gave refuge to approximately eighty Volunteers. During this time of heightened threat, she had been instructed not to leave her home and for three days she remained indoors baking bread, making butter and washing clothes for those she sheltered. The Cumann na mBan marched with Volunteers at the funerals of a number of local men, including those who were killed cutting a trench at Crois na Leanbh and the three men who died at Crossbarry. The women were instrumental at retrieving bodies, often from workhouses, as well as organising funerals.
When the military came to burn the O'Neill home, Mary and Margaret refused to leave. Their father was ill and confined to bed, and their mother was also in poor health. The army raided the pantry for provisions during which Mary defiantly challenged the commanding officer. Consequently, Mary and Margaret were informed that they were under arrest, however, no charge was given and so Margaret continued on with her housework. She went out to feed the pigs but the men followed her, pinned her hands behind her back and threw her against a gate. When they tried to take Mary, her mother intervened standing between her daughter and the officers. Her mother protested that they could not manage without their girls as they were all they had, to which the commanding officer retorted, 'you won’t have them long either'. By this stage, their father had managed to crawl from his bed; a jam jar was thrown at his head which narrowly missed him. The two sisters were beaten with fists and rifles but their main concern was for their mother and they requested a doctor’s assistance. The ordeal only came to an end when the military believed their mother was dying and Mary was permitted to leave. While the O’Neill family reported the assault, the story was suppressed and the military denied their claims. Despite the trauma, the O'Neills would go on to house other families whose homes had been destroyed during the war.
During the Truce, Cumann na mBan members continued to raise money for the IRA and following the split in the Volunteers, the majority of women took the anti-treaty side. This meant that they continued all previous activity but the enemy was now the Free State. The Cumann na mBan were the first organisation to hold a vote on the Treaty and they voted overwhelming to reject it with 419 votes to 63. The women provided for the 'Irregulars', as they were known, until the Civil War ended but this was carried out at a significant personal cost. The pensions received by the women were considerably less than those received by their IRA counterparts. The pension records give us an invaluable glimpse as to how the daily lives of women were affected during ‘The Troubles’ (searchable here: http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/search.aspx?formtype=advanced).
Military Service Pension Records of Mary Walsh, available to view at http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R7/MSP34REF29236%20Mary%20Walsh/34D1713%20Mary%20Walsh.pdf
Witness Statement of Mary Walsh, no. 556, available to view at http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0556.pdf#page=1
7/16/2021 05:24:23 am
Thank you for highlighting the bravery and compassion of these women who helped lead the fight against British imperialism in Ireland.
7/26/2021 09:08:38 am
Thanks Sarah for stopping by and reading our articles.
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