A brief history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the 1920s to 1960s

This is a short history of Cumann na mBan in Belfast from the end of the civil war through to the 1960s. Obviously, anyone with information that enhances the story or adds further details is more than welcome to share it in the comments section.

Jack McNally (in his 1989 autobiography, Morally Good, But Politically Bad) names those prominent in Cumann na mBan towards the end of the civil war and into the mid-1920s and later. He includes Mary Donnelly, Sally Griffen, Kitty Hennessy, Kitty Kellet, Maggie Kelly (née Magennis), May Laverty, Margaret McGrath, Sally McGurk (née Ward), Miss McKeever, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Muldoon, Bridie O’Farrell, Cassie O’Hara, May O’Neill (née Dempsey), Mary Rafferty, Susan Rafferty and Mrs (Annie) Ward. Annie Ward had succeeded Norah Connolly as head of the Belfast Battalion of Cumann na mBan and led the organisation through into the 1920s.

Cumann na mBan in Belfast, as elsewhere, largely staffed the web that linked the various republican organisations together, collecting and moving intelligence and clandestine communications between IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna units and officers, assisting in moving weapons and establishing networks of dumps and safe houses. While Cumann na mBan also fundraised to support prisoner’s dependents and distributed republican newspapers, that was not the limit of its activities. The likes of May Laverty and Mary Donnelly are both known to have participated in IRA operations, such as helping move and plant explosive devices.

As one of the key republican organisations Cumann na mBan attended meetings and participated in restructuring alongside the Belfast IRA and Fianna Éireann in the late 1920s. Generally, as with Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan was organised in two units, one covering the Falls and surrounding districts and one covering north Belfast, the Markets and Ballymacarrett. In 1926 a batch of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBan was intercepted in the post. It contained 110 copies which suggests that this was the membership around this time (by the late 1930s the RUC believed membership to be around 60). By the early 1930s, May Laverty and Mary Donnelly were still prominent Cumann na mBan leaders in Belfast. Another was Cassie O’Hara, who had been engaged to Joe McKelvey and her continued support, like that of the likes of Bridie O’Farrell, maintained the Belfast unit’s sense of continuity and legitimacy.

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A reunion of 1920s and 1930s, and later, Belfast Cumann na mBan volunteers (taken in 1971 and reproduced in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice)


Cumann na mBan also prominently supported left wing initiatives (particularly stressed by the likes of May Laverty). In 1932, it held a flag day all over Ireland in October to raise funds to support those involved in the Outdoor Relief Riots in Belfast. The northern government response was predictable as, in the next month, two Belfast members, Mary Donnelly (Unity Street) and Sarah Grimley (North Queen Street), were given prison sentences for posting ‘seditious’ hand bills in Vulcan Street on the eve of a British royal visit in Belfast. Donnelly spent three months and Grimley two months in Armagh Jail (see Irish Press, December 17th 1932). Donnelly also allegedly had Cumann na mBan documents in her possession that stated that its aims were: “…(a) Complete separation of Ireland from all foreign Powers, (b) Unity of Ireland, (c) Gaelicisation of Ireland.” Speaking from the dock after refusing to recognise the court, Mary Donnelly said: “…We will carry on to the end until we get a Republic.

In 1933, under Eithne Ni Chumhail’s leadership, Cumann na mBan reviewed its relationship with the Second Dáil organisation (composed of those members elected to the second Dáil who maintained that it was the legitimate source of authority in Ireland). Up to then, Article 1 of the Cumann na mBan constitution required members to recognise the continued existence and authority of the Second Dáil. This limited it’s capacity to attract new members. Miss MacSwiney and two others resigned when the proposed change that only required members to “…never render allegiance to any Government but a Republican Government for all Ireland…” was passed at the convention in Dublin in June (the IRA had broken its link with the Second Dáil by 1926). At the same convention, the Cumann na mBan executive also announced the formation of Cumann na gCailíní, for girls aged 8 to 16. This facilitated an influx of new members later in the 1930s. The convention additionally agreed to embark on a campaign to propagate social reconstruction on the lines laid down by James Connolly and for an intensive campaign in the north (see Irish Press, June 14th, 1933). May Laverty was prominent in this campaign.

Following the mass arrests of Belfast republicans that October (1933), Cumann na mBan again raised funds to support the dependents of those who had been imprisoned. In June 1934, Belfast contingents from the IRA, Fianna, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na gCailíní had marched in uniform in Dublin prior the annual IRA ceilí in the Mansion House. Leading Cumann na mBan figures like Eithne Ni Chumail had supported Republican Congress but returned to Cumann na mBan when Congress began attacking the IRA.

In 1936, May Laverty again took a lead role in the public protests against de Valera’s government. In June, Cumann na mBan demanded entry to the meeting in St Mary’s Hall where the Anti-Partition League was founded (initially called the ‘Reunion of Ireland Organisation’). The meeting was chaired by ex-Belfast IRA O/C Hugh Corvin and while the likes of Padraig MacLogain attended, Cumann na mBan was refused entry and the IRA did not support the project. In 1937, as part of the Military Pensions Act, an ‘Old Cumann na mBan’ Association was formed in Belfast from members who had been active up to 1922. As with similar associations, it was boycotted by many who refused to endorse the Free State government.

Prominent members of Cumann na mBan in Belfast in the mid to late 1930s included Una Burke, Bridie Dolan, Crissie Dolan, Bridget Hannon, Dorrie Hill, May Laverty, Violet McGowan and Maggie Nolan. A Cumann na mBan and a Cumann na gCailíni contingent had participated in the funeral procession for veteran Fenian and IRB organiser Robert Johnston (also the father of poet and author Eithne Carberry), in March 1937, in Greencastle.

Dorrie Hill and Madge Nolan were present, representing Cumann na mBan, in Pearse Hall in King Street in October 1937 when a Belfast Brigade Council meeting was interrupted by the RUC and all those present had their names taken (despite the Belfast IRA staff being present the RUC thought it was a meeting of Joe McKelvey GAA club).  The likes of Josephine Brady and Mary McAreavey both received significant sentences for possession of weapons or documents in the late 1930s, while Bridie Dolan was badly injured in a premature explosion. Bridie O’Hara and Mary Hewitt were both expelled from Britain during the Sabotage Campaign of 1939. Cumann na mBan was prominent in the very public demonstrations of republican strength in Belfast in the late 1930s, such as the burning of gas masks in May 1939.

In September 1939, there were forty-eight members of the Belfast contingent at the Cumann na mBan conference in Dublin (Eithne Ni Chumail was still the leader at this time). The RUC believed that Cumann na mBan in Belfast was divided into two companies. Peggy Rafferty led the Belfast Cumann na mBan contingent at the infamous 1939 Bodenstown commemoration. At the time, Annie Hamill was in charge of Cumann na gCailíní in Belfast. Many of those involved in Cumann na mBan  were relatives of prominent IRA members, such as Bridget Corr (sister of Arthur), Mary McLaughlin (sister of Chris) and Ellen McCurry (sister of Willie John).

In October 1940, Isobel Murphy, Mary and Bridget O’Hare and Elizabeth O’Toole got two years each for distributing Cumann na mBan leaflets outside a cinema on the Crumlin Road. Cassie O’Hara was one of the first Cumann na mBan member to interned in the 1940s and was soon followed by others. Mary Donnelly, though, was killed when a German bomb destroyed her family home in Unity Street on 16th April 1941. The same night, Bridget Corr’s mother and brother were killed by another bomb at their family home in Vere Street.

Prison conditions in Armagh were very bit as bad as those that the men had to endure. Those imprisoned in Armagh included Madge Burns, Nora McDowell (the only one who had children), her daughter Una, Teresa Donnelly, Bernadette Masterson, Mary McDonald, Nora McKearney, Cassie O’Hara (O/C of the Armagh prisoners) and Nancy Ward. In the autumn of 1943, the Cumann na mBan members in Armagh Jail decided to embarked on a hunger strike. You can read more about the hunger strike here, but briefly, the women joined en masse on 21st November, although by the time Therese Donnelly was given the last rites after twenty-two days it was apparent that the protest was being robbed of publicity and it was decided to call it off (it was a lesson ignored by the men who went on hunger strike the next March). The same pressures and family hardships bore down on the women as the men and inevitably some had to sign out.

The last Belfast Cumann na mBan prisoners were among the eight released in July 1945 (including Cassie O’Hara), but like the IRA itself, the organisation was slow to rebuild in Belfast. Joe Cahill records that, by 1956, Bridie O’Neill was O/C of Cumann na mBan in Belfast (and apparently had been for some time). As in previous eras, Cumann na mBan looked after much of the transportation of weapons to and from dumps. In the lead up to the campaign, O’Neill had organised her units to collect and move weapons from Belfast to the border where they would be used during the campaign. Arrests during the Border Campaign also showed that Cumann na mBan continued to collect funds (officially these were for the ‘Freedom Fighters Fund’ – see Fermanagh Herald, October 18th 1958). O’Neill was the only women interned during the 1956-62 campaign (she interned for seven months). Again, as in 1945, Cumann na mBan was largely intact due to the low number of imprisonments but was slow to re-engage its membership.

By the time the early 1970s, the IRA was directly admitting women as members presenting a different challenge to the rationale for Cumann na mBan to continue to exist (it largely supported Cathal Goulding in 1970 and later).

The shooting of John Pat Cunningham, 1974

Truckling to Treason: Belfast Newsletter reflects on the Rebellion, 4th May 1916

IRA’s Easter commemoration, Belfast, 25th April 1943

On Easter Sunday, 25th April 1943, the IRA’s Chief of Staff and Adjutant-General led a public Easter commemoration at the Broadway cinema in Belfast. The resonances with 1916 were obvious: visible armed resistance in wartime, in a district saturated with armoured cars and the heavily armed British forces. The previous year’s commemoration had also triggered a calamitous sequence of events that had expended much of the IRA’s remaining capacity and saw Tom Williams hung in Crumlin Road prison. In the circumstances, there was significant pressure on the remaining IRA leadership to give some hope to their supporters and imprisoned comrades.

The 1943 commemoration also intentionally signalled a formal shift in the IRA’s centre from Dublin to Belfast, and in focusing on ending partition rather than challenging the legitimacy of government from Leinster House (a continuous ambition of the Belfast IRA since the 1930s and arguably a continuing complication in republican strategy). Similarly, the venue, built on the site of the Willow Bank huts from where the Belfast Volunteers had mobilised in 1916 also suggested a heavily coded challenge to the various competing groups in Belfast such as the Pre-Truce IRA organisation claiming primacy as the authentic inheritors of the Republic declared in 1916 (ownership of the Easter Rising commemorations were to see similar political battles in the 1950s when formal parades were permitted). Few enough may have understood the reference to 1916 and the ‘Old’ IRA association, although those that did were the intended audience. Symbolically, Easter 1943 marks the formal shift in the emphasis of IRA strategy to the north.

The IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, writing in 1951 in the Sunday Independent, clearly saw the parallels between 1916 and 1943. By mid-April 1943, he writes that he was acknowledging internally that the possibility of the IRA succeeding was out of the question for the moment. Recognising the propaganda value of his own escape in January that year and the mass Derry escape in March, the IRA leadership realised that the pattern of their work was clear. Their immediate object was now to ‘preserve the spirit of the movement’ and that was to guide how they would plan and execute their next actions.

In 1943 then, the commemoration was to be particularly significant. The leadership of Hugh McAteer and Jimmy Steele (who had taken over as Adjutant-General on Liam Burke’s capture earlier that April) developed the idea of staging a public Easter Rising commemoration. Harry White (in his biography, Harry, written with Uinseann MacEoin) recounts how the idea evolved from a throwaway suggestion from two young IRA Volunteers to an operation involving sixteen Volunteers taking over the Broadway cinema to stage a commemoration. According to Harry White, it was Joe Doyle and Dan Diffin who came up with the idea of using armed volunteers to take over either a cinema or a dance hall and then staging a public Easter commemoration. The idea was dismissed as impractical on security grounds.

In reality, McAteer and Steele were very enthusiastic about the idea and only dismissed it to Doyle and Diffin as they wanted to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Initially, according to White, the plan had been to simply flash up a slide on screen that said “Join The IRA”, but the concept expanded until it became a full dress commemoration. White had been staying at the house of a projectionist in the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road, Willie Mohan, whose brother Jerry was an internée. Mohan’s uncle, Frank, was also the manager of the cinema. Typically, the projection box was kept locked, but normally the projectionist went for a smoke between films which gave the IRA a short window in which to go and take control of it.
The plan that developed was relatively simple but was loaded with symbolism. The parallels of a public reading of the 1916 proclamation in 1943 in Belfast during a general world war and the reading of the original proclamation in Dublin in 1916, during an earlier war, were no doubt clear. McAteer and Steele had huge sums on their heads following their escape in January 1943 and a public appearance and obvious support would signal the loyalty of their supporters to the unionist government (i.e. that they weren’t going to be paid to betray their leaders).
The RUC were expecting some form of commemoration to take place over the Easter weekend. According to the Irish News, they had turned the Falls Road into an armed camp with hundreds of uniformed and plain clothes police, with armoured cars, whippet cars, patrol cars and cage cars patrolling the district. Still, sixteen armed IRA volunteers accompanied McAteer and Steele to Broadway cinema where they staged the commemoration. Three volunteers went into the projector box and handed over a slide which was flashed up on screen.
Jimmy Steele, in full dress uniform, appeared on stage and was introduced by McAteer. Steele read the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, then McAteer read a statement from Army Council on IRA policy, the resonances with 1916 are clear. While the “cause had not yet triumphed” he told them, “Ireland is being held within the Empire by sheer force and by force alone can she free herself. Now with Britain engaged in a struggle for her very existence, we are presented with a glorious opportunity.” McAteer finished to applause (according to Fr Kevin McMullan, who was only seven at the time but had by chance been at that screening of Don Bosco, the response was positive and enthusiastic). McAteer then called for two minutes’ silence to commemorate those who had died for Ireland.
In Dublin, The Irish Times even reported that no commemoration took place. In Belfast, though, The Irish News enthusiastically reported on proceedings which were recounted in news bulletins as far away as Germany. The northern government’s Prime Minister, J.M. Andrews, who was already under pressure and perceived as a moderate, resigned on the Friday after Easter.

Steele and McAteer’s wanted poster

Barney Watt: propaganda and obstructing justice in February 1971

And then, from Aidan Hennigan in London:

Fian Sean Doyle, died 10th April 1944