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).


Election headquarters, Barrack St, Belfast, 1925

The photograph below was posted online by Gerry Adams. It is of the republican election headquarters in the former Oceanic Bar, at the corner of Barrack Street and Divis Street at the time of the  April 1925 elections. The photograph neatly tidies up an existing account of that election that was otherwise unclear.

The election campaign is described in Jack McNally’s 1989 memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad although confusion over the dates means it uncertain which actual election it describes:

“In the 1923 elections Sinn Féin in Dublin decided to contest the elections on the abstentionist ticket. Interned men were put up as candidates. A man named McConville from Lurgan was put up in West Belfast. Hugh Corvin was put in North Belfast. I was appointed his agent. The Fianna canvassed the Catholic areas in the North for Hugh Corvin…

In West Belfast Sinn Féin had rented the old Oceanic Bar at the corner of Barrack Street which was lying empty. There was also an old Pawn Shop and a Sales Room, side by side in Divis Street beside the Oceanic Bar. These were rented as Committee and Tally Rooms. Speakers from Dublin began pouring in to help the campaign for McConville. Constance Markievicz, Dr Ida English, Frank Brady and his sister were there; as well as Sean McBride, Donagh O’Donoghue, Sheila Humphries, Tom Daly, Andy Coone and Pat McCormack from the Glens. The lads who had been newly recruited into the IRA worked like trojans alongside the girls and women of Cumann na mBan. Prominently identified were Cassie O’Hara, Bridie O’Farrell, Mary Donnelly, Mrs Ward, Bank Street, Maggie Kelly nee Magennis, May J. O’Neill nee Dempsey, Sally Ward nee McGurk, Kitty Kellet, Sally Griffen, Susan Rafferty, Mary Rafferty, May Laverty, Louis McGrath and sister Margaret, Miss McKeever, Mrs. Muldoon, Mrs. McLoughlin and Kitty Hennessy. These were the girls who carried the banner of Republicanism back to the Falls and little thanks they got for it from some of the locals there. There were also the families who kept open doors for us in the Lower Falls; The Cunninghams of Slate Street, Charley and Brigid Rafferty in Scotch Street, Koitty Hennessy and her mother. Mrs McLoughlin of Galway Street. These were the people we were proud of. If it hadn’t been for their untiring work in spreading a new Gospel of Republicanism in the Falls might never have risen to the challenge it faced in later years.

As it was, the hard line of Devlinite opposition to republican candidates was very much in evidence in 1923. Our election headquarters in Divis Street was attacked, as was also the Oceanic Bar at Barrack Street corner, where the windows were broken. The Craobh Ruadh pipe band was attacked in Cullingtree Road and some of the girl pipers badly shaken. Jim Johnstone, who trained the pipers, came to see us after the attack and agreed to let the band try again, if we gave them protection. We organised a squad of men with hurleys to accompany the band, which paraded from Barrrack Street across to the Loney and side streets;they came back by Albert Street and had no interference. That show of strength was enough for the malcontents and they began to change their ways. The window of the Oceanic Bar was broken one night, after that, but the culprits were caught and beaten. After that they left us alone…

That election in 1923 was a political disaster for Sinn Féin and for us as republicans. McConville was defeated in West Belfast and Hugh Corvin got a miserly 1200 vote in North Belfast, in spite of the fact that he and McConville were still interned on the Argenta prison ship. But the Bone and Ardoyne voted solidly.

After the debacle we settled down to improving the position of the IRA in Belfast and throughout the North.”

The photograph showing the McConville headquarters in the old Oceanic Bar now clears this up. McNally appears to be referring to two different elections here (although neither was in 1923 as there weren’t republican candidates put forward in Belfast in any of the elections that year). Hugh Corvin stood in North Belfast in an election in October 1924 (for Westminster) while Pat Nash stood in West Belfast. Sean McConville then stood in an election to the northern parliament held in April 1925. Corvin didn’t run in that election (there was no republican candidate in North Belfast). Whether it was in use as an election headquarters in October 1924, the photograph shows that the former Oceanic Bar was clearly in use during the April 1925 election. The building had been in use as an engineering works for a short while after the bar had closed. The photograph itself appears to have been taken from an upper storey if St Mary’s Christian Brothers School on the other side of Barrack Street.

Sean McConville had been Commandant of the Lurgan Battalion then vice O/C of the 3rd Brigade of the IRA’s 4th Northern Division, under Frank Aiken. He was nominated in March for West Belfast in the election to the northern parliament that was to be held in April. The other candidates in West Belfast (which was to elect four MPs using proportional representation) were unionists Thomas Henry Burn, Robert John Lynn, Robert Dickson, nationalist Joe Devlin, independent unionist Philip James Woods, Labour’s William McMullen and McConville. Torchlight processions alongside a band in support of McConville (as described by McNally) were recorded in the nights before the election although the press claimed there was ‘not the slightest untoward incident’. However, the photograph of the election headquarters appear to show the boarded up windows on the ground floor which are consistent with McNally’s account of the election. The press reports at the time indicate that there were processions by the Devlinites every night in the lead up to the election. Of the many luminaries listed as speakers during the campaign, Andy ‘Coone’ is Andy Cooney (IRA Chief of Staff by 1926) while Belfast republican Cassie O’Hara had been the fiance of executed IRA leader Joe McKelvey (thanks to Tim McGarry for this information).

At the end of the first count, the quota was declared as 9,897. Devlin had received 17,558 votes and was elected. He was followed by Woods (9,599), Lynn (8,371), Burn (4,805), McConville (3,146), Dickson (3,133) and McMullen (2,269). Devlin’s surplus was then distributed giving Woods 11,071 (+1,472), Lynn 8,507 (+137), McMullan 7,237 (+4,968), Burn 4,878 (+73), McConville 4,456 (+1,310) and Dickson 3,438 (+305). With Woods elected, but his surplus failed to elect anyone so Dickson was elimited, with his transfers then electing Lynn on 10,437 votes with McMullan now on 8,002, Burn on 5,980 and McConville on 4.545. Since Lynn had an insufficient surplus to elect anyone, McConville was eliminated and his transfers elected McMullen who ended on 10,345 (+2,343) to Burn’s 6,515 (+532).

The IRA’s flirtations with politics were to be intermittent and violent electoral clashes with the nationalists were to continue into at least the late 1930s.

[Just to note that the reason McNally has the date wrong may be interesting in its own right – he may have checked the date against an internal IRA document – the IRA obsessively keeping records well into the 1940s. The problem McNally may have overlooked is that in the mid-1920s dates were normally given with the wrong year so they couldn’t be used in a prosecution if the document was captured. Typically this meant 1924 instead of 1926 etc.]