By Ruth O’Hara, Library Assistant, Maynooth University Library
To read a firsthand account of the Irish War of Independence and Civil War is illuminating. When the eyewitness happens to be a woman a different and yet still relatively rare vision of these defining moments in Irish history presents itself. This is the case with the four-page manuscript acquired recently by Maynooth University Library written by Hannah Condon Cleary, a commanding officer with Cumann na mBan. It details her “active service” from 1918 to 1923 in Anglesboro Co. Limerick and brings to the fore the roles open to women in the fight for Irish liberty.
Despite a growing interest in female revolutionaries it is still the case that Dublin-centric accounts of remarkable women such as Countess Markievicz dominate general histories of the period. What Hannah’s account reminds us is that across Ireland women were substantial and influential players in the nationalist movement. It is Anglesboro in Co. Limerick which dominates this handwritten record. While references to “services rendered” in Galbally and Ballylanders and marches to Kilkenny are evocative reminders that by 1918 Cumann na mBan was a thriving organisation outside the capital.
Hannah Condon Cleary, like many women who joined Cumann na mBan, came from a family deeply committed to the nationalist cause. Her father William Condon was a leading player in the Fenian Brotherhood and her godson Liam Lynch was Chief of Staff of the IRA in the 1920s. Hannah became a member of Cumann na mBan in 1918, the same year in which only certain women over the age of thirty received the right to vote. This organisation, founded in Dublin in 1914, was not a feminist group much to the chagrin of some in the Irish suffragette movement. It was an auxiliary to the Irish Volunteers with the stated purpose of assisting in arming and equipping Irish men in the defense of Ireland. Indeed, despite the militaristic tone of her account where she describes her active service and the ‘officers in command’ with whom she served, Hannah’s record is replete with the essential if not quite so glamorous duties that were carried out by the members of Cumann na mBan. She describes raising funds by selling badges, supplying washed shirts and cooking food for the men in the local columns as well as visiting and providing cigarettes to prisoners in Galbally and Limerick. She also learned first aid from a fellow Cumann member and “made and prepared first aid outfits”.
In addition to these essential supportive tasks, however, this account also shows how women’s roles evolved as the War of Independence gave way to the Civil War. Mixed in with the more domestic duties Hannah also notes that she supplied intelligence, spent three days with a column in Anglesboro waiting to ambush Galbally and attended the battalion camps of “Massy Lodge” Anglesboro for a fortnight. Moreover, she housed Republican soldiers and “did watch for them and gave them information of the enemy”. This was dangerous and demanding work that required skill, intelligence and courage. Hannah’s pride in serving and her obvious commitment to the cause comes across strongly in her account.
Firsthand accounts such this are an important window into Irish society during one of the most turbulent periods of its history. The members of Cumann na mBan were able to carve out an impactful role for themselves within a society that sought to limit their public and political influence. Women like Hannah Condon Cleary were as much active participants and supporters of the War of Independence and Civil War as their male counterparts. Their testimonies are a valuable resource and it is important that they are preserved and made accessible so that they can be included in research concerned with this complex period of Irish history.
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