This article is part HWO’s “Road to Repeal” series, a collaboration with the Activist Histories of Ireland Conference, a conference exploring histories of political activism in modern Ireland, which takes place in Hertford College, Oxford, 12-13 July.
The Irish Civil War of 1922-3 was fought by Irish nationalists over whether or not to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty had been signed in December 1921, following the War of Independence (1919-1921). During this period in Irish society, numbers of women engaging in organised activity outside of the home were small, but not insignificant. There were women actively engaged in the conflict, and there has been much discussion of their participation in politics and armed struggle. But there were also women active in public life whose activities were not political nor directly connected to the conflict, but that were still very much influenced by it. Many of these women were involved with religious societies that were ostensibly apolitical. Two such societies were the Mothers’ Union and the Girls Friendly Society. By considering the minute books and annual reports of these two Protestant women’s organisations – both very active at this time – we can get a sense of how the Civil War impacted their work.
The Mothers’ Union and the Girls Friendly Society were active throughout Ireland during the Civil War. The Girls Friendly Society stated that it kept ‘scattered Members’ of the Church in touch and helped ‘to mitigate some of the loneliness’ resulting from the conflict. Directly acknowledging the personal impact of Civil War violence on members, the society noted that some were driven from their homes by ‘armed force, fire and robbery’. As well as keeping members united the organisations engaged in a range of public activities. The Friendly Society established a ‘Joint Vigilance Committee’ in 1921. The Committee paid for a worker to meet incoming trains at Dublin stations and boats docking from Liverpool and Glasgow, and to escort women from their transport to their accommodation and generally assisting them when they arrived in the city.
Motivated by the need to safeguard girls from the perceived dangers of urban life, this work continued throughout the Civil War. The Girls’ Friendly Society emphasised that many women they assisted were under twenty and explained that it ‘would be hard to describe, still harder to believe, all the difficulties that a young country girl, travelling alone’ could encounter. These dangers were not solely related to the conflict but there was an awareness that increased disruption to infrastructure amplified the demand for support and protection. The Friendly Society report commented that the failure of family members and friends to meet travellers themselves could be ‘partly accounted for by the unsettled times’ as letters confirming arrival were delayed and train schedules were disrupted.
The Mothers’ Union 1922 minutes state that ‘in spite of the general disturbance the Mothers’ Union was holding its own throughout the country’. This is evidenced in the range of its public activities, which included issuing literature on temperance and discussions regarding birth control, the age of consent in relation to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, and an appeal for female National School teachers. The Union did also, on one occasion, engage directly in the political situation by appointing delegates to attend an Irishwomen’s Association of Citizenship conference to discuss including women in any government that came into power after the 1922 General Election. The Girls Friendly Society’s other activities in this period included: supporting missionary work; organising girl guides; collecting a ‘sick and weary’ fund; running ‘Invalid’s Industry’; producing literature; providing assistance to domestic servants; and running several lodges and a rest home.
Both organisations noted significant disruption to their activities as a direct result of the conflict. And yet the tone of their reports is positive – they praise the organisations’ achievements, in spite of the disruption caused by the conflict. When the Mothers’ Union’s Cork Diocese was unable to pay subscriptions owing to the disruption caused by the conflict, the Union emphasised the organisations usefulness to members in that area. Mention of a service in Cashel Cathedral, Tipperary similarly focused on the organisation’s resilience, stating that in spite of blocked roads and other dangers most branches attended and noting that £6 was collected for the Joint Vigilance Fund. The Girls Friendly Society also reported difficulties in areas where conflict was most prevalent. At Newport, County Tipperary the Branch Secretary was described as having been ‘burned out of house and home’ and significant membership losses were noted in Cashel and Cork as was the impossibility of holding meetings in Cork. As with the Mothers’ Union the organisation’s resilience remained the focus of its reports, which noted that lodges continued to run despite ‘unrest and riot… turmoil and trouble’ and commented that although the society had ‘suffered somewhat from the vicissitudes of 1922 in Ireland, North and South’ it continued to do good work.
Membership of both organisations declined throughout Ireland during the conflict. The Mother’s Union closed 37 branches between 1921-1923 and lost upwards of 1600 members in the same period. The organisation recorded that these figures might not be complete as certain counties faced difficulties in returning figures, reports and subscriptions because of the impact of the conflict on postal services – demonstrating again the practical ramifications of the war on their work. Their minutes suggest that certain counties suffered greater membership losses than others ‘because of so many leaving the country’. In Cork it was suggested that the decline in membership, of 264 members from 1921-22, was the result of the ‘exodus owing to the disturbed state of the country’. The Girls Friendly Society also saw a net decrease in membership in 1922, which again was attributed to emigration. However, they did gain 1,055 new members and remained positive, stating that considering the ‘number of girls that have left Ireland with their families during this year the loss on our total of 541 does not seem so very great’. In 1923, overall membership of both organisations began to increase, suggesting that the impact of the Civil War on membership was short-term.
The minutes and reports of both the Mothers’ Union and the Girls Friendly Society betray an overwhelming sense of positivity in the face of adversity, and a focus on continuing work in spite of membership fluctuations and logistical difficulties resulting from the Civil War. The study of these societies indicates the importance of community organisations’ activities to daily lives of their members. The records discussed here convey the day-to-day disruptions caused by the tumultuous years of the Irish Civil War and the resilience of ordinary Irish men and women living through uncertain times.