Sister against sister: How the Treaty split Cumann na mBan

The formation of pro-Treaty Cumann na Saoirse led to rancour among former allies

During the Dáil debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty the six female TDs spoke vehemently against its acceptance. While their contributions reflected their ideological opposition to the Treaty, it also mirrored the opposition of a majority in Cumann na mBan.

By mid-January 1922, the Cumann na mBan executive had made public its anti-Treaty stance when it reaffirmed its "allegiance to the Irish Republic" and stated that it could not "support the Articles of Treaty signed in London". As executive member Brighid O Mullane later wrote, "the Executive of Cumann na mBan... discussed the matter, and we were all, with three exceptions, opposed to accepting...  [they] were Mrs Wyse-Power, her daughter Nancy and Mrs Dick Mulcahy".

The opposition of three senior members, including a founder of Cumann na mBan, Jennie Wyse Power, was an indication of a rift among the leadership on the Treaty, which was soon to harden into a split in the organisation.

Cumann na mBan was one of the first militant republican organisations that met to consider the Treaty. A convention of the wider membership was held on February 5th, 1922, in the Mansion House in Dublin. About 600 women from branches around the country attended, although a rail strike prevented many delegates attending from Cork and Kerry. It is, however, estimated that about 300 branches of the estimated 800-900 branches did not send delegates, which meant the 600 women in the Mansion House represented just over half the membership.


While Wyse Power, Min Mulcahy and other pro-Treaty women from the executive were there, most pro-Treaty members simply didn’t turn up as it was obvious from the speeches of the female TDs, as well as pre convention statements from the leadership that the majority and the vote would favour rejection.

A resolution put forward by Mary MacSwiney TD was considered. It asked that "the executive of Cumann na mBan reaffirm its allegiance the Republic of Ireland, and therefore cannot support the Articles of Agreement signed in London, Dec 6th, 1921". Wyse Power proposed an amendment to this resolution, which, conscious of the fact that she knew a majority in attendance was anti-Treaty, was more of a compromise than overtly pro-Treaty.

While the Cumann na mBan anti-Treaty women began to reorganise... their pro-Treaty sisters also began to organise

She suggested that Cumann na mBan reaffirm its allegiance to the Republic “but realising that the Treaty... will, if accepted by the Irish people be a big step along the road to that end, we declare that we will not work obstructively against those who support the Treaty”.

This amendment asked the convention not to take sides in opposition to the Treaty, “leaving it for the people to decide the issue”. However, there was little support for this amendment as speaker after speaker, showed “uncompromising hostility [to the Treaty] combined with passionate allusions to principle and to the Irish Republic”. Ultimately 419 delegates voted against Wyse Powers’s resolution, with only 63 votes in favour. She and other anti-Treaty women then left the convention, and Cumann na mBan put on record its vehement rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

While the Cumann na mBan anti-Treaty women began to reorganise and many would later become involved in the anti-Treaty military campaign, their pro-Treaty sisters also began to organise. On March 12th, 1922, again in the Mansion House, Wyse Power addressed another meeting. Here she emphasised the necessity of having an organisation that would give a platform to women who supported the Treaty. Newspapers reported on this "remarkable gathering of women" with the headline "the birth of Cumann na Saoirse". About 700 women attended signifying that new pro-Treaty group had support among a wide swathe of political women. Joining Wyse Power on the platform was historian and nationalist, Alice Stopford Green, whose proposal that Cumann na Saoirse would be "an independent body of Irish women, pledged to work for the securing and maintaining of Ireland's right as an autonomous and sovereign State to determine freely her form of Government" was adopted.

There were attempts to bring the two sides together. The six anti-Treaty female TDs wrote to the pro-Treaty women asking them to rethink their decision, arguing that "it would be better to face Lloyd George together than face a war with each other". This attempt failed, and as Marie Comerford later recalled, Cumann na mBan lost "some fine women ... foundation members, others executive members who had helped guide [them] through the war years; all had proved themselves".

Even as the debate raged between the pro- and anti-Treaty women, however, another issue of importance for women was raising its head. The June 1922 election, in which the issue of the Treaty was central, would be held under existing franchise laws, which meant only women aged 30 and over had the vote. Kate O'Callaghan TD moved a motion in the Dáil that Irish women be admitted to the parliamentary franchise on the same terms as Irish men as soon as possible. However, despite assurances that equal suffrage for men and women would be in the new Free State constitution, Arthur Griffith argued that the new register would not be ready on time for the June election. This reflected an unease among pro-Treaty leaders that this younger cohort of women would be more inclined to vote against the Treaty so no political will existed to add this potential anti-Treaty section to the voting register before June.

Wyse Power, who had long campaigned for full suffrage for women refused to join a delegation from Cumann na mBan and the Irish Women’s Franchise League to Griffith and de Valera on the matter. She pointed out that as Cumann na mBan was opposed to the Treaty, their request, for legislation to be brought forward to lower the age at which women could vote, was inconsistent with their position.

While Cumann na Saoirse never developed into the huge organisation that Cumann na mBan had been at the height of its strength, branches began to appear in many parts of the country – in Dublin, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford, Bray and Sligo – while there were individuals supportive of its work in many other parts of the country. As soon as the election was called, they began to organise pro-Treaty propaganda campaigns and support the election of pro-Treaty candidates, to counter the influence of the support Cumann na mBan was giving to anti-Treaty candidates. They produced the first campaigning points of any pro-Treaty organisation for the election. In its Points for Canvassers, it divided the issue into seven points for and against the Treaty. This was similar to the stepping-stone argument to achieve freedom used by Collins and others in favour of the Treaty.

Cumann na mBan and its allies regarded Cumann na Saoirse with great fear and suspicion

In the June 1922 election, 58 pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidates were returned, compared with 36 anti-Treatyites. The remaining 34 seats were filled by pro-Treaty candidates from other parties. This was a success for the pro-Treaty side, but also deepened the split between the two women’s groups, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na Saoirse. During the election, invective and insult were hurled between the women. Cumann na mBan regarded the Cumann na Saoirse members as “women of low character”, while Cumann na Saoirse called the Cumann na mBan anti-Treatyites “wild women”.

As the country descended into Civil War, the split between the women became more and more evident and bitter. Cumann na mBan resumed its activities as allies to the anti-Treaty IRA. It ran safe houses and protected arms dumps; it collected intelligence and transported arms to ambushes and other sites of military activity. Cumann na Saoirse took the side of the National Government and the Irish National Army. This war, often written as a tragic conflict between male comrades who had fought together, was also a war between women who had fought together during the War of Independence and who were now spying on, policing and threatening each other.

Cumann na mBan and its allies regarded Cumann na Saoirse with great fear and suspicion. It was evident that they were gathering intelligence on anti-Treaty activities and personnel, which they passed on the National Army. The women spied on each other, with Sighle Humphries and Marie Deegan of the anti-Treaty side organising intelligence gathering on Cumann na Saoirse. There was also bitter propaganda against Cumann na Saoirse. In July 1922, when Wyse Power, as vice-president of Sinn Féin, closed its office on Harcourt Street, she was attacked in anti-Treaty news sheets as a leading light "in the anaemic women's organisation known as Cumann na Saoirse". Her business on Camden Street was also attacked and firebombed, and the Cumann na Saoirse offices on Rutland Square were bombed. On the other side, to lessen the effectiveness of Cumann na mBan, Cumann na Saoirse co-operated with the National Army in stopping and searching suspected anti-Treaty women, earning itself the bitter nickname of "Cumann na Searchers".

The Civil War eventually ended in May 1923, although many female and male anti-Treaty prisoners were not released until later that year. Cumann na mBan was on the losing side, and the political women in Cumann na Saoirse were in the ascendent with three – Jennie Wyse Power, Alice Stopford Green and Eileen Costello – appointed to the Free State Senate. The bitterness of the split left a hard legacy. However, common enemies and common causes would paper over some Civil War enmities in the coming years, and as the bitterness of the war faded, the pro-Treaty women often collaborated with former anti-Treaty Cumann na mBan women against the misogyny and conservative policies of Cumann na nGaedheal and later Fianna Fáil.

However, the legacy of the Cumann na mBan split is vital to acknowledge in our remembering of the Irish Civil War, as it was a war not only of brother against brother, but also, unfortunately, of sister against sister. Mary McAuliffe is a historian and lecturer, and the director of gender studies at UCD. Her most recent publication is a biography of Margaret Skinnider