In 1913, a number of women decide to hold a meeting in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, for the purpose of discussing the possibility of forming an organisation for women who would work in conjunction with the recently formed Irish Volunteers. A meeting led by Kathleen Lane-O’Kelly on April 2, 1914 marks the foundation of Cumann na mBan. Branches, which pledge to the Constitution of the organisation, are formed throughout the country and are directed by the Provisional Committee.
The primary aims of Cumann na mBan, as stated in its constitution, are to “advance the cause of Irish liberty and to organize Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object,” to “assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland” and to “form a fund for these purposes, to be called ‘The Defence of Ireland Fund.'”
Recruits come from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar workers and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class. In September 1914, the Irish Volunteers split over John Redmond‘s appeal for its members to enlist in the British Army. The majority of Cumann na mBan members support the 10,000 to 14,000 volunteers who rejected this call and who retain the original name, the Irish Volunteers.
On April 23, 1916, when the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood finalises arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrates Cumann na mBan, along with the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, into the “Army of the Irish Republic.”
On the day of the Rising, Cumann na mBan members arrive armed with both a Webley revolver and a typewriter, entering the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street in Dublin with their male counterparts. By nightfall, women insurgents are established in all the major rebel strongholds throughout the city. The majority of the women work as Red Cross workers, are couriers, or procure rations for the men. Members also gather intelligence on scouting expeditions, carry despatches, and transfer arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds. A number of Cumann na mBan members die during the Rising.
At the Four Courts, they help to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and destroy incriminating papers. On April 29, the leaders at the GPO decide to negotiate surrender. Patrick Pearse, the overall Commandant-General, asks Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O’Farrell to act as a go-between. Under British military supervision she brings Pearse’s surrender order to the rebel units still fighting in Dublin. Over 70 women, including many of the leading figures in Cumann na mBan, are arrested after the insurrection, and many of the women who are captured fighting are imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol. All but twelve are released by May 8, 1916.
Revitalized after the Rising and led by Countess Markievicz, Cumann na mBan takes a leading role in popularising the memory of the 1916 leaders, organising prisoner relief agencies, opposing conscription, and canvassing for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election, in which Markievicz is elected Teachta Dála.
Cumann na mBan supports the Provisional wing in the 1969-1970 split in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Féin. In Northern Ireland, Cumann na mBan is integrated into the mainstream IRA during the conflict, although they continue to exist as a separate organisation in the Republic of Ireland. In 1986, Cumann na mBan opposes the decision by the IRA and Sinn Féin to drop the policy of abstentionism and aligns itself with Republican Sinn Féin and the Continuity IRA.
In 2014, Cumann na mBan celebrates the Centenary of its foundation in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin, the site of their founding in 1914. The U.K. Home Office in March 2015 lists Cumann na mBan as a group linked to Northern Ireland related terrorism. However, it is not so listed in 2008 by the U.S. State Department.