Sunday 16 December 2018

Lá na mBan: A day of mass civil disobedience

On June 9, 1918, thousands of women across Ireland pledged resistance to plans to ­conscript the Irish to reinforce British troops on the Western Front. Mary ­McAuliffe revisits the show of strength and solidarity that was Lá na mBan

Resistance: Trade union activist Delia Larkin signs the Women’s Anti-Conscription Pledge in City Hall, Dublin. Photo: Patricia Lynch / RM Fox Collection / National Library of Ireland
Resistance: Trade union activist Delia Larkin signs the Women’s Anti-Conscription Pledge in City Hall, Dublin. Photo: Patricia Lynch / RM Fox Collection / National Library of Ireland
Conscription poster

Mary McAuliffe

An article in the Irish Independent of Saturday June 1, 1918 reported on a meeting of the Women's Day Committee which had been held in Mansion House in Dublin the previous day. Presided over by the historian and nationalist Alice Stopford Green, the committee - which included women such as Louie Bennett, Nancy Wyse Power, Nancy O'Rahilly, Helen Chenevix, Louise Gavan Duffy and Agnes O'Farrelly - "decided to hold an all-Ireland demonstration on June 9, the Feast of St Colmcille, for the purpose of signing the women's pledge in connection with opposition to conscription".

This was to be a spectacular day, a day of, specifically, women's activism and resistance, in the ongoing anti-conscription campaign which had begun months earlier, in April 1918.

In March 1918, the German Offensive on the Western Front had led to a demand for more recruits, with Ireland, being the obvious place to find men to fill the depleted ranks of the British army. In Ireland, voluntary recruitment had fallen, post 1916, with only about 80 men a week signing up.

A petition signed by over 100,000 people in Britain, including 45 MPs, as well as numerous media articles, demanded that conscription be extended to Ireland, rather than extended to teenagers and men over 42 in Britain. Despite this urgent need for men, senior military and police leaders warned that conscription would be "bitterly opposed" in Ireland.

However, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of staff of the armed forces, who badly needed 100,000-150,000 reinforcements on the Western Front, declared himself unafraid to take hundreds of thousands of "recalcitrant conscripted Irishmen" into his army of 2.5 million. Irish political leaders of all shades of nationalist opinion, the Catholic church and the Irish media bluntly said that introducing conscription to Ireland was, what the London Times called, "an act of insanity".

Notwithstanding this opposition, the Military Service Bill was passed by the House of Commons on April 15, 1918. Within three days (April 18), a united campaign of all shades of trade unionism, feminism, nationalism and republicanism was coming together to campaign against it.

An all-party conference called by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O'Neill, at Mansion House, on April 18, agreed a Sinn Féin pledge which declared that conscription was "a declaration of war on the Irish people" and all present swore to "resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal".

April 23 was a day of anti-conscription activism, fundraising, incendiary speech making and pledge signing, in parishes, towns and villages across the country.

Women, organised by the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU) and Cumann na mBan, took their own pledge which included the promise not to "fill the places of men deprived of their work through enforced military service". Irishwomen were not going to be the supportive "home front", if their men went off to war, they would not blackleg.

The British authorities did not react well. In May 1918, dozens of nationalist leaders (including three women, Countess Markievicz, Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke) were arrested as part of the so-called 'German Plot' and reinterned. Lord French, who accepted mass conscription was now dead in the water, said he would accept 50,000 Irish 'volunteers', this encouraged women to keep up their anti-conscription activities.

'Well-meaning ladies'

The Women's Day Committee, which had been formed in early April 1918, decided to continue organising women's opposition to conscription. The committee had initially been the brainchild of the Irishwomen's International League, a pacifist organisation, which wished to resist the introduction of conscription through a campaign of passive resistance. However, by June 1918, the Women's Day Committee was, more or less, taken over by Cumann na mBan. As Cumann na mBan executive member Nancy Wyse Power said, they faced little opposition from the "well-meaning ladies" who had initiated the idea.

Cumann na mBan, in co-operation with the IWWU, the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL), and several other smaller women's groups, was well placed to organise a countrywide show of civil disobedience. While a Women's Day against conscription was not originally its idea, it was the countrywide presence of Cumann na mBan, and its presence on the organising committee, that drove the success of Lá na mBan.

On June 9, 1918, Women's Day / Lá na mBan, saw large gatherings of women throughout the country, coming together to sign their anti-conscription pledge, which read, "because the enforcement of conscription on any people without their consent is tyranny, we are resolved to resist the conscription of Irishmen.

We will not fill the places of men deprived of their work through refusing enforced military service. We will do all in our power to help the families of men who suffer through refusing enforced military service".

In Dublin, the main event took place in City Hall. More than 2,400 IWWU women marched from their Great Denmark Street offices to City Hall, while over 700 uniformed Cumann na mBan converged as well. In total, about 8,000 women signed the pledge. Throughout the country, pledges were signed in almost every city and town, mostly as part of marches to the local church and often followed by rosaries or benediction.

Reports in the Freeman's Journal mention 400 women signing in Clonegal, Co Carlow, 800 women in Cobh, Co Cork, and 1,200 women in Cahir, Co Tipperary, while "impressive shows" were held in Dundalk, Co Louth and Sneem, Co Kerry, while 400 signed in Castleisland, also in Kerry, and over 1,000 women signed in Kilkenny.

The Donegal News reported that there was a 'splendid turnout' in Derry, while in Strabane over 2,000 women marched to the local church, carrying flowers, where they signed the pledge. The Irish Examiner reported from around the country, including 200 women signing in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and "a good many names" were added to the book in Kenmare, Co Kerry.

Not all the pledge signing took place on June 9, and over the next weeks and into July, pledge signings continued up and down the country.

In Longford, for instance, Lá na mBan / Women's Day happened a week later when 120 women signed the pledge in Granard. In Donegal the signing of the pledge continued all month, with over 2,700 having signed by the end of the month.

In Cork, the pledge was not signed until July 7, when Cumann na mBan members were 'at every church door' getting women to sign. In total over 40,000 women signed the pledge in Dublin alone, with tens of thousands more Women's Day pledges signed throughout most of the country.

The pledge not to take men's jobs if conscription happened was a warning to the British government that the economy could be crippled in the event of it pressing ahead with its plans.

Lá na mBan was a major propaganda coup for Cumann na mBan, with mass marches of women in local areas inspiring many more young women to join.

The experience would stand it well in organising the women's vote, in support of Sinn Féin, in the upcoming December 1918 General Election.


Dr Mary McAuliffe is an historian and lecturer in Gender Studies at UCD

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