but not Forgotten

Left False passport used by Máire Comerford during the Civil War. Image courtesy of the Comerford Collection.
Right Memorial Card for Harriette Lavery, who contracted anthrax while in prison durinig 1923. Image courtesy of Dr Mary Heffernan.

Introduction:

The Civil War - the 7th Year of the Republic

When the Treaty was brought back to Ireland in December 1922, Cumann na mBan was the first organisation to vote against its ratification by 419 votes to 63. All the women TDs voted against its acceptance in the Dáil. The Civil War was also known as 'the women's war' as so many prominent women opposed the Treaty. In their view, the Treaty represented the loss of the Republic that had been proclaimed in 1916 - a Republic that offered them a land of equal opportunities.

When hostilities began in June 1922, women again took part in the fight. Máire Comerford, who later lived in Sandyford, was arrested in Loughlinstown in 1922. Her car 'Cupid' had broken down. She had been en route to kidnap WT Cosgrave, President of the Irish Free State. She was a known Republican and her movements were noted by a passer-by with the result that she was arrested.

During the Civil War, with their former friends turned captors, it was all too easy to identify those who were the key to the success of the movement. From November 1922 women, mainly members of Cumann na mBan, were arrested in large numbers. There were over 12,000 prisoners in jails around the country of whom 700 were women.

Initially the women were held in local jails or temporary detention centres (the Loughlinstown Union, now St Columcille's Hospital was one such location). This arrangement did not prove satisfactory so women were moved to Mountjoy and Kilmainham Jails. Although women gained certain privileges due to the fact that they were untried political prisoners, they were not permitted to receive visitors, their guards were armed (several women were injured while in prison) and there was always the threat that a woman would be executed, as Government sanctioned executions were carried out throughout this period.

In April 1923 the North Dublin Union (located beside Broadstone Station) was made ready for female prisoners. Conditions there were appalling and Harriette Lavery contracted anthrax from contaminated straw. She died shortly after her release. Hunger strikes were continuous during this period. The hunger strike was a weapon used to obtain concessions but also for prisoners to gain their eventual release. None of the women actually died in prison, but a number died from the effects of their imprisonment some time after being released.

The ceasefire in the Civil War came about in May 1923, without any of the women being consulted. Prisoners were not released immediately, although freedom could be achieved if one signed 'The Form' which was an undertaking not to take up further arms against the Irish Free State. The last of the women prisoners were released in December; defeated, they emerged dejected into the Irish Free State feeling as though they had lost everything. Many emigrated never to return.