The rebel women of 1920

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Their kitchen tables saw ambushes planned. Their everyday possessions hid coded messages. Their office desks doubled as intelligence outposts. Their shops stocked arms and ammunition amongst flowers, newspapers and tobacco.

These are just some of the countless ways in which the women of Cork participated in the War of Independence and in the tumultuous events that struck the city throughout 1920. 

Despite their assumed genteel exteriors, these tenacious women constantly risked arrest, endured raids, broke the Crown forces’ imposed curfew and ferried intel across the city. 

With many well-trained in the likes of Morse code, first-aid and rifle practice, thanks to their Cumann na mBan membership, these women demonstrated daring, resolve and fierce commitment to their ideals.

They were intelligence agents, ardent organisers and steadfast canvassers for the Defence of Ireland Fund and the Irish Republican Prisoners' Dependents' Fund. 

Many were stealthy couriers, covert gun-runners and valued nurses. Others hid IRA Volunteers who were on the run. Some were even Republican ambassadors on the American lecture circuit, drawing huge crowds and highlighting the Irish independence cause abroad. 

Many of these determined women were even disowned by their families, who disapproved of their far from ladylike activities. All of this they did in tandem with looking after their households, caring for their families and earning a living.

Our knowledge and understanding of how women participated in the War of Independence has been transformed by the wealth of material released by the Defence Forces’ Military Archives over the past decade. 

The voices of these women come to life through their fascinating and detailed witness statements, archived by the Bureau of Military History. The very real risks they took are also evident in their applications for military pensions – which provide verified accounts by their contemporaries, confirming their actions and involvement.

Sarah Folan of St. Peter’s Cork and the Shandon Area History Group, authors of Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times, step back 100 years to shine a spotlight on some of the rebel women of 1920.

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