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Reality Radio

The Irish Neutrality League and the Imperialist War 1914-18

Constance Markievicz, the First World War and Irish neutrality

The outbreak of war in 1914 signalled a time of hardship, particularly for the working class in Ireland. There were higher food prices, short-time working and a reduction in wages, particularly for the linen workers in the north with the lack of supply of Russian and Belgian flax. Many women whose husbands or sons had enlisted in the army struggled to manage financially with their Separation Allowances.  Organised labour was determined to resist the threat of women being substituted for male labour at lower rates of pay. The Manifesto of the Irish Neutrality League reflected this reality, declaring its aims to be:

for the purpose of defining Ireland’s present attitude towards the Anglo-German war as one of neutrality, watching Ireland’s interests at every phase of the war, preventing employers from coercing men to enlist, inculcating the view that true patriotism requires Irishmen to remain at home, and taking steps to preserve the food supplies of Ireland for the people of Ireland.

Neutrality was not the same as pacifism.  Constance Markievicz was not a pacifist. By August 1914 she had been a political activist for six years. In that time she had moved from the feminist nationalism of Inghinidhe na hEireann to the socialist republicanism of the Irish Citizen Army, while still retaining involvement in Fianna na hEireann, the republican boy scout movement she had co-founded in 1909.  She had also become involved with Cumann na mBan, the newly formed female counterpart to the Irish Volunteers.

She was on the platform at the inaugural meeting of the Irish Neutrality League.  She was the only woman.  Her presence enabled Connolly to claim that they had representatives of Cumann na mBan, Inghinidhe na hEireann and the various Franchise Leagues in Ireland.  Her contribution at that meeting was not reported, at least I have been unable to find it, but soon after, on 18 October, she delivered a lecture on the subject of neutrality for the Irish Labour Party:

The burden and suffering that would fall on the common people as a result of the present war would be greater than in any other war…The present duty of every Irish man is to stay at home and fight, if at all, for the welfare of his own country.’

The first Fianna handbook was also published in 1914. In its introduction she wrote with prescience, ‘This year has felt the spirit of Cathleen ni Houlahan moving once more through the land. It will take the best and noblest of Ireland’s children to win Freedom, for the price of Freedom is suffering and pain.’ The handbook, with its 50 pages of drill and rifle exercises, was used as a training manual by the Irish Volunteers, and was praised as the ‘best source of training information easily available.’

While in 1914 she talked of the duty of Irish men, exactly one year later, in October 1915, in a talk to the suffrage militants of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, her focus was explicitly on women, and women’s agency:

If you want to walk around Ireland or any other country, dress suitably in a short skirt and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver. Take up your responsibilities and be prepared go your own way depending for safety on your own courage, your own truth and your own common sense, and not on the problematic chivalry of the men you may meet on the way. The two brilliant classes of women who follow this higher ideal are Suffragettes and the Trades Union or Labour women. In them lies the hope of the future.
A consciousness of their own dignity and worth should be encouraged in women.  They should be urged to get away from wrong ideals and false standards of womanhood, to escape from their domestic ruts, their feminine pens. ...war is helping to do this by shaking women out of old grooves and forcing responsibilities on them.

Why had she singled out these particular groups of women? The suffragettes had engaged in militant action and a significant number had endured prison and hunger strike as a result of their commitment to fight for women’s political equality.  Women in the labour movement had stood up to their employers in the bitter months of the Dublin Lock Out. Those in Jacobs biscuit factory were never able to return to their old work. Several were now working in Liberty Hall and would be participants in the Easter Rising. It was this recent history that was in her mind as she praised the suffragettes and trade unionists.

It also seems from this speech that for Markievicz war was welcome insofar as it was creating new possibilities for women – with so many men at the front, women were having to rely on themselves; there was more possibility of work in areas previously regarded as male.  Above all, war was welcome as it opened up the possibility of nationalists taking advantage of British preoccupation with the battles on the front lines of Europe.

In February 1916 Markievicz debated against Frank Sheehy Skeffington on the question ‘Do We Want Peace Now?’, declaring she did not want the war stopped until the British Empire was smashed.  The suffragist Louie Bennett was in the audience:

The Countess had the meeting with her. Skeffington’s supporters numbered twenty six. Her supporters spoke in a bitter and sinister vein. I gathered they were willing to watch the war continue, with all its dreadful losses and consequences, if only it led to the overthrow of England and consequent release of Ireland. I broke out at the cowardice of that.  I spoke pretty strongly and was listened to with civility. Then Connolly stood up and spoke at some length, claiming extra time from the chairman. As well as I can remember he spoke strongly in favour of seizing the moment to fight now against England. I gathered he regretted that more were not ready to do it.

For many on the Irish left, ‘neutrality’ was an expression of opposition to all imperial power. By 1916 it had become a commitment to fight for the right of Ireland to be accepted as an independent small nation, in keeping with the declared aims of the Allies pursuing the war against Germany. 

The aim of Constance Markievicz was to ensure that women would be equal partners in this revolution.  For that reason she chose to fight in the Easter Rising as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, rather than as a member of Cumann na Ban.  Her contribution was recognised by the British authorities who would have executed her if they had not feared a public outcry and charges of hypocrisy given the public revulsion that had followed the execution by the Germans of the British nurse Edith Cavell in October 1915. 

In 1918 Markievicz was the only woman, in both Ireland and Britain, to be successful in the General Election following the end of the war.  As a member of Dail Eireann she became the first Minister for Labour.  Her presence on the platform of the Irish Neutrality League in 1914 was an indication of her importance and of the acute political intelligence of James Connolly in ensuring that she took part.

Margaret Ward


Other Speakers:

» Gerry Adams, President, Sinn Fein
» Mary Carlon, Sheehy Skeffington School of Human Rights and Social Justice
» Jack O'Connor, General President, SIPTU
» Michael O'Reilly, Dublin Council of Trade Unions
» Chair: Freda Hughes, Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign
» Roger Cole, Peace & Neutrality Alliance


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