Historical Biographies War of Independence

Alice Colfer

Alice Colfer, Cumann na mBan (& her links to Clashmore)

Alice Colfer was a committed Nationalist and from a Waterford perspective was an early pioneer of the Cumann na mBan movement in the city, along with the likes of Rosamond Jacob et al. She was also an ardent supporter of the Conradh na Gaeilge movement and officiated for the Waterford City branch of that organisation and culturally important sub-groups such as the Waterford Feis. But admittedly what really piqued our interest in Alice was her earlier association with the parish of Clashmore…

Alice Colfer, c. 1910

Alice was born to John Colfer and Mary Murphy of Upper Yellow Road, Waterford City on February 26th 1885 and had three younger siblings, namely David, Laurence & Mary. She qualified as a National School Teacher and by the age of 25 was an Assistant Teacher at Ballycurrane N.S. in the parish of Clashmore, Co. Waterford under Principal Teacher Mrs. Hannon. As of 1911, she was recorded in the Census Returns as being a lodger with the Foley family, Ballycurrane North, members of which were heavily involved with the local Ballycurrane Volunteer company, predominately Robert and Bill Foley.

Gaelic League
Alice was subsequently an active member of Conradh na Gaeilge (Waterford Gaelic League) from at least 1913 and was elected Honorary Secretary of that organisation in January 1914, along with the likes of Rosamond and Tom Jacob who were also committee members at that time. Rosamond and Alice would remain important allies as both were later instrumental in progressing the Nationalist cause for women in the County.

Conradh na Gaeilge

A Waterford Feis sub-committee existed which Alice was also involved in and in her capacity as Secretary of the Gaelic League City Branch, she officiated at events such as the Annual Feis at Waterford Sportsfield on July 12th 1914, which was opened by P.H. Pearse himself. It appears she had stepped back from this position by October of 1914, presumably due to her imminent marriage and relocation to Drogheda where her husband-to-be John Kiely was employed as an Insurance Agent.

Cumann na mBan
Cumann na mBan had been formed as a national organization in April 1914 at Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin. Much of their early efforts involved providing First-Aid instruction to their members to prepare them as an ‘ambulance’ service to the Irish Volunteer efforts. But by the time the Waterford City branch was inaugurated at City Hall, Waterford on Monday, August 10th, the presiding Alice Colfer was adamant that their organisation would not merely be an ‘ambulance corp’ and left no one present in any doubt that their organisation would have loftier objectives and stated that “…in case of war, Cumman na mBan would help to defend Ireland for the Irish people, but not to defend it for the British Empire, Germany or any other country…”. It was reported that these sentiments caused the inaugural meeting to break up in disorder and that many of the attendees walked out on hearing the true objectives of the new organisation.

Cumann na mBan Emblem

Following is a transcription of her speech on the night:

“— Ladies—We have come here tonight to form a branch of an organisation known as Cumann na mBan. Students of Irish will tell you that Cumann na mBan means the Council of Irishwomen. We all know there are various roads to freedom. From time to time young men have arisen in Ireland who had for their object the freedom of Ireland. They may not all have travelled on the same road, but they all had the same end in view. There were those who thought that the salvation of Ireland lay in the revival of her language. There were others who saw the salvation of Ireland in the industrial revival, and in our own day there are those who believe the salvation of Ireland lies in physical force—hence on all sides we hear the tramp, tramp of the Volunteers. Now Cumann na mBan might be called the women’s section of the Volunteer movement. I shall now briefly explain the aims and objectives of the organisation, and those of you whose conception of Irish freedom is the same as that of the Provisional Committee who formed the constitution of Cumann na mBan may remain and enrol their names; all others are free to leave. Travelling through the city during the past week. I have asked several girls whom I met to join this branch, and I was surprised to find that in almost every case the idea prevailed that Cumann na mBan is an organisation of women who volunteered during this time of war to nurse sick and wounded soldiers. It is no such thing. It is an organisation of Irishwomen whose objective is to advance the cause of Irish liberty. Each one of you, therefore, who comes up here tonight to enrol her name pledges herself to undertake any kind of national work which may be set her to do. At other times other activities will be suggested, but since Cumann na mBan was started last April, the activities of the various branches throughout Ireland have largely taken the form of First Aid and ambulance work. The activities of the branch we are about to form tonight will take the same form, for the present. When people who are not nurses by profession undergo a course in nursing and ambulance work, they generally have some objective in view: they mean to help in some way. And we mean to help the Volunteers to defend Ireland. Of course. I hope we’ll help them in other ways besides ambulance work: help to finance and equip them. But—and I want this to be distinctly understood—we will only help the Volunteers to defend Ireland for Ireland, for the primary aim and objective underlying all the principles of our organisation is “Ireland a Nation” (applause).

Alice Colfer, President, Waterford City Cumann na mBan
Munster Express, August 15th 1914

Miss Colfer then read the aims and objects of Cumann na mBan, as embodied by the Provisional Committee, and after some discussion, those who did not wish to become members of the branch withdrew. A branch was then formed, and 70 members were enrolled. The following officers were elected:
President, Miss A. Colfer; Vice-President, Miss Hyland; Treasurer, Miss Hannigan and Secretary, Miss R. Jacob. Miss Harrison, Miss M. O’Neill & Miss M. Cassidy were other members elected to the committee.

John Kiely, A Volunteer
The next milestone in Alice’s life that we know of is her marriage on October 14th of the same year to a John Kiely * of Chord Road, Drogheda (originally a native of Waterford) who was an Insurance Agent. He was an active volunteer and is recorded as being one of the Louth Volunteers 1916 from Drogheda who “answered the call of Mother Erin” on Easter Sunday morning, April 23rd, 1916.

They were under the command of Commandant Donal O’Hannigan and Volunteer Officers Larry Walsh (an I.R.B. member) and Philip Monahan. The group was immobilized at Mell, Drogheda in advance of the Easter 1916 action. Her husband wasn’t her only direct link to the Irish Volunteer movement as it seems her brother David Colfer also later served in the 4th Battalion of the East Waterford Brigade under C.O.’s Liam Walsh and Paddy Paul amongst others. He is recorded as having received his Service (1917-1921) Medal in 1948 for his commitment to the cause.

Unfortunately within a matter of weeks after those fateful events of Easter that year, Alice Colfer’s pioneering story came to a tragic end as she was recorded as having passed away on June 7th at their residence at 21 Chord Road, Drogheda, Co. Louth, after what was presumably the stillbirth of their second child Thomas just six days previously. She was survived by her daughter Maureen (b. July 21st 1915) and her husband John Kiely.

* Otherwise referred to as Sean Kiely or John O’Kiely. This may be significant as Alice replaced a Mr. J. O’Kiely as Waterford Gaelic League Secretary in January 1914 for reasons of “he had to leave the city for work in Dublin” – this may well have been her future husband whom she joined in Drogheda within the year.


Munster Express, Various Years
Fionnuala Walsh, Irish Women and the Great War, 2020