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Historical Biographies

Cumann na mBan

A Brief local history of the cumann na mban

Cumann na mBan or the “Irishwomen’s Council” was founded in April of 1914 at Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin and was a Nationalist organisation which aligned closely with the Irish Volunteer movement. Initially much of their activities on a local level involved fundraising and providing first-aid training for their members, but their primary objective of “advancing the cause of Irish liberty” and to “assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland” would ring more and more true as Ireland approached the revolutionary events of Easter 1916 and latterly during the War of Independence.

Cumann na mBan Poster

A Waterford City branch was founded in July of 1914 and was led by such Gaelic League activists as Rosamond Jacob and Alice Colfer. Subsequently smaller branches were formed all over the County Waterford, including Cumanns at Ardmore, Clashmore & Piltown, the latter of which we will focus on in this article.

The Waterford Brigade of Cumann na mBan was organised into three separate Districts, each with their own Council, namely East Waterford, Dungarvan and Clashmore District Councils. The Clashmore Council consisted of seven ‘Companies’ including Ring (A Coy), Old Parish (B Coy), Kiely’s Cross (C Coy), Ardmore (D Coy), Piltown (E Coy), Clashmore/Ballycurrane (F & G Coys) and Dromore/Villerstown (H Coy).

From the perspective of our own parish, the Piltown Company was probably the most active of these as of course it covered an area straddling the border of two counties and consequently the area from Youghal Bridge back to Piltown Cross and south to Monatrea/Ferrypoint which was strategically important to the efforts of the Volunteer movement during the period of 1919 – 23.

Katie Power (Nee McGrath)
It is no surprise then that some of this branch’s key members were the likes of Nora O’Shea from Piltown (near Piltown Cross), Nora Hallahan from Rath and Katie McGrath from Tinnabinna (next to Youghal Bridge) who were all living at important junctures along the main Youghal-Dungarvan Road and indeed O’Shea’s and Hallahan’s were known ‘safe houses’ in this area.

Katie Power of Piltown Cumann na mBan
Katie Power c. 1990s

Initially Nora Hallahan was Captain of this branch but after she left for America in early 1921 a young Katie McGrath from Youghal Bridge became the Captain of the branch in March of that year at the tender age of 17 years old. She was an apprentice Dressmaker in Youghal at the time and it was said that she had to put this occupation on hold for the best part of two years in order to give the time required to supporting the local volunteers – an incredible sacrifice for sure, especially considering the fact that her father was bed-ridden during this time and needed constant care.

Katie Power's Homestead
Katie’s Homestead at Youghal Bridge

During this time, McGrath’s house at Youghal Bridge was frequently used to shelter and feed the volunteers on the run, especially during times of activity on “Chocolate Hill”, the nickname given by the British to the nearby hill of Tinnabinna which was used as a regular sniping outpost by the volunteers, including the well-publicized shooting of R.I.C. Constable Prendiville shortly after the Piltown Ambush of Nov 1st 1920.  Also on occasion Katie would be summoned to tend to some of the men who were sick from being on the run for long periods; on one of those occasions she recalled being sent to a house to look after a poorly Bill Foley, Ballycurrane for three days and nights until he was well enough to rejoin the Column again.

This was a period of intense activity and the aforementioned ambush was indeed one of the West Waterford Brigade’s most successful missions. Katie McGrath and Nora O’Shea were central to much of the behind-the-scenes preparations for that mission, including carrying dispatches to-and-fro, hiding ammunition and documents for the volunteers and even on occasion hiding rifles for them.

Old Metal Youghal Bridge
“Chocolate Hill” overlooking Old Youghal Bridge

Much of Katie’s dispatch work was between the West Waterford Brigade and the East Cork side at Youghal and one of her regular cohorts on the opposite side of the bridge was the brave Mollie Ring who would later suffer grievously at the hands of the Crown Forces for her loyalty to the cause. In later years, Katie recalled how she would regularly walk quietly across the old metal Youghal bridge and then carry on into the town of Youghal town via the ‘slob bank’ to find the receiver for her dispatches and then return for home by the same route.  One day after having delivered her notes she was approached in the town by a fisherman who told her to go down to the quayside where she would find a boat awaiting her.  He had been told that the authorities were looking for her all over the town in every shop and laneway.  They were also out on the slob bank and on the old metal bridge awaiting her return. The fishermen in the boat were about to go out on the river fishing for salmon and they told her to lie down low in the bow where they covered her with an oil-skin coat.  Away went the four men rowing over to Shanacoole to put out their drift nets, but before doing so they landed Katie at Shanacoole Glen.  She walked along the riverside and returned back home undetected while the R.I.C. and Auxiliaries were busy looking for her elsewhere. This wasn’t the only time she was under risk of arrest as she recalled that she spent much time away from her own home for fear of being caught during the discharge of her duties.

Much of her time was also spent organizing other local branches and she recalled cycling to as far away as Kilrossanty and Kilmacthomas to this end on the instruction of Miss Harris, Captain of the Youghal Branch. Katie McGrath continued to serve as Captain of Piltown Cumann until early July 1922 when she was forced to step away from her activities to care for her mother after the death of her father. She later married and lived in Wilton, Cork but returned to Tinnabinna in her latter years and died at the Youghal Cottage Hospital in 1995 at the ripe old age of 92.

Nora O'Shea of Piltown Cumann na mBan
Nora Shea c. 1975

Nora O’Shea
Nora Shea was born in Piltown on June 22nd 1899 to John Shea and Alice Broderick (m. April 1896) and she had three siblings, Thomas, Mary and Bridget. Her father John Shea was a Miller, most likely attached to the nearby Corn Mill at Piltown and her mother Alice was the Postmistress at Kinsalebeg P.O. This was John’s second marriage as his first wife Norah (nee Gorman, for whom the younger Nora was named) had died shortly after giving birth to their first child Thomas in November 1895.

Nora’s involvement in the Piltown branch of Cumann na mBan began in June 1919 (aged 20) when she began to attend their weekly meetings. Members were active in various fundraising events in aid of the Volunteer efforts such as dances and house-to-house collections. Members were given basic military training through the local Volunteer companies and first-aid classes were also provided at such venues as Clashmore Creamery. Nora served as the Treasurer and Secretary of her own Piltown branch along with filling the role of Secretary for the Clashmore District Council under Captain Katie Tobin from nearby Kilmaloo.

Group at Kinsalebeg Post Office
Nora with a group at Kinsalebeg Post Office

Later Nora was to become heavily involved supporting the local volunteer companies, especially through her connection to Kinsalebeg Post Office which was an important point of intervention for the volunteers through the regular hijacking of the mail deliveries. At a later stage still, a secret telephone line was installed close to the Post Office at an outhouse belonging to the Shea family which was monitored by Nora in the evenings to send and receive messages from the Column volunteers (the Active Service Unit or ASU). Along with Katie Power, she also had ammunition and documents placed with her for hiding in their own house at certain periods of time, but in particular in preparation for the Piltown Ambush of Nov 1920. On that fateful night, it was reported that Norah, along with her sister Mary-Anne, had provided the volunteers with a bucket of tea with bread and jam to boost their morale and nourish them for the nervous few hours ahead of them.
Nora remained committed to the cause after the Angle-Irish Treaty and indeed attended the Special Cumann na mBan Convention in Dublin in early 1922 at which the attendees overwhelmingly voted to oppose the Treaty, becoming the first national organization to reject it. She continued to support the volunteers throughout the Civil War period and was active up to September 1923.

Piltown Camogie Team 1949
Nora Shea with Piltown Camogie Team in 1949

After the ‘troubles’, Nora herself went on to become the Postmistress at Piltown after her mother Alice had died and she also ran a grocery there. She is still fondly remembered for her supremely efficient but eccentric manner behind the counter. It is recalled that if you dropped into Nora late in the day for a pan of bread that she would methodically count out loud all of the loaves that she had kept aside for her most ‘important’ customers before deciding if she had a pan left over for you or not!

Other Local Cumann na mBan Members

Piltown ‘E’ Coy

  • Mary-Ann Shea – (1899-1984) Mary-Ann was the Postwoman for Kinsalebeg Post Office and her jolly disposition traversing the roads in all weathers on her push-bike is still fondly remembered  – along with her sister Nora, she was also heavily involved in the Cumann na mBan movement around Piltown. 

  • Mary-Ellen Barron – Mary-Ellen made an incomplete/abandoned application for Service (1917-1921) Medal but we have no further details on her activities – Sister to Volunteer Jack Barron, Ballyheeney.

  • Hanna O’Gorman (1891 – 1975) – Hanna was the Adjutant/Secretary for the Piltown Branch as of July 11th 1921 but no pension records exist for her and hence her activities around that time are unknown. Also she doesn’t appear to have been from the Piltown/Kinsalebeg area, so we believe her to be a Hanna O’Gorman who was a National School teacher at Glendine School along with her sister Mary, both of whom were from Ladysbridge, Co. Cork and lived nearby the school. If this was indeed the same Hanna, it may have been strategically astute to have a Cumann member living on the opposite side of the river, but still on the Waterford side of the border. According to the Knockanore Registers, Hanna (alternatively Anna, Johanna) appears to have married at Glendine in 1927 to a John Flynn, a Shopkeeper from Ladysbridge and relocated back home thereafter.

Clashmore ‘F’ Coy

  • Katie Tobin of Kilmaloo was Captain of the Clashmore Branch during 1921-22 and also served as President of the Clashmore District Council of Cumann na mBan during 1922. She was a sister to Richard and Maurice Tobin who were both active volunteers during these years and also had a strong association with Clashmore GAA Club. Unfortunately there is no record of a Military Pension Application for her in latter years so we have no further details on her activities during the War of Independence. Tragically she died at the young age of 42 in August of 1944 at Youghal Cottage Hospital after a long illness.

  • Bridget Keating (1888-1967) – Bridget Keating was a Dressmaker from Raheen, Clashmore (part of Ballyheeny). She acted as the Treasurer for the Clashmore Branch and also for the District Council between 1921-22. She is recorded as being awarded a Service (1917-1921) Medal for her Cumann na mBan service, but unfortunately her Military Pension application is not publicly available so as of yet we have no details on her activities during the War of Independence.

Jo Ronayne, Coolbagh
  • Miss Jo Ronayne (1904 – 1979) – Johanna Ronayne was one of a family of five children born to Declan and Bridget Ronayne from Coolbagh, Clashmore near the banks of the River Blackwater. Her father was a fisherman on the river like many others who lived in that area of the parish. From the Cumann na mBan Nominal Rolls, Johanna (or Jo as she was referred to as) was recorded as being the Adjutant/Secretary of the Clashmore ‘F’ Company in 1921 when she was barely 17 years of age and still held that role until at least July 1922. There are no records of her making a Military Pension application, so we have no details of her activities during the period of the ‘troubles’. Jo emigrated to America in March 1926 aboard the ‘Caronia’ out of Cobh with her final destination being recorded as Natick, MA (Massachusetts) where she later married William Casey in 1933 and lived out the remainder of her life until her death in 1979.

Ballycurrane ‘G’ Coy

  • Miss B. Foley – likely Bridget Foley, Ballycurrane North, sister to Bill Foley
  • Miss M. Burke – Unknown
  • Miss Maura Murphy – Unknown

Can we urge anyone who might have any further information on the women above, especially the ones who we cannot identify, to please leave a comment below…

Bibliography

Irish Military Archives (Military Service Pensions Collection)
The National Archives of Ireland (Census of Ireland 1901/1911)
Dungarvan Leader, Various Years
Knockanore Registers (Pat Geary, KGK)

Photo Credits:
Cork Examiner/Echo Files (Youghal Bridge Photo)
Michael Hackett
(Piltown Photos)
Ger Ronayne (Katie Power Photo)
Murty Barron (Nora Shea Photo)

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