Cumann na mBan was a women's paramilitary organisation formed in Dublin on 2 April 1914 as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Although it was otherwise an independent organisation, its executive was subordinate to that of the Volunteers.
In 1913, a number of women decided to hold a meeting in Wynn's Hotel, Dublin, for the purpose of discussing the possibility of forming an organisation for women who would work in conjunction with the recently formed Irish Volunteers. A meeting led by Kathleen Lane-O'Kelley (née Shannahan) in Wynne's Hotel, Dublin on 2 April 1914 marked the foundation of Cumann na mBan. Branches,which pledged to the Constitution of the organization, were formed throughout the country and were directed by the Provisional Committee. The first branch was named the Ard Chraobh, which held their meetings in Brunswick Street, before and after the 1916 Easter Rising.
The constitution of Cumann na mBan contained explicit references to the use of force by arms if necessary. At the time the Government of Ireland Bill 1914 was being debated, and might have had to be enforced in Ulster. The primary aims of the organization as stated in its constitution were to "advance the cause of Irish liberty and to organize Irishwomen in the furtherance of this object", to "assist in arming and equipping a body of Irish men for the defence of Ireland" and to "form a fund for these purposes, to be called 'The Defence of Ireland Fund'".
In addition to their local subscriptions (i.e. involvement in other nationalist associations or organizations), members of Cunamm na mBan were expected to support the Defence of Ireland Fund, through subscription or otherwise. Its recruits were from diverse backgrounds, mainly white-collar workers and professional women, but with a significant proportion also from the working class. In September 1914, the Irish Volunteers split over John Redmond’s appeal for its members to enlist in the British Army. The majority of Cumann na mBan members supported the rump of 2-3,000 volunteers who rejected this call and who retained the original name, the Irish Volunteers.
On 23 April 1916, when the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood finalised arrangements for the Easter Rising, it integrated Cumann na mBan, along with the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, into the ‘Army of the Irish Republic’. Patrick Pearse was appointed overall Commandant-General and James Connolly Commandant-General of the Dublin Division. On the day of the Rising, Cumann na mBan members, including Winifred Carney, who arrived armed with both a Webley revolver and a typewriter, entered the General Post Office on O'Connell Street in Dublin with their male counterparts. By nightfall, women insurgents were established in all of the major rebel strongholds throughout the city - bar one. Éamon de Valera steadfastly refused, in defiance of the orders of Pearse and Connolly, to allow women fighters into the Boland's Mill garrison.
The majority of the women worked as Red Cross workers, were couriers, or procured rations for the men. Members also gathered intelligence on scouting expeditions, carried despatches and transferred arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds.
Constance Markievicz for example - armed with a pistol - during the opening phase of the hostilities shot a policeman in the head near St Stephen's Green. Later, Markievicz along with other female fighters- after a day of carrying out sniper attacks on British troops in the city centre - demanded that they be allowed to bomb the Shelbourne Hotel. Helena Moloney was among the soldiers who attacked Dublin Castle, where she worked with the wounded.
A number of Cumann na mBan members died in the Rising, including volunteer Margaretta Keogh who was shot dead outside the South Dublin Union.
At the Four Courts they helped to organise the evacuation of buildings at the time of surrender and to destroy incriminating papers. This was exceptional; more typical was the General Post Office (GPO), where Pearse insisted that most of them (excluding Carney, who refused to leave the injured James Connolly) leave at noon on Friday, 28 April. The building was then coming under sustained shell and machine-gun fire, and heavy casualties were anticipated. The following day the leaders at the GPO decided to negotiate surrender. Pearse asked Cumann na mBan member Elizabeth O'Farrell (a mid-wife at the National Maternity Hospital) to act as a go-between. Under British military supervision she brought Pearse’s surrender order to the rebel units still fighting in Dublin. Over 70 women, including many of the leading figures in Cumann na mBan, were arrested after the insurrection, and many of the women who had been captured fighting were imprisoned in Kilmainham; all but 12 had been released by 8 May 1916.