In earlier editions, we discussed local Cumann na mBan branches between 1918 and 1923, focussing on figures such Eva Fitzgerald, who was integral to republican communications and intelligence-gathering. Here, we will discuss other figures, starting with Rose Nolan, who was better known in Athlone as Daisy Nolan or Daisy Mulvihill.
Daisy Mulvihill in later life (taken from a lecture by Dr John Keane, titled ‘Ambush at Ballyglass, Sunday 17th October 1920’)
‘I have known Mrs Nolan, formerly Daisy Mulvihill of Coosan Athlone, as a member of Cumann na mBan from the time I came home to Athlone in 1917. She was a most active worker in the national movement, and co-operated with the Volunteers whenever she was needed.’ That quote was taken from a letter by Seamus O’Meara – one of the commanding officers of the IRA’s Athlone Brigade during the War of Independence – to the Military Service Pension Board in 1937. Mulvihill subsequently received a military pension in respect of her service with Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence and Civil War.
During 1918 and 1919, local Cumann na mBan branches devoted much of their energy to fundraising with newspapers reporting on a range of activities from social events to selling flags. Those efforts were often disrupted by the British Crown forces and Mulvihill was charged before the Athlone Petty Sessions in June 1919 for selling flags ‘to aid a fund promoted by the Cumann na mBan Executive for the starving population of Europe’. In her pension claim, Mulvihill stated that she went ‘on the run’ for three months, although the charges of selling items without a permit were later dismissed.
Cumann na mBan tended to be strongest in regions where the IRA was also strong. In Westmeath, this meant that Cumann na mBan was most active in the area around Athlone. In many instances, members of Cumann na mBan had family who were prominent in the local IRA. That was the case for Mulvihill, who told the pension board: ‘We were living in a very dangerous place in Coosan. Everybody I had belonging to me was on the run.’
Mulvihill’s family lived by the river, a fact that allowed her to make a specific and important contribution to the IRA: during the War of Independence, she regularly ferried IRA volunteers across the Shannon. When asked about this during the later pension board interview, she replied: ‘Any time they wanted to come and go across, it was our house they had to go, they depended on me.’ Mulvihill stated that she often carried groups of armed men across the river, sometimes bringing them back later in the day. On one occasion, probably on a date after October 1920, she brought fifty volunteers across the river in the space of a few hours.
Many people in Athlone still remember Daisy Mulvhill and can recall how, towards the end of her life, she delighted in regaling children with remarkable tales of derring-do. One story was relayed to me by Dr John Keane: ‘As a young boy I used to go swimming with some of my cousins from the yacht club where Daisy would regale us with fantastic stories of her adventures during the revolution. We listened transfixed to her claims that she walked across the bed of the lake to supply arms using a reed as a snorkel.’
Mulvihill was certainly not the only Cumann na mBan or IRA veteran to later provide embellished accounts of their actions. However, her pension application is a relatively staid document and, when checked against other sources, it provides a plausible record of her activities during the War of Independence and Civil War. Mulvihill’s account of transporting volunteers across the river, for example, was confirmed not only by Seamus O’Meara but also other IRA officers such as Frank O’Connor, a Coosan-based member of the Athlone Brigade, who provided reference letters for Mulvihill’s pension application.
The fact that Mulvihill provided a ferry service throughout the entire War of Independence suggests that the British army’s intelligence gathering apparatus in the locality was not effective. Coosan was repeatedly targeted by the Crown forces who conducted raids, arrests and reprisals in the area. Yet Mulvihill, whose boats were so important to the IRA’s Athlone Brigade, was never arrested. On one occasion, British soldiers confiscated the boats during a sweep of the Coosan area but they soon allowed her to reclaim the vessels, after which she returned to transporting IRA volunteers and weapons.
Mulvihill was present at the Lough Ree ambush of 17 October 1920 (as was her brother Simon). That ambush, which we discussed in an earlier article, took place during a particularly turbulent period for Athlone in which the Crown forces shot and fatally wounded an unarmed civilian, Michael Burke, and launched two attacks on the offices of the Westmeath Independent. Seamus O’Meara later wrote: ‘At the time of the Shannon ambush she was under fire of the enemy as herself and Lilli Mulvihill were bringing out tea to the boys when the enemy came along.’ The IRA began shooting at the British army patrol, who returned fire using Hotchkiss machine guns that could fire at the rate of 450-500 rounds per minute. Although the British army’s official narrative of the event claimed that three of the ambushers were badly wounded, there were no serious casualties among the IRA.
Mulvihill also played a supporting role in the burning of Moydrum Castle in 1921, another event we discussed in an earlier article. In advance of the burning, the IRA took guns and ammunition from an arms dump in Coosan. They brought the weapons to Mulvihill, who guarded them while the IRA volunteers went off to get food. Once they returned, she ferried them across the Shannon.
The River Shannon flowing through Athlone (National Library of Ireland)
During the Civil War, Cumann na mBan activities in the Athlone area were curtailed by the National Army, with many branches no longer functioning by December 1922. Nevertheless, members of the organisation continued to assist the anti-Treaty IRA by providing safe houses and medical care. Mulvihill was one of those who provided accommodation and she again provided a ferry service, this time for the anti-Treaty IRA. Yet, Mulvihill’s pension application suggests that she made relatively few river-crossings during the Civil War since the National Army, for the most part, maintained control of the locality.
Mulvhill faced a problem that was common to members of Cumann na mBan who had been active during the War of Independence: they were well-known to government forces who monitored their activities and raided their homes. A similar situation was faced by Kate Daly from Cornamagh, who transported messages and documents for the IRA during the War of Independence. In her pension application, Daly stated that she attempted to carry out the same work for the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War. However, she ‘was too well-known to the Free-State Forces’ and was mostly restricted to activities such as fund-raising and visiting prisoners. Cumann na mBan branches across the region faced the same problems. Annie Davis, based in Clara, recalled in a pension application that the local branch of the organisation ‘ceased to function’ by the end of 1922. Davis, who had provided food and shelter to anti-Treaty IRA officers, stated that ‘she had no further activities after that time’.
Other records, such as that of Bridget Reynolds, provide similar testimony. Reynolds was one of the most prominent Cumann na mBan figures in the area and led the organisation’s Athlone and Coosan branches. We discussed some of Reynold’s actions in an earlier article: she raised funds and organised branches in areas such as Moate, Faheran and Drumraney. Her productivity earned the praise of Brigid O’Mullane, a member of the Cumann na mBan national executive who was instrumental to the anti-Treaty IRA’s propaganda and publicity efforts during the Civil War. O’Mullane, who oversaw Cumann na mBan branches in the midlands, west and north, singled out Bridget Reynolds as ‘one of the best officers I ever came across in all my travels through the three provinces, Ulster, Leinster and Connaught’.
Reynolds opposed the Treaty, although that did not prevent her employment as a nurse by the National Army in March 1922. According to her own account, she remained in that role for almost a year despite not being qualified as a nurse. During that time, which was mostly spent in Custume Barracks, she secretly provided medical assistance to anti-Treaty IRA volunteers and passed on any information that she heard from National Army soldiers and officers. Reynolds also aided men who had escaped from National Army internment centres such as Custume Barracks, which held 950 anti-Treaty IRA prisoners by October 1922.
In February 1923, Reynolds left her role as a nurse in Custume Barracks. It is not clear whether she left in protest at the five executions which took place in the barracks a few weeks earlier or whether she was removed by the National Army because of her actions in support of the anti-Treaty IRA. Whatever the cause, it was another indication that Cumann na mBan activity in the area had almost ceased by that stage of the Civil War.
Military Archives – Bureau of Military History Witness Statements, Military Service Pensions Collection; Freeman’s Journal, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke’s, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Marie Coleman, ‘Cumann na mBan in the War of Independence’ in the Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy, with associate editor John Borgonovo (Cork University Press, 2017); Michael Hopkinson, Green against Green: the Irish Civil War (Gill & Macmillan, 2004; Ann Matthews, Dissidents: Irish Republican women, 1922-41 (Mercier Press, 2012); and Ann Matthews, ‘Internment and women during the Civil War 1922-23’, Journal of The Old Athlone Society (number 10, 2015).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 04/05/2023