Irish Women and the War

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Irish Women and the War: When the third Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1912, Redmond refused to consider giving women a vote in an Irish Home Rule Parliament. Suffragists organised demonstrations in protest and heckled Redmond and other Home Rulers at public meetings. The constitutional question of Irish Nationalism and Unionism divided women too. On the 28th of September 1912, about 250,000 women signed a separate Ulster Covenant from the men. Carson was no more sympathetic to women’s rights than Redmond. In 1911, The Ulster Women’s Unionist Council was founded and by 1912 it had a membership of about 45,000 women who declared that, ‘we will stand by our husbands, brothers and our sons in whatever stand they be forced to take in defending our liberties against the tyranny of Home Rule.’ During the Great War, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, founded in 1908, opposed Irish involvement in the war as did the Women’s Auxiliary Unit of the Irish Volunteers, Cumman na mBan. One of the founder members of the I.W. F.L. was Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Her brother-in-law was Tom Kettle, Professor of Economics and Nationalist Member of Parliament who died fighting with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in France. During the War, a Women’s Branch of the Irish Army Corps, City of Dublin Recruiting Committee was established, a sub-committee of which looked after the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. This women’s branch of the Dublins was run by the Secretary, Mrs. J.R. Clegg from Rathgar in Dublin and Treasurer, Mrs. Stewart from Rathmines, Dublin. Patronesses included Lady Arnott and the Hon. Mrs. E. Guinness. Their task was to assist in the recruiting campaign and run comfort-fund raising events for new recruits and for the hundreds of Dublins who were prisoners of war at Limburg. The articles urgently required by the ladies for the new recruits to the Dubs were cardigan jackets, gloves, pipes and tobacco. Many Irish women served as volunteer aid workers in field hospitals in France. They were called V.A.D.’s or Voluntary Aid Detachments. In Ireland, the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot, whose headquarters was at 40 Merrion Square, Dublin and Sub-Depots supplied dressings and bandages, paper mache surgical appliances and sphagnum moss dressings, to the Red Cross for use in field hospitals at the Front. The assembling and making of these items was carried out by women throughout Ireland. Approximately 6,000 women carried out this work, the majority of the unmarried women were clerical workers or shop assistants who gave up their evenings to work a specified number of hours per week. In Guinness, women replaced the men who had volunteered to join the army. A hard task faced by Irish women during the war was rearing their children while their husbands were away at the Front. Harder still was telling their children that Daddy will not be coming home again.

Irish Voluntary Aid and Caring for the Wounded: For every man killed in the First World War, several were wounded. The wounded were brought to a Regimental Aid Post located in a shell-hole or trench a few yards behind the front line. The treatment was limited to a field dressing and a morphine injection. The patient was then taken by lorry or ambulance to an Advanced Dressing Station about two to five miles behind the front line. Sometimes an attempt was made to treat the wounded, but in most cases only the dressing was changed. Men reporting sick were also treated.
If the wound was bad enough to prevent a return to duty after simple treatment, the patient was taken to a Casualty Clearing Station located between seven to thirty miles behind the front line. These were large, tented hospitals with up to eight hundred beds. They moved back and forth with the tide of battle, hence the need for tents. The hospitals were usually located in groups of three or four in the vicinity of a railway siding. This enabled patients to be easily loaded onto ambulance trains.
Those requiring longer term care were transferred to a Stationary Hospital. Located well behind the front line, these were usually based in a chateau or similar large building.
The most severely wounded were sent home in Hospital Ships. The major military hospitals in Ireland were located at Cork (88 beds), The Curragh (302 beds), The King George V Military Hospital at Arbour Hill in Dublin (462) beds and the Somme Hospital/Nursing Home, formerly the Ulster Volunteer Force Hospital established at Craigavon in 1917.
At the military hospitals, the wounded were treated by The Royal Army Medical Corps (R.A.M.C.). Nursing was provided by Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. Some civilian hospitals such as The Royal City of Dublin Hospital in Baggot Street, received grants through voluntary subscription to equip and maintain wards set aside for the care of military wounded. A report published in 1921 by the British Red Cross, estimated this contribution at £100,000. Organisations and private individuals donated buildings for use as auxiliary hospitals. An example of the latter was Harold Pim who donated Monkstown House, Dublin, for hospital use.
The British developed a huge voluntary sector to support the war effort. Voluntary organisations were particularly prominent in caring for the wounded. Members of the British Red Cross Society and the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade worked together as voluntary medical staff, supporting the regular military medical services. Most of the Red Cross members were female while the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade members were predominately male. They served in units called Voluntary Aid Detachments or V.A.D.’s.
Voluntary Aid Detachments served in military hospitals in Ireland from early 1915. They served in France from May 1915. Qualified staff served as doctors and nurses. Unqualified members served as nurses aides, orderlies, stretcher bearers and ambulance drivers.
By 1918, 278 Voluntary Aid Detachments were operating in Ireland, with 4,127 members in the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connaught. 1,500 women and 600 men from the three provinces served abroad. In Ulster, a total of 156 Women’s Voluntary Aid Detachments were in active operation in 1918, of which 1,620 members offered their services through the Joint Committee of the British Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance Brigade. 257 of these were sent abroad and 1,162 in all were posted to Military or Auxiliary Hospitals in Great Britain and abroad. Dublin was one of the few ports in the British Isles where transport of the wounded from ship to hospital was carried out entirely by volunteers.
On the 6th of May 1916, a review at Trinity College included Voluntary Aid Detachments from the north Dublin fishing village of Howth, City of Dublin, Pembroke, Kingstown, Carrickmines, Jacob’s Bakery, Guinness Brewery, Dublin Building Trades, The Four Courts and The Land Commission.
Among the hospitals staffed by Voluntary Aid Detachments was a hospital set in the ceremonial apartments of Dublin Castle; others included the Dublin University V.A.D Hospital, staffed by female students and undergraduates of Trinity College at 19 Mountjoy Square in Dublin and Monkstown House Auxiliary Hospital, Monkstown, Co. Dublin.
A number of other voluntary organisations were set up to provide services for the wounded.
The Irish War Hospital Supply Depot at 40 Merrion Square, Dublin, had eight sub-depots in the three southern provinces. The Depot supplied vital hospital equipment. Male volunteers made splints, crutches and bed rests. 6,000 female volunteers, mainly clerical workers and shop assistants, spent their evenings making dressings, bandages and paper mache surgical supplies. They also ran a national depot for the collection and sale of waste paper. The proceeds were used to buy material for dressings. In Belfast and Derry, Sphagnum Moss was received from depots throughout Ulster and processed into dressings. The moss from County Tyrone was considered to be of exceptionally good quality.
An Enquiry Bureau for Wounded and Missing Soldiers was set up in Ireland in February 1915. Hospital Searchers interviewed all wounded men who had been invalided home. They also sent out on average 51,000 written enquiries for each year of the war. The information gained was sent to the headquarters in London.
Another group of volunteers set up a depot for the collection of gifts such as cigarettes and tobacco for men in hospital, troops at the Front and prisoners of war. Egg collection schemes were set up throughout the country for the benefit of the wounded at home and abroad.
The greatest number of casualties among Ireland’s voluntary medical staff occurred on the 10th of October 1918 when the R.M.S. Leinster was sunk off the coast of Wicklow by a German submarine. Several V.A.D. Nurses were among the 501 people killed in the greatest loss of life in the Irish Sea.

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