This is the text of a paper which I presented in March at Queen’s University Belfast, concerning Women Police Auxiliaries during the Anglo-Irish War, 1919-1921.
The Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921) was a conflict characterised by concomitant cycles of revolutionary terror, compounded with brutal and devastating state-sponsored counter-terror. The plan of campaign enacted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been extremely successful in the pursuit of their objective, namely to shatter the British government’s hold on Ireland and establish a republican government. Their burning of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) substations, the formation of highly mobile ‘Flying Columns’ of heavily armed young men, the social ostracization and killing of policemen all contributed to a ‘retreat of the state’ which saw the forces of the Dublin Castle administration pull back to the principal towns and cities of the country. This decline of the power of the British state allowed the rebels to exert influence over disproportionately large tracts of land in which they operated; it led to the rise of a dynamic Republican political and social entity, an attractive alternative to the fleeing British authority. This in turn lent further credibility to the Provisional Government, both at home and abroad.
The RIC, as a credible force, was in disarray. It began to rapidly disintegrate when faced with having to contain the advancing spectre of militant republicanism and the Dublin Castle administration appealed to Whitehall for increased support. This resulted in the despatch of supplementary security forces to Ireland in the form of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries. The former were to bolster the sagging ranks of the RIC, the latter were in theory to patrol the countryside, raiding rebel properties and searching all those found within.
Raids and Cumann na mBan
Although the IRA’s mobility was hindered by these patrols, battalion commanders were still able to operate, thanks in no small part to the Crown forces reluctance in searching female members of the paramilitary organisation, Cumann na mBan. Cumann na mBan members seized upon this unforeseen gap in the British security apparatus and exploited it ruthlessly and thoroughly; members carried despatches, arms and munitions for IRA companies and commanders.,  Searches directed against them tended to be cursory, haphazard and generally frowned upon by the majority of ex-officers still clinging to their institutionalised chivalry, an archaic deference towards the female sex and in some cases a not insignificant discomfort around women. One ‘young, rosy cheeked subaltern’ leading a raid was propositioned to such an unexpected extent by a farmer’s wife that the incident caused him to ‘…blush to the roots of his hair!’ During a raid on republican offices, Michael Collins secretary Eithne Lawless, describes how she and the other women present managed to use these views to their advantage:
‘I stuck Mick’s revolver down my stocking and anything else incriminating we girls took charge of. When they [the police] arrived, we had disposed of everything and they found nothing of importance. They searched the men but not us.’
On another occasion Lawless describes a DMP raid on a Dáil meeting, saying ‘they arrested the three TDs and rounded up the male staff…There was nobody now left except Jenny Mason and myself.’ However some search parties began to increasingly engage in more invasive searches, often accompanied by both casual and orchestrated violence towards those they found in houses. This proved to be a controversial approach, bringing much controversy and criticism down on the government.
The Castle Administration recognised the clear need to deprive the IRA of this important logistical asset. Sir Ormonde Winter, Head of the Intelligence Service in Ireland, was sent to London to find a solution to the problem. He approached the Metropolitan Police Assistant-Commissioner, Sir Basil Thompson, requesting ‘50 policewomen for service in Ireland’.
Thompson instead directed Winter towards the Womens Auxiliary Service, headed by Mary Sophia Allen; the Met had recently begun litigation against the WAS with regard to interfering with their own policewomen. It was also speculated at the time that the Met’s leadership had difficulties with the fact that the WAS founder was a lesbian and an outspoken militant suffragette. Winter approached the WAS with a plan which would see them providing services to the security forces in Ireland on a pro tem basis as ‘Lady Searchers’.
They were to accompany police units on raids on houses and other static locations where women were believed to be present and should any be found they would search them. This would allow for a complete search to be carried out, ensuring that the IRA would have nowhere to hide their war materiél. It was also designed to increase the flow of intelligence into the newly formed Raid Bureau. The use of the Women Searchers, as they are sometimes referred to, were in theory to phase out the sexually and physically invasive searches sometimes carried out by raiding parties. These searches had steadily increased in brutality, eventually culminating in several alleged rapes and serious sexual assaults during the conflict. Margaret Connory, a member of the Irish Womens Franchise League, conducted an investigation into allegations of ‘outrages’ being committed against women in the south-western part of the country. Her report detailed allegations of a quasi-secretive and endemic campaign of sexualised violence being directed against women by British security forces during raids and searches. Such stories being recorded and reported by the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland and the British Labour Party Commission for Ireland, led to immense pressure being brought on Dublin Castle and Whitehall to employ women for searching women. Allegations of rape and sexually abusive violence, bordering on outright sadism, abounded throughout the damning report; this is in stark contrast to anecdotal claims regarding raiders avoiding w