Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton: Suf­fragette and Sinn Féiner

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Mar­garet Ward

UCD Press, hard­back, 300 pages, €35

There was a dreary sim­i­lar­ity to pris­ons wher­ever they were, ob­served the fem­i­nist cam­paigner Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton. It was one of her spe­cial­ist sub­jects, af­ter serv­ing time in Dublin, Ar­magh and Lon­don for po­lit­i­cal of­fences over a 20-year pe­riod — in­clud­ing a win­dow-smash­ing spree as a suf­fragette.

She went on sev­eral protest hunger strikes, and wrote about warders leav­ing meals all day in her cell in case she weak­ened. Her willpower was never in doubt, and while she dreaded force-feed­ing, she was de­ter­mined to re­sist it. For­tu­nately, it wasn’t im­posed on her, although other suf­fragettes suf­fered phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age from the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Hanna was ar­guably the most able, com­mit­ted and ar­tic­u­late Ir­ish fem­i­nist of the 20th cen­tury. From the strug­gle for vot­ing rights for women, to her part in the 1913 Lock­out, to her bat­tle to con­front the Bri­tish state over its at­tempted cover-up of her hus­band’s mur­der in 1916, to her na­tion­al­ist ac­tiv­i­ties as an or­a­tor for Sinn Féin in the early years of the Free State, she was as prin­ci­pled as she was rad­i­cal. Her story en­com­passes the fem­i­nist, na­tion­al­ist and labour move­ments. But it was wo­man’s in­equal­ity which con­cerned her most.

Clearly, here was a wo­man of much im­por­tance. Her life was a se­ries of bat­tles fought against in­jus­tice, in the course of which she lost a se­ries of teach­ing jobs that were much-needed, as a widow with a young son.

Hanna was born in Kan­turk, Co Cork, in 1877, the daugh­ter of David Sheehy, a Land Lea­guer and Ir­ish Par­lia­men­tary Party MP, col­league of Par­nell and Davitt. In 1903, she mar­ried Fran­cis Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton, who lived up to his fem­i­nist cre­den­tials by tak­ing her name — as she took his.

Teacher, jour­nal­ist, lo­cal politi­cian and ac­tivist, Hanna pushed against bound­aries and ridiculed the idea of a wo­man’s place, say­ing some men thought women were born with a nee­dle in one hand and a rolling pin in the other, but no one spoke of a man’s nat­u­ral sphere.

In 1908, she helped to found the Ir­ish Women’s Fran­chise League, re­gard­ing the vote as the cor­ner­stone of democ­racy and a vi­tal part of cit­i­zen­ship. She re­alised that if women had the vote, they could in­flu­ence leg­is­la­tion.

But suf­frage ac­tiv­i­ties were “dan­ger ser­vice” be­cause they could lead to im­pris­on­ment. Im­pa­tient with be­ing fobbed off by pa­tri­ar­chal politi­cians, suf­fragettes em­barked on di­rect ac­tion.

In 1912, Hanna served her first prison term for smash­ing win­dows in Dublin Cas­tle to high­light women’s dis­en­fran­chise­ment. On the day she was handed a two-month jail term, she noted that a wife-beater re­ceived a lighter sen­tence.

The suf­fragettes fi­nally made their voices heard, and al­most a cen­tury ago, in 1918, West­min­ster in­tro­duced votes for women in Bri­tain and Ire­land pro­vided they were over the age of 30 and sat­is­fied a prop­erty qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

If there was one char­ac­ter­is­tic which de­fined Hanna, it was her re­fusal to al­low the hard ques­tions to go unasked. Af­ter the 1916 Ris­ing, she high­lighted the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment’s at­tempts to cam­ou­flage her hus­band’s mur­der by an out-of-con­trol army cap­tain, John Bowen-Colthurst of Dripsey Cas­tle in Cork (the writer El­iz­a­beth Bowen was a rel­a­tive).

Sk­eff­in­g­ton was a paci­fist and an ide­al­ist — James Joyce, a UCD friend, called him “Hairy Jay­sus”. Dur­ing Easter Week, Sk­eff­in­g­ton was at­tempt­ing to stop loot­ing when taken into cus­tody. Bowen-Colthurst or­dered him be­fore a fir­ing squad with­out ei­ther charge or trial, and af­ter­wards lied to and bul­lied Hanna’s sis­ters when they called to Por­to­bello Bar­racks in­quir­ing for Sk­eff­in­g­ton. Two other men in­no­cent of any crime were killed at the same time.

Blocked by the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties, Hanna took her case to the high­est po­lit­i­cal level, helped by an hon­ourable army of­fi­cer, Sir Fran­cis Vane, who was hor­ri­fied at Bowen-Colthurst’s ram­pages. She re­jected £10,000 “hush money” from Prime Min­is­ter Her­bert Asquith and pushed for a Com­mis­sion of In­quiry, where she had her say in pub­lic.

In her fre­quently re­pub­lished pam­phlet ‘Bri­tish Mil­i­tarism As I Have Known It’, she told how Sk­eff­in­g­ton was buried se­cretly in Por­to­bello Bar­racks’ yard, and fumed — with jus­ti­fi­ca­tion — about the body be­ing ex­humed and handed over to her fa­ther-in-law with­out her knowl­edge, “on con­di­tion not to al­low any ‘demon­stra­tion’.” She also told of her hus­band’s walk­ing stick be­ing car­ried back to Belfast by the reg­i­ment as a sou­venir, while his Votes for Women badge was taken from his dead body but later re­trieved.

She also de­scribed how Bowen-Colthurst led a raid­ing party on the house while Hanna and her young son Owen were there, at­tempt­ing to find post-facto in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence against Sk­eff­in­g­ton. Sub­se­quently, the of­fi­cer was court mar­tialled, found guilty but in­sane and sent to Broad­moor asy­lum in Eng­land. Af­ter 18 months he was mirac­u­lously cured and re­leased.

Th­ese ac­counts are all in­cluded in a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of Hanna’s writ­ing com­piled and con­tex­tu­alised by fem­i­nist his­to­rian Mar­garet Ward, au­thor of the classic text Un­man­age­able Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — Women and Ir­ish Na­tion­al­ism.

The col­lec­tion, which also com­prises Hanna’s un­pub­lished mem­oir frag­ments, is an im­por­tant ad­di­tion to our un­der­stand­ing of a wo­man ahead of her time. Ex­cel­lent use is made of his­toric pho­to­graphs, which in­ci­den­tally high­light her love of hats, show­ing a hu­man side to the ded­i­cated ac­tivist. Other im­ages in­clude a suf­frage poster for a ‘Great Protest Meet­ing Against Cat and Mouse Act… Down with Prison Tor­ture and Govern­ment Co­er­cion’. A fore­word by Hanna’s grand­daugh­ter, Miche­line Sheehy Sk­eff- in­g­ton, con­trib­utes to the whole. Af­ter in­de­pen­dence, the anti-wo­man ethos of the new Free State was a dis­ap­point­ment to Hanna and other cam­paign­ers. She called 1916 “the rev­o­lu­tion that missed” be­cause it didn’t free women and was an out­spo­ken critic of the 1937 Con­sti­tu­tion, recog­nis­ing how it rolled back the Procla­ma­tion.

She was also a critic of Par­ti­tion. Served with an or­der in 1926 ban­ning her from en­ter­ing the North, she nev­er­the­less trav­elled there in 1933 to speak on be­half of re­pub­li­can pris­on­ers in Ar­magh. At her trial there, she said: “I recog­nise no par­ti­tion. I recog­nise that it is not a crime to be in my own coun­try.”

In 1946 she ran un­suc­cess­fully for the Dáil with the Women’s So­cial and Pro­gres­sive League. Her forth­right man­i­festo was typ­i­cal of Hanna: “Un­der the 1916 Procla­ma­tion, Ir­ish women were given equal cit­i­zen­ship, equal rights and equal op­por­tu­ni­ties, and sub­se­quent con­sti­tu­tions have filched th­ese, or smoth­ered them in mere ‘empty for­mula’.”

On the ques­tion of Ire­land first ver­sus women first — used re­peat­edly to de­ter women from be­ing mil­i­tant in case they un­der­mined the na­tion­al­ist move­ment — she was al­ways on the side of women. No bet­ter cham­pion.

Hanna called 1916 ‘the rev­o­lu­tion that missed’ be­cause it didn’t free women and she was an out­spo­ken critic of the 1937 Con­sti­tu­tion

Long cam­paign: Hanna fought the Bri­tish state’s at­tempt to­coverupthe mur­der of her hus­band by an army of­fi­cer

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