When free­dom was in the air, Ir­ish suf­fragettes took steps to win equal­ity

The most sig­nif­i­cant fem­i­nist in 20th­cen­tury Ire­land is honoured in a new book, writes Mar­garet Ward

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

IN the early morn­ing of June 13, 1912, four years before the GPO was to achieve no­to­ri­ety as the head­quar­ters of the Easter Ris­ing, eight women qui­etly ap­proached some of the most im­por­tant build­ings in Dublin — the GPO, Dublin Cas­tle and the Cus­tom House among them — and smashed as many glass win­dows as they could before ar­rest: “The Cus­tom House gave a splen­did front, and two stal­warts cov­ered its four sides, en­cour­aged by a group of dock­ers, who en­tered into the spirit of the thing, cheer­ing the ladies on and keep­ing a look­out! They got clean away, and op­er­ated next on the GPO, where they were duly ap­pre­hended.”

Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton, the writer of this ac­count, chose Dublin Cas­tle — cen­tre of Bri­tish rule — as her tar­get, but man­aged only to smash enough win­dows for a three­month stretch of im­pris­on­ment. “How­ever, she added, “the po­lice­man who grabbed my arm in­stinc­tively seized the right, and, as I am left handed, that gave me a chance to get in a few more panes before the military ar­rived and my es­cort led me off”.

Ir­ish women had lost pa­tience. The Home Rule bill was go­ing through Bri­tish par­lia­ment, but they would not be granted cit­i­zen­ship. All-male rule would con­tinue in the new Ire­land. Con­dem­na­tion of their ac­tions came from all sides — as Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton recorded: “Not only were we en­e­mies of Home Rule, but rebels as women.”

These were tur­bu­lent times in Ire­land, and fem­i­nism added to the mix.

Not only were there the mil­i­tants of the Ir­ish Women’s Fran­chise League, there were also hun­dreds of other women in small suf­frage groups dot­ted around al­most every county in Ire­land, co­or­di­nated by the Ir­ish Women’s Suf­frage Fed­er­a­tion. Meet­ings were held al­most daily, on soap boxes at street cor­ners, in Phoenix Park, on O’Con­nell Street.

The suf­frage pa­per, The Ir­ish Cit­i­zen, was printed fort­nightly and sold ev­ery­where there was a meet­ing or an op­por­tu­nity for a sale. Soon af­ter it started it was claim­ing weekly sales of 3,000 and an es­ti­mated read­er­ship of 10,000 peo­ple. Once, see­ing the Chief Sec­re­tary on Grafton Street, Hanna dashed af­ter him, poster in hand.

“He stopped and asked: ‘How much?’ I said: ‘Any­thing you like to give Mr Bir­rell. It’s a penny.’ He plunged his hand into his pocket, pulled out a hand­ful of miscellaneous coins and ex­tracted a three­penny bit.” The June ar­rests made open-air meet­ings dan­ger­ous for the women, as the An­cient Or­der of Hiber­ni­ans (re­named An­cient Or­der of Hooli­gans by an ex­as­per­ated Frank Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton) en­gaged in a con­certed cam­paign to hound them off the streets by throw­ing rot­ten eggs, toma­toes, stink­ing chem­i­cals, bags of flour, and also threat­en­ing phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. In sol­i­dar­ity James Con­nolly trav­elled down from Belfast to speak on the women’s be­half. Hanna, a close friend, de­scribed him as “one of those all too rare rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies whose doc­trines of free­dom ap­ply all round”. But even Con­nolly, try­ing to speak to a howl­ing mob, found him­self and Hanna’s hus­band Frank tak­ing shel­ter in Dublin Zoo un­til the crowd dis­persed.

Women con­tin­ued their cru­sade, de­spite the hos­til­ity of Church and State. For the first time in his­tory they were fight­ing “not for a man’s cause but their own” and rev­elled in the op­por­tu­nity to meet with women from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and to gain “self ex­pres­sion through ser­vice” at a time when many pro­fes­sions re­mained closed to women. It was, said Hanna, “a lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion for all those who took part in it”.

The Ir­ish Women’s Fran­chise League had of­fices and a tea room in West­more­land Street where they held meet­ings, de­bates, and so­cial events, in­clud­ing one in fancy dress. The suf­frag­ist, said the Ir­ish Cit­i­zen, “is no prude: in fancy dress she frankly favours dou­blet and hose”.

When Meg Con­nery ap­peared in court she told the judge she had been driven to adopt win­dow smash­ing be­cause of the “in­tol­er­a­ble griev­ances un­der which women had to live”. In the eyes of the State “she was an out­law; she was not a per­son”.

In March 1914, with Long­ford, Leitrim and Roscom­mon a “dark, dis­fig­ur­ing blot on our suf­frage map” be­cause the coun­ties had never ex­pe­ri­enced a suf­frage speaker, she and Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton set off to change that sit­u­a­tion. They were brave women. In Long­ford, the Bishop used his in­flu­ence to prevent the use of the Catholic hall, but, to their sur­prise, that didn’t stop an en­thu­si­as­tic meet­ing with many con­verts to the cause.

Car­rick was dif­fer­ent, with the Canon de­nounc­ing them at Mass, so that “ev­ery­where we met with stony si­lence, any oc­ca­sional gleam of hope of ap­proval be­ing in­stantly sup­pressed with a kind of tremu­lous fear”.

A sim­i­lar fate threat­ened in Boyle, but they had a sym­pa­thetic priest who gave them a hall and they ar­gued spirit­edly against the heck­lers, suf­fer­ing only some red pep­per scat­tered by boys near the end of the meet­ing. There would have been no news­pa­per cov­er­age if it were not for the fact that ri­val fac­tions from Boyle had a fight af­ter their meet­ing was over — “plate glass was shat­tered…five ba­ton charges took place, stones rained. As one of the com­bat­ants said next day. ‘Shure we hadn’t such a grand time since the Par­nell split!’ ” By the start of the World War I there had been 35 suf­frage ar­rests, many hunger strikes and Ir­ish suf­frag­ists had served time in Moun­tjoy, Tul­lam­ore and Belfast jails. The Ir­ish Cit­i­zen head­line was ‘Votes for Women Now! Damn Your War!’ and the cam­paign con­tin­ued, with women like Hanna call­ing for “peace, san­ity and suf­frage”.

Anti-war ac­tivists grew closer to Repub­li­cans cen­tred around the Ir­ish Vol­un­teers. Fem­i­nist cam­paign­ers had al­lies amongst the lead­er­ship of the 1916 rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

Pa­trick Pearse sent a mes­sage of sup­port when the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment pre­vented fem­i­nists from join­ing a women’s peace congress at the Hague, while Thomas MacDon­agh shared their plat­form of protest. James Con­nolly had de­clared ‘‘he had never yet heard of a mil­i­tant ac­tion which he was not pre­pared fully and heartily to en­dorse’’.

In Easter 1916, for the first time in his­tory, those fight­ing for na­tional in­de­pen­dence would in­clude women’s cit­i­zen­ship and a guar­an­tee of “equal rights and equal op­por­tu­ni­ties to all its cit­i­zens”.

The Ir­ish suf­frage move­ment had fi­nally suc­ceeded in their aim. Mar­garet Ward’s new book ‘Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton — Suf­fragette and Sinn Feiner, Her Mem­oirs and Po­lit­i­cal Writ­ings’, is pub­lished by UCD Press, avail­able in book­shops and on­line

CAT AND MOUSE: Above, a ‘Daily Sketch’ photo of Hanna ad­dress­ing a meet­ing out­side Moun­tjoy, where suf­fragette Kath­leen Hous­ton was im­pris­oned in 1914. Be­low, Hanna and Fran­cis

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