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Monday 24 September 2018

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: the woman who led the suffrage fight

Militant action: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington smashed windows at Dublin Castle as part of an escalation in the suffrage campaign. Photo: Misc Box 10 NPA archive
Militant action: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington smashed windows at Dublin Castle as part of an escalation in the suffrage campaign. Photo: Misc Box 10 NPA archive

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was born Johanna Sheehy, daughter of David Sheehy MP. As a university student, and on being asked to sign a petition for women's suffrage, she came to realise her status as a woman was lower than that of "criminals, lunatics and infants" and later joined the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association with her husband, Frank Skeffington, whom she married in 1903.

They took each other's surnames in order to signify the equality of their relationship. When the Pankhursts set up the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, with its slogan 'Deeds not Words', this "stirred a responsive chord in some Irish feminist breasts". In 1908, Hanna and her friend Margaret Cousins co-founded the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL) as a militant suffrage organisation that would work on "independent Irish lines". Frank Sheehy-Skeffington and James Cousins became editors of their newspaper, The Irish Citizen (1912-20).

The IWFL devoted its first years to peaceful lobbying, deputations, open-air meetings, heckling and general propaganda. All this was to end when it became clear that the Irish Parliamentary Party would not support votes for women in the Home Rule Bill. On June 1, 1912 a mass meeting, attended by 29 women's groups from all over the country, declared there was a "unanimous demand for political freedom" and they challenged the government to answer their demand. There was no response.

The IWFL decided it was time for militant action. On June 13, eight members of the league - Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Marguerite Palmer, Margaret and Jane Murphy, Kathleen Houston, Marjorie Hasler, Hilda Webb and Maud Lloyd - set out to smash windows of government buildings. Hanna chose Dublin Castle and the others went to the Custom House and the GPO. The first four women received two-month sentences, the others, who had managed to smash more windows, received six-month sentences. There were "mixed feelings from the general public" who, said Hanna, regarded them "not only enemies of Home Rule, but rebels as women".

Twelve Irish suffragists used the weapon of hunger strike, but forcible feeding was used only on three members of the WSPU, who had followed Prime Minister Asquith to Dublin and thrown a hatchet at him and John Redmond, while also attempting to burn down the building where a meeting on Home Rule was due to take place.

The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act was passed in April 1913. Known as the Cat and Mouse Act, hunger strikers were released and supposed to resume their sentence when they recovered their health. Protesters against the imposition of the act included Patrick Pearse, Tom Kettle, Constance Markievicz, Jennie Wyse Power and the Dublin Trades Council.

Between 1912 and 1914 there were 35 suffrage convictions in Ireland - 22 took place in Dublin, the rest in the north, where women joined the WSPU when it set up an Ulster Centre in Belfast, campaigning to persuade Ulster Unionists to support votes for women. The last IWFL prisoner was Kathleen Houston, imprisoned in April 1914 for breaking the windows of the Post Office in College Green as a gesture of solidarity with Belfast suffragist Mabel Small, released under the terms of the Cat and Mouse Act.

In June 1914, one further attempt was made to persuade Redmond and Asquith to include women in the Home Rule Bill. All the Irish suffrage groups, militant and non-militant, agreed on a deputation to the House of Commons. After waiting in vain, they held a protest meeting in the Westminster lobby. Margaret McCoubrey from Belfast shouted out, in reference to the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers, "they only mind the militants who have guns".

Hanna, a member of the delegation, wrote "our representatives eat strawberries and cream while women slowly starve to death in prison". But this was the last of the big suffrage events. The Great War began two months later.

Margaret Ward is the author of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington Suffragette and Sinn Féiner: Her Memoirs and Political Writings (UCD Press, 2017), available from book shops and from www.ucdpress.ie

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