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From hatchet throwing to hunger strikes: how 'dastardly' suffragettes won Irish women the vote

Next month marks the centenary of women being granted the vote in Ireland. It was the culmination of an eventful campaign that lasted half a century, and some feared it would be the 'ruin of civilisation'


Pioneer: Johanna Mary (Hanna) Sheehy-Skeffington was a leading light in the Irish suffragette movement

Pioneer: Johanna Mary (Hanna) Sheehy-Skeffington was a leading light in the Irish suffragette movement

A suffragette arrested outside the Mansion House in 1914

A suffragette arrested outside the Mansion House in 1914

A Sunday Independent from 1912

A Sunday Independent from 1912

A suffragette poster from the era

A suffragette poster from the era


Pioneer: Johanna Mary (Hanna) Sheehy-Skeffington was a leading light in the Irish suffragette movement

In the summer of 1912, there were scenes of uproar in Dublin as a flying hatchet thrown by suffragette Mary Leigh narrowly missed the head of the visiting Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, before grazing the ear of the Home Rule leader John Redmond.

On the same weekend, campaigners for votes for women also tried to burn down Dublin's Theatre Royal, the venue where Asquith was due to attend a meeting, by throwing a burning chair into the orchestra pit.

In a report in the following day's Sunday Independent, the hatchet incident was described as a "dastardly suffragette outrage"; and the perpetrators, who had come from England to protest, were jailed before eventually going on hunger strike in prison.

A minority pursuit


A suffragette arrested outside the Mansion House in 1914

A suffragette arrested outside the Mansion House in 1914

A suffragette arrested outside the Mansion House in 1914

Both Asquith and Redmond were staunch opponents of granting votes to women and resisted any moves to extend the franchise.

The cause of women's suffrage was a minority pursuit in the Ireland of that time, particularly when it was pursued by militant means.

Many supporters of Home Rule for Ireland did not see women as part of the voting picture in the autonomous country of their dreams.

John Dillon, a prominent MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party and later its leader, gave the suffragettes the brush-off and forecast in 1912: "Women's suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our western civilisation. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God. It may come in your time - I hope not in mine."

Father Barry of the Irish Ecclesiastical Record was equally scathing about the prospect of ladies being enfranchised, opining around about the same time: "Allowing woman the right of suffrage is incompatible with the Catholic ideal of the unity of domestic life and would fare ill with the passive virtues of humility, patience, meekness, forbearance and self-repression looked upon by the church as the special prerogative of the female soul."

Dillon and the anti-suffrage clerics must have been shocked to the core to discover that women were marching to the polls within six years.

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February 6 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act receiving royal assent. This measure which had passed through the British Houses of Parliament extended voting rights to Irish women for the first time in general elections (although unlike men they had to be over 30, and fulfil certain property ownership requirements).

The Irish Independent was not exaggerating on the following day when it described the move as "one of the most revolutionary acts ever passed by Parliament".

The historian and archivist Catriona Crowe says: "The extension of the franchise to women is the single greatest human rights achievement of the entire Decade of Centenaries."

While the age and property limitation at Westminster elections was still restrictive, in 1922 the constitution of the new Irish Free State granted the vote and full citizenship to all men and women over 21.

The celebration of 100 years of votes for women will be among the key events in 2018 as we continue to mark the Decade of Centenaries.

The Houses of the Oireachtas are marking the centenary with events under the banner Votáil 100. As well as a conference in conjunction with the Royal Irish Academy, an exhibition at the National Museum and other events, the Oireachtas will present a portrait of Constance Markievicz to the House of Commons.

A tempestuous campaign

Countess Markievicz was the first woman to be elected as a Member of Parliament at Westminster, but never took her seat. She was also the first female TD and cabinet minister to serve in the Dáil (after she left office there was not to be another women in the cabinet until Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed in 1979, a hiatus of 57 years).

When women finally won the vote in Ireland, it marked the culmination of an occasionally tempestuous campaign that had lasted almost half a century.

According to the historian Mary Cullen, the early pioneers of activism in favour of votes for women were middle class, unionist in politics and Protestant in religion, with Quakers particularly prominent.

Foremost among them were Anna and Thomas Haslam, who set up the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association (DWSA) in 1876.

In hindsight, by comparison with the more flamboyant and militant suffragettes later, their methods seem genteel. They patiently gathered signatures for petitions to Parliament, wrote letters tirelessly to politicians and dignitaries, and held hundreds of meetings.

Voting in general elections was not the only aim of this first wave of feminism. Women succeeded in gaining the right to vote in local elections in 1898, and campaigned for improved property rights for women and access to education.

A limestone bench in St Stephen's Green in Dublin carries an inscription paying tribute to Anna and Thomas Haslam for their "long years of public service chiefly devoted to the enfranchisement of women".

In December 1918, as the elderly "grand dame" of constitutional suffragism, Anna had the satisfaction of going to the polls surrounded by flowers and flags, winning plaudits from unionists and nationalist supporters of women's suffrage alike for her decades of hard work.

By the end of the first decade of the century, a much more militant brand of suffragism had risen to prominence, and these younger activists were prepared to dispense with genteel methods to get the message across.

The leaders of this new movement were another effective wife and husband team, Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who set up the militant Irish Women's Franchise League.

The couple were the hipsters of their time, embracing vegetarianism. He was a pacifist, described by his friend James Joyce as a "hairy Jaysus", while she was a relentless campaigner and journalist. Both were nationalist in outlook.

Although their methods were not as extreme, their new body took their cue from the movement of suffragists led by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain.

The word suffragette was coined by the Daily Mail as a disparaging label for the more militant activists, but they themselves adopted the term with enthusiasm. The Pankhursts began a campaign of direct action, smashing shop windows, burning stately homes, vandalising golf courses, cutting telephone lines and invading the House of Commons.

A group of Irish suffragettes travelled to London and smashed the windows of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, by hurling potatoes. They then followed up with a similar attack on Number 10 Downing Street before being arrested. Members of the Sheehy-Skeffingtons' Irish Women's Franchise League encouraged women to boycott the census of 1911 with the slogan, "No Vote. No Census."

Some women left their homes on census night, while others filled out the infirmity section of the form (which included deaf, blind, or imbecile or idiot as possible entries) with "voteless" or "unenfranchised".

In a later memoir about her campaign, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington described the resilience required to be a suffragette when the cause was not always popular.

"Women speakers who could hold their own, who could lift their voices in the Fifteen Acres [in the Phoenix Park] , meeting heckling on their own ground, being good-humoured and capable of keeping their temper under bombardments of rotten eggs, over-ripe tomatoes, bags of flour, stinking chemicals, gradually earned respect and due attention: suffs were good sports," she wrote.

When the Irish Parliamentary Party and the ruling Liberals failed to support votes for women, the campaign stepped up a gear with a blitz of window-smashing of government buildings including the GPO and Dublin Castle.

During this period 27 suffragettes were imprisoned, including Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, usually for their window smashing. It was a good time to be a glazier

When the prisoners who had been jailed for attacking the Prime Minister in Dublin in July of 1912 went on hunger strike, Irish suffragettes followed them in sympathy.

Some hunger strikers were forcibly fed, a process that involved restraining the women in a chair and pumping food into their stomachs through a tube.

This period of militant activity came to an end with the outbreak of World War I, but campaigners for women's suffrage had a notable coup when women's suffrage was supported in the proclamation in the 1916 Rising.

The feminist historian Margaret Ward, editor of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Suffragette and Sinn Féiner: Her Memoirs and Political Writings, says: "Before the Rising, the volunteers would not take a stance on it, because they were afraid of splitting the ranks."

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband Francis was murdered by Crown Forces in the Rising, described the rebellion as "the first time in history that men fighting for freedom had voluntarily included women".

Although World War I brought militant suffragette activity to a halt in Britain, it turned out to be a game changer for women seeking the vote, according to historian Catriona Crowe.

"The war had an effect on everything, and women inevitably become radicalised in war time, because their role changed," she says.

However, if war opened up new opportunities for women, the campaigners hoping that women's suffrage and the birth of the Free State would usher in a new era of women's rights were to be bitterly disillusioned.

According to Margaret Ward, the role of women became restricted again with their removal from jury duty and large parts of the workforce, and an increase in censorship.

Sheehy-Skeffington summed up the situation in the new state: "What was given at first with gladness has been gradually filched away. Equality has ceased to be accorded to us, save on paper."

Senator Ivana Bacik, the chairperson of Votáil 100, hopes that women's suffrage will be a centrepiece of the Decade of Centenaries commemorations in 2018, and says there will be events throughout the year.

Inevitably, the celebrations of the centenary will be tempered by the fact that only 114 women have ever been elected to the Dáil, and only 19 of these have served as cabinet ministers.

Catriona Crowe says: "The commemoration will be give us an opportunity to look at where we are now and why women are under-represented. What is it that is stopping them taking part in politics?"


Timeline: the road to the vote


A suffragette poster from the era

A suffragette poster from the era

A suffragette poster from the era



Dublin Women's Suffrage Association (DWSA) established. Anna Haslam was one of the signatories of the women's suffrage petition of 10 years earlier. With her husband, Thomas, she set up the DWSA. They campaigned successfully for women to be permitted to become poor law guardians and participate in local elections.


The first nine women receive degrees from the Royal University of Ireland. Women were still barred from most universities.


Votes are granted to women for local government elections. They are allowed to stand for election as rural and urban district councillors.


Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) established by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester with a new militant style of campaigning. Members adopt the motto "deeds not words".


Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL) founded under the leadership of Margaret Cousins and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. They adopt some of the militant tactics used in Britain, including smashing windows.


In November, Irish suffragettes join a march on Parliament in Westminster, where women are beaten up by police. Margaret Cousins arrested for breaking windows on Downing Street.


Suffragettes step up militant campaign, as calls for votes for women in the Home Rule Bill are ignored. Campaigners are jailed for smashing windows and an English suffragette Mary Leigh is imprisoned for throwing a hatchet at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in Dublin.


Proclamation of the Irish Republic in Easter 1916 says the national government will be "elected by the suffrages of all her men and women". Up to 300 women take part in the Rising including members of Cumann na MBan.


In February, the Representation of the People Act grants the vote to women over 30 meeting certain property requirements. In December women go to the polls in an election. Countess Markievicz is elected as the first female MP, but does not take her seat. In the following year she is chosen as Ireland's first female cabinet minister in the first Dáil.

Sources: Votáil 100; The Irish Women's Movement, Linda Connolly

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