Wednesday 18 September 2019

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

The most significant feminist in 20th-century Ireland is honoured in a new book

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

Margaret Ward

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 three-month 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.

Hanna and Francis
Hanna and Francis

"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

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