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TG4's sideways look at suffragette history

Unless you've been locked away in a lead-lined panic room, you might have noticed that the BBC is engaged in an epic commemoration of World War One, comprising documentaries, dramas and historical analysis on TV and radio as well as a wealth of fascinating material online that will continue through to 2018.

In Irish broadcasting circles, meanwhile, the reaction to the centenary of that great and terrible conflict in which 210,000 Irish men and women participated has largely been one of deafening silence. Unsurprising, really, in a country that only condescended to properly honour its Great War dead in 2006.

Perhaps RTE is keeping its powder dry, so to speak, until two years hence and the orgy of coverage that's sure to accompany the 100th anniversary of the blood-drenched folly that was the 1916 Rising.


So credit is due to TG4 for doing one of the things it does best – approaching Irish history from a sideways angle and in the process unlocking a more vivid, often overlooked picture.

Keith O'Grady's fine documentary Vótaí do Mhná (Votes for Women) told a tale that, like so many chapters in the country's history, was often characterised by division, discord and the narrow-minded primacy of the national interest over the needs of the individual.

The story of the Irish suffragette movement began in the 19th century, spearheaded by women such as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Isabella Tod (who set up the first suffragette society in Belfast) and Louie Bennett, the pacifist and trade union organiser who tried to better the conditions of working-class women in Dublin.

By the 1890s, after 20 years of agitation, women were going to university, working as doctors, lecturers and inspectors and even serving as councillors.

But the vote – "the door into the public life of Ireland" – as feminist historian Dr Margaret MacCurtain elegantly put it here – remained firmly closed. They were still butting up against the vested interests in Westminster after the turn of the century.

English philosopher and civil servant John Stuart Mill sought to have the word "man" amended to "person" in a bill extending voting rights. It was shot down.

If British prime minister Herbert Asquith was rabidly opposed to the suffragettes, Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond was no more sympathetic, feeling that women pushing for the vote when Asquith's minority Liberal government was shaky would distract from the aim of winning Home Rule at the third attempt.

Despite some frankly crummy reconstructions (forgivable, I suppose, in a tightly- budgeted film like this), Vótaí do Mhná was good at capturing the conflicting personalities involved in the fight for equality.

In 1912, Sheehy-Skeffington – like her husband Frank, a pacifist – and her organisation, the Irish Women's Franchise League, steered the struggle in a more militant direction, hijacking Home Rule meetings chaired by Redmond and breaking windows in Dublin Castle, an act that landed her in prison.

In all, 27 suffragettes were jailed on 35 occasions, including two English women who'd followed Asquith to Dublin and threw a hatchet at a carriage conveying him and Redmond. They also tried to set fire to a theatre where a Home Rule meeting was taking place.


Not all of the sisterhood fell into line. Constance Markievicz supported the right to vote, but independence came first. When the Great War broke out, she considered – unlike the majority of her fellow Irish women and men – that "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity".

The end of the war finally delivered the vote to women, who during the conflict had taken on much of the work usually done by their husbands.

Not that this ultimately meant much in Ireland, where the 1937 Constitution undid all that had been achieved and effectively shoved women back into where their political masters felt they belonged: the home. The rest, as they say, is history.

Vótaí dO Mhná HHHII (repeated at 8.50pm on Saturday. Also available on the TG4 Player)