Remembering a Cork suffragette: The ‘ablest woman in Ireland’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the death of Cork-born suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington yesterday, MARY MORRISSY recalls the life of a remarkable woman
Remembering a Cork suffragette: The ‘ablest woman in Ireland’

FORCE FOR CHANGE: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, left, with Kathleen Shannon and Kathleen Sheehy in 1908, campaigning for women to get the vote

HOW did a young woman born in Kanturk come to be memorialised by a plaque on Ship Street in Dublin for smashing the windows of Dublin Castle?

It happened in 1912 during a women’s suffrage protest and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, one of Ireland’s proto-feminists, had thrown the first stone at the glass ceiling.

Born Hanna Sheehy in Kanturk in 1877, her activism wasn’t an aberration. She’d grown up in a radical household. Her father, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was imprisoned several times for his activities and later became a nationalist MP. Her uncle Eugene, a priest, was heavily involved in the Land League and, as a three-year-old, Hanna visited him in Kilmainham Jail.

When she died, her Irish Times obituary described Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington as “the ablest woman in Ireland”.

Seventy-five years on from her death, her energy and versatility still impresses. She was a suffragette, political activist, writer, editor, orator, linguist and teacher. In her beliefs she combined feminism, pacifism, socialism and nationalism.

The family moved to Dublin when Hanna was 10, though Kanturk hasn’t forgotten her and there’s a commemorative statue to her in the town park.

Hanna Sheehy showed her independence of spirit early. She was one of the first women in Ireland to go to university and graduated from the Royal University of Ireland (later UCD) with a Masters’ in French and German.

There she met Francis Skeffington, an ardent pacifist and conscientious objector. They were introduced by the writer James Joyce who knew the Sheehy family well. In his youth, Joyce had nursed a “small rich passion” for Mary, Hanna’s sister, and another sister, Kathleen, was allegedly the model for Molly Ivors in Joyce’s seminal short story The Dead .

For Hanna, equality wasn’t just a matter of principle. She lived it out. When she married Frank Skeffington in 1903, they took each other’s surnames to signal the equality in their relationship. Their son, Owen, was born in 1908.

That same year, inspired by militant suffragettes in London, she and Gretta Cousins formed the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), an independent, militant group. By 1912 it boasted 1,000 members and it was their protest in Dublin for the vote for women that led to the window-breaking episode at Dublin Castle.

Hanna and several other women were arrested and imprisoned. Once inside, they lobbied for political status and went on hunger strike in response to their treatment by Irish authorities. 

As a result of being jailed — the first of five imprisonments for Hanna — she was sacked from her job as a German teacher at Rathmines School of Commerce. From then on, she devoted herself to women’s suffrage and editing and managing The Irish Citizen newspaper.

In the 1913 Dublin Lockout, she was involved in setting up soup kitchens which fed hundreds of strikers and their families.

She and Frank campaigned vigorously against the First World War. They were both Republicans by sentiment, although Hanna had never joined any nationalist organisations, believing that they forced women into subordinate roles.

“Until the women of Ireland are free,” she said, “the men will not achieve emancipation.”

The couple’s pacifism did not allow them to support the Rising. Nevertheless, six days into the uprising, Frank was picked up and shot by firing squad without trial on the orders of British army captain, J.C Bowen-Colthurst.

Colthurst was subsequently court- martialled and found guilty but insane. Hanna challenged the findings of the enquiry into his murder and refused to accept any compensation for his death. Instead, she campaigned throughout the U.S decrying the consequences of British militarism.

She sided with the anti-Treaty advocates after the War of Independence, and became the director of Sinn Féin in 1921.

She was one of four women appointed to the executive of the new Fianna Fáil party, but when de Valera entered the Dáil, she left the party.

In 1926, she famously led a protest at a performance of Seán O’Casey’s The Plough And The Stars at the Abbey Theatre. The play dishonoured the men and women who had taken part in the Rising, she claimed, even though she had opposed the revolution on pacifist principles.

Although she was to become disillusioned by mainstream politics in the late 20s, she remained committed to her dearest causes — nationalism, pacifism and feminism.

She opposed de Valera’s 1937 Constitution, which she felt did nothing to advance the cause of women’s equality.

Convinced that the State had failed the revolutionary women of Ireland, she returned to domestic politics, briefly helping to set up a new women’s political party, and stood for election in 1943. She failed to win a seat.

Hanna never remarried and, with no pension, she made a meagre living in later years doing part-time teaching.

To the end she remained a woman of unexpected contradictions.

Her daughter-in-law, Andrée, recalled that she kept a photograph on her mantelpiece of Major Sir Francis Vane, who had ordered the enquiry into the murder of her husband.

“He did all he could to see that justice was done, and it cost him his position in the British Army,” she told Andrée.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington died of heart failure aged 68 on Easter Saturday, 1946, exactly 30 years to the day after her husband.

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