HANNA Sheehy-Skeffington was raised in a strongly political household. While her paternal ancestors advocated nationalist values, her mother espoused female autonomy.
Johanna Mary Sheehy was born on May 24, 1877, in Kanturk, Co. Cork. She was the first of six children born to David Sheehy, a nationalist MP and mill-owner, and Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ McCoy, a large, formidable woman from Limerick.
Hanna’s mother instilled in her young daughters the belief that education is equally important for both men and women.
When the family moved to Drumcondra, Dublin, in 1887, Hanna was sent to be educated at the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street. She later recalled the education she received from the nuns gave her “great independence of thought and action”.
Once the tuberculosis epidemic hit Dublin, Hanna moved to France and Germany to continue her education. She developed a love for languages while abroad and, on her return to Dublin, she enrolled in St Mary’s University College, where she studied French and German.
In 1899, Hanna became one of the first of a new generation of women to graduate from an Irish university, with a BA in languages.
As suspicion and prejudice still surrounded women’s education when Hanna graduated, she decided to found the Women Graduates’ Association in 1901 to promote the “interests of women in any scheme of university education in Ireland and to ensure that all advantages of such education shall be open to women equally with men”.
In 1902, Hanna began teaching at a school on Eccles Street. She later taught French and German at the
College of Commerce.
In June, 1903, Hanna married Cavan-born Francis ‘Frank’ Skeffington (introduced to her by writer James Joyce), and from then on the couple became known as the Sheehy- Skeffingtons. Hanna and Frank were both members of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, but inspired by the suffragette activities of the Pankhursts in England, they decided a more militant suffrage organisation was needed in Ireland.
Aided by Margaret Cousins, they founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. A year later, Hanna gave birth to their first and only child, a son called Owen.
In 1912, Hanna and Frank founded their own newspaper, the Irish Citizen, to promote the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for both sexes.
A year later, Hanna and Frank became more dependent on their income from journalism when Hanna lost her teaching job after she was twice imprisoned for suffrage activities; the first time for breaking windows at Dublin Castle and the second time for assaulting a policeman while attempting to leaflet the Conservative leader, Bonar Law, in Dublin. During both incarcerations, Hanna went on hunger strike and was promptly released.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, Hanna and her husband carried out a lot of work behind the scenes. Hanna brought food and messages to the insurgents, while Frank assisted the injured and tried to prevent looting. On the second day of the Rising, Frank and two other unarmed newspaper editors were arrested; all three were shot without trial the following morning.
Broken-hearted and outraged, Hanna refused compensation of £10,000 from the British army and instead forced the Royal Commission to hold an inquiry, which led to the court-martial of her husband’s killer. He was found ‘guilty but insane’, and was later released after 18 months’ imprisonment.
Hanna continued with her work promoting feminism and nationalism.
In 1918, she joined Sinn Féin and travelled to America where she became the first Irish Sinn Féiner to enter the White House. On her return to Ireland, she was detained in Liverpool and sent to Holloway Prison in London for travelling to America without the government’s permission.
During the War of Independence, Hanna was anti-Treaty, like her fellow nationalists Constance Markievicz, Maud Gonne and Kathleen Lynne, and served as a judge in the republican courts of law that were set up to usurp the British courts.
When more than 7,000 republicans were imprisoned as a result of the Civil War, Hanna helped establish the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League with Maud Gonne and Charlotte Despard, to campaign for prisoners’ rights and fundraise on behalf of their families.
When Éamon de Valera’s Constitution was passed in 1937, Hanna became a founder member of the Women’s Social and Progressive League, which attempted to alert women to the implications of the anti-women legislation passing through the Dáil.
In 1943, at the age of 66, Hanna stood as an independent candidate, demanding equality for women in the general election. She had hoped to form a women’s party if elected, but this was not to be.
With no pension, Hanna continued to teach to the end of her days. She died on April 20, 1946. In her obituary, The Irish Times described her as “the ablest woman in Ireland”.
There is no doubt many of the civil rights Irish women take for granted today are in no small part due to the work of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who believed that “it is the dreamers and the visionaries that keep hope alive and feed enthusiasm – not the statesmen and the politicians. Sometimes it is harder to live for a cause than to die for it”.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, Hanna and her husband carried out a lot of work behind the scenes.