Sheehy-Skeffington, Hanna (1877–1946)
Sheehy-Skeffington, Hanna (1877–1946)
Irish reformer whose feminist and nationalist aspirations were often in conflict, though she pursued both with dedication and courage. Name variations: Johanna Mary Sheehy; Hanna Sheehy; Mrs. Sheehy-Skeffington. Born Johanna Sheehy on May 24, 1877, in County Cork, Ireland; died in Dublin, Ireland, on April 20, 1946; daughter of David Sheehy (a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party) and Elizabeth (McCoy) Sheehy; attended Dominican Convent, Dublin; Royal University of Ireland, B.A., 1899, M.A., 1902; married Frank Sheehy-Skeffington, in 1903 (died 1916); children: Owen (b. 1909).
Co-founded Irish Women's Franchise League (1908); helped establish The Irish Citizen (1912); imprisoned as a suffragist (1912 and 1913); husband killed in Easter Rising (1916); made lecture tour of U.S. (1916–18); met with President Wilson (1918); imprisoned in Liverpool, Dublin, and Holloway (1918); served as judge during War of Independence (1919–21); made lecture tour of U.S. and Canada (1922–23); visited League of Nations (1923); attended Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Conference in Prague (1929); journeyed to Moscow (1930); imprisoned in Armagh (1933); made lecture tour to U.S. and Canada (1933–34); established Women's Social and Political League (1937); toured U.S. (1937–38); was a candidate in general election (1943).
"British Militarism in Ireland as I have known it," in Democracy in Ireland Since 1913 (NY: Donnelly Press, 1917); Impressions of Sinn Fein In America (Dublin: Davis Publishing, 1919); Ireland—Present and Future (NY: Donnelly Press, 1919). As a journalist, published hundreds of articles.
When Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was growing up in the late 19th century, the sentiment of nationalism overshadowed much else in Ireland. Nationalists, constitutional and revolutionary, were looking for Irish independence. The constitutional nationalists, the Irish Parliamentary Party, sat in the British Parliament and hoped for a Home Rule Bill to be enacted which would grant Ireland dominion status. The various revolutionary nationalist groups were planning a rebellion which would result in an Irish Republic. At the same time, the demand for women's suffrage was also being heard and many women were not willing to wait for the national problem to be solved until they had the vote.
Sheehy's father, uncle and grandfather were active participants in the Irish nationalist cause and were connected with constitutional and revolutionary nationalist organizations. Her father was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Sheehy household, No. 2 Belvedere Place in Rathmines, Dublin, served as a meeting place for many of Dublin's nationalists and intellectuals. Her mother was a strong woman who firmly believed all her children should be treated equally.
Now that the first stone has been thrown by suffragists in Ireland, light is being admitted into more than mere government quarters, and the cobwebs are being cleared away from more than one male intellect.
Hanna Sheehy was born in County Cork in 1877 and moved to Dublin as a young girl. She was the eldest of six children, four girls and two boys. One of her earliest memories was of going to visit her uncle, a priest, Eugene Sheehy, in Kilmainham Jail for revolutionary activities. Hanna was educated with her sisters at the Dominican Convent in Eccles Street, Dublin. She was quite religious in her youth and even considered becoming a nun, however this side of her personality was to disappear as she entered her 20s and became critical of a church which she saw as oppressive to women and controlling education. In the year before she attended university, she suffered from tuberculosis and visited the European continent in order to recover.
Sheehy attended university in Dublin, studied foreign languages, received a B.A. in 1899 and an M.A. in 1902. Like others in this first generation of female university students, Sheehy became very interested in feminism. She campaigned for female students to attend the same lectures as male students and was a founder member of the Irish Women's Graduates Association in 1902. She met her future husband Frank Skeffington during her student days, and they found that their common interest in feminism, socialism, nationalism, and the literary world brought them together.
They married in 1903, took each others' names, and thus became the Sheehy-Skeffingtons. She worked as a teacher and he as a registrar at University College in Dublin. He had to resign his position in 1904 after being censured for speaking out against restrictions imposed upon women. Thereafter, he worked as a freelance journalist. When their son Owen was born in 1909, they demonstrated their opinion of the Catholic Church, and created a minor scandal, by not having him baptized.
The Sheehy-Skeffingtons and their good friends James and Margaret Cousins were disillusioned with the existing women's suffrage societies in Ireland. They believed the older societies, such as the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association and the Irish Women's Suffrage Society, were ineffective. In their years of existence, these societies had made little advance, especially in the realm of national politics. Their methods were mild and their drawing-room tactics were peaceful. The two couples decided to form a militant suffrage society suitable to the different political situation of Ireland. Therefore, in 1908, the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL), a non-political, non-denominational, militant organization, was established. It had branches throughout the country, and it had both Protestant and Catholic women as members, thus contradicting the common belief that it was a Dublin-based Protestant organization. By 1913, it had over 800 members and had to move into larger headquarters.
Nationalist organizations, including nationalist women's organizations such as Cumann na mBan, accused the suffrage movement in Ireland as being part of the British suffrage movement. Sheehy-Skeffington declared that this was far from the case. It had associations with suffragists from all over the world (particularly the United States) and took a very independent line on policy and tactics. Among Sheehy-Skeffington's papers are letters from an admirer in the Isle of Man, a French feminist, and correspondence with American suffragists. Suffragists came to Ireland on lecture tours from Norway, Australia, South Africa, the U.S., as well as from Great Britain. These accusations were difficult for Sheehy-Skeffington since she regarded herself as both a feminist and a nationalist. While there were
many connections with English suffrage societies and while some Irish suffragists underwent training and imprisonment in England, she argued that the IWFL was very much an Irish organization. This conviction was evident when an English organization, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), tried to set up a branch in Ireland. A correspondence took place between Sheehy-Skeffington and Christabel Pankhurst of the WSPU in which Sheehy-Skeffington firmly told Pankhurst that there was no place for a branch of the English organization in Ireland.
The IWFL shared the same meeting room in Dublin, the Antient Concert Rooms, as the Irish Socialist Party. This is of interest since Sheehy-Skeffington was always strongly inclined towards socialism and was very much impressed by and often quoted the Irish socialist James Connolly (who would die in the 1916 Rebellion). She frequently repeated his declaration that while the working class were slaves, women were the slaves of slaves.
Sheehy-Skeffington met weekly with other members of the IWFL. They made their strategy known to their followers, and the Irish public in general, through meetings, public lectures, tours throughout Ireland, and in the pages of their weekly newspaper, The Irish Citizen, which was established in 1912. Followed by its title, the paper always displayed the slogan, "For Men and Women Equality, The Rights of Citizenship, For Men and Women Equality, The Duties of Citizenship," expressing the dual political and feminist concerns of the IWFL. It was not only important for women to have the vote as women, but also as citizens. Sheehy-Skeffington was a regular contributor to the columns of the Citizen and, for a time, its editor.
What singled out the IWFL from other suffrage societies in Ireland was its adaptation of militant tactics. Members disrupted political meetings, petitioned Irish and British politicians, threw ink in mail boxes, and smashed windows. They heckled Winston Churchill on a visit to Belfast and harassed Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was frequently a victim of their attacks. Their militancy usually followed failed women's suffrage amendments to the Home Rule Bill or other doomed suffrage legislation in the British Parliament. Militant action was not without consequence, and, after the women smashed glass or carried out some other destructive act, they were tried and imprisoned.
In 1912, on the eve of imprisonment to serve a month's sentence for breaking 19 windows in government buildings in Dublin, Sheehy-Skeffington acknowledged:
The novelty of Irishwomen resorting to violence on their own behalf is, I admit, startling to their countrymen who have been accustomed to accept their services (up to and including prison, flogging at the cart-tail, death by torture) in furtherance of the cause of male liberties. There is an element of unwomanly selfishness in the idea of women fighting for themselves repellent to the average man.
She was among those Irish suffragists whose relatives had been in prison for the nationalist cause; therefore, respectability and imprisonment were not necessarily seen by them as incompatible. Her father and uncle had been imprisoned for their beliefs. Indeed, her father had been in prison six times in connection with Home Rule and had undergone hunger strikes. It is interesting that while she often compared the imprisonment of suffragists to the imprisonment of nationalists, the nationalists saw the militancy of the suffragists as a major distraction and considered it unpatriotic.
While in prison, she continued to write articles and book reviews for the Citizen. She went on a hunger strike 92 hours before she was released in sympathy with two other suffragists who had received long-term sentences and hard labor. She wrote of the hunger strike: "At first one misses the break of meal time in prison, and does not if one is wise let one's thoughts dwell upon dainties. In novels one skips allusions to food hurriedly." She was imprisoned again in 1913 and went on another hunger strike.
When World War I began in the summer of 1914, the IWFL continued to campaign for women's suffrage, unlike some other British and Irish suffrage organizations which decided to back the war effort. The war was not seen as an issue which should detract from the cause. Sheehy-Skeffington and her husband were very much opposed to the conflict. It was an English war, they were pacifists, and they were socialists. They campaigned against conscription in Ireland and spoke out against the war effort which led to short-term imprisonment for Frank and put them both permanently on the English authorities' blacklist.
The struggle for women's suffrage went into the background, but never died, when the nationalist struggle took a major place in Sheehy-Skeffington's attention in 1916. On Easter Monday, revolutionaries took over the General Post Office in Dublin, as well as other key locations. They issued a Proclamation which stated, among other things, that men and women would have equal rights in the new Irish republic. Frank Sheehy-Skeffington was killed on the third day of the Rising. As a pacifist, he had gone out on the wartorn streets of Dublin and organized a Citizen's Defense Force to prevent looting. He was arrested and shot that day without trial by the English Captain Colthurst. There was no legitimate reason for his execution, and Sheehy-Skeffington demanded a court-martial. She did not believe justice was done when Colthurst got a slap on the wrist and was sent to a mental hospital for a period.
It is evident in her writings that, through this incident, Sheehy-Skeffington became convinced that she needed to draw worldwide attention to her husband's murder and to the executions of the revolutionaries when the Rising was suppressed. She argued that their deaths were another manifestation of what she called "British Militarism in Ireland." This became the title of a pamphlet she wrote and of lectures she gave on the topic.
The country most likely to listen, be sympathetic, and, perhaps, exert some pressure on the English was the United States. Though the English refused to give her a passport, she managed to cross the Atlantic with her son, despite them, at the end of 1916. Sponsored by the American organization Friends For Irish Freedom, she raised money for the nationalist organization Sinn Fein. Her tour was not popular with everyone, especially after April 1917 when the Americans joined the British in the war. Some meeting halls refused to let her lecture, and she was briefly arrested in San Francisco. Even so, she attracted large crowds at over 250 venues, including Carnegie Hall in New York and Faneuil Hall in Boston. At the Dreamland Rink in San Francisco, 8,000 came to hear her. The high point of her visit was a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson in January 1918, three days after he had drawn up his Fourteen Points for World Peace and a day after Congress had passed the Federal Amendment for women's suffrage in the United States. She presented the president with a petition from the Irish nationalist women's organization Cumann na mBan, which asked that he support Ireland's bid for freedom.
On her return from the U.S. in July 1918, she was held by British authorities for a period in Liverpool. Managing to elude them, she traveled to Dublin where she was rearrested and sent to the women's prison in Holloway (London) after beginning a hunger strike. When she continued the strike and got progressively weaker, she was released under the Cat and Mouse Act, which had first been introduced in 1913 to deal with hunger-striking suffragists.
The war ended in November 1918, and in December there was a general election. Qualified women over 30 in Great Britain and Ireland were enfranchised under the Representation of the Peoples Act and could thus vote in the election. (All women over 21 in Ireland would be enfranchised after 1921.) Elected Irish nationalist MPs (members of Parliament) refused to sit at Westminster and formed their own parliament, the Dáil, in Dublin in January 1919. Thus, the Irish War of Independence officially began, as the illegal Irish parliament refused to listen to England and obey its authority. Sheehy-Skeffington served as a judge in the courts set up by the First Dáil. Her nephew has written about the paradox of Sheehy-Skeffington being a pacifist and at the same time serving in illegal courts which gave orders for executions. He concludes that both she and her husband "came to interpret pacifism in a minimalist manner, as requiring their own personal abstention from violence but not precluding alliance with violent rebels in a civil capacity." The war dragged on for a year and a half and ended, after much bloodshed, with the production of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the summer of 1921.
Ireland was promptly torn apart between those who supported and those who opposed the treaty. It partitioned Ireland into the Irish Free State which was comprised of 26 counties, and the six Northern counties which remained as part of the United Kingdom. It also stated that members of the Dáil had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. There were other parts of the treaty that were also repugnant to some Irish nationalists, including the stipulation that the British would keep the Irish ports. Sheehy-Skeffington sided with the Anti-Treatyites, also known as the Republicans, who opposed the new Irish Free State and who would only be satisfied with an all-Ireland Republic. According to R.M. Fox who met Sheehy-Skeffington just after the treaty was signed: "From no one did I get such a clear impression of implacability, of irreconcilable opposition to anything less than complete national independence."
Civil war broke out between the Republicans and the Free Staters. Sheehy-Skeffington went to the U.S. and Canada, this time to raise money for the families of Irish Republican prisoners. She visited over 25 states and raised $120,000. She also visited the League of Nations as a delegate of the "Republican" government when the Free State applied for membership in 1923. She continued to support the idea of an Irish Republic after the Republicans lost the civil war in 1923, and she was active on committees that campaigned for the release of Republican prisoners. She also wrote for the Republican newspaper, An Poblacht, and supported the Irish Republican Army.
However, life had to go on after the disappointment of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the futile civil war, and Sheehy-Skeffington continued to play an active role in Irish life. In the years between the wars, she worked as a journalist writing for diverse newspapers, both national and international. She was a well-known book reviewer and drama and film critic. She also continued to teach French and German. However, work conditions were not always good, and her health, which was never great, continued to deteriorate. The world of radio beckoned to her, and she made a number of successful broadcasts discussing various aspects of Irish life. She was particularly concerned about the growing censorship in the 1930s and wrote articles and chaired talks on the subject.
She made two more trips to the U.S. (1934–35, 1937), lecturing about the position of women in Ireland, the 1916 Rebellion, her forebodings concerning fascism in Italy and Germany, and her thoughts on Communism in the Soviet Union. When she returned home, she made lecture tours about her American experiences, fascinating Irish people with stories about life in the United States.
Her travel was not confined to the new world. In 1929, she attended a conference of the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom in Prague and became the group's vice-president. Having been denied a passport to attend its first meeting at The Hague during WWI, she found this trip to be particularly fulfilling. In 1930, Sheehy-Skeffington went to the Soviet Union as a delegate of the Friends of the Soviet Union and attended a conference in Moscow. She also visited Leningrad. It would seem that she was one of the many world observers who were duped by Stalin and accepted the window-dressing of Stalinism. She went away duly convinced, praising the position of women in the Soviet Union. As she crossed the border into Northern Ireland in 1933 which was now part of the United Kingdom, she was arrested, since the government of Northern Ireland deemed her to be politically undesirable. She was imprisoned for a month.
The position of women remained a passionate interest for Sheehy-Skeffington. Even though they now had the vote, their position was most certainly not one of equality. As the new Irish state took on an identity of its own, it was very much imbued with a Catholic ethos. Sheehy-Skeffington's writings of the 1920s and 1930s reflect her concerns. She protested about the deplorable conditions of women teachers and the lack of equal pay; she condemned the elimination of women from juries in 1927, and fought against the marriage ban which refused to let women have careers in civil service or education after they married.
In 1937, she had reason to renew some of the zeal she had demonstrated in the early pre-suffrage days. The prime minister of Ireland, Eamonn de Valera, brought out a new constitution which, with some amendments, remains Ireland's constitution. The charter conveyed that women's sphere was in the home and asserted that women should never feel the need to go out to work. Moreover, no law should be enacted to allow the breakup of a marriage. Abortion was, and still is, out of the question. Before it was passed, Sheehy-Skeffington endeavored to publicize what women's position would be like under the new constitution. She was fighting a lost cause, and the women of Ireland were largely indifferent to her pleas.
Sheehy-Skeffington and others became convinced that there was a need for a women's party, since none of the main political parties were representing their interests. Thus the Women's Social and Political League was formed, a year later to be known as the Women's Social and Progressive League (WSPL). Sheehy-Skeffington was its chair for six years and was backed by the organization in 1943 as a candidate in the general election. The League also supported three other independent candidates, none of whom won. When asked the question, "Will women not vote for women?," Sheehy-Skeffington replied, "Women, the average and sub-average, still have that inferiority complex, just as there were negro-slaves who were opposed to emancipation." However, she felt that their very candidature was a victory: "The challenge to the party-system has at least been made by the independent women: their election campaign has set the public thinking."
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington died in 1946 at the age of 69. The themes of nationalism and feminism were woven through her life as she witnessed the transition to Irish freedom and the enfranchisement of women. Though all the expectations she had for both did not become a reality, she lived to see them happen, and she also served to keep the women's movement alive in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. Her life embodied the conflicts many active politicized women experience. She had campaigned for what she believed was good for the nation and what was good for Irish women. Not everyone agreed that these were necessarily the same thing. However, just as she was not inhibited by the British military after they murdered her husband, and went to the United States to plead her case, so too, in independent Ireland, she was not inhibited by the repressive Catholic State and spoke out for the rights of women in a nation which largely eschewed them.
Cruise O'Brien, Conor. "Twentieth Century Witness," in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 273. no. 1. January 1994, pp. 49–72.
Fox, R.M. Rebel Irish Women. Dublin: Talbot Press, 1935.
Levenson, Leah, and Jerry Naderstad. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: A Pioneering Irish Feminist. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Luddy, Maria. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Dublin: Irish Historical Association, 1995.
Mooney, Joanne E. "Varieties of Irish Republican Womanhood: San Francisco Lectures during their United States Tours, 1916–1925," unpublished master's thesis, San Jose State University, 1991.
Murphy, Cliona. The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.
Sheehy-Skeffington, Hanna. "British Militarism As I Have Known It," in Democracy in Ireland Since 1913. NY: Donnelly Press, 1917, pp. 21–34.
——. Impressions of Sinn Fein in America. Dublin: Davis, 1917.
——. "An Irish Pacifist," in We Did Not Fight. Edited by Julian Bell. London: Cobden Sanderson, 1935, pp. 339–353.
——. "Reminiscences of an Irish Suffragette," in Votes for Women: Irish Women's Struggle for the Vote. Edited by Andree Sheehy-Skeffington, et al. Dublin: Andree D. Sheehy-Skeffington and Rosemary Owens, 1975.
—— (Hanna Sheehy), "Women and the University Question," in New Ireland Review. Vol. 17. May–August 1902, pp. 148–151.
——. "Women in Politics," in The Bell. Vol. 7. November 1943, pp. 143–148.
——. "The Women's Movement-Ireland," in Irish Review. July 1912, pp. 225–227.
Ward, Margaret. In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism. Dublin: Attic Press, 1995.
——. Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. Kerry: Brandon, 1983.
The Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington papers are in the National Library, Dublin, Ireland.
Cliona Murphy , Professor of History, California State University, Bakersfield, and author of The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century
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