Wyse Power, Jennie (1858–1941)

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Wyse Power, Jennie (1858–1941)

Irish suffragist and nationalist . Name variations: Jennie Wyse-Power. Born Jane O'Toole in Baltinglass, County Wicklow, Ireland, in May 1858 (exact day unknown but was baptized May 23, 1858); died in Dublin, Ireland, on January 5, 1941; seventh child of Edward O'Toole and Mary (Norton) O'Toole; married John Wyse Power (a journalist), on July 5, 1883; children: Kathleen (died in infancy); Maire Wyse Power; Nancy Wyse Power; Charles Stewart Wyse Power.

Jennie Wyse Power was born in 1858, the last child and third daughter of Edward O'Toole and Mary Norton O'Toole ; although christened Jane she was always called Jennie. The O'Tooles came from farming families in the Baltinglass area of west Wicklow, but two years after Jennie's birth the family moved to Dublin. Her education is unknown, but as she was well educated and knew several languages she may possibly have gone to one of the good convent schools near the family home. Wicklow was a county with a strong rebel tradition, and Edward O'Toole, when he moved to Dublin, allowed his house to be used as a refuge and shelter for members of the Fenian Brotherhood, a radical republican group which wanted complete separation from Britain.

Jennie's parents died within 18 months of each other in 1876–77. After this, she lived with her brother, but she enjoyed a degree of freedom and independence remarkable for the time. Her farming background kindled her interest in the land issue which was agitating Irish politics at the time. Tenant farmers were campaigning for fair rents, security of tenure, and the right of free sale. They also wanted the opportunity to buy their farms from their landlords. The campaign intensified between 1879 and 1881 and led to increasing violence. Anna Parnell , sister of the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, set up the Ladies' Land League (LLL) in January 1881. An auxiliary organization of the Land League which had been founded in 1879, it soon had hundreds of branches in Ireland, Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Australia. By August of that year, Jennie, who was a great admirer of Anna Parnell, was a member of the LLL executive. The League kept records of landlords and evictions and also gave relief to evicted tenants who were destitute and homeless.

There was some ecclesiastical criticism of the LLL from the archbishop of Dublin who objected to women taking "their stand in the noisy arena of public life. They are asked to forget the modesty of their sex and the high dignity of their womanhood by leaders who seem utterly reckless of the consequences." However, other Catholic churchmen approved of the LLL. When Charles Parnell and additional Land League leaders were arrested in October 1881, the LLL carried on its work despite police harassment. Members reported on evictions, and a newspaper reported on "an altercation" at one meeting held near Baltinglass between Jennie and the authorities. When Parnell was released in May 1882, he paid tribute to the work of the LLL. Privately, however, he felt it was becoming too radical, and the LLL was dissolved shortly thereafter. This created a serious rift between Charles and his sister Anna.

In July 1883, Jennie married John Wyse Power, a journalist of Fenian sympathies who had been imprisoned during the land agitation. He remained closely involved in various radical nationalist movements and was under regular police surveillance. By 1889, they had three daughters, Kathleen (who died in infancy), Maire and Nancy. In 1890, the country was convulsed by the divorce scandal involving Charles Parnell and Katherine O'Shea which split the Irish nationalist party. Jennie and her husband supported Parnell, although she reportedly said to him: "[T]hings would have been different if you had given us votes for women; you'd have swept the country." Parnell supposedly replied: "I daresay you are quite right." Jennie was expecting another baby when Charles died suddenly in October 1891, and when her only son was born the following year he was christened Charles Stewart Wyse Power. She also compiled and edited a book of Parnell's speeches, Words of the Dead Chief (1892), which had an introduction by Anna.

After Parnell's death, the Wyse Powers were no longer active in politics, although Jennie remained interested in women's suffrage. In 1899, she set up her own shop in Dublin. The Irish Farm Produce Company, which also had its own restaurant, prospered and soon became a mecca for various nationalist groups. In 1900, she joined Maud Gonne 's Inghinidhe na hEireann and became one of its four vice-presidents. In 1903, Jennie was elected a poor-law guardian for North Dublin and as such had responsibility for social welfare issues affecting the poor. She retained this post until 1911. Her business continued to expand and her three children were also gifted academically. Nancy Wyse Power was studying for a doctorate in Bonn when war broke out. On her return, she became involved in the Irish Neutrality League which was opposed to the war. Son Charles had become a barrister and defended nationalists arrested under war regulations.

The family was aware of the plans being hatched for a rebellion against British rule. The proclamation declaring an Irish Republic on Easter Monday 1916 was actually signed at the Wyse Power house which was soon in the thick of the fighting. The house and Jennie's shop were destroyed, but this mattered little compared to the sudden death in July 1916 of her daughter Maire Wyse Power who had established herself as a brilliant philological scholar. As radical nationalism regrouped after the rebellion, Jennie was active in most of the key organizations, including Cumann na mBan (the Women's League) and Sinn Fein. In December 1918, she and her daughter Nancy canvassed for Countess Constance Markievicz 's successful election to a Dublin constituency.

During the Irish War of Independence, the Wyse Powers sheltered people who were on the run from the British authorities. Fortunately, none of Jennie's family were arrested. In 1920, she won a seat in the municipal elections; she was also on the executives of Sinn Fein and Cumann na mBan and was a member of the industrial commission set up by the revolutionary parliament, the Dail. Nancy was engaged in Irish propaganda work in Germany. When the terms for Irish independence were finally agreed between Irish and British representatives in December 1921, they caused a split in Ireland which deeply affected Jennie and her family. She decided reluctantly to accept the terms, although some were unpalatable to her. Events spiraled towards civil war in 1922 but Jennie maintained friendships across the political divide, with Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn and others.

In December 1922, Wyse Power was nominated to the senate by the new Irish prime minister, W.T. Cosgrave, one of only four women senators. She told an American paper in 1923: "I do not hold that women should be everywhere just because they are women but because they are able to be there." She was elected vice-president of the government party, Cumann na nGaed-heal, but she was increasingly disenchanted with the government's policies and became an independent senator in 1926. She fought particularly against legislation which tried to restrict women's employment in the civil service and to prevent them from serving on juries.

After her husband's death in May 1926 and the sale of her business in 1929, Jennie lived with Nancy who was a senior civil servant. Charles was a judge in Galway. She remained active in the senate until 1934 when her term ended. In her last years, Wyse Power was contemplating writing her memoirs but regrettably never got around to writing them before her death in January 1941.


O'Neill, Marie. From Parnell to de Valera: A Biography of Jennie Wyse Power 1858–1941. Dublin: Black-water Press, 1991.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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