The road to suffrage in Ireland was a difficult one not without its share of battles. At a time when Ireland was experiencing rebellions, risings, and civil war, it is easy to overlook the plight of the women who wanted to have a say in the future of their country. As St Brigid’s Day approaches, the time seems fitting to reflect on the journey to equal voting rights and the contributions of one couple in particular at a time when the face of Ireland was changing day by day.
In the early years of the 20th century, Ireland was in a state of political and social upheaval. Within a few short years, the country would go through protests, the advent of socialism and trade unions, a war against the crown, and a civil war, before the Free State was finally declared in 1922. Whilst Ireland was fighting for independence, the women of Ireland were also fighting for equality, particularly with regards to the right to vote. Hanna and Francis, better known as Frank, Sheehy-Skeffington were key players in many of the most important events of this time.
Hannah Sheehy was born into a highly Republican family in Kanturk, County Cork, in May of 1877. She received a full education, obtaining both a Bachelor and a Masters Degree from St Mary’s University College in Dublin. When she was a young woman, her close family friend, James Joyce, introduced her to a man from Bailieborough, County Cavan. His name was Frank Skeffington. Frank was a well known supporter of women’s rights. He was often seen sporting a ‘Votes for Women’ badge, and even famously left a position in a school in Kilkenny when they refused to change their admission policies to allow for more gender equality. The pair were a perfect match. They would spend long afternoons together in Bewley’s Cafe discussing, art, politics, and social issues. On the 3rd of June 1903, having both recently obtained their MA degrees, the pair were wed in the University Chapel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. Unconventional from the very beginning of their marriage, the couple chose to shirk the traditional wedding dress and suit and instead they both wore their graduation robes for the ceremony. Theirs was to be a marriage established on equal terms, as indicated by their decision to combine their surnames and go by Sheehy-Skeffington, which would have been highly irregular for early 20th century Ireland. Frank’s father allegedly saw the move as a personal snub on the family and their name.
Although the Sheehy-Skeffingtons were both employed as teachers, it wasn’t long before political and social activism took centre stage in their lives. Together they published a newspaper called ‘The Citizen’, which was dedicated to the equal rights and responsibilities of all citizens of Ireland, regardless of gender. They also founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), an organisation which was focused on achieving votes for women. Their primary goal was to have an equal right to vote written into the Home Rule Bill. Hanna was also a founding member of the Irish Women Worker’s Workers Union (IWWU), along with Liverpool born Irish Republican Delia Larkin. When the Dublin Lock Outs occurred in 1913, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons wasted no time in getting to work in Liberty Hall, providing aid to the families of the protesting workers. They believed in an Ireland that would treat its workers fairly and cherish all of its children equally, as the proclamation promised.
Though Frank was a strict pacifist, Hanna was not against getting her hands dirty for the cause of Suffrage. In 1912 she was one of eight women arrested for smashing the windows of Dublin Castle. The move was a violent act of protest against the exclusion of women’s votes from the Home Rule Bill. Hanna was imprisoned in Mountjoy for one month, but ended up serving two when she refused to pay her fine. Her political activity also cost her her teaching job. A year later she found herself back in Mountjoy after assaulting a police officer but she was released after five days of hunger strike. Imprisonment would become a familiar experience in her life.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, though not directly involved in the conflict, the Sheehy-Skeffintons worked behind the scenes to help the men and women on the frontline. For Hanna this meant running messages and delivering food to those fighting in the GPO. For Frank, it meant keeping the peace on the streets. Whilst trying to prevent looting, he was captured by British soldiers who falsely imprisoned and ultimately shot him. Though his murderer would eventually be deemed insane and held in an asylum, for Hanna, it was too late. She had lost her partner in her fight for equality.
Although she had lost Frank, Hanna did not give up on their vision. She continued to fight for women’s rights. She continued to write extensively on the matter. She even travelled to America where she went on tour giving talks on the Irish struggle for independence and the need for gender equality. She campaigned for the rights of prisoners after the Irish Civil War. Although she was staunchly anti-treaty, Hanna believed in the right to freedom of all Irish people. Women received their full voting rights with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, but Hanna’s days of activism were not over yet. She served more time in prison for entering Northern Ireland in spite of a travel ban which had been placed on her for her Republican activity. She was also deeply opposed to the partition of the six counties of Northern Ireland.
Hanna spent the rest of her days continuing the fight which she started with her husband Frank, and when she died in 1946, she was buried by his side in Glasnevin Cemetery. The Sheehy-Skeffintons were trailblazers for gender equality and social reform. They presented an example of how a modern marriage could operate on equal terms and how much a couple could achieve if they were united in their beliefs.
Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.
Irish women finally win the right to vote
The Dublin Lock-out
This Insight has been produced with support received from the Heritage Council.