Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner: Her Memoirs and Political Writings, by Margaret Ward, University College Dublin Press, 463 pp, €35, ISBN: 978-1910820148
“We all, Unionists and Nationalists alike, live overmuch on our past in Ireland.” This could be a comment on some aspects of Irish society today, especially in the North; in fact it is Hanna Sheehy Skeffington writing in 1909. So often, reading this major new collection of her political writings, I am struck not only by how little progress we have made in certain areas but by how prescient Sheehy Skeffington often was. In 1919, for example, she demands equal pay for women – a fight which, in some industries and institutions, has not yet been won.
If Irish history did not begin in 1916, another characteristically pithy comment from HSS, neither did it end there. There has long been a tendency to define the revolutionary women of that generation by their relations with their usually more famous menfolk, as wives, mothers and daughters, and to regard their subsequent activities, rather sentimentally, as fulfilling the legacies of those martyred men. To some today, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946) might be best-known as the widow of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, murdered during the Easter Rising, but this is to do both these remarkable people a disservice. She herself, it is true, in 1917, told American audiences that “I want to continue my husband’s work so that when I meet him some day in the Great Beyond he will be pleased by my stewardship.” But in fact, during the last thirty years of her life she did much more than that.
Born in 1877 into a politically active Fenian family, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington seemed destined for radicalism. In the unfinished memoir section which begins this book, she writes of a childhood visit to Kilmainham Gaol, where her beloved uncle, Father Eugene Sheehy, was imprisoned for membership of the outlawed Land League. This was to be far from her last prison experience: her own prison memoirs constitute one of the most fascinating sequences in the book. She credited Francis Skeffington (they joined their surnames at their marriage in what was then – 1903 –a very modern gesture of equality) with introducing her to women’s issues. He championed women’s higher education and suffrage, and throughout her career, her feminism remained at the heart of her life.
Thus it is fitting that this book is subtitled “Suffragette and Sinn Féiner”, with “Suffragette” coming first, acknowledging and celebrating the centrality of HSS’s feminism. For another tendency in looking at Irish history is to allow issues of national identity to overshadow other concerns. Unlike the more obviously famous Constance Markievicz, she never considered female suffrage secondary to the struggle for Irish independence. As early as 1909, in an article on “Sinn Féin and Irishwomen” she warned that “until the women of Ireland are free, the men will not achieve emancipation”, characterising the concept of “Sinn Féin” in a typically broad way. Her very last published writing was an article in The Irish Housewife in 1946, where she reflects on the inadequacy of “clumsy man-made words” which cannot reflect the reality of female experience: “I believe ‘wife’ is still described in legal documents as ‘of no occupation’ just as an unmarried woman has to be described as a spinster even if she’s an architect or Chief Executive and never saw a spinning wheel …” The last words are the galvanising: “Go to it, housewives!” In the 1920s and 1930s, when she was an outspoken critic of the Free State government, her dislike was not based solely on her anti-Treaty stance, and on her opposition to the Free State, but also on its appalling record on women’s rights, which was such a betrayal of the equal citizenship enshrined in the Declaration of the Irish Republic.
This is a substantial book, nearly five hundred pages of close print, and a wide-ranging one. Sheehy Skeffington wrote on all kinds of subjects, from 1902 to just before her death in 1946. The memoir fragments, articles, speeches, pamphlets, reviews and letters range across feminism, republicanism, suffrage, co-education, socialism, the Treaty, the First World War, Russia, internationalism and pacifism. Mainly she is concerned with the big political questions, but there are also book and theatre reviews. Sheehy Skeffington was a cultured, intellectual woman, who taught languages for a living, though this sometimes conflicted with her political life, as when in 1923 she was dismissed from the post of examiner for the Intermediate Board because of her politics and opposition to the Oath of Allegiance. It is not a light read, but it is a fairly accessible one, and could be recommended to anyone interested in Irish history and feminism. The sheer volume, depth and width of the material are made easier to negotiate by two things – Margaret Ward’s excellent editing, and HSS’s own writing style.
The book is organised into thematic sections, each introduced and set usefully into its historical and biographical context by Ward, Sheehy Skeffington’s biographer and the acknowledged expert on Ireland’s revolutionary women. The book benefits from her scholarly editing, as well as from her deft organisation of the vast material. This is broadly chronological, which means, for example, that the writings on women and education come before those on nationalism, but naturally there is some overlap. The foreword from HSS’s granddaughter Micheline Sheehy feels like a direct link with the past, even though Micheline never met her grandmother. A useful chronology helps the reader to see at the outset how very much Hanna Sheehy Skeffington achieved. In her own foreword to her unfinished memoirs, she admits that (in the fine suffragette tradition of Deeds Not Words), “I am more keen on doing things than writing about them.”
But write about them she did. The other thing which makes this book so readable and accessible is Hanna Sheehy Skeffington herself. She is a wonderful writer – witty, clear and pithy. Not all people of action have the ability to articulate their beliefs so elegantly but HSS’s style is always lively and readable. She is often sardonic: in an article on “Irish Secondary Teachers” in the Irish Review, 1912, she criticises the iniquitous conditions which encourage Irish teachers to seek employment elsewhere: “Ireland, as of yore, exports her scholars after exploiting them; her saints she usually keeps at home and provides for out of the public funds.” She has no place for empty cant and is prepared to criticise her political comrades: “I have met Sinn Féiners and Gaelic Leaguers whose attitude towards women in public life would bear considerable amendment.” Similarly, she is fair-minded enough to give credit to her enemies when they deserve it. In the 1930s, while she was certainly no friend of Britain, she still recognised that women in Britain had made greater strides in public life than in Ireland – for example, the marriage bar was more rigidly enforced in Ireland, women were excluded from juries, and far fewer served on councils, etc than their English sisters: “Thus in general it may be said that, while the Free State has taken over from Britain, whereas the latter has advanced with regard to the position of women, we have either remained stationary – or have retrogressed.” This ability to see beyond the narrow confines of nationalism increased my respect for the woman who emerges from these pages – a true internationalist, feminist and revolutionary.
As for her character, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington comes across as brave, outspoken, intelligent and exceptionally clear-minded. She might have been gratified by Cathal O’Shannon’s opinion of her, in her obituary in The Irish Times (April 23rd, 1946) as “the ablest of the women we have had in public life in … [in] the last 30 or 40 years”, though less so – as he admits – by his equation of those abilities to her “masculine” mind. The same obituary pays tribute to HSS’s skills as a public speaker, “in a class by herself, and in irony, humour, quickness of wit and sharp, penetrating thrust a real delight”. These qualities are in abundance in this book. In the speeches, in particular, we see her considerable rhetorical skills at play. In 1918, in her speech against conscription in Madison Square Garden, the audience’s reactions are included in the transcript, which brings the scene dramatically to life.
The fragments of memoir include more personal writing, but always with a political slant, reminding us of the extent to which this woman’s life was led in public and devoted to politics. The pamphlet ‘British Militarism as I Have Known It’ on her husband, Frank’s, murder in 1916 I found almost unbearably moving in its unsentimental account of the murder and subsequent cover-up. We can get inured to the horrors of the past; this account brings home the realities of the dangers under which people like the Sheehy Skeffingtons lived. Time and again, reading of HSS’s unflagging commitment to her causes, I was struck by her dedication and courage as well as by her humanity. Again, her fair-mindedness is seen in the description of her treatment in Armagh Gaol in 1933, where she served a one-month sentence for defying a banning order (she was not allowed to travel to Northern Ireland, whose existence was anathema to her.) “Armagh is the humanest jail I have known,” she wrote in An Phoblacht. “It surpasses far both Mountjoy and Holloway in the treatment of prisoners.”
The book’s publication is timely. As we approach the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave (some) voting rights to women in Britain and Ireland, there is a welcome re-evaluation of and resurgence of interest in our feminist predecessors. It is to be hoped that many young women will read this book and understand the vision of women like HSS. But also, in this era of Trump and Brexit, we would also do well to remind ourselves of HSS’s internationalism.
From the earliest stage, her Irish republicanism was not romanticised and inward-looking, but a clear effort to place Ireland and her interests in an international context, as a small independent republic, looking to countries such as Finland for inspiration. Travelling in Europe in 1929, she laments that: “That is the first thing that strikes one in new Europe; more languages, more frontiers than ever. The war has added fresh complications, set up fresh barriers.” She advocates for a united Europe, and we can imagine how she would have welcomed the EU and deplored Brexit, with its inevitable consequences for the Irish north-south border. Speaking to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which met in Dublin in 1926, she declared that “all these barriers make for friction”.
Sometimes her words shine with a chilling prescience, reminding the reader not of how far we have come in a hundred years, but of how reactionary some of our current attitudes are. Writing in support of co-education in 1902, she argues against a utilitarian approach to a university education: “To regard a material commercial end as the primary idea of University training is to degrade and corrupt its ideals and render it powerless for good” – a sentiment which could be as aptly expressed today as universities increasingly adopt business models. In 1916-18, HSS travelled widely in America, gaining support for the republican cause from Irish-American communities. Her comment on the American character is strikingly perceptive of the country which exactly 100 years later elected Donald Trump: “The Americans… are incurably sentimental. They like rather blatant appeals to the emotions and are very eager for ‘thrills’.”
Time and again one is struck by how much this book brings the past to life, and links it with the present and future. HSS seems so genuinely modern in her outlook. This is a great time for feminism, a time to look forward to a better future when women are respected on genuinely equal terms. But it’s also a time to acknowledge the dedication, vision and courage of women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who paved the way.
The Irish Times described Sheena Wilkinson as ‘one of our finest writers for young people’, Her most recent novel is Star By Star, set in 1918.