She is famous today as one of the widows of 1916 – which is unfortunate and extremely unfair, as, by that date, she had long been a highly significant figure in Irish political life in her own right. It was the nature of her husband’s death, as much as the fact of her widowhood, that gave force to this particular association.
Johanna Mary Sheehy, better known as Hanna Sheehy, was born in Kanturk in Co. Cork in 1877. Her mother was Elizabeth McCoy, known to all and sundry as ‘Bessie’, depicted cruelly by James Joyce in Ulyseesas a ‘social climbing matriarch’. Her father, David Sheehy, was an ex-Fenian and a leading member of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, who served as an MP for thirty years. Shortly after his election to the House of Commons in 1885, the family moved to Dublin. One of her sisters, Mary, lusted after by Joyce, ended up marrying the poet and politician Thomas Kettle. One of her uncles, Father Eugene Sheehy, was known as the ‘Land League priest’ and had been tossed in prison for his activities during the Land War of 1879-82. All in all, an exceptionally interesting family. So, no pressure on young Hanna there.
She began to show promise at the Royal University in the 1890s, graduating with a Master’s degree in 1902, the year before James Joyce took time off from being a seminal literary genius, to introduce her to her future husband, his college mate Frank Skeffington. The two were married in 1903, adopting the surname Sheehy Skeffington, to start off their life together on equal terms, much to the annoyance of Frank’s family, who figured Hanna should have been happy enough not to start life with a hyphen.
In 1908 they established, along with Margaret Cousins and her husband James, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and the newspaper The Irish Citizen, both of which championed votes for women. In 1913 Hanna lost her teaching job after she was convicted and jailed for throwing stones in Dublin Castle during the suffragist campaign. While in jail she went on hunger strike, but was released under the terms of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913. As soon as her health had recovered, however, she was re-arrested. You can see why the legislation was nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. Unlike the British suffragist movement—and the famous Pankhurst family—which split over World War 1, the Irish equivalent—led by the Skeffington family—was unambiguous in its opposition to the Great War.
Hanna and Frank did not have much time together. He became the highest profile civilian casualty of the Easter Rising, when he was brutally murdered by firing squad on the orders of a demented British officer, Captain John Bowen Colthurst, from Cork. Hanna spent much of the rest of her life trying to secure justice for her murdered husband. Given that the criminal in the case was a British Army officer, and the victim was an Irish civilian, you can probably imagine how well that went. Put it this way, in 2016, the families of the men killed by Bowen Colthurst were still seeking an apology from the British government.
In 1917 Hanna was imprisoned in Holloway in London for Sinn Fein activities, one of many moderates who threw in their lot with that organization because of cack-handed British war-time policies in Ireland.
Hanna would have been immensely proud of her grand-daughter, the botanist Dr. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington who took on NUI Galway in a gender discrimination case in 2014. Had the university had the wisdom to consult its School of History on that occasion it might well have been advised to avoid taking on anyone of that name in a fight. Dr. Sheehy Skeffington won her case before the Equality Tribunal.
When Hanna died, in 1946, at the age of sixty-six, she joined her late husband in Glasnevin cemetery.
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, firebrand, socialist, feminist and suffragist died seventy-two years ago, on this day.
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