On This Day – 20 April 1946 – The death of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington



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.




On This Day – 4.11. 1908  The Irish Women’s Franchise League is established



What’s the difference between a suffragist and a suffragette? Apparently the latter is a more militant version of the former. In which case Ireland boasted plenty of suffragettes.


It is a slight misconception that Irish women didn’t get the vote until 1918. In 1898 they were granted the vote in local government elections. But the object of suffragists was to secure the franchise for adult women in parliamentary elections and the right of women to present themselves as candidates. In the self governing colony of New Zealand women had been entitled to vote since 1893 and full voting rights had also been secured in Australia in 1902. So the UK, which included Ireland, was well behind the colonies.


In the early 1900s a rather genteel organization with the ungainly name of  the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association was in the vanguard of the struggle for votes for women. But it was not the kind of group that demanded universal suffrage. It preferred to ask politely. Male politicians liked politeness but that didn’t mean they listened to gentle persuasion.


In 1908 a rather more muscular combination calling itself the Irish Women’s Franchise League was established by, among others, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins. The latter was a remarkable woman who went on to greater fame in India where she composed the music for that country’s national anthem.  Sheehy Skeffington, a secondary teacher, a socialist and a nationalist  was from a political family. Her father, David Sheehy, was a nationalist MP. In 1903 she married Francis Skeffington and took his name. She insisted, however, that he take hers at the same time.  He was one of the co-founders of the IWFL.


The newly formed Irish Women’s Franchise League was based on the Pankhurst-led – and Pankhurst-ruled – Women’s Political and Social Union but the homage of imitation did not include any desire for affiliation. The Irish suffrage movement remained resolutely separate from its British counterpart. In part this distinctiveness was expressed in the use of the colours orange and green in the organisation’s insignia.


Their differences were seen most clearly at the outbreak of the Great War when the bulk of the British suffragists sided with the war effort. The same was, however, not true of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, which resolutely opposed the war and the drive for recruits in Ireland.


Irish suffragette leaders were required to address numerous public meetings. Margaret Cousins, to whom public speaking was as a closed book, described how she would practice in an open field with only a donkey looking on. There were obviously quite a few male donkeys who attended Irish women’s suffrage meetings because Sheehy Skeffington recalled in later life that speakers had to be  ‘capable of keeping their temper under bombardments of rotten eggs, over-ripe tomatoes, bags of flour [and] stinking chemicals ‘


Sheehy Skeffington was prominent in the militant actions carried out by members of the Franchise League. She was jailed in 1912 for breaking windows in government buildings. She threw a hatchet at British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, though it probably did not have the effect of waking him up. She lost her teaching job for throwing stones at Dublin Castle and assaulting a policeman. Bear in mind, in relation to the latter charge, that your average member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police would have been close to six feet in height . Hanna was five foot two.


Like many other early 20th century feminists Sheehy Skeffington went on hunger strike while in jail. She was temporarily released under legislation especially devised for hunger striking suffragettes. It was officially entitled the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act, but better known under its colloquial name, the Cat and Mouse Act. As the name suggests this allowed the authorities to release a hunger striker and then re-arrest her when her health recovered.


The Irish Women’s Franchise League was founded one hundred and eight years ago, on this day.