Fearless Woman: Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Feminism and the Irish Revolutionary
by Margaret Ward (University College Press, €30/£25)
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was born on May 24, 1877 in Kanturk, Co. Cork. She came from a well-known nationalist family. Fr Eugene Sheehy, her uncle, was a leading figure in the Land League and a close associate of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Hanna was educated at the Dominican Convent College at Eccles Street in Dublin and its affiliate, St Mary’s University. After graduating she was employed at her alma mater. Subsequently she secured an appointment as a language teacher in the School of Commerce at Rathmines.
She married Francis Skeffington in 1903. Kindred spirits, they took each other’s surnames as a symbol of the equality of their relationship. Her husband was arrested and taken to Portobello Barracks during Easter Week 1916, where he and two other civilians were shot by a firing squad.
Hanna campaigned tirelessly to ensure that Captain Bowen Colthurst was convicted for that crime.
During Easter Week 1916 Hanna carried messages to the GPO”
A popular eccentric, Francis Skeffington was an active campaigner for many causes: feminism, pacifism, socialism and nationalism. Hanna embraced all her husband’s enthusiasms, particularly his commitment to promoting the women’s movement.
Already in 1902 she had joined the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association which campaigned for women’s access to the franchise. With others in 1908 she organised the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a militant group.
In 1912 with other members of the IWFL she was involved in window smashing and other disruptive conduct in a protest at the exclusion of women from the franchise in the third Home Rule Bill. For this she and her comrades spent a month in prison, where they went on hunger-strike.
In May 1912 the first issue of the suffrage newspaper The Irish Citizen appeared. It was edited jointly by James Cousins and Francis Skeffington. After Cousins emigrated to India and Hanna’s husband was murdered, she edited it until 1920. She was greatly influenced by James Connolly and this was reflected in her writing. Her socialist thinking she put into practice. She was in Liberty Hall during the 1913 Lockout.
Hanna was a strong supporter of Sinn Féin. During Easter Week 1916 she carried messages to the GPO. For two years after the murder of her husband she urged support for Sinn Féin from various platforms. She was elected as a Sinn Féin candidate to Dublin Corporation in 1919.
As a member of the Executive Committee of Sinn Féin, she was a judge in the Dáil Éireann courts in South Dublin. She was also on the Executive Committee of the Irish White Cross, funded by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland.
Hanna opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. With Linda Kearns and Kathleen Boland she went on a fund-raising campaign in the US for the relief of Anti-Treatyites interned by the Irish Free State army.
A strong supporter of de Valera, she was one of four women appointed to the executive of Fianna Fáil when he founded it in 1926.
However, she broke with de Valera when he and the party entered Dáil Éireann. She reverted to Sinn Féin and became assistant editor of An Phoblacht.
She stood unsuccessfully for the Sinn Féin in the 1943 general election…she died on April 20, 1946.
In August 1930 she went as a delegate of the Friends of Soviet Russia to study the Soviet system of government and subsequently became an active advocate of the Communist system.
In this she joined Bernard Shaw and the Webbs and many others as a praise chorus for Stalin: not admirable then, even less admirable now, when we know what was going on in the Gulag Archaepelago. The supposed liberator had become the greatest oppressor of the Russian worker.
Hanna opposed the new constitution proposed by de Valera in November 1937. She co-founded the Women’s Social Progressive League to oppose its provisions on women. She stood unsuccessfully for the Sinn Féin in the 1943 general election. In failing health for a number of years she died on April 20, 1946.
Margaret Ward’s excellent biography is a revised and greatly extended version of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: A Life which was published in 1993.
Margaret also enhances her new biography with a very useful annual diary of Hanna’s life and times as well as detailed profiles of 29 of Hanna’s suffrage friends and colleagues, who were the most prominent feminists activists of that time.