Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (1877-1946)

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was born Johanna Sheehy on  May 27, 1877 in Kanturk, Co. Cork, the first of six surviving children born to David Sheehy and Elizabeth (nee McCoy). The Sheehy's owned and operated a successful milling business.

Hanna's father was a staunch Irish Republican who was active in both the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Irish Land League, militant organizations opposed to oppressive British rule in Ireland. As a consequence of his activism and outspokenness he was imprisoned on a number of occasions for incitement and sedition. After the abortive IRB Rising in the late 1860' he fled to the United States to avoid arrest and imprisonment. When things quieted down in the early 1870's. he returned to Ireland. After the "New Departure"(1) of 1879 he became an Irish Parliamentary Party Member of Parliament, first representing south Galway and  after that Meath.

In 1887 when Hanna was ten years old the family moved to Dublin where she attended the Dominican Convent in Eccles Street. She was an excellent who demonstrated an innate talent for languages.

When Hanna was 18 she developed symptoms associated with incipient tuberculosis. As German physicians were in the forefront of diagnosing and treating tuberculosis at that time, Hanna was sent to the Rhineland for what was generally a prolonged period of treatment in a sanatorium setting. 

After returned home in 1996 she enrolled at St Mary's University College in St. Stephens Green to study modern languages, specifically, in her case, French and German.  St. Mary's College was established by the Dominicans in 1893 to promote higher education for middle-class Catholic women. As a private Catholic College, St. Mary's was not granted a royal charter, therefore could not award recognized degrees. In order to graduate she took her final exams at the Royal University of Ireland from whence she received a BA degree in 1899.

The Royal University charter enabled Irish students to sit the universities examinations and receive degrees.

After receiving her BA degree Hanna attended University College Dublin (UCD) in pursuit of an MA in modern languages.  Part of her studies were conducted in  Paris and Bonn. On her return to Dublin in 1902 she was awarded a first class honors MA degree in modern languages.

As a qualified teacher she was employed as on a part time basis at the Dominican Convent school in Eccles Street, the school where she received her secondary education.  She soon discovered that as a female lay teacher her career options were limited as the Catholic Church controlled all aspects of Catholic education.   All that was available to her and other qualified lay teachers were temporary assignments that ended when a qualified nun appeared to fill the position on a permanent basis. After completing her assignment  at the Dominican Convent she continued her career as a teacher of French and German at the Rathmines College of Commerce. 

This institutionalized discriminatory situation that she was confronted with while at the Dominican Convent caused her to question the political system that, not alone, tolerated but condoned such blatant gender inequalities. That experience was an awakening of sorts that led her, over the next 8 years, to abandon constitutional nationalism and its institutions in favor of a more radical approach to bring about a more equitable society.

Up until 1912 the focus of the Irish Party and most Irish politicians was to achieving Home Rule without regard to its inequities. The Home Rule charter acceptable John Redmond and the Irish Party did not include gender equality -- women were barred from voting in general elections.

By 1912 the "New Departure" initiative of 1879 was coming apart. The IRB, after a period of dormancy, was again re-emerging as a  'physical force" alternative to the  ineffective and flawed constitutional approach.

In 1903 Hanna married Frank Skeffington, a university register. As an expression of equality in all aspects of their relationship they symbolically joined their names to 'Sheehy Skeffington' .

Both Hanna and Frank joined Ireland’s only suffrage organization, the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. The aim of the organization was to campaign for women's suffrage and  to advance women's position in local government.

In 1908 Hanna and Frank together with Margaret and James Cousins, set up the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) as an independent, militant suffrage organization  modeled on the British-based Women’s Social and Political Union. It addition to its suffrage underpinning it embraced the labor movement, Irish nationalism and the revival of the Irish culture.

In 1912, the British House of Commons passed a Home Rule Bill for Ireland excluded equal rights for women. Women were denied the right to vote thus denying them the rights of Irish citizenship. On June 12 , 1912, in an act of defiance, members of the IWFL took to the streets smashing windows in Dublin Castle, the United Irish League and other citadel's of male power. Hanna was adamant that Dublin Castle, the bastion of British power in Ireland , was  to be her target. As a result of her actions she was imprisoned for two months in Mountjoy Jail and also lost her teaching job.

At a suffrage meeting in Phoenix Park before her imprisonment she stated her actions were in line with the Irish struggle for national freedom.

The defiant actions of the women of the IWFL on that day in June of 1912 was the beginning of the decline of John Redmond Irish Parliamentary Party who unequivocally opposed equal rights women.

Hanna was imprisoned for a second time in November of  1913 for an altercation with a member of the British security forces. She went on hunger strike and was released after six days,

Both Hanna and her husband Frank opposed the War in 1914. Frank was imprisoned for protesting the recruitment of the Irish Volunteers that Redmond encouraged. notwithstanding the fact that Home Rule for Ireland, Redmond's hoped for crowning glory, was set aside by the British at the onset of the 1914 war.

As a committed feminist Hanna  was critical of  the subservient role of Cumann na mBan (CnamB) to the Irish Volunteers, but, nonetheless, supported their aims. Although she and her husband did not take a direct part in the fighting during Easter Rising of 1916, neither did they did not stand idly by. She took it upon herself to bring food and messages to the various outposts while her husband Frank tried to stop looting.  A declared pacifist Frank was arrested while trying to stop looting, and the following day, Wednesday, was summarily executed by a firing squad on the orders of a British officer.

After the Rising Hanna shed any reservations she had regarding the use of physical force to achieve the stated purpose of the Rising -- a sovereign Irish Republic that embraced gender equality in a pluralistic society.

Towards the end of 1916  Hanna undertook a tour of the Unites States in response to an invitation from the Friends of Irish Freedom.   From January 6, 1917 to June 27, she spoke at over 250 meetings.  Her tour started in New York and continued through New England, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, the Pacific Northwest, California  and back to again to New York.  The theme of her narrative, which, remained consistent throughout her tour, dealt with the evils of British Militarism, the British governments sanction of her husbands murder and Ireland's just struggle freedom and sovereignty.  She raised $40,000 during the tour that she handed over to Michael Collins, who, at that time was the Secretary to the National Aid and Volunteers Dependents Fund.

During her tour the British tried to everything to stop her fro speaking. They also tried  to prevent her from informing the American public of Britain's brutality  towards their Irish opponents and their blatant disregard for human rights and democratic principles. On her return they tried, but failed, to prevent her from returning to Ireland. Shortly after arriving back in Ireland she was arrested and imprisoned with Countess Markievicz,  Kathleen Clarke, Maude Goone in Holloway Jail in London.  After starting a hunger strike she was released.

In September 1918 she joined Sinn Fein and shortly afterwards was appointed to its executive  In May of the 1919 she was appointed Organizing Secretary primarily responsible for the organization's propaganda campaign. Her anti-British speeches during the War of Independence caused her to go on the run to avoid arrest and internment. 

In 1920 Hanna was elected to the Dublin Corporation serving on the Technical Education Committee and the Public Libraries Committee. She also acted as judge in the Republican courts in south Dublin and  was hired as a French teacher at the Technical Institute in Dun Laoghaire.

After the Anglo-Irish truce was signed to stop the fighting in July of 1921, Hanna played a prominent role, as an intermediary, in the peace negotiations between de Valera, President of Dail Eireann and Lloyd George the British prime minister.  Despite her involvement in the negotiations she and the women of Cumann na mBan opposed the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty, the establishment of the Free State, the partition of Ireland and the Oath of Allegiance to the English King.

At the onset of the Civil War in April 1922, Hanna and other Republican women tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the fighting. Despite her aversion to war she supported the Republicans who continued to struggle for the Republic proclaimed in 1916.  At the request of de Valera she undertook a second tour of the United States which lasted from October of 1922 to May of 1923. During that tour she, together with Linda Kearns and Kathleen Boland, visited 23 states raising funds on behalf of the American Committee of Irish Republican Soldiers and Prisoner's Dependant Fund. The women who crisscrossed the country raised $123,000.

After the Civil War she was barred from teaching because she sided with the Republicans and refused to swear allegiance to the English king.

The British buttressed Free State government that took over in 1923 was misogynistic, anti-republican and opportunistic. The brutality directed at women opponents during the Civil War far exceeded that meted out by the British during the War of Independence. There was no place in the dominion state for those who supported or fought for the Republic proclaimed in 1916.

In 1925 Hanna was elected to the Dublin County Council where she served alongside other republicans women including Constance Markievicz and Dr Kathleen Lynn.  She also worked with the Women’s Prisoners Defense League founded by Maude Gonne to help Republican prisoners and their families.

In 1926, her desire to better challenge Cumann na nGaedhealI, the Free State party in power, overcame her trepidation to join the executive the newly formed Fianna Fail party headed by de Valera whose apathy towards women was no secret. Uncomfortable from the onset for having joined she took the opportunity to resign when de Valera proposed that newly elected TD take the Oath of Allegiance to the English king in order to enter the Dail.

After that she threw her support to the republican cause helping to edit  An Phoblacht.  When An Phoblacht was suppressed by the Free Stat she single handedly published the Republican File.

Hanna considered the Fianna Fail led government that took over 1932 to be more theocratic than democratic, provincial in its outlook and buoyed by censorship  fear. She was a leading opponent of de Valera and Bishop John McQuad's constitution of 1937 that essentially relegated the role of women to kitchen duties.

In 1933 she was imprisoned for a month by the Unionist government  for crossing the border to speak on behalf of republican women prisoners.

Hanna, like many republican women, remained true to her beliefs. She was immune to the lure of power, money or other inducement so enticing to so many her male contemporaries. 

She died on Easter Saturday 20 April 1946.


Notes:

1,  The term New Departure has been used to describe several initiatives in the late 19th century where Irish republicans, who were committed to independence from Britain through use of physical force, attempted to find a common ground for co-operation with groups committed to Irish Home Rule through constitutional means. The term refers to the fact that Fenians were to some extent departing from their orthodox doctrine of non-involvement with constitutional politics, especially the British parliament. It was coined by John Devoy in an anonymous article in the New York Herald on 27 October 1878 in which he laid out a framework for a new policy.

2, 'To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter - these were my means.

 

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha


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