Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a Life, Margaret Ward. (Attic Press, £14.95) ISBN 1855941872

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Reviews, Reviews, Volume 7

When she was a young girl, her Uncle Eugene gave Hanna Sheehy the gift of a writing desk. A typical gift, probably, for one of her education and class, yet also symbolic—a practical tool suited to the work of an intellectual. For, fundamentally, it was Hanna’s intellectual curiosity that led her to question the conventional values of her time and to compose a contrary set of principles, principles of apparent simplicity like equality of the sexes, pacifism, secularism—elusive and challenging even at a time of extraordinary change. Yet, Hanna’s life cannot be understood in the context only of intellectual influences. The genesis and development of her political ideas, for instance, is more problematic. Hanna’s republican beliefs, given prominence by Ward in the book, appear to derive less from her earlier influences and more from a singular event, that of the murder of her husband and well-known pacifist, Francis, during the chaos and cruelties of April 1916.
The author conveys well a sense of Hanna’s busy life—the suffrage meetings, the travelling, coping with illness, family concerns, the newspaper production, the deadlines, the scrawled notes, the friends, and Hanna’s life as a widow caring for her son Owen on a perennially uncertain income. Describing Hanna Sheehy Skeffington as ‘the most significant of all Irish feminists’, Ward, rightly, draws attention also to her international significance. Early in the book it becomes clear that Hanna’s pre-eminence, however, is to be asserted at the expense of those viewed as not quite on Hanna’s side, either in a feminist or political context. Favoured characters, for instance, are presented as ‘uncompromising’, ‘outspoken’, ‘irrepressible’; they experience ‘brutality’ (even at the hands of the Abbey actors) and they are ‘murdered’ rather than ‘killed’ or ‘assassinated’.  The less favoured, including family members, political figures and other activists (notably Louie Bennett) are somehow flawed characters existing outside of Hanna’s circle. Yet, to an extent, a number of events in Hanna’s story were unresolved and continue to intrigue—the story of the Murphy sisters expelled by the suffragists and others who fell short of expectations and the Sean O’Casey controversies.
The book highlights well the contradictions characterising the lives of the intellectual middle-classes—still renting houses in good suburbs, employing servants, taking holidays and going to theatre while writing reviews and articles or taking other poorly paid work. This was particularly evident in the case of the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, neither of whom was to ‘play it safe’ in order to guarantee professional and economic security. Yet, though portrayed (rightly) as an outsider, Hanna’s background in establishment nationalist politics—where even imprisonment for the cause was part of family tradition—must have contributed to her obvious political capacity, including an ability to hold her own with influential figures (like President Wilson of the United States). The father-daughter relationship is a compelling theme that weaves its way particularly through the earlier section of the biography. A rare moment—Hanna, the suffragist daughter and David, the parliamentarian father, each promoting a contrary political objective at certain personal cost, both displaced politically for different reasons in the new Ireland.

How would Hanna have performed had she been elected to formal political office, like Jenny Wyse-Power or Kathleen Clarke? For, despite the promise, was there ever really any certainty of equality, no matter how complete a post-  revolutionary formation? Hanna’s independence of mind suggests that she would have been a radical presence in any forum—but the restrictions of the system adopted would have curbed the freedom to influence, more readily available to her in the ‘outside’ world. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is fast becoming a ‘big name’—though historians continue to write too about the lives of others, women and men, operating and effecting influence in a variety of contexts. Hanna’s life deserves analysis; she is indeed a remarkably rich personality as a subject for study—her ideas, her causes, her travels, her radical sensibility and her unusual secular lifestyle invite interest. Quite possibly the author’s approach suits—an obvious admiration for her subject leading to a warm, celebratory prose, though I think that Hanna’s reputation could withstand a little more probing. Despite the hardships (imprisonment, hunger strike, lack of employment) and the loss of Francis, Hanna’s life brought its share of freedom—to write, to influence and to share ideas nationally and internationally. The writing desk served her well.

Mary Clancy

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