HANNA SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON: suffragette and Sinn Féiner

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2018), Reviews, Volume 26

MARGARET WARD (ed.)
UCD Press
€35/£30
ISBN 9781910820148

Reviewed by Patrick Maum

This valuable book is a picture of an activist in her own words. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was essentially a rationalist (she loved books and disliked music), a believer in the ability of reason to bring about social improvement, whose personality had been shaped by formal education and by the discovery of the difference between the abilities awakened and acknowledged by education and the social restrictions placed on the exercise of those abilities by prevailing attitudes codified in law. In this the feminist found common ground with the Irish nationalist and with the advocate of social reform. All three had a common interest in pointing out the difference between the idealised self-image that the dominant forces in society presented to themselves and the uglier ways in which society actually worked. For example, Sheehy Skeffington constantly invoked long-standing nationalist criticisms of the difference between British Liberal government in theory and in practice to undercut nationalist critics who accused suffragettes of endangering Home Rule by attacking the Liberal government in 1910–14; she emphasised the effectiveness of Land League violence as compared to Buttite parliamentarianism when defending militant suffragette tactics against constitutionalist suffragists such as the Haslams. Her critique makes it easier to understand how George Dangerfield equated Irish nationalism and suffragism as forces bringing about ‘the strange death of Liberal England’ by showing up its hypocrisies. At the same time, her wider career illustrates the point, made by Eugenio Biagini among others, that such Edwardian and post-Edwardian critics of nineteenth-century liberalism remained deeply shaped by its beliefs; despite a somewhat naïve late enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, she remained an individualist and empiricist who towards the end of her life developed anarchist sympathies.

Throughout her life, as an essential part of her political project, Sheehy Skeffington sought to create an archive, documenting and analysing experiences so that future generations could draw on them. This volume brings together the core of that archive; we find accounts of the difficulties of holding suffragette meetings in Longford, Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon, the problems facing qualified lay teachers in convent schools (they lacked security of tenure or promotion rights and could be replaced abruptly by unqualified nuns), and (in a private memorandum on a subject where documentation was difficult) the issue of violence against women by Crown forces during the War of Independence. In this last document Cecilia Clerkin and her husband Andy (a member of Dublin Corporation), who are familiar to students of twentieth-century Ireland chiefly as the butt of a long-running joke by Myles na gCopaleen in the 1940s, appear in a more tragic light; Sheehy Skeffington describes (p. 185) how Cecilia was dragged from her bed by Crown forces an hour after giving birth, and how this led to the death of her baby—a reminder of the traumatic memories underlying the apparent exhaustion of mid-century Ireland.

It is striking to see how much Sheehy Skeffington was affected by memories of the Land League experience—she was born in 1877 and her father was a prominent activist. For example, she derived from it an instinctive aversion to policemen. She refers to the Ladies’ Land League in remarkable detail, considering how rapidly it was disbanded and obscured; from her own account, this reflected childhood memories and the reminiscences of former members such as her aunt Kate Barry (a senior activist of whom one would like to know more). Oral transmission is also visible in her reference to her uncle Fr Eugene Sheehy, recalling childhood memories of Famine clearances.

The book also situates Sheehy Skeffington within an international network of feminists, radicals and social reformers providing each other with documentation on developments in their countries, trying to promote concerted action on such transnational issues as sex-trafficking and engaging in their own ideological disputes. In the American context, Sheehy Skeffington identified with the militant Alice Paul and her Women’s Party against her ‘constitutionalist’ opponents; she wrote an obituary for Emma Goldman, whom she encountered during her American tours to raise support for the republican cause; she refers with striking frequency to the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who after falling into obscurity has drawn renewed attention in recent decades as a major feminist author. (Her remark on p. 390 that she agrees with Mrs Gilman that it is better to die than be a helpless invalid refers to Gilman’s classic story The Yellow Wallpaper.)

As in any collection of primary source material, celebrated events appear from an unexpected angle. Sheehy Skeffington describes how, when barred from Ireland after returning from America, she was smuggled from Liverpool to Dublin disguised as a sailor; her reminiscences of Constance Markievicz, brought together, serve as a reminder that their well-known disputes about whether nationalism or suffragism should come first took place within a shared radical milieu; John Redmond is seen bemused at hearing the unfamiliar word ‘feminist’, and Sheehy Skeffington states that on more than one occasion Seán Lemass expressed the view that women’s suffrage should be abolished since women ‘naturally’ voted the same way as male relatives.

The book begins with Sheehy Skeffington’s unpublished and fragmentary memoirs. This tends to obscure the development of some of her attitudes, but is probably unavoidable given the high proportion of reminiscences. Perhaps the editor might have done more to discuss changes in Sheehy Skeffington’s views over time. For example, a 1915 letter is included in which she defends Thomas MacDonagh’s graphic descriptions of Volunteer military training against criticism by the pacifist Louie Bennett (p. 120). Is this the same MacDonagh speech that Francis Sheehy Skeffington denounced as ‘Irish militarism’ and, if so, did this indicate a divergence in their views (as would be perfectly natural with such an independent-minded couple)? Did the relatively favourable views Sheehy Skeffington presented of Woodrow Wilson in her 1919 pamphlet on her first US tour, and of de Valera in her 1920s articles in the prode Valera Irish World, give way to the more critical views she expressed later, or are the earlier views softened to take account of her prospective audience (as any political activist will do)? It is noteworthy that in the 1920s Sheehy Skeffington criticises Britain as backward by international standards in terms of women’s rights and attributes Free State shortcomings to British influence, while in the 1930s she is willing to contrast Britain favourably with Ireland in this respect.

Did she really believe that the Cosgrave government and the British almost did a deal in 1927 to end partition in order to rivet the Free State more firmly to the Empire (p. 243)— and if she did, what does that say about her judgement? Given that some commentators argue that the protests of republicans such as Sheehy Skeffington against O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars should be distinguished from those of ‘conservative nationalists’ against J.M. Synge’s ‘liberatory’ Playboy, it is striking that Sheehy Skeffington explicitly endorses the Playboy riots and equates the two incidents as the Abbey betraying its early heroic ideals and slandering Ireland to appease a reactionary police-protected bourgeoisie. This is uncomfortably close to the language of the censorship advocates she denounces elsewhere.

The editor deserves the highest praise for assembling such a wide range of Sheehy Skeffington material, including unpublished material from British and American, as well as Irish, archives. Unfortunately the standard of presentation falls far below what the material deserves. The shortage of explanatory notes (for example, on John Ruskin’s reactionary views on women’s ‘separate sphere’, which Sheehy Skeffington mentions more than once as particularly harmful) can be explained by lack of space, but it is nevertheless regrettable, since Sheehy Skeffington has an allusive style that assumes knowledge (of contemporary politics, literary quotations, historical references) immediately grasped by her first readers but less accessible decades later.

There is no excuse, however, for the numerous mistranscriptions, factual blunders and proofreading errors, some of which obscure Sheehy Skeffington’s meaning. These are too numerous to list, but here are a few examples. When Sheehy Skeffington, after listing the defeat of several leftist or liberal women candidates in Britain at the 1918 general election, notes that the right-wing Christabel Pankhurst was also defeated, she is made to say ‘there is blame in Gilead’ (p. 179). This should be ‘there is balm in Gilead’— i.e. Christabel’s defeat is a consolation for the setbacks. ‘Our valiant Herbert, Hon. Secretary’, whose treatment of suffragette prisoners resembles ‘Buckshot’ Forster’s treatment of nationalists (p. 55), is Herbert Gladstone, Home Secretary, 1905–10. When Sheehy Skeffington’s handwritten reminiscences quote Davitt in relation to Fanny Parnell, this includes the following: ‘from the hands of the [word illegible] confiscation’; consulting Fall of Feudalism p. 293 would fill the gap with ‘heirs to’. On p. 3 Sheehy Skeffington, recalling how, when she was four years old, her great-great-grandmother told her of meeting Lord Edward Fitzgerald, is made to say ‘That must have been about 1790, for he was born about 1776’. Lord Edward Fitzgerald was born in 1763; the context makes it clear that it was the greatgreat-grandmother who was born in 1776, and the correct reading must be ‘she was born in 1776’. On p. 206 ‘The murderer of Free State Deputy Coyle, North Mayo, has just got a sentence of three years’ penal servitude for passing a false check. The Free State has tried hard to hold up the case, fearing a by-election.’ It was Henry Coyle, the TD, who was sentenced for passing a false cheque (Sinn Féin did win the byelection). Clearly what Sheehy Skeffington originally wrote was that (presumably during his Army service in the Civil War) Coyle murdered somebody whose name has dropped out during the transcription process, i.e. ‘The murderer of [X], Free State Deputy …’.

Some of the obituaries reproduced in the text state that Sheehy Skeffington was less formidably austere in person than she appears in print, and this appears to have reflected her conscious views on the requirements of rational and dignified political argument. (She refers with surprising frequency to ‘Francis Sheehy Skeffington’, though less impersonal references to ‘Frank, my husband’, also appear.) A deep underlying humanitarianism is visible not only in her public causes but in such moments as Sheehy Skeffington’s private letter to the vicereine, Lady Aberdeen (a political opponent whose philanthropic activities she publicly criticised as self-serving), shortly after her release from jail in November 1913, in which she states that non-political prisoners in Mountjoy had told her how much they appreciated Lady Aberdeen’s supplying them with a Christmas dinner some years previously and urges Aberdeen to do so again (p. 365); or when, imprisoned in Armagh Jail in 1933 (p. 369), she looks with pity on the grave of the murderer Fee, a non-political offender executed in 1902 for the murder that inspired Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography

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