Family Values: The Sheehy Skeffington Papers in the National Library of Ireland

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Volume 10

The National Library Manuscripts Department is the repository of many collections of manuscripts emanating from individual families, most frequently families belonging to the ‘big house’ tradition, whose status generally derives from their wealth and property and whose interest resides in their role as virtual potentates at the apex of hierarchical communities, the history of whose members such manuscripts document, albeit partially and from a patrician perspective. It is more unusual to have a collection emanating from a family several of whose members were distinguished not by their inherited wealth and consequent socio-political power but by their personal contribution to public, political or artistic life. The collection known as the Sheehy Skeffington Papers is a rare example of this kind of material. The papers were donated to the National Library by Mrs Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, the wife of Owen Sheehy Skeffington, and comprise more than twenty thousand documents, including all the papers of Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, as well as some relating to their ancestors and many to their descendants, in particular Owen Sheehy Skeffington and to Andrée herself.

Archive of a marriage

The papers include documentation relating to several key political and ideological movements and events in early twentieth century Ireland, and constitute the archive of a marriage, that of Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a remarkable couple, most remarkable in that their principal political successes were achieved on the margins of the official system, as protestors and lobbyists, rather than within it, as elected representatives or even people with the power conferred by occupational status. Thoroughly independent thinkers, they influenced and encouraged one another in their intellectual radicalism, and operated to some extent as an ideological unit during Frank’s lifetime, and even in a sense after his death in 1916, since his uncompromisingly interrogatory spirit lived on in Hanna and in their son, Owen.
They met while they were students—he, Francis Skeffington, at University College, Dublin, she, Hanna Sheehy, at St. Mary’s University College, Merrion Square, a Dominican third-level college for women, who were not then admitted to lectures at University College, although they were allowed to take its examinations. They married in 1903. Even the way they handled their marriage was progressive and typical of their egalitarianism: famously, they took one another’s names and created the new one which has stood the test of time, becoming an iconic emblem of feminism and liberalism in modern Ireland.
From their college years, they were active and vociferous critics of politics, culture and society, true gadflies in the hide of the state. Most crucially and specifically, they were active campaigners in the cause of women’s suffrage. In 1908, the movement most associated with them, The Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), was founded by Hanna, Margaret Cousins, and others, and Hanna became its first secretary. In 1912, Francis, with James Cousins, founded the newspaper the Irish Citizen, organ of the IWFL, and Francis edited it until his death. Hanna was imprisoned on two occasions for her activities on behalf of women’s suffrage, in 1912 and 1913. On both she went on hunger strike and was released after about a week’s imprisonment (in 1913, under the terms of the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse Act’).
After the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Francis became increasingly involved with pacifism, and he was arrested and imprisoned in 1915, charged with making statements likely to prejudice recruitment of His Majesty’s forces. He went on hunger strike and was released after a short time, under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. Although Hanna was sympathetic to the pacifist cause, she was also a republican and supported the 1916 Rising. Francis, however, was opposed to all forms of violence and deplored the Rising. It is bitterly ironic that he became one of its early victims. As he was walking home on the Tuesday after Easter 1916, having been in the city centre where he was attempting to stop the looting of shops by Dubliners, he was arrested and shortly afterwards shot by a British army officer, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, at Portobello Barracks in Rathmines.

For Hanna, the loss of her husband must have been an unbelievable shock. She was left alone, with little means, the mother of a small boy, Owen. But she reacted to this calamity with the courage and energy which were the hallmarks of her character. She continued to work on behalf of the campaign for women’s suffrage, which finally saw some success in February 1918, when women over the age of thirty were given the vote in the United Kingdom. In November 1918, the British Parliament permitted women to run for election and sit in the House of Commons. In 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish government granted the vote to all women in the Free State over the age of twenty-one.

Hanna’s republicanism

Hanna’s republicanism, which her husband had not shared, strengthened after 1916, partly as a result of her resentment of Francis’s fate and partly because the republican movement was also, in its early days, sympathetic to the women’s movement (as the Irish Parliamentary Party, for instance, was not). In 1918, Hanna joined Sinn Féin, and in 1920 she successfully contested the local government elections and became a member of Dublin Corporation. In 1926, when the Fianna Fáil party was founded, Hanna was on its first executive council. Throughout her life, she continued to be politically active and to champion the cause of women’s rights—rights which had not been in question during the struggle for independence, but which were gradually eroded as the Irish Free State developed. In 1935, Hanna cut her ties with Fianna Fáil in protest at Sean Lemass’s Conditions of Employment Bill, and in 1943, she ran in a general election, as a candidate representing the Women’s Social and Progressive League, which had decided to contest the election in the absence of any support for women’s rights from the main political parties. However, she was unsuccessful. Three years later, she died.

Reflection of a wide range of interests

The Sheehy Skeffington Papers, consisting of correspondence, essays, articles, stories, some plays, as well as photographs, handbills, pamphlets, newspaper cuttings, and other ephemera, provide a very full record of Hanna’s life and career, and of that of her husband. Much material referring to the various political and social movements with which the Sheehy Skeffingtons were involved is included—pacifism, the anti-war campaign, anti-vivisectionism, and trade unionism. A great deal of manuscript material deals with the controversy surrounding the shooting of Frank in 1916, and the subsequent official enquiry. Above all, the women’s movement is well documented in the papers. Material from the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Irishwomen’s Reform League, the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation, Votes for Women Fellowship, and the Women’s Freedom League, form an important part of the collection, as do letters from many of the leading lights of the women’s movement in Ireland and Britain, for example Mary Hayden, Maude Joynt, Alice Park, Rosamund Jacob, as well as the Pankhursts, Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Florence Underwood.
The Sheehy Skeffington Papers reflect the wide range of Hanna’s and Frank’s interests, the sturdy independence of their characters and their refusal to compromise on any matter of principle. From the large collection, I have selected a few items which reflect these aspects of the Sheehy Skeffingtons’ lives, and which give some indication of the scope of this collection of manuscripts.

Women’s suffrage

Many of the documents in our collection referring to the women’s organisations, such as the Irish Women’s Franchise League, are bureaucratic items, dealing with arrangements for meetings and lectures and so on. The most sensational activities of the IWFL were its militant protests and the dramatic consequences thereof: trials, imprisonment, hunger strikes.
In June 1912, Hanna and five other members of the IWFL took ‘militant action’ in protest against Irish MPs’ (negative) attitude to women’s suffrage, in the form of window breaking. The casualties were windows in the GPO, the Custom House and Dublin Castle. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Hanna served her sentence in Mountjoy, where a month later she was joined by several more members of the IWFL, who had also broken windows for the cause.
The following is a letter to Hanna in prison from her friend  Josie (Elfrieda) Baker, a suffragette living in Belfast:

18 August 1912
My Dear Mrs Skeffington
I am afraid my last letter to you would have been kept from you, on account of ‘insubordination’; but I am hoping you will get it tomorrow morning, though that is not what I intended. I wonder whether you may be released today, Sunday; as a bail prisoner, it seems extra abominable to subject you to the horrors of forcible feeding. I am dreadfully anxious about you all; I see, if the papers are to be trusted, that Mrs Mary Leigh has been removed to an annexe of Mountjoy called ‘The Towers’, and that she is there to await the visit of the visiting justice for having wrecked her cell…Mrs Hickey…speaking of Mrs Leigh, she said she was fearfully highly strung and that it worried her to listen to her speaking, and also that if she had to serve out 5 years’ penal servitude she would either go mad or commit suicide—I cannot anticipate either horror—an ideal and a Big Cause to serve would keep one from despair, even in such a desperate situation. Have you found it so, my poor darling, during these dreadful days?…I enclose rough copies of letters vc. Sent to local press—unsuccessfully. The Northern Whig has offered the advice of stocks for Suffragettes—three holes, for neck and hands and free shies for the mob!!…Warm love and admiration and sympathy from your friend in the backwater…
[MS 33,603 (17)]

The reference is to Mary Leigh, who had been sentenced to five years penal servitude for her militant suffragette activity.
Hanna was imprisoned again in 1913, on this occasion for the offence of pressing suffragette literature on Edward Carson and Bonar Law outside Iveagh House. However, a final spell in prison occurred much later, in January 1933, and resulted not from her feminism but from her republicanism. In 1926, she, like other prominent republicans, had been issued with a civil order forbidding her to enter Northern Ireland. Defying the ban she travelled to Armagh where she was arrested and imprisoned in Armagh Jail, where she remained for about a fortnight, when she was released following a wave of national and international protest.
While in prison she was well-treated and received gifts and  comforting letters from friends:

34 St Mary’s Terrace
Co Dublin
January 19th 1933

Dear Mrs Skeffington,
I heard from our friend Mrs Burke Sheridan today that you are still in Armagh Prison.
We all hope that you will be back very soon again among your hundreds of friends here in Dublin. Indeed we miss you very much. The weather is so very cold that we are all very anxious about you. I remember your telling me a short time ago how you dread the cold and damp. I do hope you have a good fire at least. Yesterday morning the city was shrouded in a fog so dense that you could not see across the street and the cold was intense. And only a few miles away the sun was shining beautifully at Dalkey. Writing about Dalkey reminds me that there is another name you can add to your list of Italian names. It is Amalfi—just finished and stands opposite Monte Alverno near Capri! So that’s quite Riviera with La Scala and Milano above them! Vico Rd and the beautiful sea always remind me of the holiday I told you about. Musical Chairs is still on at the Abbey. The critique was not very encouraging so I did not go.
Hugh O’Hagan
[MS 33,606 (22)]

Violence against women
and children

Family Values The Sheehy Skeffington Papers in the National Library of Ireland  1It would have been alien to Hanna’s character to keep her opinions to herself. She wrote frequent letters to the newspapers, highlighting all kinds of injustices, and received interesting communications in return. A number of these letters concern violence against women and children, both criminal and institutional:


The Rock House
Co. Cavan
31 March 28
My dear Mrs Skeffington
In your letter of yesterday’s date in I.I. re the case of the unfortunate girl Mary Cole convicted of killing two children by her employer.
The girl is young and no doubt should get some consideration as you suggest. I am afraid Mrs. Skeffington that there is neither justice, feeling or consideration on the part of those now administering the law in the Free State. I am sure you will admit that we have a much worse grievance than that of the girl Mary Cole. My boy age 15 years was at home from school for over a year owing to us building a new house here. After our house was finished we sent our boy to school on 30 August last as he was not yet confirmed. Our boy was writing his copy in 3rd desk from front row when another boy same age and son of a C.B.O. left his front seat to pull my boy out of his desk and got two other boys to hold him down, and in the tussel the pen in my boys hand inflicted a superficial scratch over the right eye-brow. Two months after this our child was arrested, cast into Dundalk jail to associate with adult criminals for 3 weeks, taken before a D. court sent from there to Circuit Court where he was convicted by a jury 3 of whom were intimate with this C.B.O. and sentenced by Judge Davitt to 3 years in a Reformatory. Neither manager or teacher of school produced by State at the unfortunate child’s trial. Now Mrs. Skeffington my husband was in the RIC and retired in 1915 on a small pension…
Mrs. D. Cadden
[MS 33,606 (15)]

The Sheehy Skeffington Papers provide documentation on a variety of public issues, and this is their chief value. Already these papers have provided historians such as Maria Luddy and Margaret Ward with source material for their biographies of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. For me as a novelist the most interesting documents in any collection, however, are inevitably those which throw light on personal character, not necessarily something of primary interest to the historian. It has struck me on reading some of the excellent biographies that it is not easy to acquire from them a grasp of Hanna or Frank as people.

Hanna and Frank with (left) Fr Eugene Sheehy (Hanna’s uncle) on the day of her release from Mountjoy, August 1912. (National Library of Ireland)

Hanna and Frank with (left) Fr Eugene Sheehy (Hanna’s uncle) on the day of her release from Mountjoy, August 1912. (National Library of Ireland)

The collection helps to put flesh on their intellectual frames. Of course the most obvious source for insight into anyone’s personal character in a manuscript collection is the correspondence which they themselves wrote. A difficulty with this as with any collection, equally obviously, is that the bulk of the letters were written not by the Sheehy Skeffingtons but by others. There are, however, some examples of letters by Frank and Hanna which offer an insight into their personalities.

A ‘Valentine to My Virgin Wife’

No letters from Frank in the collection are very emotional, apart from a ‘Valentine to My Virgin Wife’, which is ambiguous in tone, as the title suggests. A letter from Frank to Hanna, when he was in Mountjoy Jail in 1915, is brusque:

You are still sending me too much to eat. If you send me daily (1) a small pudding dish preferably rice (2) a small jar of stewed fruit—you need send nothing else except as and when I ask for it. And if any more people want to send me chocolate or biscuits or anything of that sort, choke them off. I have too much. Don’t send me any more flowers; they take up mug, water and table-space, and are only a nuisance…

He did want something, however: newspapers. And Hanna had erred here, too:

…I have got today’s Freeman, Irish Times, Herald, Forward and Leader but not the other four papers you said you left, nor yet the Irish Citizen which you sent in Thursday. Send me another copy of this last as it may be lost and I want it at once.
[MS 33,608 (14)]

Frank can, perhaps, be forgiven for his shortness of temper in this letter given the mitigating circumstances: he wrote it in prison, and excessive supplies of chocolates and biscuits were no doubt exceptionally irritating to someone who was about to embark on hunger strike.
A second letter from Frank to Hanna reveals him in a more cheerful frame of mind. Most of the letter is concerned with details of a forthcoming election for a university committee, and it is very clear that the intricacies of political intrigue fascinated him and probably Hanna as well. On a more personal note, he is cheerful and ironic, characteristics which other of his letters indicate constituted his most typical personal style:

Today I took Owen to the Zoo, where we had a great time! Giving pennies and cakes to the elephant was the chief attraction. Some of my friends of last August were still strolling in the Park, and greeted me with the usual cries, which Owen calmly too to himself, telling me as a joke that they were calling him Skeffy! He also informed me, after meditation, ‘Dada, soon you’ll die! And on being asked for his authority, said ‘Mama told me’! Domestic weather otherwise serene. He is at present writing letters on the hearthrug, with much expenditure of paper and envelope.
[15 December 1912, MS 33,608 (14)]
The collection includes a series of twenty letters which were written by Hanna to Frank in the summer of 1908, when he was ill and on holiday or convalescing in Youghal and Hanna was at home, then Grosvenor Place, Rathmines. These are quite intimate and reveal the depth of Hanna’s love for Frank:

My darling, I’m just as lonely as you—I wouldn’t dream of telling you before, as I couldn’t risk it, but I do miss my bright Frank intensely—and I don’t seem to have had a bit of Frank since that horrible May—with nurses, doctor, fathers and mothers, etc. So dearie I have been counting the days—and nights, tho’ here I must at once say there’s no evil intended—till you return, when I hope to find my darling thoroughly well again.
[8 July 1908, MS 33,609 (3)]

What is the main value of the Sheehy Skeffington Papers? Obviously a great deal of their contents refer to important political movements; their documentation of the suffrage and women’s movements in Ireland being their single most important use for historians, and rendering them uniquely and supremely valuable. To my knowledge, no other collection of papers in an Irish institution is comparable as a source for the history of the struggle for the vote for women. In addition, the papers include material which refer to the several key movements and moments of Irish twentieth century history: 1916, the War of Independence, the Treaty, the early days of Fianna Fáil. And it also provides documentation on less central ideological movements such as pacifism, anti-Vivisectionism, and anti-taxation.
In addition, the papers contribute to our knowledge of social history, being the record of the life or lives of an unusual family within its social context. The collection is even greater than the sum of its parts, in that it illustrates what is irrefutably true: politicians, artists, individuals of importance in public life, do not in fact live or develop in vacuo, or even only in their political or professional contexts. Most usually they also function as part of a family group of one kind or another, and it is really only by examining them in this as well as other contexts that we reach a real understanding of them. The Sheehy Skeffington Papers are a model collection, in that they document the public and private aspects of Frank and Hanna’s lives, and allow us to see how they nurtured and cross-fertilised one another. For these people, the personal was political and vice versa. Their lives were not compartmentalised, as the collection of papers illustrates. Like most collections, it does not constitute a biography or a history or a story, although it provides some essential raw material for any of these constructs. And it is in its departure from a tidy narrative structure, in the anomalies and contradictions that it throws up, that it is ultimately closer to the complexity of truth  than any of these forms of history.

Eilís Ní Dhuibhne is Assistant Keeper in the Manuscripts Department, National Library of Ireland.

Further reading:

M. Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a life (Cork 1997).

M. Luddy, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (Dundalk 1995).


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