Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington remembered

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1996), Letters, News, Volume 4

The neat, frail figure of Andrée Sheehy-Skeffington was the centre of attention at a meeting on 20 April to celebrate the life of her mother-in-law, the feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. The event, held at University College Dublin, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Hanna’s death. It was organised by the Women’s Education Research and Research Centre (WERRC), and some seventy-five people attended.
Andrée Sheehy-Skeffington is French and still has a marked but delicate accent. Her family connection with the Sheehy’s began when her mother, Germaine, met Hanna’s sister Mary in 1904. Andrée married Owen Sheehy-Skeffington: he was the son of Hanna and her husband Frank, who was murdered by British soldiers during Easter Week, 1916. Also present at UCD was Andrée’s daughter Micheline, who took over reading her mother’s recollections when she became tired.
Andrée recalled Hanna with great affection: ‘She was very helpful, but she could also be quietly critical. When I told her that I and some friends were forming the Irish Housewives Associations she said, “You’re not wedded to the house, you know!”’.
In 1908, Hanna co-founded the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League, which aimed to get votes for women included in the Home Rule bill. Though she was above all a feminist, she was also a strong nationalist. Andrée said, ‘She was very fond of animals and also of flowers, particularly the orange lily. People used to raise an eyebrow at this, and she would say, “I will not allow Orangemen to have a monopoly of this beautiful flower!”’.
Andrée remembered, ‘It was startling to see on her mantelpiece a photo of a British officer in uniform. This was Major Sir Francis Vane, who had ordered an enquiry into the murder of her husband. He did all he could to see that justice was done, and it cost him his position in the British Army’.
Three leading feminist historians contributed to the event: Margaret MacCurtain, Rosemary Cullen Owens and Margaret Ward, who is writing a biography of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. Margaret Ward said her view of Hanna had changed during her research. ‘I think there is an assumption that if you are a feminist, a socialist, an anti-vivisectionist, and you are married to a man who is a strong pacifist, that you too must be a pacifist and not be a nationalist except possibly after 1916. In fact Hanna always had nationalist sympathies, but her starting point in evaluating any situation was, “How would it affect women?”. We need an annual Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington summer school. It would cover so many important things in Irish life: Hanna as an educationalist, Hanna as an inspiration to feminists, Hanna as someone who intervened in nationalist affairs, Hanna and the labour movement. That would be a fitting memorial to her.’
Enquiries: WERRC, Arts Building, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, tel: 353-1-706 8571, fax: 353-1-706 1195.
Liz Curtis

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