Sabina Higgins Speech Opening Exhibition themed around the Life and Legacy of Eva Gore-Booth
Museum of Irish Literature, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, Friday, 31st January 2020
Good evening everyone. I am very pleased that we are here this evening to honour, by this wonderful exhibition, the life and legacy of one of Ireland’s greatest women, Eva Gore Booth.
May I thank Martina Hamilton of the Hamilton Gallery in Sligo and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the invitation which has given me the privilege of opening the exhibition.
Tomorrow the 1st February is Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid’s Day, a special day, a traditional Irish Feast day dedicated to the patron Saint Brigid and marking the beginning of Spring, about half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It celebrates women, and is particularly celebrated by women.
Brigid, both in Irish mythology as a Goddess, and in Christianity as a Saint, is revered as a very powerful, inspirational woman, a miracle worker, a healer, a poet, a smith, coming to the aid of those ill or having difficulty with childbirth.
Hagiography is full of stories of her power of her founding her church at a site in Kildare acquired by the spreading of her miraculous cloak so it covered a great area - of her founding monasteries and of blessing holy wells. In school, children traditionally make St. Brigid’s crosses from fresh green rushes woven into the shape of a cross and displayed in homes for a year to ensure St. Brigid’s Blessing.
In latter years, there is a renewed interest in promoting St. Brigid’s Day as a day to celebrate women’s creativity and healing powers.
The President and I attended the event organised by Ambassador Adrian O’Neill at the Irish Embassy in London to celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid’s Day in 2018. A gathering together Irish women of creativity, genius and achievement, who illuminate contemporary Ireland and the United Kingdom – and in so many fields.
So, it is highly apposite that we mark St. Brigid’s Day this year with a celebration of a great Irish woman born 150 years ago in 1870. Eva Gore-Booth was an Irish poet, dramatist, committed suffragist, social worker and labour activist.
Eva was an extraordinary person who led an extraordinary life – in turbulent times - during many major historical events in Ireland, and in the world, at the end of the 19th and the early 20th Century. It was the period after the famine and the evictions, of the major land agitations and land wars.
The Gore Booths were major landlords in Sligo owning about 32,000 acres her grandfather, Robert, and her father, Sir Henry, were members of Parliament. Robert was landlord during the 1845 - 1847 famine and Henry during the 1879-1880 famine. Henry, knowing the great tragedy of the 1845-49 famine became involved with the Drumcliffe Famine Relief effort and opened the Gore Booth Food Store to the tenants - free of charge – and the entire family including the children became involved in the food distribution. Eva is reported to have said at the time…“I like to realise what we have to make good”.
This surely was the first awakening of consciousness in the children, Eva, Constance and Josslyn, an awakening to what famine and poverty meant and of the obligation to take responsibility for what they could do to help. And in their later lives they exhibited this care – Eva and Constance – later known as Countess Markievicz – devoted their lives to public, political activism. Josslyn became involved with Horace Plunkett’s co-operative movement and the Irish Co-Operative Organisation Society that had its headquarters at Lissadel. He set up the Drumcliffe Dairy Society and Creamery Co-Operative and two other creameries.
Eva and Constance had all the benefits of a privileged upbringing and class. They were educated by a Cambridge graduate, Miss Noel. They read, wrote poetry, painted, played music, went riding and hunting. They spent ‘the season’ at the family house in London, going to concerts, meeting writers, being presented at Court to Queen Victoria etc..
Eva travelled widely with her father to many parts of the world, to North America, The West Indies, Canada. She travelled around Europe with her mother and Constance. However, she fell ill in Venice with a respiratory disorder and was sent to a friend’s house Casa Coraggio in Bordighera for healing care.
It was while there she met a young English woman named Esther Roper. Meeting Esther was a defining moment for Eva. Their relationship, which would last until her death, sustained Eva’s creative and political work throughout her life.
They were attracted to each other at first sight when Esther Roper, standing under an olive tree in the garden first set eyes on Eva Gore-Booth. The two women stayed in Italy for a number of months and spent their days together walking by the seaside. They talked endlessly and Esther Roper later wrote that, ‘each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we became friends and companions for life.’ Eva wrote of their meeting in a poem entitled ‘The Travellers’, dedicated to Esther and I quote:-
“Was it not strange that by the tideless sea
The jar and hurry of our lives should cease?
That under olive boughs we found our peace,
And all the world’s great song in Italy?"
Esther Roper herself was a remarkable person. She was a political activist. She was the greatest influence on Eva’s personal, literary and political life. Esther wrote that from 1896 onwards “we were rarely separated”. They were together until Eva’s death 30 years later in 1926.
Eva went to live with Esther in a red brick house in Manchester. Esther was a highly respected campaigner for women’s suffrage and a social activist. She altered the focus of the suffrage movement, by building into it a new focus on the needs of working-class women.
Inspired by Esther, Eva embarked on a dramatic, driven and inspirational life course which led her to embrace all the great emancipatory campaigns of the next 30 years.
Manchester was a new, unique element in British society – a factory town. The Manchester area of Lancashire and Cheshire was also the home of hundreds of thousands of Irish who had been immigrating there from the time of the 1845-47 famine.
Inspired by Esther, Eva immersed herself in social reform work in the very poor and densely populated working-class district of Ancoats where 40% were Irish. She also, with the University Settlements worked to set up dramatic societies with the textile workers.
In 1900, she was appointed as co-secretary of the Manchester & Salford Women’s Trade Union Council, set up in an attempt to bring trade unionism within the reach of scattered individuals working in unorganised trades. They helped to form trade unions for women, primarily for cotton operatives and weavers.
Some unions would not allow women to become apprentices and publicly expressed the view that the proper place for women was not in the workshop but at home. Eva Gore Booth vehemently combatted such views, advocating for women’s financial independence in numerous speeches, letters and pamphlets.
Almost all this information on Eva’s life has been taken by me from Sonja Tiernan’s wonderful book ‘Eva Gore Booth – An image of such Politics’. It is just a great, exciting and inspiring read, and not to be missed! Also, from Michael D’s lecture on Eva Gore-Booth to the Trade Union Congress of Britain in Congress Hall, London in 1916 – He is a huge admirer of Eva Gore-Booth and his lecture is included in the programme today.
We are so indebted to Sonja Tiernan for writing Eva Gore Booth’s biography. It took a long time to bring together the vast body of original documents which are scattered throughout numerous archives, personal collections and university libriaries.
Another remarkable feature of Eva Gore-Booth’s social and political activism is her connecting of industrial struggles and women trade-unionism with the political battle for women’s suffrage. She was convinced that the position of women, both in the home and in the workplace, would not improve until they received the franchise. In other words, there was, in Gore-Booth’s view, an intrinsic link between women’s “political disability” their “exclusion from the responsibilities of national life”, and the low wages which were the plight of working women. As she put it:
“Six or seven shillings a week is not a sufficient sum of money to live on. This is not the rate of wages that could possibly be enforced upon the enfranchised citizens of a free country. We feel …. That our industrial status is being brought down. It results from the fact that we have no political power.”
Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper were among the first to take the issue of women suffrage out of the preserve of middle-class concerns and to seek the enfranchisement of all women, regardless of their property qualifications.
Eva, as a radical suffragists stated:
“Women do not want their political power to boast they are on equal terms with the men. They want to sue it for the same purpose as men – to get better conditions.”
Eva led campaigns against legislative proposals that would limit access of women to certain categories of employment claimed as harmful to their health and morals. From 1906 she worked on a campaign to protect the employment of barmaids who were not unionised. In 1908 she organised the Barmaid’s Political Defence League to oppose the inclusion in the Licencing Bill of a section prohibiting women from working in licenced premises. If introduced some 100,000 women would be forced out of employment.
Winston Churchill had become a central figure in the Barmaid issue, in support of getting the bill passed Churchill was standing in the by-election in Manchester and was confident of re-election, but Eva needed to have him overthrown. She invited Constance to Manchester to organise a campaign. This was Constance’s first serious venture into politics. Eva and Constance launched an intense campaign. Eva organised a striking coach, drawn by four white horses to be driven around Manchester by Constance. It attracted huge crowds and when the campaign would stop Eva and Constance and the Barmaids Defence women would make rousing speeches from the roof.
Constance also spoke at a mass meeting in the Coal Exchange Building.
Winston Churchill lost his seat and within months the Barmaids Defence overwhelmingly succeeded in their campaign – 294 out of the 355 MPs rejected the Bill. The campaign got such attention that it also led to people questioning the male-dominated political system.
Eva and Constance were very close and visited and wrote to each other, and helped each other out, but Eva busy with pacifism campaigns during the war was not aware of Constance’s participation in the Easter Rising.
When Constance was court-marshalled and condemned to death by firing squad. Eva appealed the sentence, contacting Prime Minister Asquith on her behalf and Josslyn lobbied his local Sligo MP, Charles O’Hara. They were successful. The court recommended that the prisoner be allowed mercy solely and only on account of her sex. Her death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. Eva supported Constance and visited her in prison as often as she could get permission. She defended the motivation of Constance, and her friends who were participants in the Easter Rising, as a rebellion against imperial oppression.
During the time spent by Constance in various prisons, she and Eva wrote to each other constantly and Constance illustrated some of Eva’s writings.
Eva and Constance were very close all of their lives. Their early and later years were described by W.B.Yeats’ in his poem entitled ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz’ :-
“The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.”
Eva was the gazelle with whom he formed a warm relationship and whose writing he admired and encouraged. But Yeats, incapable of sharing, empathising or understanding the passions and ideals that motivated Eva and Constance to keep true to their ideals to the end, later continues his sad poem to write:
“…. But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer’s wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams –
Some vague Utopia – and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics. …”
Maybe I am too hard on Yeats, and he is just rebelling or grieving against the toll that ageing takes – particularly if you have gone into the fray of politics.
In fact, the title of Sonja Tiernan’s biography is ‘Eva Gore-Booth – An image of such Politics’ – which is from this poem.
Eva spent most of the years of the First World War working for peace and the rights of conscientious objectors and engaged in the Anti-Conscription Movement. She was part of the No Conscription Fellowship Campaign defending man’s right to his own self and conscience.
When the decision was taken to impose conscription in Ireland Eva campaigned vigorously against it.
Eva lobbied on Roger Casement’s behalf and attended at court every day of his trial. She was also engaged in campaigns for prison reform.
Eva Gore-Booth’s consciousness embraced all of the emancipatory tendencies of her time. They included the essential role of organised labour, trade union activism, feminism, and recognised how all these combined to create the promise of democracy.
When in London on St. Brigid’s Day 2018, the centenary year of the vote for women, Michael & I visited Eva’s grave in St. John’s graveyard in Hampstead where she lies with Esther beside the beautiful St. John’s Church. Enscribed on their headstone is “Love is God”.