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Speech at the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to Irish Suffragettes

Dublin Castle, 13 June 2018

A Ardmhéara

A Chomhairleoirí,

A Príomhfheidhmeannach,

A chairde,

Táim fíorchaoin buíoch daoibh ar fad gur tháinig sibh anseo inniu don ocáid speisialta seo chun chomóradh a dheanamh ar na Suffragettes.

Tá lúcháir orm féin agus ar Saidhbhín, go bhfuil sibh linn, seanchairde agus cairde nua, agus muid ag tabhairt aitheantais, ómóis agus ag cuimhneamh ar na Suffragettes, an oidhreacht a d'fhág siad, an misneach a bhí ag teastaíl uathu agus gach a d’fhulaing siad.

Lord Mayor,


Chief Executive,

Dear friends,

It is great honour, as President of Ireland, to join you all here today as we gather to honour those brave women of a century ago who dedicated themselves to the cause of equality for women. We gather particularly to commemorate the courageous act of resistance carried out by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her comrades, not far from where we stand today, one hundred and six years ago.

So may I thank Hanna’s granddaughter, Micheline, for her invitation to unveil this plaque today, and may I commend Dublin City Council and the Office of Public Works for facilitating this important tribute to the suffragettes of Ireland.

It is a pleasure to be joined by so many members of the wider Sheehy Skeffington family, a family that has devoted so much of its energies to our country. I would also like to use this opportunity to recognise the contribution of Dr. Margaret Ward, a historian who has been such a great, invaluable pioneer in the study of women’s history in Ireland.

For far too long the historical contribution of Irish women in the struggle for emancipation, independence and equality and to our social life has been overlooked, and even, may I suggest, deliberately eschewed in what was a narrow historiography, one with a militaristic bias that could easily carry a chauvinistic bias. In the near century since the formation of an independent Irish state, the vast majority of monuments and streets of our towns and cities have invariably been dedicated to commemorating and valorising the actions of men.

For example, while Charles Stewart Parnell rightly takes pride of place at the centre of this city, there is no memorial to his sisters, Anna and Fanny, or to their fellow activist women of the Ladies’ Land League, who led and sustained the struggle for land reform in this country with great courage and determination.

Our republic has a duty to honour and remember those who went before and who ventured everything to win the rights that we cherish today, not only as a reminder that the vindication of fundamental rights often requires long and difficult struggles, but as a source of example as we seek to win new rights in this century. I hope that this plaque, and initiatives such as the naming of the Rosie Hackett Bridge, will mark a beginning, not an end, to a new era in which the central role that women occupied in the suffrage movement, the national movement and the labour movement is lodged at the very heart of our civic memory.

For it is a rich, long, and storied contribution to history.

As to the event we are recalling, and its context, when the eight members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League smashed the windows of Dublin Castle, the seat of political power in Ireland, they did so in the knowledge that they were part of a political tradition that had commenced in what Hanna Sheehy Skeffington would rightly refer to as ‘the glorious days of the Ladies’ Land League’. Jennie Wyse Power, uniquely a member of both the Land League and the Franchise League, would call the Land League the ‘first national organisation of Irishwomen’ led and organised by women.

Let us recall that during the imprisonment of the male leaders of the Irish National Land League, it was the women who took over the conduct and organisation of the Land War, founding over 500 branches, addressing mass meetings and opposing evictions and, what was a stroke of genius, providing temporary shelter and buildings for those evicted, often at considerable risk to themselves. The Ladies’ Land League would be banished from politics for refusing the insistence and orders of Charles Stewart Parnell, who could not countenance the Ladies’ Land League being deployed, in Michael Davitt’s words, ‘not for the purposes he approved of, but for a real revolutionary end and aim’.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington would later reflect that ‘it will be a matter of wonderment to the future historian of Ireland to note the silence imposed on Irishwomen from the early eighties down to the dawn of the twentieth century’. Despite that silence, the historical inheritance of the Ladies’ Land League was available to inspire and to fortify the resurgence of women’s activism in the 1900s, a resurgence that centred on that most foundational of political rights, the right to vote.

This was a universal demand - one that could, for a period, unite and summon men and women of all faiths and creeds to its banner. The suffrage movement on our island began, and was sustained for many years, through the tireless efforts of Isabella Todd, a Belfast-based Presbyterian and Anna Haslam, a Quaker and businesswoman from Cork, both of whom, while egalitarian, never wavered in their support for the Union between Britain and Ireland. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation founded in 1911 by Louie Benet and Helen Chenevix was established to co-ordinate what had, by then, become a multiplicity of suffrage societies, reflecting the diversity of the movement. There was indeed an atlas of suffrage societies.

The generation of women of the 1900s was impatient for change in an era still dominated by a patriarchal vision of society which saw the exclusion of people based on their gender, race and class. That generation stood at the intersection of what Constance Markievicz called ‘the three great movements’ of thought and action which sought to transform Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century: the national movement, the women’s movement and the labour movement. For many who took part, these diverse movements were part of one single struggle for what Constance Markievicz called‘the extension of human liberty’.

It is important, too, today to acknowledge the extraordinary commitment to hope, to belief that freedom was freedom from fear, achieved in peace, that informed the tireless, ceaseless work of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, whose advanced views on independence, gender, pacifism and justice ring down through the years with his powerful ethic of informed public engagement.

Some Irishwomen joined organisations in which the campaign for women’s suffrage was part of a wider campaign. Inghinidhe na hÉireann was founded by Maud Gonne in 1900 as an explicit successor to the Ladies’ Land League, campaigning not only for women’s suffrage but for an independent Irish state. It established the first political journal for women, Bean na hÉireann, edited by Helena Moloney. The Irish Women’s Workers Union, organised in 1911 by Delia Larkin and Rosie Hackett, demanded equality not only at the ballot-box, but in the workplace.

The women we honour were influenced, and influenced in turn, all of these great movements, and they were willing to risk all, and to employ direct action, to reform a seemingly unyielding political order, represented here in Ireland by the Irish Parliamentary Party.

The Irish Women’s Franchise League was inspired by the same spirit of militancy as that which infused the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. There was of course a circularity in this – the Pankhursts, and in particular Christabel, looked first to the campaigns for female suffrage and workers’ rights carried out in Manchester by Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper.

Yet the organisation founded by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins operated in very different political circumstances than the WSPU. The Irish Parliamentary Party, despite the presence of many sympathetic to the cause of female suffrage, was led by an avowed anti-suffragist, and it relied upon an anti-suffragist Liberal Prime Minister for the achievement of its great political object, Home Rule for Ireland.

In 1912, the Irish Party voted against the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill, fearful that it would derail a future Home Rule Bill. The extension of the franchise was defeated by 14 votes. Even sympathetic MPs, such as Hanna’s brother-in-law, Tom Kettle, cleaved to the Party line. Many men and women now feared that Home Rule for Ireland, shorn of all its progressive promise, would continue to be a patriarchal Ireland, an Ireland in which women could not vote in parliamentary elections, stand for Parliament, or exercise even the most basic economic and social rights.

Three days after the vote on female suffrage the IWFL organised a parade at a Home Rule rally on O’Connell Street. There they were set upon and assaulted by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who had become the enforcers of the Irish Party. This pattern of hostility and violence to women, and to women’s rights, was deeply embedded and was to manifest itself throughout the campaign for female suffrage.

A mass meeting of all the suffrage societies in Ireland was held in June 1912 to demand the inclusion of women’s suffrage in the Home Rule Bill. Those who spoke from the platform included Kathleen Lynn, Jennie Wyse-Power, Constance Markievicz, and Delia Larkin. Messages of support were received from Helena Moloney, Louie Bennet, James Connolly and George Russell.

Faced with the implacable opposition of the Irish Party and its stranglehold over Irish politics - a stranglehold, let us recall, that was based on a very restricted franchise which not alone excluded women, but excluded men without property - the IWFL decided to bring militancy to Ireland. And so, one hundred and six years ago, eight brave and distinguished citizens carried out an act of civic disobedience that would have a powerful symbolic significance that resonates down to this day.

It was only the beginning of a campaign that would not cease for two years, in the course of which, the suffragettes, as the newspaper came to term them, demonstrated remarkable courage in the face of brutal and unwavering opposition. Let us recall that a rally of the Irish Women’s Suffrage League was attacked by a mob of nearly 1,000 men outside Liberty Hall in July 1912. Katherine Tynan would write of that event that ‘women were hunted like rats in the city’.

James Connolly would often travel down from Belfast to address suffrage demonstrations, and arranged for Irish Transport and General Workers Union workers to provide security for suffragists, an early anticipation of the Irish Citizen Army that was to come. The common cause between the suffragettes and labour movement, already strong, was further fastened by the unremitting solidarity given by suffragettes to the ITGWU during the 1913 Lock-Out.

Connolly would later write that ‘[i]n Ireland the women's cause is felt by all Labour men and women as their cause; the Labour cause has no more earnest and whole-hearted supporters than the militant women’. This was in marked contrast to the WPSU in Britain, which would break with the labour movement and the demand for suffrage for all, seeking only votes for women of property. Indeed, Sylvia Pankhurst would be expelled from the movement that she had done so much to establish for organising a mass meeting in London in support of the workers of Dublin in November 1913.

35 suffragettes were convicted between June 1912 and August 1914. They were held in Mountjoy and Tullamore Jail, in sometimes difficult conditions, where they employed the hunger strike to seek the status of political prisoner. Many in the Home Rule movement condemned the suffragettes, and Irish Party activists met them with violence, claiming they sought to frustrate Home Rule. I must admit that with all this distance in time one can understand the directness of the words of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who said of her imprisoned comrades that ‘there is a stronger and purer Nationalism in Mountjoy Prison at this moment than any of Mr. Redmond’s followers can boast’.

They succeeded beyond all expectation. It was a testament to the devotion, courage and energy of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, the Irish Women Workers’ Union, Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan that the Irish Free State extended the right to vote to, in the words of the Constitution of the Free State, ‘every person without distinction of sex’ over the age of 21 in 1923.

Yes, formal political equality in the new State was not matched by real political equality, neither was it matched by real economic, social or civic equality. In spite of the promises of the Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil Éireann, a difficult and long march for equality – for economic, social, cultural, and civic equality – lay ahead for women in our country, and for the men who supported them, one marked by many setbacks and defeats in a society which, as you all know so well, yielded slowly and painfully to change.

Yet, the women we honour today taught us that, with enduring well-informed activism, yield it does. Today, the struggle to create a truly just, inclusive, and sustainable republic of equal citizens continues and through our commemoration we are reminded that if we can summon the same courage as those women of one hundred years ago, it is a struggle that we can win.

Go n-éirí go geal libh go léir.