On this day inn 1946 Ireland lost a powerful voice when Ms. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington passed away. She was one of the country’s most independent and fierce women who always fought for equal rights, for peace, and for Ireland, even when those beliefs cost her dearly. Hanna was indomitable and as she reminded her son before her death, she was an unrepentant pagan.
Hanna Marie Sheehy saw an intrinsic connection between women’s equality and Irish freedom. While attending university she realized just how few opportunities women had in Ireland. It infuriated and energized her and she became a voracious activist. This led to a connection with another activist named Francis Skeffington. Francis (Frank) had similar beliefs in nearly everything and he was a rare man who believed in complete equality for women. When the two married, they combined their surnames as a sign of mutual respect, independence, and equality.
Hanna was a rule breaker. She grew up in a strong, Catholic, Republican family and as such she was a bit more sheltered than her atheist husband. However, she was determined to break away from tradition. Soon after she was married, she bought a book about sex that was scandalous and illegal at the time. Hanna kept an open mind and had a healthy sense of humor to boot. She gave away numerous copies of that book in her lifetime to newlyweds and friends alike. She spoke of contraception even when it was extremely taboo and she strayed away from the church and its trappings. She was determined to be a free woman, and no one supported her more in that quest than her husband.
Hanna and Frank were both writers and speakers who had heavy Nationalist leanings and anti-colonial messages. Both were involved in politics, but not officially. Hanna occasionally worked with various women’s groups but she only joined those who furthered the suffrage movement or made the world a better and more peaceful place. She wrote that Irish women must “refuse any longer to be the camp followers and parasites of life, dependent on the caprice and expediency for recognition.” Hanna was present at the inaugural meeting of Cumann na mBan but she refused to become a member when the women’s group decided to adopt language that sounded like they’d be a secondary, supporting force for the all male Irish Volunteers. She was incredibly vocal about her disappointment with the female Nationalist group because of what she saw as their self-imposed subjugation and a lost opportunity for equal standing. Given Hanna’s fiery nature, it may come as a surprise that she didn’t join James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, which had equal ranks for both sexes, but while she was definitely a dissident, she and her husband were also advocates of peace. Frank often wrote that all violence was wrong and even though Hanna may have broken a few windows here and there, she was influenced and inspired by her husband’s dedication to non-violent action.
This made his murder during the Easter Rising even more devastating for Hanna. Neither of the two were actively involved in the conflict because they were pacifists, but Frank had gone out into the city to try to stop the rampant looting. He was arrested and jailed, then bound and brought along on a raid where he witnessed a murder carried out by an English captain. The next morning he too was murdered and the British army went about covering up his death. Hanna channeled her grief into anger and forced an inquiry into her husband’s execution. She refused all offers of a settlement or monetary compensation and kept going with her case. Eventually the captain was found guilty of murder, but he was also found to be insane at the time of the crime and was institutionalized rather than jailed.
Hanna and her son went to America. She toured the US giving lectures about equality, pacifism, and Irish Nationalism while she spread the dirty circumstances of her husband’s death. In her opinion it would be “a poor tribute to my husband if grief were to break my spirit.” She emphasized that she was not seeking revenge but that the story had to be known. Hanna tried to convince people that the Irish struggle was not a local problem like England tried to claim, but that it was an international issue. She and her son’s passports were seized on behalf of the English government while they were in America in an attempt to silence her. She had become too popular of a speaker and they deemed her to be an incredibly dangerous agitator.
A short time later, Hanna was part of a delegation that met with the President of the United States. Her dedication to the cause and her new fame had allowed her this Presidential audience and she was not going to waste it. She gave President Wilson a petition for Irish Freedom signed by the leading members of Cumann na mBan in spite of her long-time disagreement with the organization. Soon after this meeting her passports were returned but when Hanna and her son landed in Europe, she was arrested under the Defense of the Realm Act. She quickly went on hunger strike and was soon released.
At this point, Hanna’s lectures were in high demand. She helped to establish the Irish White Cross, an organization that gave aid to citizens in need. She also advocated for Republican prisoners and raised funds for their families, but she couldn’t stay out of politics forever. She remained a staunch Republican and held a high position in Eamon De Valera’s Republican government until he left Sinn Fein to create Fianna Fail. She couldn’t support partition and refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Crown so she walked out of the government and back into the movement that she’d focused on for decades. She returned to women’s rights and peaceful political organizations and she stayed with them for the rest of her life.
Hanna never found another soulmate like Frank. She bucked the system for most of her life and broke rules and social barriers repeatedly but she never remarried or had any more children. As her health deteriorated, she reminded her son that his father had not been religious and she wasn’t either, nor did she want religion to have any part of her afterlife. She proudly proclaimed her pagan ways, remaining strong and defiant until the end. Today she rests next to her husband in Glasnevin Cemetery.
These days I wonder if Hanna would see much progress when it comes to women’s rights and equality. What would she think about men’s rights groups, rape culture and the persistent dismissal of women in Irish history? Seventy years on women are much better off than we were in her day, but there is still so much more work to be done. If she were alive today, I have a sneaking suspicion that Hanna would be both disappointed and invigorated by that.