In memory of Mad Aunt Celia: painter, Home Ruler and lover of Hugh Lane

Anne Chisholm, chairwoman of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, on her great-aunt, Sarah Cecilia Harrison, social reformer and first female member of the Dublin Corporation

A self-portrait by Sarah Cecilia Harrison, 1889. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

A self-portrait by Sarah Cecilia Harrison, 1889. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

 

Earlier this year I found myself on a cold wet March day in the ruined priory at Holywood, Co Down, placing a bunch of spring flowers on the grave of my paternal great-uncle, Henry Harrison, journalist and campaigner, who when he died in 1954 was described as Parnell’s last lieutenant. A few weeks later I was in the archives in Dublin, looking through the records for traces of his sister, my great-aunt SC Harrison, always known as Celia, a respected portrait painter who was the first woman elected, in 1912, to Dublin City Council. She is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery; the inscription reads simply “Artist and Friend of the Poor”.

During the last two years I have been in pursuit of these two remarkable and unusual Anglo-Irish siblings, about whom I knew little apart from unreliable family stories. Celia – referred to by my father, with a kind of exasperated pride, as Mad Aunt Celia – was more of a presence than Henry, as several fine family portraits by her hung on the walls of my childhood home; but children are not that interested in big dark pictures of people in old fashioned clothes.

I gathered that there had been some tragedy in her life, that a man she loved had been drowned during the first World War and that she had never recovered. Later I learned that the ship was the Lusitania, sunk by the Germans in 1915, that the man in question was the renowned art dealer Sir Hugh Lane, and that Mad Aunt Celia had made a great nuisance of herself by disputing his will and the proper destination of his magnificent art collection, now on display at the Hugh Lane Gallery.

I knew nothing of her impressive record as a councillor, always fighting for the poor and needy, her support for Home Rule and women’s suffrage and her founding of the Dublin allotment movement.

I never met Aunt Celia, who died in 1941; and though I did meet Uncle Henry, who lived near us in London for a while in the 1950s, and can recall a tall man with a grey beard looming over me, all I knew of him for years was that as a very young man he had abandoned his studies at Oxford to campaign for Home Rule, became MP for Tipperary, met the great leader and Home Rule champion Charles Stewart Parnell in 1890, became his trusted aide and followed him to the end.

Later, after I had learned about how the scandal of Parnell’s relationship with another man’s wife, Mrs O’Shea, had brought about his political downfall, my father gave me a book Uncle Henry had published in 1931, called Parnell Vindicated, one of a stream of books and articles defending Parnell from his detractors and professing his lifelong belief in a united and non-sectarian Ireland. Harrison’s testimony, historians now agree, based on his close friendship with Mrs O’Shea, was crucial to the proper understanding of Parnell’s fall.

His Irish forebears were always a source of pride and pleasure to my father, as now they are to me. I wish, of course, that I had questioned him more about them; instead I have been on a quest of my own to bring them out of the shadows, investigate and celebrate their lives and their not insignificant contribution to Irish culture and politics .

Anne Chisholm is chairwoman of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, a biographer, critic and one-time Booker Prize judge, who has served on the staff of the Spectator, Time magazine and the Observer. She will give a talk on her great-aunt this Wednesday, October 15th, at 5.30pm, at the Little Museum of Dublin, St Stephen’s Green, as part of its Dublin Lectures series. Tickets are €10 and can be purchased at eventbrite.ie/e/a-singular-woman-tickets-9745335561 or from the museum on 01-661 1000.

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