A role in Home Rule

Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to parliament.

Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to parliament.

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

While women throughout Ireland prepared to confront the unionists, the English militant organisation the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) went further. They had already established an “Ulster Centre” in Belfast and in March 1914 they sent over full-time organisers who began an arson campaign.

On March 27th there was an attack on Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey, in the grounds of which the UVF had been drilling. Damage was estimated at £20,000. While the suffragettes were arrested, the UVF ran 24,000 guns into Larne without any arrests. The double standard infuriated women and escalated militancy. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Society dissolved as women flocked to the WSPU ranks. However, in Dublin the WSPU was received with hostility and soon closed.

Venues associated with male leisure pursuits and also unionist targets came in for attack. In August, following an explosion at Lisburn Cathedral, more arrests were made. Before the case came to trial the first World War had broken out. The WSPU halted its campaign, and by August 22nd had pulled out of Ireland. Many disagreed strongly with that decision, arguing that the home rule question and women’s enfranchisement remained unresolved. Belfast activist Margaret McCoubrey tried to set up a branch of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) as a feminist and anti-war organisation, but by 1915 this petered out.

The Irish Citizen, the paper of the suffrage movement, edited by Francis Sheehy Skeffington, declared, “Votes for women now – damn your war,” and the IWFL refused to engage in any relief work that might prolong the war.

They continued to organise speaking tours and suffrage meetings, but divisions caused by the war had a detrimental effect on the cause. Supporters of the war withdrew subscriptions from The Irish Citizen. The Munster Women’s Franchise League raised funds for an ambulance for France and the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association sponsored a bed for wounded soldiers and campaigned for Belgian refugees. Pacifists were in a minority. In 1915 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington of the IWFL and Louie Bennett of the Irish Women’s Reform League were among Irish delegates to an International Congress of Women at The Hague, aimed at uniting women to try to negotiate peace.

The British government refused permits to all except Bennett, and a ban on travel prevented her attending. In protesting against this government action, IWFL militants became politically closer to republicans like Thomas MacDonagh, then Director of Training for the Irish Volunteers.

Before the Easter Rising, James Connolly told Hanna Sheehy Skeffington she would be a member of a civil government which the leadership intended would come into existence if the insurgents managed to hold out. She described the Rising as “the first time in history that men fighting for freedom had voluntarily included women”. The Proclamation of the Republic guaranteed equal opportunities and equal citizenship for women and men. Women in the Irish Citizen Army, commanded by Connolly, were given equal status. Notoriously, Cumann na mBan women were refused entry to Boland’s Mill, commanded by Eamon de Valera, future president of Ireland. Almost 200 women are reckoned to have contributed in some way to the Rising, but numbers are difficult to calculate as many left their outposts before the final surrender.

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