A warrior for peace – An Irishman’s Diary about Frank Sheehy-Skeffington

Pacifist, feminist and all-round radical

Frank and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

Frank and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

 

A hundred years ago next month, the pacifist, feminist, and all-round radical Frank Sheehy-Skeffington was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for making statements prejudicial to army recruitment. The trial should have been before a jury, but no Irish jury had previously upheld such a prosecution. So the authorities entrusted this one to a magistrate, who didn’t disappoint.

The man about to be convicted defended himself, with typical verve. He scored a hit with the gallery, if not the judge, when juxtaposing his treatment alongside that of Edward Carson, who had just been made attorney general for England and Wales.

As Sheehy-Skeffington pointed out, the unionist leader had encouraged resistance to home rule by any means. And if in return for promising to break every law possible, Carson had been appointed the cabinet’s legal adviser, where was the logic in punishing mere passive resistance with prison, asked the defendant to laughter and applause.

The magistrate gave him six months’ hard labour anyway. But undaunted, Sheehy-Skeffington declared he would serve no such sentence, because he would refuse all food in prison and thereby get out early, alive or dead. Sure enough, he went on hunger strike and, when he collapsed after only a week, was released under the tactic known as the “Cat and Mouse Act”. They would have jailed him again when he recovered. Instead he swiftly embarked on a speaking tour of the US and his sentence was not resumed.

As an opponent of the war, Sheehy-Skeffington had complained about the “infamous cascade of lies” about German atrocities in Belgium, and the related humbug about Catholic Ireland’s special responsibility to intervene.

His hunger strike inspired a fine example of the genre in a letter to The Irish Times. Signing herself “An Officer’s Wife”, the writer claimed to have 20 relatives serving with the forces and added that her brother “has lately sacrificed himself voluntarily in Flanders in the hope of saving the women of Ireland from the dishonour inflicted by the Germans on the women of Belgium”.

In light of which, and since Sheehy-Skeffington so little valued his own life, she suggested he “throw it away in Flanders or the Dardanelles” and save the authorities further trouble. That rather missed the point of Sheehy-Skeffington’s whole stance. But then again, he was used to being misunderstood, not least by those who equated his pacifism with passivity. In fact, short of supporting violence as a means to any end, he was in all other senses a militant, with the scars to show for it, as James Stephens wrote in 1916.

Noting that Sheehy-Skeffington had been involved in “every trouble that has touched Ireland these ten years back”, invariably on the side that was “unpopular and weak”, Stephens called him “the most absurdly courageous man” he had ever met: “There are multitudes of men in Dublin of all classes and creeds who can boast that they kicked [him], or that they struck him on the head with walking sticks and umbrellas, or that they smashed their fists into his face, or jumped on him when he fell.” Yet, according to Stephens, he remained an eternal innocent, “[accepting] blows and indignities and ridicule with the pathetic candour of a child who is disguised as a man, and whose disguise cannot come off”.

Sheehy-Skeffington’s final indignity, as is well known, followed another arrest, this time during Easter 1916. He had already risked his life to help a wounded soldier and was in general busying himself in the prevention of looting when he fell into the hands of the lunatic Capt Bowen-Colthurst, who murdered him and others in a criminal rampage.

A few years later, Seán O’Casey called Sheehy-Skeffington the “ripest ear of corn that fell in Easter Week” and lamented that “no national society or club” had been formed in his memory. But a century on, that, at least, has been rectified. An annual Sheehy-Skeffington School now honours him every April, and its latest instalment takes place in Dublin tomorrow – see sheehyskeffingtonschool.org for details.

I should also mention the publication this June of the Abbey Theatre’s Handbook of the Irish Revival 1891-1922, co-edited by Declan Kiberd and PJ Matthews. The work distils the ferment of ideas that led to revolution via 200 essential texts. Sheehy-Skeffington features in many – among them an affectionate parody by his fellow students at UCD, the writings of his wife Hanna, and several essays by the man himself, including his last.

@FrankmcnallyIT

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