A new battlefield

Fr Eugene Sheehy with Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington in August 1912.

Fr Eugene Sheehy with Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington in August 1912.


The outbreak of war in August 1914 had serious repercussions for the women’s movement worldwide. Throughout Europe, feminist groups espousing pacifism quickly lost members, especially in countries supporting the war effort.

In 1913 three Irish women attended the seventh congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Budapest: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), Louie Bennett of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF), and Lady Margaret Dockrell of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA).

While these societies remained in existence during and after the conflict, there was no unified stance on the war. Suffragists with strong English/unionist connections abandoned or postponed suffrage work, turning to war relief work. Jingoistic references in IWSLGA reports suggesting that “women are helping to save our empire” offended both feminist and nationalist women. An emergency council of suffragists, formed in August 1914 to allow them to engage in remedial work, was firmly opposed by the IWFL, which commented: “The European war has done nothing to alter our condition of slavery”. An early decision by the IWSF to support the emergency council was reversed early in 1915, Bennett writing in The Irish Citizen: “Women should never have abandoned their struggle for justice, war or no war”. The Irish Citizen made its anti-war stance clear from the beginning of the war with its poster: “Votes for Women Now! Damn your War”.

Initial differences within Irish suffrage societies reflected pro- and anti-war views, either on loyalist or feminist grounds. Hanna’s husband Frank Sheehy Skeffington and Louie Bennett were among the leading pacifist voices during this period. The former continuously published anti-war articles in The Irish Citizen arguing that war was “necessarily bound up with the destruction of feminism; feminism is necessarily bound up with the abolition of war”. Bennett argued that suffragists “of every country must face the fact that militarism is now the most dangerous foe of women’s suffrage”.

After the cancellation of the 1915 IWSA congress, a Women’s Peace Party was formed in the US in January 1915, followed by plans for a women’s peace conference at The Hague in April 1915. At a conference to discuss possible Irish participation, fears were expressed that this might imply disloyalty to those fighting at the front. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout Europe. The British press derided intending participants as “pro-Hun peacettes” going to “pow-wow with the fraus”.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington wrote that the IWFL planned to attend the conference, as it regarded war as the negation of the feminist movement. Early in 1915 she wrote to Thomas Haslam that every war was regarded by the countries engaged in it as a sacred and holy war, arguing: “Women must rid their minds of such cant”. Bennett was the only one of seven Irish delegates granted a travel permit, but could not attend due to an Admiralty ban on travel.

It was at this point that international feminist pacifist ideals came into direct contact with burgeoning domestic militarism. A public meeting was held in Dublin in May 1915 to protest against this government action, with James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh among the speakers. In a letter of support Pádraig Pearse declared that much good would be done if the incident aligned more women with the national forces. Bennett was troubled at the militarist tone of this meeting, writing that “militarism in the most subtly dangerous form has is hold upon Ireland”. MacDonagh’s address to the meeting was particularly controversial. Stating that, as one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, he had taught men to kill other men, he also declared himself an advocate of peace, because everyone was “being exploited by the dominant militarism”.

In response, Francis Sheehy Skeffington enunciated clearly the view of pacifist feminism towards militarism: “High ideals undoubtedly animate you. But has not nearly every militarist system started with the same high ideals?” Shortly before the Easter Rising, he and Bennett took part in a public debate with Constance Markievicz on the motion ‘Do we want peace now?’ Of the 500 to 600 attending, only a handful supported Sheehy Skeffington’s view. The murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington during the rising was a severe loss for pacifists. Bennett sought to uphold his ideals through her Irish Citizen writings and international work.

At the 1915 Hague Congress, the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP) was formed. Bennett, initially included as part of the British branch, argued that “the peace movement in Ireland must be indigenous and independent to be in any sense successful”. The Irish section took the name Irishwomen’s International League (IIL), and was accepted as an independent organisation in December 1916.

At the second ICWPP Congress in May 1919, Ireland was represented for the first time, with Bennett its delegate. The ICWPP was renamed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and its headquarters were moved to Geneva. An ‘Appeal on Behalf of Ireland’ issued to the Congress sought support for Ireland’s “legitimate struggle for the rights of self-determination”.

These were tempestuous times for a pacifist organisation. Writing to WILPF’s international secretary in October 1920, Bennett noted “things are very difficult here and we are hard put to keep our little group together”. Acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty by Dáil Éireann and the ensuing Civil War posed difficulties for both the IIL and individual members trying to ally pacifist convictions with political commitment. Bennett told Geneva “the civil strife in the past few months has driven the larger majority of people into one or other political camp: both sides have raised objections to the attitude of the IIL”. A meeting was held to consider Bennett’s resolution that “membership of the Irish section is open to all who hold that, in resisting tyranny or striving for freedom, only such methods may be used as will not involve the taking of life”. After heated discussion the resolution was lost by just one vote.

In July 1926 the fifth International Congress of WILPF was held in Dublin, attended by 150 delegates representing 20 countries. This was the first gathering of an international organisation held in the Irish Free State. A reception to mark its opening was attended by both Éamon de Valera and WT Cosgrave. This first public function attended by both leaders since the Civil War attracted much comment.

During the next four years further dissension developed within the IIL, with the election to its committee of some women with republican sympathies. In 1929 Bennett informed Geneva she believed a split was inevitable due to disagreement between the “really pacifist” group and those who believed the use of force “essential” to achieve national freedom.

A series of stormy meetings, allied to the clash between the strong personalities of Bennett and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, led ultimately to its demise in 1931. The issue of justifiable warfare was divisive in many national sections of WILPF up to and after the second World War. While condemning militarism in its imperialistic mode, some Irish women justified military action to attain national objectives. This the “really pacifist” members of Irish WILPF could not accept. It is ironic that the group foundered on differing emphases on the words “peace” and “freedom” in its title.

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