Of prodigals and prodigies

An Irishman’s Diary about an old play and a new book

I don’t know if any ceremonial window-smashing is planned as part of the decade of centenaries, but the organised breaking of windows was indeed a part – small but dramatic – of the original events, as a play to be revived in Dublin next week will recall.

The Prodigal Daughter is a comedy in one act by Francis Sheehy Skeffington, the pacifist, feminist, and all-round radical murdered by a deranged British army officer during Easter Week 1916.

Its anti-heroine is Lily Considine, daughter of a grocer and publican who, as the play opens, is on the way home from a spell in jail for militant activities in support of female emancipation.

Her shamed family gathers to greet what they expect will be a sadder, wiser young woman. The priest is also on hand to advise in the likely case that Lily wishes to pursue an immediate vocation with the Poor Clares – since, obviously, “nobody will marry her now”.


But not only does the brazen hussy turn out to be unrepentant, her only regret is that she was incarcerated after breaking a single pane of glass, whereas her fellow jailbird, Grace O’Neill, managed to smash 23.

The suffragettes’ window-breaking campaign might be assumed to have been symbolic in the light of the “glass ceiling” of which modern feminists complain. But the latter phrase is only about 30 years old. And in fact, the window-smashing of a century ago had no such meaning.

It began in 1910, when a group of women protesting at Westminster were subjected to a protracted assault by policemen, including sexual abuse. After that, the suffragettes decided that if they were going to be arrested they might as well get it over with quickly. Breaking windows was just a more efficient way to do it, while making a side point about the primacy given to property rights over principles they believed more important

The Prodigal Daughter was first performed in April 1914 at Molesworth Hall, Dublin, during the Women's Suffrage Movement's "Daffodil Fete". A century on, next weekend – April 12th – it will be re-enacted in a "rehearsed reading" by actor Donal O'Kelly as part of the 2014 Sheehy Skeffington School.

This year's school is on "Rights and Wrongs 1914-1918". But some much more recent issues will be touched on too, notably in the keynote address by the famed campaigning solicitor Gareth Peirce, whose talk is titled "No World for Whistle-blowers". More details are at sheehyskeffingtonschool.org.

Prodigals, daughters or otherwise, do not feature in an exhibition that opened at the RDS library earlier this week. Prodigies, on the other hand, are everywhere in the show, which is organised by a woman named Alison Hackett, herself something of a brainiac.

A Cork-born former maths teacher, who then became the Irish representative of the Institute of Physics, she has recently been infected by the writing bug. Among her early forays into print was a piece shortlisted in this newspaper’s The Next Myles competition in 2012. But that was only a hint at the ferment of ideas inside Alison’s head.

To express them more fully, she founded a group called 21st Century Renaissance: dedicated to no less a thing that reviving the spirit of the original Renaissance, and in particular to promoting new ideas and breaking down traditional boundaries between the sciences and art.

The first fruit of this movement is an extraordinary book called The Visual Time Traveller , which aims to summarise 500 years of history, art, and science, in a way that combines information and aesthetics – "eye candy and brain food" as Alison puts it.To this end, she teamed up with visual artists who married her text to 100 very striking designs. And even the binding of the book is unusual: a Dutch-made innovation, itself a thing of functional beauty.

Ambitious as this all sounds, the author has picked a good time to launch it. Already this spring, we have had the 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo and the birth of Galileo, which occurred in the same city in the same week. And of course later this month, the world will celebrate the 450th anniversary of a certain Mr Shakespeare.

Maybe some of that synchronicity will rub off on Alison’s Renaissance. In the meantime, an exhibition of the book’s designs is open daily at the RDS until May 15th (see thevisualtimetraveller.ie). As for the book, the author will be signing copies at Hodges Figgis in Dublin today at noon.