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Irish women and the First World War, part 2

By Lynda Walker

The Irish suffrage movement made its own impact on society, and over the past few years historians have begun to recover and discover the existence of this movement. Books such as T. A. Jackson’s Ireland Her Own (1947)—the Marxist “bible” of Irish history—Dorothy Macardle’s The Irish Republic (1951) and Desmond Greaves’s Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (1971) make little or no reference to this social movement that worked for social and democratic rights—a movement that was international in character. Those individuals who made a great contribution to Irish labour politics are often mentioned only in passing, people like Charlotte Despard (1844–1939), described as a suffragist, nationalist, and novelist.

It is worth while looking at her involvement in politics, considering that fact that she barely gets a mention in many Irish history books. Born in Edinburgh or Kent (depending on the source), she was radicalised by her experience of conditions in the London slums, and after the death of her husband, Max Despard, she devoted herself to politics. She became a member of the Independent Labour Party and the Women’s Social and Political Union, which she later left to form the Women’s Freedom League. She moved to Ireland in 1910, becoming active in labour politics, dividing her time between Belfast and Dublin, and was an ameliorating figure among the families of those involved in the Dublin Lock-Out (1913). She joined Sinn Féin during the War of Independence, and was later a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She supported Sinn Féin and the IRA during the War of Independence and was a member of the British Labour Party committee of inquiry into conditions in Ireland, despite the fact that her brother, Lord French, was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for a time.

In November 1920 she was a member of the Administrative Committee of the White Cross, and she was first president of the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League. In 1922, during the confrontation at the Four Courts, she was a member of a delegation that visited both sides in an effort to prevent civil war. Her brother disowned her because of her republican socialism; he refused to reconcile with her on his deathbed in 1925, even though she had spent much of her fortune in paying his debts. As a delegate of Friends of Soviet Russia she visited the Soviet Union in August 1931 with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and studied the Soviet educational and penal systems. Following an attempt to burn her home in Dublin, used by the Irish Workers’ College as well as the Friends of Soviet Russia, she left the house to her friend Maud Gonne and moved to Belfast and later to Whitehead, County Antrim.

As a Catholic, her association with socialism isolated her from her friends, and the clergy condemned her. With her finances exhausted through philanthropic endeavours, she was declared a bankrupt shortly before her death. In a graveside oration, Maud Gonne described her as “a white flame in the defence of prisoners and the oppressed.” (From Hickey and Doherty, A New Dictionary of Irish History from 1800, 2003, and The Encyclopaedia of Ireland, 2003.)
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is another woman who played a major role in the suffrage and labour movements. She is often written about only in reference to her husband, who was a pacifist and was involved in the suffrage movement; he was shot dead by a British officer in 1916. In Jonathan Bardon’s book The History of Ulster (1992) the suffragists get one mention when he writes (p. 447): “The suffragettes too were bringing their campaign to a crescendo: in Ulster they burned Major-General Sir Hugh McCalmont’s home worth £11,000; Orlands House which was one of the palaces of the Catholic Bishop of Down and set fire to the Tea House at Bellevue, Annadale Hall and the pavilion of the Cavehill Bowling and Tennis Club.” As referred to in the first article, this absence of women in history is not so much a conspiracy but more a cultural legacy that is now being slowly but gradually challenged and changed.
The development of the suffrage movement in Ireland begins in the latter part of the nineteenth century with such figures as Anna and Thomas Haslam, Quakers, and Isabella Tod, a unionist woman from Belfast. The organisations, generally speaking, used passive lobbying tactics. The question whether militant activity or more passive lobbying political work should be used was just one of the decisions that some in the movement had differences of opinion on. However, between 1912 and 1914 there were thirty-six convictions of women who committed symbolic actions, and many of them went on hunger strike. One incident occurred when two English women, members of the Women’s Social and Political Party, threw a hatchet at the carriage that the Prime Minister, Asquith, and John Redmond were travelling in on a visit to Dublin in 1912. These two women were the only ones to be force-fed while on hunger strike in Irish jails. (Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashin’ Times: A History of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1889–1922, 1995).
The Irish Women’s Franchise League was formed in 1908 by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Margaret Cousins and others who wanted a distinct militant Irish organisation committed to women’s rights and Irish independence and wanted to ensure that the Home Rule Bill would incorporate votes for women. Sylvia Pankhurst had close links with them, and there is correspondence in the National Library from Sylvia to Hanna. At this time the UVF and the Irish Volunteers were preparing themselves for civil war, arming themselves to the teeth; at the same time they condemned as “outlandish” the violent actions carried out by the “suffragettes.” (The term “suffragette” was used by the Daily Mail to ridicule those women in the suffrage movement who used extreme tactics to make their voice heard, and the women took up this name.)
When the First World War broke out, the suffrage movement in Ireland divided into several camps. Firstly, there were those women who saw the war as an opportunity to attack England. They wanted more than just the home rule that the bill of 1914 offered but rather complete independence for Ireland. For James Connolly and those who supported his views, that meant a socialist united Ireland.
Secondly, there were those who put their energy into collecting for the war effort and charitable work. They collected money for all kind of war relief. The Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association “included amongst its list of works the establishment of an emergency fund for Belgian refugees in Ireland, women’s patrols in Dublin and Belfast, an Irish advisory committee for the prevention and relief of distress caused by war,” and various other activities, including the endowment of a bed in the Dublin Castle Red Cross hospital (Cullen Owens,Smashin’ Times, p. 96–97). Hundreds of young women were employed in war relief work in Dublin and in branches throughout the country. This caused friction between those who believed that this was a negation of the true suffrage policy: suffrage first and foremost. It also caused problems for those committed republicans such as Mary MacSwiney who broke with the suffrage movement when the Munster Women’s Franchise League bought an ambulance and presented it to the military authorities in Cork: she came to the conclusion that they were “Britons first, suffragists second and Irish women perhaps a bad third” (Cullen Owens, Smashin’ Times, p. 97–98).

Opposition to the war and the Dublin lock-out

Thirdly, and most importantly, among the suffragists were those in the movement who were opposed to the war and were politically activated against the war. In the suffrage movement they had been in contact with women on an international scale, with women in Germany and America and other places. A manifesto was issued by the International Suffrage Alliance, which was printed in the Irish Citizen just before the outbreak of the First World War. A section of the manifesto read: “Whatever its result, the conflict will leave mankind the poorer, will set back civilisation, and will be a powerful check to the gradual amelioration in the condition of the masses of the people, on which so much of the real welfare of nations depend.” Those in the Irish Women’s Suffrage League were close to the position of Sylvia Pankhurst in England when they stated that they were “opposed to this war as we are opposed to all war because we are profoundly convinced that war in itself is an unmitigated evil and the greatest existing menace to true human progress . . . It is our conviction that feminism and militarism are natural born enemies and cannot flourish on the same soil.”
An Irish branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was established and carried on peace propaganda during the war years. Attempts were made to have an International Peace Congress in the Hague in 1915. Of seven Irish women, only Louie Bennett was given a travel permit; in any event, only twenty-four delegates from England got permits, and only one or two English women reached the Hague. The British Admiralty banned all passenger traffic on the day that most were to travel. A protest meeting was organised in Dublin, at which both James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh spoke, both to be signatories of the 1916 proclamation. Rosemary Cullen Owens makes the point that from this time on the conflicting ideals of war and militarism and feminism versus pacifism were viewed not just in the European context but also in the developing militaristic atmosphere of Ireland. Most Irish suffrage societies remained in existence during the war, and the Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in 1915.
In Belfast the fight for the vote had gone from hot to cold. The WSPU, with its base in England, abandoned its militancy as a direct response to the outbreak of the war. This was regretted by many, including one of the principal Ulster feminists, L. A. M. Priestley McCracken. “When the first cannon-shot crashed through the peace of Europe, the world of Woman Suffrage was shaken to its depths. Its organisation, its funds, its raison d’etre seemed threatened and unstable . . . Some Suffragists became war partisans, some became peace partisans” (Diane Urquhart,Women in Ulster Politics, 2000, p. 39). Suffrage work went on in Ireland during the war years, but many in the North who were opposed to the war were considered to be unpatriotic, and activity dwindled. Political divisions were coming to the front with the Irish Women’s Franchise League and their paper, the Irish Citizen, becoming increasingly pacifist and sympathetic toward Irish separatism.
In England much of the main branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union threw itself behind the war effort. They demanded conscription for men and women, and they changed the name of their paper from Suffragette to Britannica. Sylvia Pankhurst stood solidly with the socialists of Europe, with Keir Hardie (who died during the war) and others. She had already been set apart from the WSPU when she worked with working-class women in the East End of London and also gave support to the Irish labour movement. She stood on a platform with George Lansbury, James Connolly, Delia Larkin, Charlotte Despard and others demanding the release of Jim Larkin when he was given seven months’ imprisonment for seditious language in 1913.
A year before the start of the war there had been a massive labour struggle in Dublin when Jim Larkin, James Connolly, Delia Larkin, Helena Molony and others were organising the trade union movement in Ireland with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The fight for organised labour was beginning to move forward, and it was in 1911 that hundreds of women from Jacob’s biscuit factory came out on strike, and the Irish Women Workers’ Union was established in 1911. Maria Luddy’s book Women in Ireland, 1800–1918: A Documentary History(1999) gives some of the original documents from the struggles at that time, including a report from the Irish Worker of 15 June about the “girls” from Pembroke Laundry who went out on strike after one had been dismissed. Fourteen of these women had joined the Irish Women Workers’ Union two weeks previously; “the manager and his wife upon hearing this, stated that they would dismiss all those who had joined the union, and also anyone who would join it.”
In 1913, William Martin Murphy, chairman of the Employers’ Federation, led the capitalists of Dublin. T. A. Jackson describes Murphy as the richest man in Dublin. He owned the Irish Independent and the tram company, and along with other employers he locked the workers out of their jobs if they refused to sign a form to say that they would not join the ITGWU. As Jackson put it (Ireland Her Own, p. 377), “to follow the struggle in detail would require a volume. What is significant for our purposes is that the working masses of Dublin found themselves faced with an alliance of Dublin Castle (with its police), the Orange Tory magistrates, the Nationalist employers, and the Catholic Hierarchy. To make the united front of reaction complete, Arthur Griffith denounced Larkin, unsparingly, in the name of Sinn Féin.” Thousands of people were without money, and Constance Markievicz, Charlotte Despard, Delia Larkin and others worked to help some of the starving strikers’ children. “Delia Larkin and Grace Neal oversaw a staff of twenty-two people preparing three thousand breakfasts at Liberty Hall every morning and providing clothing for more than three thousand children and babies. They served free dinners to nursing mothers from mid-December until the end of February” (Theresa Moriarty, in Dónal Nevin, James Larkin, Lion of the Fold, 1998, p. 100). This tremendous labour struggle is worth reading about in James Larkin: Lion of the Fold and Strumpet City (1969), James Plunkett’s novel, made into a television serial.
One of the worst events to happen was when efforts were made to send strikers’ children to homes in England so that they could be fed. George Russell, poet and writer, made a memorable speech in the Albert Hall, London, demanding Larkin’s release. He spoke about those super human beings who “have so little concern for the human body at all, that they assert it is better for children to be starved than to be moved from a Christian atmosphere of the Dublin slums . . . You have no idea what the slums of Dublin are like. There are more than twenty thousand families each living in one room.” Connolly and others wrote about how the wrath of the Catholic Church and the community came down on the strikers for trying to send the children away from their Catholic homes. W. B. Yeats wrote: “I want to know why the mob at the North Wall and elsewhere were permitted to drag children from their parents’ arms and by what right one woman was compelled to open her box and show her marriage certificate; I want to know by what right the police have refused to accept charges against rioters.” There was collusion between the police and the Catholic Church and the so-called good people of Dublin who turned into mobs and by force prevented the children from leaving Dublin. A small number did leave for England.
Three strikers were killed during the lock-out, one being Alice Brady, a fourteen-year-old girl shot by a scab. Theresa Moriarty writes (Lion of the Fold, p. 100): “Dublin women workers paid a high price in the lockout. Between four and five hundred women never got their jobs back. They had been arrested and imprisoned, like fourteen-year-old Lily Kempson, who died in January 1996.” To protect the workers, Larkin, Connolly, Markievicz and others formed the Irish Citizen Army in 1913 as a disciplined group, the first workers’ army in Europe. John Cassidy, a 33-year-old Protestant from Dublin and said to be a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the GAA, the Orange Order and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and later to be known as Seán O’Casey, described the night that the Citizen Army was formed. “The city was surging with a passion full, daring and fiercely expectant; a passion strangely enjoyable which it had never felt before with such intensity and emotion. It was felt, unconsciously, that this struggle would be the Irish Armageddon between Capital and Labour.”

The Irish Citizen Army opened its membership to women, and it became one of the fighting forces in the 1916 Rising. On the war, Connolly’s famous slogan was We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland, but “with it he had a passionate concern for the workers and peasants of all lands, who were being driven to slaughter each other in the interests of the predatory imperialism of their respective rulers.” (Jackson, Ireland Her Own, p. 386).

 

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