Next year, the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918) will be marked right across these islands.
A landmark piece of legislation, it not only put the vote into the hands of women for the first time, but also extended the franchise by more than five and a half million men in Ireland and Britain, allowing many working-class people access to the ballot box for the first time.
In Dublin, the centenary is particularly important; the election of Westminster’s first female MP took place in this city. That honour befell Countess Constance Markievicz, who stood on a Sinn Féin abstentionist platform and thus never took her seat.
The question of questions in the Ireland of a century ago was Home Rule. Indeed, many Home Rule activists asked why anyone would raise the issue of women’s suffrage until Home Rule had been addressed.
Joseph Edelstein, a prominent Dublin businessman and a leading voice in the Judaeo-Irish Home Rule Association asked one gathering of Dublin suffragettes if “the Irish people should subjugate the great important question of Home Rule to a petty movement like theirs”.
But it wasn’t only Home Rulers who felt the issue of women’s suffrage could wait. In her statement to the Bureau of Military History, Maire O’Brolchain, who served as Vice President of Maud Gonne’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), remembered that their body was unique in that “it took no interest whatever in Women’s Rights or suffrage, it just did what was most urgent for Ireland”.
In a similarly pointed way, Helena Molony, who was also active in the same organisation and later a member of the Irish Citizen Army, felt that “a woman who wished for limelight would have made a bee-line for the Suffrage movement”, as “any phase of the Suffragettes activity was front page news, whereas the ‘extreme’ nationalist movement was not news at all”.
In spite of the indifference of both Home Rulers and some separatists (it should not noted that many, like 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, were committed supporters of women’s suffrage rights), newspapers reported on the presence of both pro- and anti-women’s-suffrage groups in the capital.
In December 1913, the Irish Independent reported on a packed debate in the large room of the Rotunda, between the Irishwomen’s Reform League and the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. Readers may be surprised to learn that many of the key figures in the later body were themselves women.
Oddly, the primary reason many of these groups opposed women’s suffrage was a belief that women were not ready for the vote, coupled with a belief in more traditional gender roles as they saw it. To them, politics was a male sphere.
When the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League met at St Stephen’s Green in 1912, they passed a motion that stated “we, as women, appeal to the women of Ireland to express their profound disapproval of the late exhibition of lawlessness by militant suffragists, and to condemn such action as fatally injurious to the best interests of their sex”.
The actions of visiting English suffragettes in the city earlier that year, which included throwing a hatchet at Prime Minister Asquith as he made his way through the city in an open-top car, hadn’t endeared them to their Irish sisters. The Irish Parliamentary Party Leader John Redmond was also in the car.
Whatever about the objections of some women to their own enfranchisement, there were others more than capable of demanding their rights from the powers that be. In 1908 the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) was born, created by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and the equally formidable Margaret Cousins.
Born in Roscommon in 1878, Cousins understood that some were seeking to brush aside the women’s question in favour of nationalism, though she argued “we were as keen as men on the freedom of Ireland, but we saw the men clamouring for amendments which suited their own interests, and made no recognition of the existence of women as fellow citizens”.
As historian Sarah-Beth Watkins notes, the IWFL was greatly influenced by the radical Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain, learning the lessons of its tactical approach directly, with Cousins spending three weeks in their company in 1909.
That movement was tightly controlled by Emmeline Pankhurst. Cousins witnessed the militant campaign tactic of smashing windows up close. Later, the IWFL would copy the tactic in Dublin, smashing windows at the GPO and Dublin Castle. From it all came a great Dublin street rhyme:
Mary had a little bag, and in it was a hammer. For Mary was a suffragette for votes she used to clamour. She broke a pane of glass one day, like any naughty boy. A constable he came along, and now she’s in Mountjoy.
On occasion, suffragettes were literally run off the streets of the capital. A barrage of missiles rained down on one meeting in the Phoenix Park in August 1912, when the Ancient Order of Hibernians led protests.
The prominent women’s rights campaigner Francis Sheehy-Skeffington spoke on that occasion, perhaps not winning the hearts and minds of the gathered protestors by addressing them as “the Ancient Order of Hooligans”. Sheehy-Skeffington, or “Skeffy” as he was affectionately known, served as editor of the IWFL newspaper the Irish Citizen.
It poured scorn on John Redmond and other nationalist leaders, who believed the suffrage question could wait. In 1916, Skeffy was shot by firing squad in Portobello Barracks, wearing his beloved “Votes for Women” badge at the time of his killing.
Women who demanded the vote did not always come from radical political traditions: 1909 witnessed the birth of an Irish branch of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Suffrage Association in Dublin for example.
Undeniably however, it was the tactics of women like those in the IWFL and the WSPU in Britain that ensured the issue of women’s votes remained in mainstream consciousness in the early twentieth century.