‘We believe that the rousing of the Irish people on this matter had best be left to Irish women’
This article is the text of a paper that I gave in 2003 at a conference held at Portsmouth University to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the WSPU. Ten years later we are now approaching the 100th anniversary, on 25 May, of the passing of the Government of Ireland Act, the campaign for which had been so closely entwined with that for ‘Votes for Women’. In the circumstances it seems timely to remind my readers of the important – and complicated – part that Irish politics played in the women’s suffrage campaign.
In 2003 I had decided to devote the paper to the Irish suffrage campaign because, although the Irish Question and the British government’s attempts to deal with it, had a profound philosophical and a practical impact on the WSPU campaign both in Ireland and in mainland Britain, it is not a subject that is often given much consideration at English conferences.
The title of the paper – ‘We believe that the rousing of the Irish people on this matter had best be left to Irish women’ – is taken from an article published in The Irish Citizen of 14 September 1912. This was a Dublin suffrage paper, founded a few months earlier with financial help from the Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrences, still (if only for another month) leaders of the WSPU. The article was written either by Hanna Sheey Skeffington, the leader of the militant Irish suffrage society, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, or by her husband, Francis, the paper’s editor, and was prompted by what the paper described as the first public meeting held by the WSPU in Dublin, at which the speakers had included Sylvia Pankhurst and Georgina Brackenbury.
The article continued: ‘Many will regret that the campaign for women’s suffrage in Ireland was not left entirely in the hands of the Irish suffrage societies, which are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently varied in their appeal. But the advent of the WSPU might have been predicted from the moment when Mr Redmond and his party decided to import Mr Asquith into Ireland. That some of the English militants would follow their chief enemy might have been foreseen. We believe however that the rousing of the Irish people on this matter had best be left to Irish women, who understand the psychology of their countrymen as the ablest English advocate never can.’
I will take these several sentences as my text and use them to analyse the Irish suffrage campaign and the WSPU’s part in it.
‘Many will regret that the campaign for women’s suffrage in Ireland was not left entirely in the hands of the Irish suffrage societies, which are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently varied in their appeal’. And indeed they were. The suffrage campaign had begun in the 1860s in Ireland as it had in England, although its early development had been even more hesitant in Dublin than it had in London. The Irish suffragists were initially drawn from the Quaker circles that had been long involved in radical causes, such as the anti-slavery campaign. However those women in Ireland who signed the 1866 petition were not sufficiently motivated to found a suffrage society immediately.
There was a Dublin committee between 1870 and 1873 but the campaign stagnated until 1876 when a new Dublin society was founded by Anna Maria and Thomas Haslam. This Dublin society was, although in its way radical for Ireland, not particularly effective.
In 1871 a Belfast committee had been formed by the formidable Isabella Tod; a close ally of Lydia Becker – and, like the Haslams, a staunch Unionist.
This society certainly gives the impression of having more drive than that in Dublin and Isabella Tod maintained closer contact with Manchester and London than did Mrs Haslam. Although both societies were affiliated to the Central Committee in London, they suffered from being at a distance from the political engine. There was also the feeling that the Irish suffragists were doubly at a disadvantage, not only, as all women, were they lobbying for entry into a political system which, by its very nature, was the only source of the entrance ticket, but for entry to the political machine of what was considered by many in Ireland to be that of a colonial power. Perhaps as a result, the suffrage societies in both the south and the north concentrated their efforts in the 1880s and 1890s on local emancipation, campaigning to gain for women the municipal franchise – because Ireland had not been included in the acts that enfranchised single and widowed women ratepayers in England and Scotland in 1869 and 1882 respectively. During the course of this campaign Mrs Haslam strongly objected to what she saw as English interference. However, reading between the lines, the London societies saw her work as rather ineffective and actually criticized one of her pamphlets as inaccurate. Between 1886 and 1895 the Dublin suffrage society appears to have published no reports and held no public meetings, considering that the state of the country was unfavourable to such activity. However, in 1897 both the Dublin and Belfast societies joined the new National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and from 1903 both were drawn into the revived suffragist campaign.
In Dublin, as in Manchester and London, this revived campaign led to the formation of a new type of suffrage society, the Irish Women’s Franchise League, founded in 1908 by women who were Irish Nationalists, but who were prepared, until the vote was achieved, to put the women’s cause before that of Home Rule.
The IWFL established links with the WSPU and in 1909 Margaret Cousins, one of its co-founders, spent three weeks in Clement’s Inn learning tactics directly from the WSPU. Ireland had long had a symbolic importance to the Pankhurst family as it had to all radicals. In her autobiography Emmeline Pankhurst particularly singles out the effect that the fate of the Manchester Martyrs had on her (they were hanged in the 1860s for the accidental killing of a policeman during a Fenian riot), noting that it was this that brought home to her that ‘justice and judgment lie often a world apart’. According to Sylvia Pankhurst, her father was ‘the first English Parliamentary candidate to pledge himself to Irish self-government when he stood at a by-election in Manchester in 1883’. Christabel made her first visit to Dublin in March 1910, returning again in October 1911 and Mrs Pankhurst toured Ireland in October 1910, returning again in April 1911. The Irish Citizen was, therefore, not entirely correct in calling the WSPU’s 1912 meeting its first in Dublin. While in Cork in October 1910 Mrs Pankhurst had inaugurated a new branch of the IWFL, indicating how closely at that stage the two societies were working. As for the north, Mary Gawthorpe had visited Belfast at about the time of Christabel’s first visit to Dublin.
Ireland did certainly support a variety of suffrage societies. Whereas in England, Scotland and Wales new local societies, whether militant or constitutional, tended to be formed as branches of one of the main national societies, in Ireland many localities sponsored their own individual society. Besides Mrs Haslam’s Dublin-based society, now known as the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, and the IWFL, there was, for instance, the Munster Franchise League in co Cork, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society in Belfast and many separate, small suffrage societies in individual towns.
Indeed, by 1911 the proliferation of societies was such that it was considered sensible to found a Federation of Irishwomen’s Suffrage Societies. The Federation soon developed a synergy of its own, leading quickly to the formation of the Irish Reform League based in Dublin, and of a new Belfast Suffrage Society. Neither the IWSS, nor the IWSLGA nor the Irish Women’s Franchise League joined the Federation. The effect of the suffrage lobby in Ireland, small as it was, was further diluted by these divisions.
The Irish suffrage campaign had to all intents and purposes been left for 45 years in the hands of Irish societies – which, battling against even greater cultural and political difficulties than had the women of mainland Britain, eventually achieved the municipal franchise for women but could hardly have been said to have roused the Irish people.
‘But the advent of the WSPU might have been predicted from the moment when Mr Redmond and his party decided to import Mr Asquith into Ireland.’
At a parliamentary level, from the 1880s to the outbreak of the First World War, there was a synergy between the woman’s movement and the Irish movements – both unionist and nationalist. All were pressure groups attempting to influence the political machine – that is parliament and, increasingly, the cabinet – and each development in the campaign of one affected in some way that of the other. The Irish Question, in parliamentary arithmetical terms, was at this time crucial to the possibility of the suffrage campaign’s success. After the second 1910 election, in December, the 84 members of the Irish parliamentary party, led by John Redmond, held the balance of power in the House of Commons and, on the understanding that a Home Rule bill would be introduced, agreed to support the Liberal party. Now, indeed, Irish women suffragists for a time considered that they were in a strong position, with two chances of success. The first as a result of any national measure introduced by the imperial parliament – that is the Liberal government backed by the Irish party – and as Irishwomen, under a Home Rule bill. However it became clear that the Irish party – as a party – was not interested in supporting women’s suffrage. Irish Nationalist MPs, whatever their personal feelings, were not prepared to load, as they saw it, a Home Rule bill with another controversial question. Unwilling to jeopardize any Home Rule bill by risking their influence with Asquith, who, it was rumoured, threatened to resign if the Conciliation bill was passed. they reneged a second time in 1912.
Until then, close as the IWFL was to the WSPU, it had not been able to imitate the WSPU’s electoral tactic of urging those who did have a vote to use it in such a way as to prevent a government candidate from being elected, the tactic that in Britain was summed up in the slogan, ‘Keep the Liberal Out’. Ironically, this was a technique which had been first used by the Irish nationalists under Parnell in the 1880s and which the Pankhursts adopted early in the WSPU campaign. Between 1908 and 1911 the IWFL’s task, as Margaret Cousins put it, was, rather, ‘to see that votes for women was incorporated in the Home Rule Bill for which Ireland was fighting.’ In early 1913, when it had became clear that neither the Liberal party nor the Irish Parliamentary party was prepared to include women in any Home Rule bill, the IWFL did adopt a policy of opposing the election of nationalist candidates. The conflict between nationalism and suffragism haunted the Irish suffrage campaign.
In June 1912, despite a large demonstration by Irishwomen in Dublin, the government ignored a resolution from the IWFL to amend the Home Rule bill by adopting as the basis for its franchise the local government register – which would, of course, have given many women the vote. This marked a watershed in the Irish campaign. The IWFL now adopted not only the WSPU’s by-election policy but also its militant tactics – Hanna Sheey Skeffington and others broke windows of government buildings in Dublin. For a previous post about two of these other women – Rosalind and Leila Cadiz (aka as ‘the Murphy sisters’) – and the pendants which they received to commemorate their efforts see here.
Although several of these women had already been imprisoned in England after taking part in WSPU- organized deputations or window-smashing raids, this was the first time that acts of physical suffrage militancy had been carried out in Ireland. Four of the women received prison sentences. In court, from the dock, Hanna Sheey Skeffington shouted, ‘Remember Mr Asquith is coming in July’. Irish nationalists considered this visit to be an indication of the government’s imprimatur on the Home Rule bill and the popular press was clear that any demonstrations by suffragettes would be classed as anti-nationalist, and therefore ‘English’. You can see how complicated Irish political priorities and the perception of them could be.
‘That some of the English militants would follow their enemy might have been foreseen.’ Indeed the WSPU campaign was now brought, with a vengeance, to Ireland. The Prime Minister’s speech on the second reading of the Reform bill early in July made clear that his government had no intention of extending the franchise to women. Thus, within a few weeks, the suffrage campaigners had seen both the chances of enfranchisement that they had been nurturing– whether under the Home Rule bill (which had particularly interested the Irish suffragettes) and the Reform bill (of interest to all women) swept aside. Three WSPU members, Mary Leigh, Jennie Baines and Gladys Evans (the first two had been members of the WSPU since the earliest days) followed Asquith to Dublin. It later became clear that they had done this of their own initiative. Emmeline was staying with Christabel in Paris at the time; but both, of course, gave their firm support to the expedition after the event.
On 18 July Mary Leigh threw a hatchet, to which a suffrage message was attached, into the carriage in which Asquith was travelling through the streets of Dublin with John Redmond and that evening Gladys Evans attempted to set fire to the Theatre Royal, in which he was to speak (for more about Gladys Evans see here). There had hitherto been no attempts at suffrage arson in Ireland. Members of the IWFL harried Asquith, but in no such spectacular manner and the 27 July issue of The Irish Citizen, while full of their activities, does not directly report the WSPU attacks, except to print a letter from Margaret Cousins stating that ‘the IWFL had no connection with or knowledge of the action of English suffragettes in Dublin’.
Although distancing themselves from the WSPU, disliking what they saw as English interference in Ireland, the IWFL prisoners did embark on a sympathetic hunger strike with the WSPU prisoners, who had received lengthy jail sentences with penal servitude.. The Irishwomen, however, were not forcibly fed, this procedure being only carried out in Irish prisons on English prisoners. Jennie Baines and Mary Leigh were both released, ill, the former after 12 days, the latter after five weeks; Gladys Evans endured the forcible feeding until 3 October, when she was released into the care of a member of the IWFL This incursion into the south of Ireland by WSPU militants was, however, a ‘one-off’, – as the Irish Citizen had suggested the opportunity of harrassing Asquith on Irish soil had been too good to miss.
We believe, however, that the rousing of the Irish people in this matter had best be left to Irish women, who understand the psychology of their countrymen as the ablest English advocate never can.
The first acts of suffrage militancy in Ulster were committed by Irish suffragettes on 16 November 1912 when windows were broken in the GPO in Belfast as a protest against the defeat of Philip Snowden’s amendment to include women in the third Home Rule Bill. Two IWFL members had, for the same reason, broken windows in the Custom House in Dublin. Two months later, on 28 January 1913, when it seemed likely that the second reading of this Home Rule bill would pass without an amendment including women in the franchise, Margaret Cousins and others again attacked the windows of a government building, this time of Dublin Castle. The women were each sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and went on hunger strike until they were treated as political prisoners. It is noteworthy that all acts of suffrage militancy in Ireland by Irish suffragettes up to this time were reaction to the continued failure to include women in Home Rule bills rather than in the Reform bills with which women in the rest of Britain were concerned.
By the autumn of 1913 with the Home Rule bill assured, although women were still excluded from it, the focus of the Irish suffrage campaign moved from Dublin to Ulster, reflecting the growing importance of that arena in national politics. This stage of the campaign was, however, to be, in the main, waged by the WSPU. The IWFL appears to have blamed the various Ulster suffrage societies for not working sufficiently hard and thus allowing a vacuum into which the WSPU could slip. In early September 1913 Sir Edward Carson announced that if a Home Rule bill were passed, he would set up a separate provisional government in Ulster. Moreover, a letter, dated 10 September, from Sir Edward to the secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council intimated that the draft articles of this Provisional Government would include the franchise for women on the basis of the Local Government Register. Needless to say Carson had never before been considered as a politician sympathetic to the suffrage cause – and suffrage campaigners, while on the surface accepting it as something of a coup, certainly wished to see this statement clarified. The WSPU – with Dorothy Evans as its organiser -had arrived as a formal presence in Ulster very shortly before and their aim over the next few months was to get Carson to state in public that women would be enfranchised under any Ulster government. This he never did.
If the arrival of the WSPU did not put much fear into Carson it certainly threw the Belfast-based Irish Women’s Suffrage Society into confusion. Shortly after the arrival of the WSPU in Belfast, the IWSS passed a resolution to declare itself in favour of militancy – if you couldn’t beat them, join them. Matters became even more complicated as individual members of the older societies changed allegiance. In fact by 20 April 1914 so many members of the IWSS had joined the Belfast branch of the WSPU that the former society collapsed. The Irish Citizen continued with its objection to an English society bringing its campaign to Ireland. However, although the WSPU tactics might be classed as ‘English’ they were now being carried out by Irishwomen. Despite this, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, in completely disassociating all its constituent societies from any involvement in militancy, stated ‘The Northern Committee of the IWSF wish to place on record their disapproval of the policy of the WSPU in Ulster, and to explain the fact that the WSPU is an English association, and has no connection with any Irish suffrage organisation’.
It is clear why the WSPU thought Ulster a particularly suitable arena in which to employ its militant tactics. The suffragette campaign in the whole of the United Kingdom in that year before the outbreak of the First World War was set against the background of increasing militarism in Ulster. The Ulster Volunteer Force had been formed in January 1913, an illegal organisation, but with strong links to both the Orange Order and the British army. In retaliation nationalist Ireland raised the Irish Volunteers. In her editorials in The Suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst drew legitimacy for her campaign of terrorism from the success that threats of violence by the UVF were achieving in Ulster. The WSPU, like the UVF, and unlike the IWFL in Dublin, did not confine itself to threats against government property only. Houses, bowling pavilions, pillar boxes and railway stations were fired, culminating on 31 July 1914 in an explosion in Lisburn Cathedral, after which Dorothy Evans and three other women were arrested, imprisoned and went on hunger strike, only being released after the outbreak of war.
There was never much WSPU action in the south of Ireland, although branches were set up in Dublin and in Cork, the latter by Geraldine Lennox, then on the run as a ‘mouse , and Flora Drummond spoke in Cork and Dublin in February 1914. Nor, it must be said, was there much activity at all in 1914 from the IWFL. The political agenda was, of course, now concentrated on Ulster but it has also been suggested that the IWFL kept a low profile because it did not wish to be associated with what was perceived to be the ‘English’ campaign in the north. The WSPU was not particularly interested in rousing the Irish people, but was more intent on using and increasing the turmoil in Ulster as a means of putting pressure on the political machine at Westminster. As Christabel later put it in Unshackled, ‘It was not that we were concerned to question or assert the moral justification of Ulster’s militancy, actual or prospective, but we did claim the same immunity from prosecution and imprisonment for militant women whose grievance was at least equal and whose militancy was far milder’
The WSPU intervention in Ireland had the effect, then, of diminishing, for a year from September 1913, the campaign that had been waged by the Irish suffrage societies. We have no way of knowing whether the militant campaign might have had some positive effect – it was, of course, called off in August 1914. Dorothy Evans then returned to England – although she remained a close friend and co-worker of Hanna Sheey-Skeffington. That militancy – Unionist militancy, that is – could have an effect on the Asquith government was made clear when the Home Rule bill – which received the Royal Assent on 18 August 1914 – excluded Ulster, although its enaction was postponed until the end of the war.
Throughout the years of war the Irish suffrage societies carried on the campaign in their various ways. They found it was to be no easier to wrest the vote from Irish politicians than it had been from the English. In fact the Irish parliamentary party tried hard to prevent the extension to Ireland of the 1918 Representation of the People Bill, by which the Westminster parliament gave the vote to women over 30.
The Sheey Skeffingtons were probably correct, in principle, in stating that the rousing of the Irish was best left to Irishwomen. However, there is no escaping the fact that in the years before the First World War, because there were so many Irish suffrage societies that, because of the divisive nature of Irish society in general, were unable to pool their efforts, little success had been achieved in influencing either the Irish public or Irish politicians to give women the vote. The WSPU was not interested in the nuances of the Irish Question, but saw Ireland – specifically Ulster – as another battle ground on which to engage with the enemy. Christabel Pankhurst used the parallels of the Unionist and the suffragette campaigns to emphasise the injustice being done to women by the Asquith government.
Perhaps the incursion from England gave the Irish societies food for thought. It is certainly true that during the war years the Irish societies managed a greater degree of co-operation than heretofore. For the December 1918 general election the IWFL co-operated with Sinn Fein to run two women candidates, Winifred Carney in Belfast – who was not successful – and Constance Markievicz, in Dublin, who, famously, was – the first woman MP elected to the British parliament, although she did not take her seat at Westminster.
In 1922, six years before women in Britain, Irishwomen over 21 were granted the vote, albeit reluctantly, by the Irish parliament. In the final stage of the Irish suffrage campaign it was most certainly the effort of Irishwomen, still led by Hanna Sheey Skeffington, that achieved the final victory.
Further reading: E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: a regional survey, Routledge, 2008 (paperback).