Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was born on 27 May 1877 in Kanturk, Co. Cork. She belonged to a prosperous farming and milling family. Her father, David Sheehy (1844-1932), was a member of the IRB and later an MP, and had been imprisoned no less than six times for revolutionary activities. Her uncle was the renowned Land League priest, Fr Eugene Sheehy. When the family moved to Dublin in 1887, Hanna attended the Dominican Convent in Eccles Street. She was one of the first of a new generation of women to graduate from an Irish university, being conferred with a BA in languages from the Catholic St Mary’s University College for Women in 1899. She went on to study for a period in France and Germany and took an MA in modern languages in Dublin in 1902. She taught for a period in the Rathmines School of Commerce. In June 1903 she married Francis Skeffington (1878–1916), a university registrar who was prominent as a controversial journalist with socialist and pacifist sympathies. He was a vegetarian and a teetotaller. He proved a beloved companion who was both kind and humorous.
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was a very talented orator. She was well versed in international as well as Irish national affairs and was influential in literary, political, pacifist, and feminist movements. Her independence of thought and her wit brought acclaim from all. She founded the Women Graduates’ Association (1901). She and her husband were deeply involved in the suffragette movement and, with Margaret Cousins, they founded the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. She was much condemned in 1909 for refusing to allow her newborn son, Owen Lancelot, to be baptised.
She contributed articles on education and feminist issues to the Nation newspaper and the Bean na hÉireann journal. In 1912 she and her husband founded the influential paper the Irish Citizen, aiming to promote the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for both sexes. She contributed many articles in support of Irish women’s right to vote. In 1911 she was the founding member of the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union. She was imprisoned for five days in 1912 for breaking several window panes of the War Office in protest at the exclusion of women from the franchise in the Third Home Rule Bill. She was a close associate of the labour leader James Connolly. During the Dublin 1913 lock-out, she worked in the soup kitchen set up in Liberty Hall, the Dublin headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. She was jailed again, this time for assaulting a policeman, while attempting to leaflet the Conservative leader, Bonar Law, in Dublin. She went on hunger strike and was released after five days.
A pacifist like her husband, she supported him in his campaign against conscription at the beginning of the First World War, an activity for which he got gaol. During the Easter Rising of 1916 she carried messages to the GPO where her uncle, Fr Eugene Sheehy, gave spiritual aid to the rebels. Her husband, though an Irish nationalist, opposed attempts by the Irish Volunteers and the Citizen Army to overthrow British rule by force. He was arrested on 25 April while trying to prevent looting in Dublin. He was detained that night and the next morning, was taken from his cell by Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles. With two other prisoners, Sheehy-Skeffington was taken into the barracks yard and shot without trial. Hanna immediately began to campaign for justice, forcing the Royal Commission to hold an inquiry, which led to the court-martial of her husband’s killer. She refused compensation of £10,000 from the British army for the killing of her husband. On 8 May 1916 Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s body, which had been buried at Portobello Barracks, was exhumed and reburied in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.
Hanna undertook a lecture tour of the USA in December 1916. During the next two years she spoke widely in support of Sinn Féin and of Irish independence. She spoke at over 250 meetings and succeeded in raising significant funds for Michael Collins. She published a pamphlet called British militarism as I have known it, which was banned in Ireland and England until after the First World War. In July 1917 she returned secretly to Ireland. In January 1918, on behalf of Cumann na mBan, she personally presented Ireland’s claim for self-determination to President Wilson. Upon her return to Ireland she was arrested and imprisoned together with Mrs Kathleen Clarke, Countess Markievicz and Maud Gonne-MacBride in Holloway Gaol, London. They were released after a hunger strike.
In 1917 she was appointed to the executive of Sinn Féin. In 1919 she published Sinn Féin in America. During 1920 she acted as judge in the Republican courts in south Dublin. In the same year she was elected Sinn Féin councillor on Dublin Corporation. She was also an executive member of the White Cross Fund set up to aid needy families of Volunteers involved in the War of Independence. With many other suffragettes, she rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty. She supported Republicans in the Civil War as a member of Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League. She was appointed to the first executive of Fianna Fáil in 1926 but resigned the following year in protest against de Valera who agreed take the oath in order to enter the Dáil.
In 1930 she went on a six-week tour of Russia. A year later, she took over as editor of the Republican File, a republican-socialist journal, after the jailing of its editor Frank Ryan. Subsequently she became assistant editor of An Phoblacht, the organ of the Irish Republican Army. She was jailed yet again for a month for demanding the release of republican prisoners and protesting against partition at a public meeting in Newry, Co. Down.
In 1935, as a speaker for the Women’s Graduates Association, she opposed the Conditions of Employment Bill which feminists considered a draconian measure against women workers. She objected to the place of women in de Valera’s Constitution of 1937. She was a founder of the Women’s Social and Progressive League, a party which came into being after a mass protest of women at the Mansion House, Dublin. It failed to win significant support although it campaigned strongly in the 1938 general election. In 1943, at the age of sixty-six, she stood as an independent candidate in the general elections, demanding equality for women. None of the four feminist candidates received any support from the electorate.
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington spent the remainder of her life fighting for the rights of the individual, for workers, for the republic, and most consistently, for the feminist cause. She died in Dublin in April 1946 and was buried in Glasnevin. Her sisters, Mary and Kathleen, were married to Thomas Kettle and Conor Cruise O’Brien respectively.
Writings, Biography & Studies. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Reminiscences of an Irish suffragette (Dublin 1975). R. M. Fox, Rebel Irishwomen (Dublin & Cork 1935; repr. Dublin 1967). Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (London 1983). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of Irish women’s suffrage movement, 1889–1922 (Dublin 1984). Leah Levenson & Jerry H. Natterstad, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington: Irish feminist (Syracuse NY 1986). Margaret Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a life (Cork 1987). Maria Luddy, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (Dublin 1995)