Contributors: TOR.


The term suffragette is used to describe those who campaigned for the right of women to vote in elections in the United Kingdom. It was originally used to denote a more radical faction of the suffrage movement who took part in militant protests. Suffragist is a more general term for members of the movement. The Irish suffrage movement was largely an urban, middle class one. The Quaker couple, Thomas and Anna Haslam, worked together to fight for women’s suffrage in Ireland. Thomas published a series of pamphlets in April, May and July 1874 aimed at promoting suffrage for women in Ireland. It seems that the Women’s Advocate was the first attempt at creating a forum for debate on the subject. The Irish suffrage movement also included the Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, the Munster Women’s Franchise League, the Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (Anglican), and the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation. In 1872 Isabella Tod established a society called the North of Ireland’s Women’s Suffrage Committee. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Society was founded in 1873. In 1876 Anna Haslem formed the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society. This was the best known of Irish suffrage groups. As the scope of the society broadened, it became the Irishwomen’s Suffrage and Local Government Association and attracted both Nationalists and Unionists alike. Their methods of promoting suffrage relied on organising petitions, drawing room meetings and lobbying MPs. After changing its name on a number of occasions, it became the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA) in 1901.

Women were granted the vote for local government elections under the Local Government Act of 1898 but the suffrage movement did not really flourish until the beginning of the twentieth century when numerous suffrage organisations were formed throughout the country. The more radical Irish Women’s Franchise League was founded in 1908 with Mrs Charles Oldham as president, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington as secretary and Margaret Cousins as treasurer and was involved in Irish nationalism and the cultural revival. It strongly resisted absorption by the British-based Women’s Social and Political Union on which it modelled itself. It also felt that Haslam’s IWSLGA was too ‘genteel’ to make any significant impact on Irish society.

In 1909, an Irish branch of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Suffrage Association was established in Dublin, and in the same year the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society was formed in Belfast. In 1911 not only was the Munster Women’s Franchise League was formed in Cork city but the Irishwomen’s Reform League was also founded in Dublin. At the same time, Louie Bennett and Helen Cheneviz absorbed the IWSLGA and scattered local suffrage societies into the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, an umbrella group for most of the non-militant suffrage societies. Presidents of the Federation included Mary Hayden, while George Russell, was one of its vice-presidents. There were some working class women in the suffrage movement but most of the participants were female white-collar workers or professionals, or the wives of professionals.

Militant Irish suffragists were imprisoned in England and Ireland and some went on hunger strike. Suffragettes carried out direct action in cities throughout the United Kingdom. This action ranged from chaining themselves directly to railings, setting fire to the contents of letterboxes, and smashing windows. In 1909 the English suffragette Emily Davison wrote her favourite quotation: ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’ on pieces of paper, tied them to rocks and threw them at the carriage of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, as it drove by. She was sentenced to do hard labour and was later force fed when she refused to eat. By 1911, she began to believe that the suffragette cause needed an actual martyr to bring it the publicity it needed. Her final act was to run out onto the racetrack at the Epsom Derby, and grab the reigns of the king’s horse. She died a few days later from her injuries. At the time her actions were dismissed as the act of a crazed woman. She is now seen as a martyr to the suffragette cause. The so-called Cat and Mouse Act was passed by the British government in 1913. It provided for the release of sick female hunger strikers, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had regained their health. The ultimate aim was to prevent female prisoners getting any public sympathy.

In 1913 the Irish branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage for Anglican women was set up. It was not, however until 1915 that the Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association was established, a surprisingly late start for a country where the majority adhered to the Catholic faith. Mary Hayden was also involved in this society along with Mrs. Stephen Gwynn. The society was established specifically to organise Catholic women to fight for suffrage.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 caused many suffragists to reassess their position and their attitude to the state. Many women were required to take on jobs previously only done by men. Many suffragettes chose to suspend their activities and contribute to the war effort, though the Irish Women’s Franchise League took the stance of non-involvement in the war effort Under the Representation of the People Act, 1918, women over the age of thirty received the vote. Among the first women to exercise the franchise was Anna Haslam, a veteran suffragette, then aged 89 years of age, who had sown the seed of female emancipation over forty years earlier. In 1922, under the provisions of the Irish Free State Constitution, all Irish citizens over the age of twenty-one were enfranchised.

Biography, studies & writings. Rosemary Cullen Owens and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Votes for women: Irish women’s struggle for the vote (Dublin 1975). Andro Linklater, An Unhusbanded life: Charlott Despard, suffragette, socialist and Sinn Féiner (London 1980). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement, 1889-1922 (Dublin 1984). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Did your granny have a hammer???: a history of the Irish Suffrage Movement, 1876-1922 (Dublin 1985). David Rubinstein, Before the suffragettes: women’s emancipation in the 1890s (Brighton 1986). Cliona Murphy, The women’s suffrage movement and Irish society in the early twentieth century (New York 1989). Marianne Heron, Fighting spirit (Dublin 1993). Alf MacLochlainn and Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, Writers, raconteurs, and notable feminists: two monographs (Dublin 1993). Emmeline Pankhurst, The suffragettes: towards emancipation; Marie Mulvey Roberts and Tamae Mizuta (ed) (London 1993). Louise Ryan, Irish feminism and the vote: an anthology of the Irish Citizen newspaper, 1912-1920 (Dublin 1996). Dolores Dooley and Liz Steiner-Scott (ed) Aspects of Irish feminism (Cork 1997). Margaret Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a life (Cork 1997). Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy (ed) Female activists: Irish women and change 1900-1960 (Dublin 2001). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Louie Bennett (Cork 2001). Marie Mulholland, The politics and relationships of Kathleen Lynn (Dublin 2002). Carmel Quinlan, Genteel revolutionaries: Anna and Thomas Haslam, pioneers of Irish feminism (Cork 2002). Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (ed) Irish women and nationalism (Dublin 2004). Anne De Courcy, Society’s queen: the life of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry (London 2004).

Eoin Hartnett