In the 1980s massive changes were taking place in this country. One event was the arrival of 40,000 Irish people each year looking for work. It was not a new occurrence, but the latest in a series of waves of emigration underpinned by Britain’s occupation of part of the island of Ireland and the underdevelopment of the south.
At the same time people like me, second generation Irish, joined progressive organisations such as the Irish in Britain Representation Group as I sought a way to reflect my Irish identity and become part of an Irish community that had a respectable and respected history of struggle to achieve independence for Ireland.
Young women, such as myself, searched the histories handed over – either orally or in books our parents had in their homes such as Speeches from the Dock – for the stories of Irish women who had been active in the republican movement. Apart from seeing Bernadette Devlin on television there were few other women that we could look up to.
So when historian Margaret Ward produced Unmanageable Revolutionaries in 1983 it was a revolutionary act in itself. It showed how Irish women had always played a crucial role in the struggle for Irish independence; from the Ladies Land League to Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan.
It was a trailblazer as the renaissance of the Irish community in Britain in the 1980s saw many fiction and non-fiction books that put Irish women at the forefront of history, literature and culture.
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is Margaret’s latest book. It tells the story of one of the most dynamic and influential of activists in the struggle for votes for women and liberation of Ireland. What makes this a fascinating account of her life is the inclusion of Hannah’s memoirs; we hear her voice and get to walk alongside her as she recounts her experiences in campaigning for the vote, her imprisonment, the murder of her husband Frank by the British army in 1916, and her continuous political activity until her death in 1946.
Hanna was born into a middle class political family. The Land War of the 1880s shaped her father and uncle’s political activity and Fenianism remained in the background of Hannah’s life as she carved out her own political path. She lived through some of the most turbulent times in Irish history – and never failed to be part of that history.
Like many activists she struggled to write her memoirs, always seeing activity as more important. “‘I have lived too long’ I said to myself as I stirred up the dust: It is later than I thought.’ Many of my comrades have gone, some have fallen out, much of the toil and passion of the years will never be told, or will be lost in old newspapers or dusty museums….But at least it’s up to me to leave a personal record of a life that has been chequered, but which had had moments.”
For me Hanna is an influential figure because she saw the crucial importance of political activity and joined the dots between equality for women and the freedom of Ireland. Hanna was prepared to pay the price and was imprisoned on several occasions. Although what is missing is how she and Frank managed this as parents. There is one interesting insight when her house gets raided again, but this time, instead of taking Hanna, they take her maid. We do not get to know the name of this woman.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the legislation that gave some women the vote, which was and will be again a contentious subject for all feminists. Hanna was clear about her views (we have to remember at this time all of Ireland was a colony of Britain). On 30 March 1918 she wrote; “We Irish women are proud of the fact that the Irish Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916, just two years ago, was the first in the world’s history to lay down from its inception the principle of equal suffrage for both sexes.” It is a viewpoint that will not go down well in 2018 in the UK even today!
Hannah was politically astute about the comrades she worked alongside, particularly her comments about Michael Collins and Eamonn De Valera and their innate conservatism. The murder of her husband and her comrades, including James Connolly, by the British State did not destroy Hanna. Instead she says; “Sometimes it is harder to live for a cause than die for it. It would be a poor tribute to my husband if grief were to break my spirit. It shall not do so. “
In these memoirs and writings are revealed the true cost for individuals, and particularly for women, of being part of a revolutionary movement. What is shocking, even today, is the sheer terror perpetuated by the British government from 1916 to 1922 in its attempts to hold onto the island of Ireland. Heroic is an overused word, but it seems totally appropriate when you read of the life of Hanna, her husband, as well as the thousands of unnamed women and men who were prepared to give everything for the freedom of their country.
In 2017 Ireland’s unresolved political relationship with the UK is centre stage with the crisis called Brexit. This makes the life of Hannah and her history relevant to any debate about the future of the island of Ireland. I hope this book does not got lost in the cosy cul-de-sac of history conferences for academics. Hanna’s life as a political activist is inspiring for me , and I hope for all those today who want to change society either here or in Ireland.
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