The inspiration for Hanna’s House arose from the Sheehy Skeffington family history of commitment to women’s emancipation.
In 1903 Hanna Sheehy and her husband Frank Skeffingtonjoined their names together on marriage, as a symbolic representation of the equality of their relationship. Both were founder members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908.
Hanna was to serve two jail sentences for her militancy in pursuing women’s campaign for the vote. Until his death in 1916 Frank was editor of the Irish Citizen, the paper of the Irish women’s suffrage movement. Owen, their only child, was a member of Seanad, an activist in the Irish Labour Party and a champion of civil liberty issues.
For almost a century, in their different ways, Sheehy Skeffington family members have made an important contribution to the campaign for women’s greater representation in public life and to challenging social exclusion and inequality in Ireland and elsewhere.
The Hanna’s House Project began in the mid 1990’s, when Andree, widow of Owen, had discussions with her daughter Micheline on developing the family home as a feminist centre. Andree had worked alongside Owen on political issues and in 1941 co-founded the Irish Housewives Association as a radical consumer group.
Sheehy Skeffington, Hanna (1877-1946) by Sinead McCoole
Johanna Sheehy was born on 24 May 1877 in Kanturk, County Cork, the first child of Elizabeth (nee McCoy) and David Sheehy. Johanna always disliked her first name and in later life she became known as Hanna. Her early years were spent in County Tipperary. She was one of seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. At time of her birth her father was a mill owner but during her childhood became a nationalist MP for South Galway. David Sheehywas imprisoned six times during her childhood for his part in the Land War. Her Uncle Eugene Sheehyearned himself the title the ‘rebel priest’ for his part in the Land League and his support of the Ladies Land League. He had a great influence and bond with his niece Hanna. He was amember of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and had also been imprisoned for revolutionary activities.
The Dominican nuns in Eccles Street educated Hanna. She was an excellent student and was particularly interested in languages. When Hanna was 18, incipient tuberculosis meant that she went to the Rhineland and when she returned to Ireland and she enrolled to study modern languages. She returned to Germany and also travelled to France during her student days. She went to St Mary’s University and High School attaining her BA degree from the Royal University of Ireland in 1899. In 1902 she attained a first class honours MA and received prize money. She then became a teacher in Eccles Street and later went to teach French and German in the RathminesCollege of Commerce.
In June 1903 she married Francis Skeffington a university registrar, his commitment to equality meant that he took her surname and henceforth they both used Sheehy Skeffingtonas their name. They were members of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. Five years later the couple became founder members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Their commitment to suffrage was to mean that they often had to forgo financial security for their principles; when Frank resigned from his job as register for a time Hanna was the main wage earner.
In May 1909 Hanna almost died giving birth to her only child, a son named Owen Lancelot. But by early June she was back attending meetings having employed a nursemaid to look after her son. As well as her teaching Hanna contributed articles on education and feminist issues for magazines such as the Nation and Bean na hÉireann. In 1912 she and her husband founded the Irish Citizen. Failing to convince Irish Home Rule leaders to support women’s suffrage the IWFL began militant protests and Hanna was arrested in June 1912 for breaking windows. After refusing to pay the fines she was given a two month sentence and imprisoned in MountjoyJail. Following her release she was dismissed from her teaching post. This allowed her become more active in the labour movement, assisting in the soup kitchens set up in Liberty Hall during 1913. She was jailed again for a fracas with a policeman in November 1913. She went on hunger-strike and was released after 6 days.
Like her husband Francis Hanna opposed the War declared in 1914. She protested against recruitment but this time it was Francis who was jailed. During the Rising she and her husband did not join the insurgents but Hanna brought food and messages to the different outposts and Frank tried to set up a citizen’s militia to stop looting. He was arrested by the British authorities and shot on the orders of Captain Bowen-Colthurst. Bowen-Colthurst was found 'guilty but insane' at his court martial. Refusing substantial compensation Hanna’s tenacity ensured that there was an inquiry into Frank's death chaired by Sir John Simon in August 1916. The inquiry brought out the facts of the case but Bowen-Colthurst was never punished. At the end of 1916 she travelled to the United Statesat the invitation of the Friends of Irish Freedom and spoke at 250 meetings across the continent. Her talk ‘British Militarism as I have known it’ was later published as a pamphlet. She was now a committed separatist urging support for Ireland at the peace conference at the end of the War. Her tour raised $40,000, which was handed over to Michael Collins who was now a key player in Irish affairs.
In July 1918 she returned to Liverpool. Forbidden by the government to return to Ireland, she smuggled herself back in but was soon detained under the Defence of the Realm Act and imprisoned with Countess Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke and Maud Gonne MacBride in Holloway Jail in England. She went on hunger strike and was released. In 1918 she joined Sinn Féin, she had called herself a “Sinn Féiner” but was not a member of the organization until September. In November she was appointed to the Executive. She was asked to join Cumann na mBan but declined disliking their status as auxiliary to the men. She lent support to their activities but never joined their organization.
During the War of Independence she was active in Sinn Féin. In May 1919 she was appointed as Organising Secretary. Her main role during this period was a propagandist, spreading the Republican message. She was also a judge in the Republican courts. Throughout this period she lectured for numerous groups including the Franchise League, the Transport Union and the Socialist Party. She continued to produce the Irish Citizen until 1920. By 1919 her public speeches against the British administration meant that she was for a time “on the run”. In the local government election in 1920 Hanna was elected to Dublin Corporation, serving on the Technical Education Committee and chairing the Public Libraries Committee. In 1920 she was a French teacher at the Technical Institute in Dun Laoghaire. That year she became involved in the relief agency, the White Cross and was appointed to the Executive.
When the Civil War commenced Hanna, together with other women, made an unsuccessful attempt to stop the fighting. In November 1922 she was sent to the United States by Eamonde Valera, to fund raise on behalf the American Committee of Irish Republican Soldiers and Prisoners' Dependents Fund. She travelled with Linda Kearns and Kathleen Boland and they visited 25 states. In September 1923 Hanna was sent by Eamon de Valera to attend the League of Nations, where she composed a circular calling on the delegates to reject Irish membership. Her bid was unsuccessful as Ireland was accepted into the League. As she refused to take the oath of allegiance Hanna was barred from teaching but found work as a journalist. In 1924 Dublin Corporation was dissolved by the government. The following year she was elected to Dublin City Council.
In 1926 in the split in Sinn Féin Hanna supported Eamon de Valera and joined his new political party, Fianna Fáil. She was appointed to its first executive but when de Valera entered the Dáil, declaring the oath to be an empty political formula, she resigned from the party. She now drew closer to republicans like Frank Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell, becoming Assistant Editor of An Phoblacht, the newspaper of the IRA.
In 1930, in her capacity as secretary of the 'Friends of Soviet Russia', she travelled to Russia. On her return to Ireland she became Editor of the Republican File, a Republican Socialist journal, following the suppression of An Phoblacht and jailing of Frank Ryan. She became involved in the First National Aid Association which supported the dependents of Republican prisoners and gave continuous support to the Women’s Prisoners' Defence League. In January 1933 Hanna was jailed when she travelled to Newry, County Downspeaking on behalf of republican prisoners. She was arrested and held for 15 days in Armagh Jail as she defied an order banning from entering the Northern counties.
Her income still came from journalism and occasional lecturing in the United States and Canada. In 1935 she opposed the Conditions of Employment Bill, aware of how its terms would curb the activities of working women and when the Constitution was passed she was a founder member of the Women’s Social and Progressive League which attempted to alert women to the implications of the anti-woman legislation passing through the Dáil. However, they failed to gain support in the 1938 General Elections. She resumed teaching while continuing to write and to lecture and in 1943, at the age of 66, Hanna stood as an independent candidate for Dublin. She hoped that she and other candidates would form a Women's Party but all four women failed to get elected. Hanna suffered ill health for much of 1945. One of her rare outings was to the RTE studios, to be interviewed on her life. By 1946 she was unable to work. She died on Easter Saturday 20 April 1946. The Irish Times obituary described her as 'the ablest woman in Ireland'.
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