Suffrage In Wicklow

Photo:Hanna Sheehy Skeffington addessing a suffrage meeting

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington addessing a suffrage meeting

Photo:Suffragette protest: Margaret (Meg) Connery (with banner), Edward Carson MP on right.

Suffragette protest: Margaret (Meg) Connery (with banner), Edward Carson MP on right.

A Local Perspective On The 'Votes For Women' Campaign, 1908-1918

By Rosemary Raughter

Introduction

In 1908, following half a century’s unsuccessful agitation for the parliamentary vote, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins broke away from the long-established constitutional suffrage organisation, the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, to establish Ireland’s only militant suffrage society, the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Just over a year later, on 18 September 1909, the IWFL made what appears to have been its first visit to Wicklow. At an open-air meeting on the beach at Bray, its 'lady speakers' cleared away ‘much misunderstanding’ on the subject of ‘votes for women’, and made ‘a very good impression on their listeners.’[1] 

 

The IWFL in Bray

This was only the first of several IWFL events in Bray: in the following March there was ‘a fairly large attendance of ladies’ and ‘some gentlemen’ at a meeting in the Town Hall. The gathering attracted noisy opposition, which included heckling, and one ‘wag’ throwing a stink bomb into the hall. However, speaker Margaret Cousins showed herself more than capable of dealing with these disruptions, although she did arouse a storm of protest when she referred to the number of drunken men to be seen on the Main Street of Bray.  Nevertheless, the audience seems to have been convinced of her case: ‘all those present expressed themselves in favour of votes for women, and the meeting … terminated amidst great cheering.’[2]


Greystones Literary Society debate

In January 1910 the Greystones Literary Society chose for its monthly debate the motion ‘That the Women’s Suffrage movement is worth of our support’, and the ensuing discussion covered some of the principal arguments on both sides of the question.  Speakers included two ladies of the Bewley family, the wives of an auctioneer and a chemist, as well as an accountant and a female graduate. Those in favour argued that women had to pay taxes but had no voice in how they were applied, and that laws, being man-made, were discriminatory, while opponents claimed that 'women did not want … to mix in politics. They had other and better work to do … The head of the house was responsible to the State, and, therefore, should alone have the vote.'

One of the female opponents argued that to give women the vote would vastly increase the electorate, with ‘wholly uncertain’ consequences. Furthermore, in possessing a political voice woman would risk sacrificing much ‘of that … quiet influence for good’ they had always wielded within the domestic sphere – an assertion which was greeted with ‘loud cheers.’ In the event, the Chairman, having already declared his own opposition to ‘votes for women’, largely, it seems, on the grounds that the electorate was already too large, ‘declared that the “noes” had it’ in this instance.[3]  

 

The suffragettes on the pier

Although one of the speakers in the debate fulminated against the protests of ‘violent so-called suffragettes’, militancy was still confined at this stage to Britain.  A few months later, however, Greystones residents had a taste of the kind of activity now common across the water. On 25 October 1910 IWFL members Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Hilda Webb accosted Chief Secretary for Ireland Birrell as he carried out an inspection of the local pier.  The situation was temporarily resolved with the promise of a meeting between the Chief Secretary and a suffrage deputation and, while the Wicklow Newsletter expressed outrage at the breach of protocol, the Irish Times dismissed it as no more than ‘an amusing incident.’ [4] In reality, however, this was a significant moment in the campaign, identified by a recent historian of Irish suffragism as ‘the first step towards militant action’[5], foreshadowing, in a very mild form, the campaign which would get underway in due course.

 

The IPP and suffrage

Just a few weeks after the Greystones incident a new factor entered the equation, when the general election of December 1910 left the Liberal government dependent on the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, making Home Rule now an imminent possibility. The IPP, in common with the other political parties, was divided on the suffrage issue. While some MPs, such as William Redmond and Thomas Kettle, were in favour, others, including leader John Redmond, were strongly opposed, with MP John Dillon, notoriously declaring that 'women’s suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our western civilization. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God. It may come in your time – I hope not in mine.'[6]

 

In October 1911 the IWFL held another meeting in Bray. On the following evening Bray Urban Council acknowledged the representations of the meeting’s chairperson, Mrs Elmes, by adopting a resolution supporting the extension of the parliamentary franchise to women, and requesting the local MP to vote in favour of the suffrage bill currently going through Parliament. [7] In the event, IPP votes were crucial to the defeat of that measure, drawing down on the party the wrath of both the Irish and the British suffragists.

 

The militant campaign

Realizing that the Home Rule Bill then in preparation would include no provision for female suffrage, the IWFL took the decision to embark on its militant campaign, and on 13 June 1912 eight IWFL members smashed windows at Dublin Castle and other government buildings. All involved were subsequently imprisoned for varying periods. In the two years up to the outbreak of war in 1914 there were thirty-five convictions of women in Ireland for suffrage activities. During the same period, the movement expanded significantly, with the number of societies and branches almost doubling in number in the first half of 1913.[8]

 

Suffrage meetings in Wicklow, 1912-1914

This heightened level of suffrage activism is clearly apparent in the case of Co Wicklow, as reflected in reports in the local press and in the suffrage newspaper, the Irish Citizen.[9] The Irish Women’s Reform League, one of the new suffrage organizations, seems to have taken Wicklow as its particular territory[10] and in June 1912 arranged a programme of meetings for Laurence Housman, an English suffragist and author: venues included Greystones and Dunlavin, where he ‘addressed an extremely interested audience in the Schoolhouse … the first occasion upon which Women’s Suffrage had been preached in that district.’[11]  Housman was followed by Irish suffragist and labour activist Louie Bennett, who gave a characteristically feisty performance: ‘we have been treated disgracefully by politicians’, she declared, ‘but still we are never defeated, and we will come here again and again until we have a branch of the Reform League here and in Baltinglass.’ At the close of the meeting, a somewhat qualified support for the female franchise was declared, and ‘tea was distributed by the ladies.’[12]

 

In Greystones Housman’s hostess was Mrs West, wife of a Dublin jeweller, and a longtime supporter: just a few weeks later an IWRL garden party was held in at her home, Mount Offaly, at which the speakers included Louie Bennett and a visiting American suffragist. A young lady ‘recited very charmingly … a collection was taken up, and several new members enrolled’, followed by tea in the drawingroom.[13] Other events in Greystones included tennis parties and an amateur performance of a one-act suffrage play, ‘How the vote was won’, possibly also held at the West home.[14] Shortly afterwards the League  extended its attentions to Kilcoole. Arriving at the agreed venue, the suffrage speakers found only ‘a few sprawling children’ awaiting them on the green. 'But the news that the suffragettes were actually about to “speechify” quickly spread, and the audience swelled to a considerable number of men and women … Many of those present signed the petition asking for votes for women on the same terms as men. The organizers of this meeting are so pleased with their success that they propose to carry the campaign into Delgany next week.'[15]

 

The IWRL continued its efforts to disseminate the suffrage message throughout the county. At Baltinglass, on 3 April 1913, a public meeting in the Town Hall was addressed by an English speaker, Miss Helen Fraser. Although the suffragists found ‘a great ignorance’ here on the subject, they managed to raise enough interest to produce a good collection. Their reception in Dunlavin on the following day was more mixed, with an open-air meeting on the green attracting a rowdy element. As the Irish Citizen reported, 'one regrets to have to record that, contrary to the tradition of Irishmen, one of the audience interrupted the speakers with disgusting and even obscene language, though finally Miss Fraser silenced him. Such men have the vote, and are considered more capable than any woman of dealing with the legislative aspect of moral questions.'[16]

 

A map published in the Irish Citizen in May 1913 showed Bray, Greystones, Kilcoole, Dunlavin and Baltinglass as centres in Wicklow where meetings had already been held. In March 1914 Wicklow town was added to the list, when Miss Fraser and Louie Bennett spoke at the Assembly Hall to an audience which, though ‘not large … was extremely interested and intelligent.’ Requests were made for a further meeting[17], and another was, indeed, held in July, ‘near the seafront’, at which Helen Chenevix spoke on women’s wages and working conditions.[18]

 

Apart from these locations, however, suffrage activity continued to be concentrated in the north of the county. While meetings in Greystones seem to have been largely of the private ‘drawingroom’ variety, it was also listed as one of the seaside resorts regularly visited during the summer months by IWRL speakers, who held outdoor meetings at which leaflets were distributed, suffrage papers sold and new members recruited.[19] Neighbouring Bray also had a lively suffrage scene, with frequent meetings on the seafront and speakers who included some of the most prominent figures in the movement. A particularly well-reported one in September 1912 was addressed by Mrs Charlotte Despard, currently active in radical social and political circles in London.[20] Introduced by Louie Bennett as ‘a lady who … had been imprisoned for carrying out her convictions’, Mrs Despard, described as ‘a rather aged lady’ (she was actually aged 68 at this time) ‘briskly stepped onto a chair, and delivered a vigorous speech’, in which she declared that the suffragettes 'were out for fight on the question of the franchise, and … appealed to those present to make representations to their members of Parliament to put women on the same footing so far as the Parliamentary franchise was concerned.' Despite some heckling from Home Rule supporters, she received a reasonably good reception, and ‘there was a great demand for the latest postcard photographs of Mrs Despard, which are extremely good.’[21]

 

Suffrage supporters

At another IWRL meeting at Bray in the following year, the speakers included Helen Chenevix, and a young supporter – he was probably no more than six years old – sold suffrage papers.[22] The report of this event offers a glimpse of the local support base for the cause: assistance was provided by Miss Mecredy and Mrs Whelan – the former probably the twenty-year old daughter of journalist Richard Mecredy, whose wife, Catherine, was also an enthusiastic suffragist, and the latter Deborah Whelan, a well-off widow of Sydenham Villas, Bray, while the Misses Allen, ‘who entertained the suffragists to tea’, were probably the three Bengal-born daughters of a retired member of the Indian Civil Service, of Royal Marine Terrace. These were all from a similar social and religious, background, but Mrs Earls, who chaired the IWFL meeting in Bray in 1911 and subsequently appeared before Bray Urban Council to petition members’ support for suffrage, may have been Wicklow-born Sarah Earls, second wife of painter and contractor William Earls, formerly a dressmaker in Newtownmountkennedy.  Far from being a lady of leisure, Mrs Earls presided over a household which included seven children, one visitor and five employees. Others offering support included Howard Colman Rowe, a chemist in Arklow and son of a Redmondite mayor of Wexford, and the Misses Barnes in Dunlavin, sisters of the local station master, the two elder of whom were teachers of music and languages. Like Mrs Earls, they were Catholics.

 

Attitudes to militancy

Although militant activity in Wicklow seems to have been non-existent, instances elsewhere of damage to property or civil disobedience garnered publicity, and local authorities were wary of association with such elements: prior to the meeting at which Mrs Despard spoke, Bray Urban Council was approached by Mrs Mecredy, requesting permission on behalf of the IWRL for the use of the bandstand. Only when the councillors had been assured that the ‘these ladies’ were non-militant, or ‘non-hatchet throwers’, as one member put it, was it agreed to allow them the use of the site on the Esplanade free of charge.[23]

 

1914-1918

On 27 July 1914 the IWRL held well-attended meetings at Greystones and Bray. Within a few days, however, Europe was at war, and suffragists, like the rest of the population, were divided in their response. While some put aside activism in favour of war work, others took a pacifist line, and a third faction was drawn ever closer to the separatist movement represented by, among other groups, Sinn Fein. The Easter Rising, with its declaration of ‘equal rights and equal opportunities to all’ seemed to many suffragists a guarantee of full equality under an independent Irish government, and suffrage and nationalist women found themselves closing ranks, co-operating, for instance, in the successful anti-conscription campaign of 1918.

 

Representation of the People Act and the 1918 General Election

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 granted the vote to all men over twenty-one, and to women over thirty, subject to a property qualification, and with the end of the war preparations began for the general election of December 1918. In Wicklow the run-up to polling day saw women involving themselves in political activity: ladies were included on a committee formed in Delgany for the purpose of giving active support to the Unionist candidate[24], and a Unionist election rally in Wicklow included ‘many ladies’ among the attendance, with the candidate making a specific appeal ‘to the women for their votes and support.’[25]  On polling day itself, 14 December, the Wicklow Newsletter reported a ‘surprisingly large’ number of female voters at Delgany, the majority of whom would have been Unionist, while the impressive Sinn Fein organization included numbers of Cumann na mBan members, who distributed photographs and badges, ‘cooked and conveyed food to the booths at frequent intervals’, and finally accompanied a body of Irish Volunteers on the train from Wicklow to Aughrim, carrying ‘refreshments, and all paraphernalia that might be required in case of scrimmages.’[26]

 

Conclusion

It is clear that the suffrage movement had a presence in Wicklow from at least the early years of the twentieth century. This was especially significant in the northern part of the county, but Wicklow, Baltinglass and Dunlavin also attracted suffragist attention. For the most part, those actively involved were middle-class and gentry women, but there were also efforts to draw in those from less privileged social backgrounds, through outdoor meetings and canvassing in less affluent areas, and there does seem to have been considerable public interest in the question of ‘votes for women’, even if this sometimes took a rather jocular form. Moreover, the response to the 1918 election from women in the county suggests that the suffrage campaign, taken in conjunction with the republican surge which succeeded 1916, alerted Wicklow women in general to the potential of their vote, as evidenced in their involvement, on both sides of the debate, in the 1918 election campaign and their turnout on polling day.

 

 

This is a summary of a paper given to the West Wicklow Historical Society on 28 November 2018.

Secondary sources on the wider suffrage campaign are extensive, but include Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times (1984); Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy eds, Women, power and consciousness in 19th-century Ireland (1995) and Female activists: Irish women and change, 1900-1960 (2001) and Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (1983) and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, suffragette and Sinn Feiner: her memoirs and political writings (2017).

 


[1] Wicklow News-Letter, 25 September 1909.

[2] Wicklow People, 26 March 1910.

[3] Wicklow News-letter, 22 January 1910.

[4] For an account of this incident see; http://www.countywicklowheritage.org/page/the_suffragettes_and_the_chief_secretary?path=0p3p80p and Rosemary Raughter, ‘The suffragettes and the Chief Secretary: an “amusing scene” on Greystones Pier’, Greystones: its buildings and history, vol 2 (2013) pp 45-46. On press reaction see Wicklow News-Letter, 29 October 1910 and  Irish Times, 26 October 1910.

[5] William Murphy, “Suffragettes and the 1911 Census of Ireland’, https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/ireland/033001-1001.06.2-e.html

[6] Quoted Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement, 1889-1922 (1984), p. 48.

[7] Wicklow Newsletter, 7 October 1911 and Wicklow People, 7 October 1911.

[8] In November 1912 there were fifteen societies. By May 1913 the number had risen to twenty-nine. Smashing Times, p. 66.

[9] Founded in 1912, this was currently edited by Frank Sheehy Skeffington.

[10] On the Irishwomen’s Reform League, see Smashing times, pp 43, 45.

[11] Wicklow Newsletter, 25 May 1912; Irish Citizen, 1 June 1912.

[12] ‘The Chairman said he was quite sure that votes for women would come, and he only hoped when they got the vote it would not again be the case of the lady who went for the ride on the tiger’ – a reference to the limerick, in which the tiger ‘returned from the ride With the lady inside.’ Kildare Observer, 25 May 1912.

[13] Irish Citizen, 13 July 1912.

[14] Liz Goldthorpe, ‘A quiet woman?’, Greystones Archaeological & Historical Society Journal, pp 92-113, pp 101-102.

[15] Irish Citizen, 20 July 1912.

[16] Irish Citizen, 12 April 1913.

[17] Irish Citizen, 4 April 1914.

[18] Irish Citizen, 25 July 1914.

[19] Irish Citizen, 18 April 1914.

[20] She was at this stage President of the Women’s Freedom League, a breakaway group from the Pankhursts’ WSPU.

[21] Wicklow People, 7 September 1912 and Irish Citizen, 14 September 1912.

[22] Irish Citizen, 6 September 1913. The young ‘paperboy’ is named as master Jack Leet. He was probably John Oliver Leet, only child of Hilda and Ernest Leet, a barrister, of St Mary’s Road, Dublin.

[23] Wicklow Newsletter, 7 September 1912.

[24] Wicklow Newsletter, 7 December 1918.

[25] Wicklow Newsletter, 14 December 1918.

[26] Ibid.

 

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