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In Freedom’s Footsteps

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Micheline Sheehy Skeffington

Late last year, I spoke at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House in Manhattan about my grandmother Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s tour of the U.S. in 1917-18. Hanna herself spoke to a packed Carnegie Hall on Jan. 6, 1917 when she first came to New York. She arrived from Ireland in December 1916, with her 7-year-old son, Owen, my father, and left in June 1918, having swept the U.S. with a momentous tour. How did she get so much interest and why was I back in New York nearly 85 years later?

We were both on a mission, hers much more immediate, political and some would say subversive. She was classed by the British as an “undesirable person” and an attempt was even made to have her kidnapped. This was undoubtedly because she was talking about the situation in Ireland during and after the Easter Rising of 1916. Specifically, she told how her husband, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, was murdered in British custody during Easter Week.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was a prominent Irish suffragette, co-founding the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 and twice going to prison for suffrage activities. Frank was also a strong feminist and as a journalist, he co-founded the suffrage paper The Irish Citizen. He was also a vehement pacifist and was imprisoned for anti-recruitment speeches conducted against the British during 1914-15. Thus, though a non-combatant in the Rising, he was not popular with the British military and was arrested during Easter Week. He was shot without trial the next morning in Portobello Barracks under the orders of a Captain Bowen-Colthurst.

False passport

Unhappy with the subsequent court martial — Bowen-Colthurst was found “guilty but insane” — and public enquiry, Hanna resolved to come to the U.S., where Irish nationalists had always found a welcome, to tell the full truth about the murder and to win support for Ireland. But she had to come under a false passport. The British would only issue one if she remained silent about Ireland and 1916.

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Hanna spent 18 months traveling through 21 states and talking at more than 250 venues, hosted largely by the Friends of Irish Freedom. I set out to repeat some of that tour and retrace some of the history, as well as to gather support for a project to honor her, Frank and both my parents.

Retracing Hanna’s steps

I started in Seattle, where Hanna spoke in the still-extant Moore Theatre in May 1917. By then she had already spoken in many Eastern and Midwest states as well as in L.A. In February 1917, she filled the Orchestra Hall in Chicago and it is there that her near-kidnap is reported. This is odd, as she later recounts it as happening “on my way to Buffalo,” yet the Chicago press say it happened in Lowell, Mass. She tells how she was met off a train by a small group bearing green badges and urged onto another train. However, her eye caught a group running up the platform waiving frantically. The first group entreated her to hurry as the train was about to leave, but she waited. When these people caught up with her, it transpired that they were the real party and that the train was bound for Canada. As Canada was a British protectorate, she would have been arrested there and deported at once. Annoyed she had nearly been tricked, she must secretly have got some satisfaction knowing that she was bothering the British sufficiently for them (presumably) to stage this kidnap.

After Seattle, Hanna spoke in Portland, Ore., and then Butte, Mont. It was in Butte that I had a real sense of the welcome Hanna got. There is a close-knit Irish community there. I was looked after at every turn. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians hosted a banquet for her at the Finlen Hotel, where there was a reception in my honor after my talk. The current LAOH also hosted an honorary brunch for me that morning.

I had wondered in my talk did Hanna receive the freedom of the city. She is pictured in the local press with a man about to “turn over the keys of Butte’s hospitality” to her. To my amazement, the next day I met the mayor, who produced a key to the city and a certificate entitling me to “all rights, privileges and honor pertaining thereto.” I never confirmed if Hanna got it. But she did return to Butte in 1923, during a seven-month tour to raise funds for Republican prisoners.

Arrested

After Butte, Hanna went to San Francisco, where three times she filled the Dreamland Auditorium. Sadly now demolished, it was reported as carrying 6,000 people “packed to suffocation” when Hanna spoke. The first meeting in June 1917 was described as “one of the largest audiences of Irish and Irish sympathizers ever assembled in San Francisco.” Her last talk there was in April 1918, after which it suddenly became unavailable to her. The heretofore sympathetic press also suddenly ceased covering her talks and she was arrested at one meeting, though subsequently released without charge. Ostensibly this was because she was making anti-British speeches, though in fact her talks increasingly concerned the rights of small nations (i.e. Ireland) and addressed President Wilson, whom she had met in January that year.

But the real reason for her arrest and the drop in press coverage may be because she was the key speaker at a rally for Tom Mooney. He was an active trade unionist and a member of the International Workers of the World. This body was unpopular with powerful industrialists and Mooney was falsely charged with planting a bomb in a public parade. His sentence to hang was commuted to life and rallies were held in his support, with Hanna deemed prominent enough to influence public opinion. However this seems to have marked a turnabout in her own support in the U.S. Her last meetings were hardly reported in papers that earlier had printed her speeches in full.

Having been in the U.S. by then for 17 months, she started for home, speaking first at a controversial rally in the original Madison Square Garden hosted by the Irish Progressive League. The British eventually relented on issuing her passport, realizing she could cause more damage while in the U.S. than back under British jurisdiction.

While in New York, I spent some moments lingering in Carnegie Hall, imagining the tumultuous reception she would have got nearly 85 years ago. When Hanna returned to Europe, she was eventually arrested (“I owe the British authorities some time,” she said), sent to Holloway Prison, went on hunger strick and was released. She joined Sinn FTin and was on the party’s Executive by 1919.

Truce negotiator

Some tiny press articles in the family papers caught my attention: in June 1921 she is reported as having “made [the Truce] possible.” Corroborated by a similar article I found in the New York Times archives, referring to her as the “unofficial Ambassador of +amon De Valera,” it seems she was perhaps the first to go over to Lloyd George and pave the way for the Treaty negotiations. She was, true to her nationalist sentiments, opposed to the eventual Treaty and briefly joined De Valera’s newly formed Fianna F_il party. But she fought him first on nationalist and then feminist grounds. She was never to wield the power she ought to have. This was partly as the first Free State government and subsequent ones (of both parties) gradually wrote women out of power in the new State.

My own tour of the U.S. was to raise awareness of a plan I have to honor Hanna as well as Frank and both my parents. I hope to raise funds to have my parents’ former home turned into a women’s education and training center. The project is in its early stages and anyone wishing information can write to michskef@gofree.indigo.ie.

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