Pacificism or Physical Force?
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Thomas MacDonagh & the Course of Irish Nationalism, 1915
By Ed Mulhall
It was a direct challenge. A plea. It was sent by one activist and idealist to another. Sent with respect and admiration, at what both perceived as a crossroads of history. It was sent from the pacifist to the Volunteer. But it was more than a personal message. Packaged and distributed as a pamphlet Francis Sheehy-Skeffington's Open Letter to Thomas MacDonagh was a challenge and a plea to a movement. In the middle of a war which both were opposing; it was a final plea to pull back from the military option at home. But as this debate was waging in public, in these months of the summer of 1915, in private rooms and prison cells the answer to the challenge was being given. A year later, both men would be dead, executed by firing squad.
By 1915 they were prominent figures in the political and cultural life of Dublin.
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, journalist, author and activist was the editor of the radical suffrage newspaper The Irish Citizen and - as a speaker for the Irish Neutrality League - was appearing regularly at rallies about the war at that time. Thomas MacDonagh, writer and university lecturer, was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers and now one of the leaders of the group which had split from John Redmond’s National Volunteers following his support for enlistment in the war.
The two men had known each other for over decade, they had both taught at St Kieran's College in Kilkenny with MacDonagh just following Skeffington. It seems their friendship dates from this time, 1901. Francis and his wife Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington became the leaders of the Irish Women's Franchise League in 1908 and Thomas MacDonagh was a regular attendee at their rallies. He shared a platform with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and wrote articles in support of them and women's suffrage. (He did write some critical articles concerning their links with the British movement, for which he received a rebuke from Hanna's brother-in-law Francis Cruise O Brien). MacDonagh and Skeffington were both on the Industrial Peace Committee which was formed during the Lockout of 1913 to try and resolve the dispute. This committee was chaired by another of Hanna's brothers-in-law, the former MP Thomas Kettle and it also included MacDonagh's close friend Joseph Plunkett.
Plunkett and MacDonagh at that time wrote for The Irish Review, which had been founded by MacDonagh and which Plunkett edited (and to which Skeffington contributed). Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had been one of the early recruits to the Citizen Army when it was formed as a defensive body for the striker. He left due to the Citizen Army’s increasingly militarist tendencies though he remained close to its leader James Connolly and had made representations to the authorities on his behalf when he had been imprisoned.
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington as a militant suffragette had herself been imprisoned in 1913 for a suffragette protest and had gone briefly on hunger strike before release. Thomas MacDonagh from the foundation of the Volunteers became one of its key leaders and had in 1914 led the group which received the arms at Howth and marched into the city. After this episode a number of people were shot at Bachelor’s Walk. MacDonagh, together with Connolly, Plunkett and senior IRB figures Clarke, Pearse, Ceannt and MacDiarmada had been at a meeting in Parnell Square in 1914 which had considered the options for a rising during the war and which had led to the formation of the Irish Neutrality League, which FSS joined and became one of the main speakers at its rallies.
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had considered joining the Volunteers following the split as he saw their stand against the war as a positive development. However the Volunteers was an all-male organisation with women encouraged to join Cumann na mBan and this division was something to which both Frank and Hanna objected. It called into question the movement's commitment to equality. He wrote to Thomas MacDonagh on the eve of the Volunteer convention in October 1914 - which was to adopt a new constitution - seeking to have the words 'rights and liberties' in the text defined. This could be done by adding the words 'without distinction of sex, class or creed'. If this was not possible then 'the next best thing would be for some member or members of the Provisional Committee, in the course of the Convention… to explain clearly that he intended these rights and liberties to be extended without distinction of sex, class or creed... I hope this opportunity will not be missed, as other opportunities have been, of winning for the Irish Volunteers the support of the women's movement'. The assurance wasn't forthcoming and he didn't join.
The meeting of the Irish Women's Franchise League, the campaign for votes for women, which prompted the Open Letter was held on 11 May 1915. It was called to protest at the exclusion of any Irish delegate from attending the International Women's Conference at the Hague called to discuss the war. Hanna had been in London trying to lobby for a delegate and when eventually one, Louie Bennett was approved she was prevented from travelling by a closure of the North Sea for the number of days around the conference. The meeting, held at the Trades’ Hall, was attended by a large and enthusiastic audience and chaired by Mrs. Meg Connery. It began with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington reading out messages of apology from local representatives and other notables who were unable to attend including a message from Padraig Pearse, the headmaster of St Enda's. In his message Pearse said:
'The action of the British Government in preventing Irish women from attending the Women's International Peace conference is only the latest manifestation of the settled policy of Great Britain to eliminate Ireland from the counsels of Europe and the world. We have now been almost completely cut off from communications with other countries and peoples except through Britain... The present incident will do good if it ranges more of the women definitely with the national forces.'
The nature of this statement drew an immediate rebuke from the chair: 'That was a very masculine inversion. The incident ought to have the effect of ranging the national forces on the side of the women (Applause).'
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington gave a detailed account of the negotiations with the British authorities to get leave for a delegation to attend the Hague Conference and their ultimate frustration. She said that Stephen McKenna, the Minister who had chosen the delegates, had selected Miss Bennett rather than her because she was discreet and Hanna 'notoriously’ was not and he believed one in twenty four was an appropriate representation for Ireland: 'No doubt the Government thought it was, except when there was fighting to be done... they would send from this meeting a message that Ireland was still alive and apt to kick every now and then, if they had had votes they would not have been so humiliated.' Two motions were put to the meeting. Thomas MacDonagh spoke to second the motion proposed by Louie Bennett supporting the aims of the Congress itself (the first motion protested at the decision to stop the delegation). He began with a reference to the Pearse letter:
'He would also associate himself with what the Chairman had said in his reply to his colleague Mr. Pearse; this incident did show that they should range the forces of nationalism on the side of women. He hoped, as a Volunteer, he would have a better opportunity than voting to show that by 'people' he meant the women as well as the men of Ireland. He would lose no opportunity in pressing for women's rights as citizens; he believed they would settle the questions of international peace and also of industrial evils.'
'He was possibly in an anomalous position as an advocate of peace. He was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, a member of the first Provisional Committee and now one of the quintet who had been charged with running that organisation. He had devoted a considerable amount of time to the study of military subjects and of military training. It was part of his duty to instruct men how to bayonet their fellow man and how to put their foot on his body and pull out the bayonet afterwards. It was disgusting and nobody could hate it more than he did. He was an advocate of peace because everyone was being exploited by the dominant militarism. He had helped arm tens of thousands of men for defense because the only justification for war was to end age-long wars such as that in this country. He hoped they would not have any war in this country (applause). If the peace programme of the women was followed there would be no need. All their woes came back to exploitation... All the resolutions of the Hague Congress would be endorsed by everyone he knew; but they were all helpless under the ruling oligarchies. That was the reason some of them had armed...
The worst of war propaganda was that it appealed to the noblest and finest sentiments; the spirit of patriotism was called out and exploited by capitalists and oligarchies for greed and grab. His one apology for his share in the creation of a different kind of militarism in this country was that they were not going to exploit their own people; they had already refused to allow them to be exploited. He hoped - he knew - that they would never be used against their fellow countrymen (applause). It was a great thing that representative women in Europe - and women were surer to be right than men - should meet on neutral soil and send out these resolutions. It was a better call to Ireland than any militarism. The women and the workers could serve their own cause by serving peace. There had been no democratic control hitherto; they were controlled all the time by the same old oligarchy which divided itself into two parties to keep the fools fighting. Greater things had begun in smaller ways than the Congress. Let them not mind being called 'sparrows' or 'unrepresentative'. He had been called a 'nobody' and a 'self-elected' person by the 'greatest man in our country' (laughter). He believed in the miraculous; let them follow their inspiration and anything was possible.'
Both motions were carried by acclamation.
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who was in the audience, was moved to respond to what he considered MacDonagh's impressive speech. He did so in an Open Letter to Thomas MacDonagh which was published side by side with the report of the Trades’ Hall meeting in the next edition of The Irish Citizen on 22 May. The significance of the response was also shown by the decision to issue it as a pamphlet with Thomas MacDonagh's and Skeffington's pictures on the cover.
In his response Skeffington said that MacDonagh’s remarkable speech had 'impressed me extraordinarily, as a vivid example of the kind of tangle we have all got ourselves into under the existing militarist and dehumanizing system'. He admitted he would have joined the Volunteers if they had acceded to his request, following the Redmondite split, to have the equality pledge in the constitution. But it would have been a mistake: 'For, as your infant movement grows toward the stature of a full grown militarism, its essence - preparation to kill - grows more repellent to me.'
He respected that MacDonagh was driven by high ideals but warned that every militarist system started with the same high ideals: 'you justify no war except a war to end oppression, to establish the right. What war monger ever spoke otherwise when it was necessary to enlist the people?'
While MacDonagh was sincere in his beliefs, Skeffington wondered whether this reflected the movement as a whole. 'How many of them share your horror of war, your aspiration for a permanent peace?' He pointed to the most recent edition of The Irish Volunteer where mimic war was extolled as the greatest game on earth and the noblest game any Irishman can play. 'Are not the bulk of the Irish Volunteers animated by the old bad tradition that war is a glorious thing, that there is something 'manly' about going out to kill your fellow man, something cowardly about the desire to see one's end accomplish without bloodshed?' And he warned that in a militarist organisation this view would inevitably become the prominent one. 'Will not you and those who share your desire for peace, your reluctance for war, find yourselves sooner or later, faced with the necessity of abandoning either your ideals or a military system that cannot be run in conformity with those ideals.'
It was not an argument that Ireland was too small to become a militarist nation. 'European militarism has drenched Europe in blood, Irish blood may only crimson the fields of Ireland. That would be disaster enough.'
He disputed MacDonagh's statement that it was their hope never to employ an armed force against a fellow Irishman: 'But, a few weeks ago, I heard a friend, who is also a Volunteer, speaking from the same platform with me, win plaudits by saying that the hills of Ireland would be crimson with blood rather that the partition of Ireland be allowed. That is the spirit I dread. I am opposed to partition but partition could be defeated at too great a price.'
He also asked why women had been left out of the Volunteer movement and its aims: 'Consider carefully why; and when you have found and clearly expressed the reason why women cannot be asked to enroll in this movement you will be close to the reactionary element in the movement itself.'
He was not advocating 'servile, lazy, acquiescence' to injustice; he would continue to be a fighter but he wanted the fight against injustice to be one more suited to a new age: 'I want to see the manhood of Ireland no longer hypnotized by the glamour of the 'glory of arms’ no longer blind to the horrors of organised murder.'
This was a unique time for it to happen, they were on the threshold of a new era in human history, the war changed everything: 'formerly we could only imagine the chaos to which we are being led by the military spirit. Now we realise it and we must never fall into the abyss again.'
Skeffington summed up this argument with this challenge to MacDonagh:
'Can you not conceive an organisation, a body of men and women, bonded together to secure and maintain the rights and liberties of Ireland, a body animated with a high purpose, united by a bond of comradeship, trained and disciplined in the ways of self-sacrifice and true patriotism, armed and equipped with the weapons of intellect and of will that are irresistible? - an organisation of people prepared to dare all things for their object, prepared to suffer and to die rather than abandon one jot of their principles - but an organisation that will not lay down as its fundamental principle 'we will be prepared to kill our fellow men?''
It was not impractical, he argued, if there was the vision to conceive and the will to execute it and there was no other way out of the tangle between hatred of oligarchies and hatred of organised bloodshed. In conclusion he asked Thomas MacDonagh to 'Think it over, before the militarist current draws you from your humanitarian anchorage'.
The challenge was issued, published and distributed. But the two men were not to engage further in this fundamental debate about the nature of the resistance to injustice. Two days after the publication of the Open Letter, Skeffington spoke at a Socialist Party open air meeting at Beresford Place. He later estimated this was about the fortieth of these regular Sunday meetings he had addressed since the war began. In recent weeks he had been aware that the prospect of arrest had increased and as he proposed a motion against conscription he had noticed a police note-taker in the crowd. On the 27 May he was arrested and imprisoned in Mountjoy to await trial and sentence.
It is clear however what MacDonagh’s reply would have been. He was under no illusions as to the path he was taking. In a letter to his fried Dominick Hackett that May he was very clear of his vision:
'It is worth living in Ireland as one of the directors of the Irish Volunteers. We have done more for our generation, thank God, than any of the men of the previous periods did since the old clan times, more than the ‘98 men or Emmet or the '48 or '67 men. We are making the preparations. Destiny will take charge of the issue.'
He gave Hackett some of the detail of the training they have undergone and the support they are getting from around the country including from the priests. He told of a group of 40 young boys between 10 and 16 who have been drilling with him and ready to follow him into the Volunteers when ready and of men who have been thrown out of their homes for supporting them but were now active in the city. He lamented those who have deserted the cause and enlisted (or like Æ, George Russell, who was now writing for the London Times) and even his friend and co-founder of The Irish Review David Houston who had joined up following the sinking of the Lusitania. But those who remained were ready: 'Remain those who under all circumstances at all times will be and must be Irish rebels. Zealous, martyrs, and so saviours and liberators, for I am confident we shall win this time, through peace, I hope, but if necessary by war.'
MacDonagh said that current events were bringing the inevitable closer. 'It is a shocking thing that all the great powers are such a bad lot. Empire is a curse. No one here knows anything really about the war, though the wildest rumours float around. The Dardanelles expedition is costing England terrible losses. I believe there is no beating the Germans on land. But then the British navy seems to be able to keep down all the German navy bar the submarines.' The imminent formation of a coalition cabinet including the unionists would mark the end of the constitutional home rule movement; it 'is nearly dead now' and he concluded:
'The Coalition wants the end of the old party system and the inauguration of a new English party against the Celtic fringe. The English Unionist, Liberal and Labour so called, can control all. There will henceforth be an English Oligarchy in control, not to be itself controlled by the Irish vote or Welsh or Scottish - or even by North-East Ulster. That, too, is all to the good. It clears the issue. It may free us even if things remain stagnant for a longer time here - from English party divisions in Ireland. It will be English versus Irish again - not Unionist against Home Ruler. But constitutional politics are no good. We must depend on ourselves and our arms.'
As he was writing this letter, MacDonagh, as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, would have been aware of other secret moves underway by a more militant group to gain control of the direction of the movement. His close friend Joseph Plunkett was in Germany with Sir Roger Casement. Casement had gone to establish an Irish brigade drawn from Irish prisoners of war, seeking German support and armed with an outline document for a possible insurrection. Plunkett - according to Diarmuid Lynch, a member of the Supreme Council of the IRB - had been appointed in May to a small group together with Pearse and Eamonn Ceannt, tasked with planning a rising. (MacDonagh was not to join this inner group until April 1916).
The key movers were still Clarke and Mac Diarmada who were formally to join this group later in the year but who were pulling the strings right through. All through the summer they were working to consolidate their control of the movement. Mac Diarmada visited the influential Supreme Council member PS O'Hegarty in England in early May and told him of the new planning group and the prospects for an insurrection (but only in Dublin O'Hegarty claimed later). When Mac Diarmada reported back to Clarke that O'Hegarty was totally opposed to such a plan, they moved to have him removed from the Supreme Council later that month. In May, too, the militant group moved to gain control of the Gaelic League when Seán Mac Diarmada approached Seán T Ó Ceallaigh to propose a motion in favour of Irish freedom at the forthcoming Ard-Fheis and Tom Clarke met with Piaras Béaslaí with a similar aim to make it impossible for Douglas Hyde to continue as President of the League.
By the time the plan came to fruition at the Ard-Fheis in Dundalk on August 1st and 2nd and the motion passed against the opposition of Douglas Hyde, Mac Diarmada himself was in Mountjoy. More significantly an event was taking place in Dublin that would have even greater import, the funeral of the veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa and Clarke planned that event as a major statement of intent.
Mac Diarmada had been arrested following a meeting in Tuam Co. Galway on 15 May where he spoke on a platform with Liam Mellows. In his witness statement decades later, local organiser John D. Costello described the arrest: 'When Mac Diarmada said 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity', District Inspector Comerford and Sergeant Martyn mounted the platform which was a brake or long car. The DI caught Mac Diarmada's hand and arrested him. 'What for? said Mac Diarmada. ‘Under DORA' replied the DI. Then Seán said ‘Let go my arm, I'll go with you’. I was sitting near the speaker and I heard Mellows whisper, ‘Don't fire’ as Seán's hand darted ominously to his hip pocket. Quick as lightening Mac Diarmada made a left turn and Mellows a right turn and Mac Diarmada's automatic passed into the hands of Mellows and then into Willie Stockwell's pocket.'
Having been arrested Mac Diarmada was detained overnight in Tuam before being moved, first to Arbour Hill and then to Mountjoy. There he joined a number of others who had been detained under the same order including journalist and volunteer Seán Milroy and on the 27 May, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington.
Writing to his wife Hanna from Mountjoy on 31 May, Skeffington had a message for his son: 'I hope Owen is in good form. He ought to be very proud, few boys of six can boast of having had both parents in prison for freedom's sake. Tell him to do all his sums regularly and right till I come out.'
June 1st he wrote:
'Hegarty (Jack) is seven doors down from me and MacDermott (Mac Diarmada) four doors from him at the end of the corridor... As I sent you word by O'Connor, I will accept a month’s imprisonment, I will not hunger strike for a month or less, but will refuse hard labour prison clothes... If the sentence is over a month (as is almost certain) I will hunger strike at once and announce same in court. In the first two or three days I will drink water copiously so as to get fairly clean inside; then I will start thirst strike as well. Such at any rate is my intention. Suppose I am sentenced by June 11th, allow a month for forcible feeding - I don't think I should stand it much longer- I shall be out by the middle of July. Of course external pressure may shorten this, but I think I can manage that much by myself! By the way my life insurance falls due on June 11th! Try to pay it!! This morning I saw Hegarty, Milroy and MacDermott before they went down. I had a word with MacDermott'
Milroy and Mac Diarmada had been brought to the Bridewell on 2 June but remanded for a further week. Mac Diarmada had been visited by Kathleen Clarke in Arbour Hill and later by Tom with a method of communication set up between them. Skeffington, while awaiting trial, was concerned at plans Hanna had to raise money (The Irish Citizen paper had been in severe financial difficulties and the arrest was interfering with plans they had for a lecture and fundraising tour to the US): 'to me giving up the house would be defeat, humiliation, comparable to you extinguishing the 16 or to you closing down the IWFL. As to my future plans it depends on whether I am released unconditionally or under the Cat and Mouse Act but in either event I will try and carry out the American tour.'
He told her that he had exercised with Milroy and Mac Diarmada. He had a word of greeting with MacDermott who said 'we should hold a meeting inside'.
All three faced trial on the Wednesday, 9 June. Milroy recalled:
'McDermott and I were brought to court again on June 9th, and on this occasion Mr Sheehy-Skeffington was with us. That is to say we met in the dock. Skeffington having been brought down to the court separately from us. I recollect my case was taken first of the three, and the report of my speech delivered in Beresford Place on Sunday May 16th at which the Crown witness note taker, Constable McCarthy, produced was, though in parts misleading, incomplete and inaccurate, on the whole in substance a fairly correct abridgement of what I said. What I did however resent chiefly was the atrocious grammar which he attributed to me... After further evidence had been tendered my counsel applied for a further remand and I was put back again for a week.
However, I remained in the rear part of the dock during the hearing of McDermott’s case, which was the next taken, and the evidence seemed so clumsily incoherent, so patched up, and so ridiculously flimsy on the part of the witnesses that I believe everyone in court expected Seán would be at once discharged. However, the magistrate apparently, and to the astonishment of the Court, wound up his remarks with the sentence of four months hard labour. McDermott took his fate smiling. Hisses in Court greeted the sentence. As Seán came down the steps of the dock to where I was, I remarked -: 'It means the maximum sentence for me when my time comes up after the way your case has gone.' And so I expected it would have been, only that Providence in the shape of Sheehy-Skeffington's hunger strike in the meantime intervened and gave the tin-gods of the Pale pause for thought.'
Mac Diarmada and Milroy were led away and kept in the holding cells when Skeffington's trial began after the lunch break. In Skeffington's papers in the National Library of Ireland there is an almost complete hand written transcript of the hearing. Constable McCarthy again gave testimony of the speeches he had witnessed in Beresford Place. His full report of the meeting was read into the record and then Skeffington, who was representing himself, cross-examined the witness. In this he takes some issue with the accuracy of the constable’s account of his speech which is attributed to the constable having to write under his coat and Skeffington being a fast speaker. But the main focus is on the decision to arrest him now, given that this was just one in a series of similar speeches. Skeffington suggests that it might be due to a change in policy due to the formation of the Coalition government and points to a phrase used by consul Tim Healy earlier in the day that ‘the fire had been lit in Tuam', a reference to the arrest of Mac Diarmada. Skeffington uses the cross examination to make clear that the meeting was a Nationalist one with the aim of opposing conscription and to do so by peaceful means. Here is that exchange from the transcript:
- (Skeffington) 'Remember that passive resistance will smash any Act they will pass.' Was not the whole burden of my speech to emphasize the value of passive resistance?
- ( Constable) Yes
- I told them that it was sufficient to resist any Conscription Act?
- That was the whole burden of my speech? (64)
- I said that the Volunteers and the Citizen Army might have some other means?
- That they should employ passive resistance if they were not members of the Citizen Army
- I asked the crowd one thing only- what was that?
- Passive resistance
The exchange concluded as follows:
- (Skeffington) 'So if any form of conscription is enforced in this country, say 'we will not go!’' What happened then?
- (Constable) Most of the crowd shouted 'we will not go'
- On the question of conscription, as a matter of fact I asked the audience to take a pledge that they would not go, and they did so?
- With uplifted hand?
- The resolution was carried?
- Are you aware that the resolution has be put and carried at all the meetings?
- I cannot say positively, but I think so.
The evidence having concluded the prisoner then spoke to the court. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington had intended his speech from the dock as a major statement of principle. He had given Hanna instructions the day before his trial as to how and to whom it was to be distributed. The legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian CP Scott was one of those to be sent a copy.
In his speech Skeffington began by condemning the manner of the prosecution, that there was no jury present and that it was that no Dublin jury could be found who would assist the enforcement of the 'iniquitous' Defence of the Realm Acts.
He was defending a fundamental principle:
'I claim as an elementary right of a citizen in a free state the right to put forward those opinions. It is clearly a matter of constitutional right to tell the people of Ireland that they had the right to take no part in a war as to which they were not consulted... Whatever may be said of the English people, the Irish people never at any time gave the slightest mandate of authority to their leaders or representatives to commit them to a European War. No leader has any right to pledge the Irish people without such a mandate'
In his speeches he kept within these principles:
'Everything I have said at these meetings fits in with what I consider my constitutional right and my moral duty. It was necessary. In order to prevent the pressure being brought to bear on the weaker and more cowardly section and individuals being coerced, it was necessary to go into such questions as the origin of the war, I have shown by quoting from a pamphlet entitled 'How the War came about' how the war was forced on by Russia against the wishes of Germany... I have also had to go back to the causes of the war... (quotes a book by E.D. Mortel) the plot for the encirclement and final crushing of Germany... It was necessary for me to go into the question of the progress and conduct of the war for the benefit of those weak individuals who are liable to be attracted by success, and to show that there was no prospect, no probability - one might even say possibility - of England winning a decisive victory. It was necessary for me to expose (as was done by the Forward in Glasgow) the infamous cascade of lies poured forth in the papers of so-called German atrocities in Belgium and elsewhere. It was also necessary for me to expose the humbug of the saying that Ireland has a special right to fight for Catholic Belgium... I have lastly dealt with the special Irish case: that Ireland has no direct quarrel with Germany. Ireland from its depopulation, from its impoverishment, requires peace more than any other country in Europe... That is one of the strongest points in the case I present. On the basis of that claim for 'small nationalities' which is the basis of this war, it is now taken for granted that it is right and rational for the people of Bohemia and Transylvania to rejoice in the defeats and break-up of the Austrian Empire; that it is right and rational for the people of Alsace-Lorraine and of Posen to rejoice in the break-up of the German Empire. It used to be taken for granted that the people of Poland had a right to rejoice in the break-up of the Russian empire, but that opinion is no longer.'
He was interrupted by the Magistrate Mr. Maloney and then continued:
'I claim that to put this argument before the Irish people in the form which I have shown, and to tell them it was just as right and natural for them to rejoice in the danger of the British Empire was a constitutional right.'
There followed further exchanges with the Magistrate during which he stated 'I wish it clearly understood that I will serve no long sentence under any conditions, and I will serve no sentence whatever which does not recognise my rights as a political prisoner'. He then turned to the key charge against him and uses a recent example of resistance against Government policy in his defence:
'I am prosecuted not for the attacks on recruiting on voluntary enlistment in the Army, but for my attacks on Conscription. In attacking Conscription not only were my moral duty and my constitutional right equally strong but there was no breach of law whatever. To say that ‘if conscription comes we will not have it’ is no more a breach of law than it was treason for Sir Edward Carson to say that ‘If Home Rule comes we will not have it’... I have only advocated passive resistance because I believe that that form of resistance is sufficient to smash any Compulsory Military Service Act that may be put in force... This prosecution would be intelligible in a country ruled by an autocrat, in a country under the iron heel of a military despotism, in a country ruled by a narrow oligarchy fearing the smallest breath of criticism. It would be intelligible above all in a country held by force by another country, the rulers of which would refuse to allow any expression of opinion amongst the subject people... If you condemn me, you condemn the system you represent as being some or all of these things. Any sentence passed on me is a sentence on British rule in Ireland.'
The Magistrate then passed sentence:
Mr Mahoney: 'Mr Skeffington admits the offence and glories in it .The chances are that he will repeat the offence when he gets his liberty. I know nothing of political offences. I am a long time here but I do not know what a political offence is. The only offence I know is an offence against the law and this is a grave offence. I will sentence him to six months imprisonment with hard labour and at the expiration of that period he will have to find bail in £50, or, in default go to prison for another period of six months.
Mr Skeffington; 'I will serve no such sentence. I will eat no food from this moment and long before the expiration of that sentence I shall be out of prison, alive or dead.'
(loud cheering in court).
Skeffington then joined fellow prisoners Mac Diarmada and Milroy and was transported to Mountjoy. Milroy recalled what happened:
'My recollection of the scene in Mountjoy on our return there that evening is very vivid especially in regard to Mr. Skeffington and his immediate demonstration that he meant what he said in the dock. When the prison van disgorges its compressed consignment of human beings in Mountjoy, they are brought into the reception, searched, examined, and if sentenced, have to undress and don prison attire. When it came to Skeffington's turn to undergo these various ceremonials, he somewhat nonplussed the officials in charge. He simply took up a passionate attitude, buttoned up his coat and said: - ‘I will facilitate you in no way, I'll obey no prison regulations, and I'll take no food until I am released.’ He was wearing a 'Votes for Women' badge. One of the warders removed this. He looked at Skeffington and then at the other warders who also looked at Skeffington and looked back scratching their heads the while at warder No. 1. Then they all took a look at this particularly obstinate felon and again scratched their several craniums, dumbfounded and quite ill at ease. Clearly Skeffington was not of the usual run of prisoners that passed through their hands. Then they put him in a sort of waiting box with a seat in it and left him there for a while dispatching one of their number to seek higher authority. The rest of us were marched off to the basement where we had to strip and undergo examination by the doctor. While here Skeffington appeared again, and as he wore his own clothes, I concluded he had come off on top so far.'
When Milroy met him the following morning in the exercise yard:
'Skeffington had told me he had already refused food, ‘The doctor had threatened to forcibly feed me and I am going to ask the visiting Justices to restrain him from so doing.’ I asked him about his clothes. He told me that the Governor had informed him that he could continue to wear his clothes until the Prisons Board had considered the matter and he (the Governor) had added that a prisoner doing hard labour 'could wear his own clothes'.'
The Prison Board record sheet confirmed what Skeffington had said, the prisoner was 'in good bodily health and of sound mind. Fit for hard labour of a suitable kind'. The doctor added that as he was planning to refuse all food, they would begin to feed him artificially the next day 'by force if necessary'.
Some letters, written in pencil and smuggled out of Mounjoy, now in the National Library, from Francis to Hanna, capture some of his experience on hunger strike:
'Have been told I will be forcibly fed, legs very feeble, had to sit down often. MacDermott also walking by himself. No sign of hard labour for him either but he has prison clothes... Friday morning... restless night, vomiting, weak, went to Mass... went to hospital doctor... did not mention ff (forcible feeding this time)... Sat… cold in fingers… went to Dowdell room, examined, saw report from Thursday that was to be forcibly fed Friday by Mr Birrell's direction. Out at exercise but unable to walk, discovered that another prisoner named William O'Brien is being forcibly fed.'
Outside the prison Hanna and her family were engaged in a desperate campaign to get Skeffington released before his health was permanently damaged. Francis's father JB Skeffington agreed to make representations on his behalf but was not impressed by his stance:
'He may commit suicide by Starvation, a mean and low trick. Better he was out in Belgium fighting against the Modern Huns and die a heroic death... They will feed him forcibly which means destruction in one form or another. Throat, Stomach or Brain - he may lose his reason though it is not much use to him. He can only hurt himself and his friends, me especially, for you don't care and you lead him on to this by example and speech. If he made such a speech in Germany, he would be shot like a dog.' (10 June 1915 JB to Hanna)
Hanna's own family were supportive despite their political differences. Her brother had enlisted as had her sister Mary's husband, Tom Kettle. Mary wrote with support from Wales. Her other sister Kathleen and her husband Francis Cruise O'Brien together with their father, the Redmonite MP, David Sheehy lobbied officials and politicians in Dublin and London. Hanna wrote to George Bernard Shaw seeking his support. He replied in typical fashion saying that her husband had made a grave mistake in putting his head into the lions mouth, that protests were useless and he would only make things worse if he intervened:
'As it happens I am not afraid of the Germans and have very little patience with the Englishmen who are. If they cannot win at the present odds without putting Mr Sheehy Skeffington in prison for depleting the British army to the extent of half a dozen men so they DESERVE TO BE BEATEN. Unfortunately this confidence of mine sends the British alarmists into ecstasies of fright. They commonly allude to me as Pro-German and if they knew that I sympathized with your husband they would declare that nothing but his imprisonment for life could save England. I can fight stupidity but nobody can fight cowardice.'
Hanna asked could she publish his letter. He said that was intention in writing it and a pamphlet was prepared and published which contained Skeffington's speech from the dock together with Shaw's letter to Hanna.
During this week Hanna also spoke at a meeting called to condemn the imprisonment of all those charged under the Defence of the Realm Act. During her speech she referred to the inhumanity of imprisoning her husband in this way and of imprisoning a man in Sean Mac Diarmada's condition (there had been newspaper reports that he was being treated in the prison hospital). Mac Diarmada was to react angrily to these reports writing to Tom Clarke in a smuggled letter:
'I heard that it was stated in the papers that I was in hospital. That is an infamous falsehood. I have never been inside the place and I have not received, nor have I looked for, any treatment on account of my state of health different from the strongest navy in the place. I’d like if it could be contradicted.'
(Mac Diarmada had also written to Clarke saying he was being allowed to wear his own clothes.) A notice was to follow in The Irish Volunteer:
'Sean MacDiarmad is not in the prison hospital or receiving any special favours in his prison treatment. He is doing hard labour and is happy in his mind as any Irishman can be, while the day of Irish freedom is delayed.'
Seven days into Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s hunger strike Francis Cruise O'Brien was able to tell Hanna that the new Under-Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan, had intervened. There was to be no forcible feeding, Frank would be released, but conditionally under the Cat and Mouse Act. Hanna wired her uncle Eugene: "F released tonight at 6.30. Am fetching him home. Very weak. Has been an awful time, but is over. His son Owen later remembered his father arriving home: 'I remember him, a pale skeleton of his recent self, being slowly helped by a cabbie up our garden path... Even his voice was almost gone as he tried to greet me: 'Hello Laddie.''
Skeffington was required to return to prison under the Act by 30 June and made clear if re-arrested he would resume his hunger strike. As the campaign for his permanent release continued, he took his father’s advice, for once, and went to a sea-side town in Wales to recuperate. Hanna’s father had suggested once he had recovered he should keep out of the reach of the authorities and go to America. He stayed a month in Wales, on 30 July he set sail for the US. He was not to return until December.
As Skeffington sailed for America, in Dublin, a pageant was underway, that would give a firm reply to his earlier challenge to Thomas MacDonagh, and MacDonagh was at its head. The veteran Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa had died in New York on 29 June and his remains now lay in state in the Mansion House under the portrait of Daniel O Connell. Tom Clarke had seen the opportunity to use the funeral as a major statement. He had asked Thomas MacDonagh to take charge of its organisation and Padraig Pearse to deliver the grave-side oration.
Key to the event was the participation of all the radical groups including the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann but also a great representation of civil and political society including Redmondites, Dublin City Council, the GAA, Gaelic League etc. All those involved in the secret Parnell Square meeting the previous winter were named among the organising committee and were to attend, (apart from those like Mac Diarmada who were imprisoned). Connolly when asked to participate and contribute to the commemorative brochure by Sean McGarry had expressed his frustration at the slow pace in preparing for a rising and this was reported to Clarke leading to a closure liaison between the leaders.
Pearse had gone to Rosmuc in July with his colleague from St. Enda's, Desmond Ryan to prepare his oration with instructions from Clarke to 'make it hot as hell’ and it is this speech which was to resonate as a clarion call for the Rising the following year. Pearse, speaking mainly from memory, delivered the speech at the graveside, with Clarke looking on. At its end, a Volunteer group moved forward to fire a volley over the grave.
In Mountjoy, Sean Milroy and Sean Mac Diarmada were aware of the significance of the day. Milroy recalled, as they walked around the exercise yard, he had a strange vision:
'Yes the path I am treading is no longer the ring of Mountjoy merely. It is the pathway of Irish History and we three, MacDermott, Mellows and I, felons of 1915, are marching with the men who suffered for the same cause and stood against the same power as that which has deprived us of our liberty and which holds us in its tenacious grip. Round and round goes the marching tramp and with the trend of these steps I hear the chains which Rossa drags after him; and my ears seem to catch, as from afar off, the sobs and sighing that echoed along the track of history which my companions of this hour have made so sacred with their sufferings.'
As it was published on the day of the funeral the official commemorative brochure did not contain the text of Pearce’s oration. In the brochure there was another piece by Pearse on O'Donovan Rossa as well as contributions from Connolly, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, Arthur Griffith, Sean McGarry and others. Thomas MacDonagh wrote a poem on Rossa and a piece entitled 'The Irish Volunteers and 1915' which could be read as his final response to Skeffington's challenge. He describes a noble cause, the greatest thing after the service to God and that is 'a holy cause that will be served and served in blood, and served still though it is betrayed by every man and woman of us but one'. He links his generation with that of O’Donovan Rossa with one current example: 'It is good for the Nation to know that Irishmen today are enduring what the men of the nobler generations endured, that the prison treatment which O’Donovan Rossa suffered in Chatham is suffered today in Mountjoy by Sean MacDiarmada.' Then he states the case for rebellion:
'The Irish Volunteer in 1915 is the heir to Irish Nationality, handed down from revolt to revolt since the alien plunderers came here seven hundred and fifty years ago. The Irish Volunteer has taken up in his generation the traditional policy of the Irish people - abandoned for a few decades - the policy of physical force. The Irish Volunteer stands pledged to the single service of Ireland in Ireland. He alters not his allegiance with change of circumstance. He owns one loyalty - to Ireland. He knows one duty - to Ireland. His deed cannot die into the air like a word. The ideal that he has conceived in his heart can never die; it is one for ever with love and honour and right; it is the ideal of his country free, in the happy enjoyment of the sacred gift that has kept her children true, and that leads me now to battle, to sacrifice and to victory.'
Less than a year later in the middle of Easter Week, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was walking through the streets of Dublin in search of news of her husband who was missing when she met Muriel MacDonagh wheeling her babies in a pram heading for her mother’s house. Her own home had been ransacked due to Thomas’s involvement in the Rising. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, was already dead, murdered by firing squad in Portobello barracks after his arrest when trying to stop looting. Thomas MacDonagh with Pearse and Clarke would be the first of the leaders of the Rising to be executed on 3 May 1916, following a court martial. Mac Diarmada with Connolly would be the last, nine days later. Hanna's sister husband Tom Kettle was killed at the Somme that summer.
They left grief behind. According to Maud Gonne, Muriel MacDonagh, (a Gifford whose sister Grace married Joseph Plunkett on the eve of his execution) a year after the Rising 'swam out to sea toward Howth, never to return. She was such a lovely girl'. A strong swimmer, she had left her daughter with her sisters on the beach at Skerries, having told her son Donagh earlier she was going to swim out to nearby Shenick Island. When called to return by those watching with alarm on the beach she swam on. After an unfortunate delay, Noel Lemass and an English soldier set out in a rowing boat to try and find her. Her body was washed up on the next day. The tragedy led to one of the largest funerals in Dublin since that of O'Donovan Rossa. As in 1915, the pageantry made a statement. It was the funeral her husband and his colleagues did not receive a year earlier. The cortege was flanked by Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. In attendance were the widows and mothers of the leaders of 1916, in widows weeds, and the newly elected MP Éamon de Valera, just back from East Clare. Her young son Donagh was too ill to attend. He was aged 5, Francis Skeffington's only son Owen was just 8.
On 14 April 1966, Owen now Senator Sheehy-Skeffington looked on in Dublin Castle as President Éamon de Valera conferred honorary degrees on Donagh MacDonagh and the other closest relatives of the surviving 1916 leaders. Skeffington unveiled a commemorative plaque of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic in Celbridge Collegiate School that Easter, fifty years after his father’s murder. In his speech he recalled Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s challenge to MacDonagh and his stand against militarism. He expressed his admiration for the idealism of the men of 1916 but, referring in detail to the text of the Proclamation, his regret that so few of their aims had yet been achieved.
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Margaret Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington A Life, Cork,1997
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Shane Kenna, 16 Lives Thomas MacDonagh, Dublin 2014
Brian Feeney, 16 Lives Seán MacDiarmada, Dublin, 2014
Johann A Norstedt, Thomas MacDonagh, A Critical Biography, Virginia, 1980
Michael T. Foy, Tom Clarke, The True Leader of the Easter Rising, Dublin 2014
Sean Milroy, Memories of Mountjoy, Dublin, 1917
Gerard MacAtasney, Seán MacDiarmada The Mind of the Revolution, Leitrim,2004.
Charles Townsend, Easter 1916, The Irish Rebellion, London, 2005
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Leaders and Men of the Easter Rising: Dublin 1916 edited by F X Martin, Dublin, 1966
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Owen Dudley Edwards and Fergus Pyle eds, The Easter Rising, London, 1968
Roger McHugh eds., Easter 1916, Dublin 1966, New York, 1980
Sinéad McCoole, Easter Widows, Dublin, 2014
Diarmuid Ó Donnabháin Rosa, 1831-1915, Souvenir of Public Funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin,1915 http://source.southdublinlibraries.ie/handle/10599/9030.