Francis Sheehy Skeffington (1878-1916), murdered on 26 April 1916, is numbered among the almost three hundred civilian casualties of the Easter Rising. Yet, like the cartoonist Ernest Kavanagh who is also on that list, he had a rebel heart.
Having gone into Dublin to attempt to establish a Citizen Patrol to counter the problem of looting and arson, he was picked up on Portobello Bridge by Captain Bowen-Colthurst, used as a human shield during raids in the district, and eventually shot without trial in Portobello Barracks. A plaque there remembers him today.
Among other things, Skeffy (as he was known) was a vocal and prominent supporter of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and feminism in the broadest sense, editing the progressive newspaper The Irish Citizen. A committed pacifist, he rejected the use of political violence and militarism, but he was also a republican in his own right. In an open letter to Thomas MacDonagh of the Irish Volunteers, who was also a keen supporter of women’s rights, Skeffy made it clear that while opposing their militarist language, “I am personally in full sympathy with the fundamental objects of the Irish Volunteers”. He had also supported the workers’ militia the Irish Citizen Army at the time of its foundation, in the hope it would be a purely defensive organisation.
On 16 May 1916, a Suffragist memorial meeting in London was held to remember Skeffy, under the auspices of the United Suffragists. It was addressed by George Lansbury, the political and social campaigner who would later lead the Labour Party in the 1930s. There were cries of “shame!” in the hall at various times, and Lansbury outlined his great admiration for the murdered activist. The table in the hall was “draped in the purple, white and orange of the Union”, and a memorial wreath at the top of the room remembered Skeffy and his work for change.
His widow, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, remained strongly committed to republican, feminist and socialist ideals throughout the rest of her life, while she also sought justice for her husbands murder, which was never forthcoming. Like Francis, she was a journalist, co-editing the IRA-aligned newspaper An Phoblacht for a period in the 1930s with Frank Ryan.
To mark the centenary of his passing, we link here to two interesting works, digitised by the University of California Libraries.
Available to read in full here, these two works are deserving of attention. Firstly, we have ‘A Forgotten Small Nationality: Ireland and the War’, published by Francis in February 1916 in Century Magazine. In it, he pours scorn on the idea that the conflict raging across Europe was a war for the freedom of small nations, and also highlights the hypocrisy and inconsistencies in government attitudes towards the UVF and the Irish Volunteers arming themselves. He condemns the parliamentary leader John Redmond for having “the incredible audacity to commit the Irish people to the support of this war.”
Following on from it, ‘British Militarism as I Have Known It’ is a digest of a lecture Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington delivered in the United States following the Rising:
F. Sheehy-Skeffington was an anti-militarist, a fighting pacifist. A man gentle and kindly even to his bitterest opponents, who always ranged himself on the side of the weak against the strong, whether the struggle was one of class, sex or race domination. Together with his strong fighting spirit, he had a marvelous and unextinguishable good humour, a keen joy in life, a great faith in humanity and a hope in the progress towards good.