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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Margaret “Gretta” Cousins, Educationist & Suffragist

Margaret Elizabeth Cousins (née Gillespie), also known as Gretta Cousins, Irish-Indian educationist, suffragist and Theosophist, is born into an Irish Protestant family in Boyle, County Roscommon, on October 7, 1878.

Gillespie is educated locally and in Derry. She studies music at the Royal University of Ireland in Dublin, graduating in 1902, and becomes a teacher. As a student she meets the poet and literary critic James Cousins. They are married in 1903. The pair explore socialism, vegetarianism, and parapsychology together. In 1906, after attending a National Conference of Women (NCW) meeting in Manchester, Cousins joins the Irish branch of the NCW. In 1907 she and her husband attend the London convention of the Theosophical Society, and she makes contact with suffragettes, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, and occultists in London.

Cousins co-founds the Irish Women’s Franchise League with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1908, serving as its first treasurer. In 1910 she is one of six Dublin women attending the Parliament of Women, which attempt to march to the House of Commons to hand a resolution to the Prime Minister. After 119 women marching to the House of Commons have been arrested, fifty requiring medical treatment, the women decide to break the windows of the houses of Cabinet Ministers. Cousins is arrested and sentenced to a month in Holloway Prison.

Vacationing with William Butler Yeats in 1912, Cousins and her husband hear Yeats read translations of poems by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1913, breaking the windows of Dublin Castle on the reading of the Second Home Rule Bill, Cousins and other suffragists are arrested and sentenced to one month in Tullamore Jail. The women demand to be treated as political prisoners, and go on hunger strike to achieve release.

In 1913, she and her husband move to Liverpool, where James Cousins works in a vegetarian food factory. In 1915 they move to India. James Cousins initially works for New India, the newspaper founded by Annie Besant. After Besant is forced to dismiss him for an article praising the 1916 Easter Rising, she appoints him Vice-Principal of the new Besant Theosophical College, where Margaret teaches English.

In 1916, Cousins becomes the first non-Indian member of the SNDT Women’s University at Poona. In 1917, Cousins co-founds the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) with Annie Besant and Dorothy Jinarajadasa. She edits the WIA’s journal, Stri Dharma. In 1919 Cousins becomes the first Head of the National Girls’ School at Mangalore. She is credited with composing the tune for the Indian national anthem Jana Gana Mana in February 1919, during Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Besant Theosophical College. In 1922, she becomes the first woman magistrate in India. In 1927, she co-founds the All India Women’s Conference, serving as its President in 1936.

In 1932, she is arrested and jailed for speaking against the Emergency Measures. By the late 1930s she feels conscious of the need to give way to indigenous Indian feminists:

“I longed to be in the struggle, but I had the feeling that direct participation by me was no longer required, or even desired by the leaders of India womanhood who were now coming to the front.”

A stroke leaves Cousins paralysed from 1944 onwards. She receives financial support from the Madras government, and later Jawaharlal Nehru, in recognition of her services to India. She dies on March 11, 1954. Her manuscripts are dispersed in various collections across the world.

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Founding of the Tenant Right League

The Tenant Right League, an organisation which aims to secure reforms in the Irish land system, is founded in Dublin on August 9, 1850, at a meeting attended by representatives of the Tenant Protection Societies. Formed by Charles Gavan Duffy and Frederick Lucas, the League unites for a time Protestant and Catholic tenants, Duffy calling his movement The League of North and South.

The political background to the movement is the Encumbered Estates Act and the resultant change in land ownership at landlord level. In the North of Ireland, Protestant and Presbyterian ministers fear that the new landlords will destroy the “Ulster custom” of tenancy, which compensates tenants for any improvement undertaken. Concurrently, in the South of Ireland politically minded young Catholic priests are agitating for the adoption there of the Ulster custom as a measure of reform.

Support for the League initially comes from the Ulster Tenant Right Association led by William Sharman Crawford. The support is short-lived because of the involvement of Catholic clergymen from the south. As a constitutional movement, the League seeks to secure the adoption and enforcement of the Three Fs, namely fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale. All of these would aid Irish tenant farms, all of whom lack them.

For the larger tenant farmers fixity of tenure is the priority. On the other hand the league never has the support of smaller tenants, whose prime concern is fair rents. The founders strive to establish a parliamentary party of Irish members who will oppose any government not prepared to grant “Tenant-right” also known as the Ulster Custom.

The Tenant Right League meets with considerable success under its national organiser, John Martin. It has the support of the surviving members of the Repeal Association in the British House of Commons as well as a number of English Radicals. It is agreed, all around, that a Land Act embodying the three F’s would be a real gain. In the 1852 general election, some fifty Tenant Right candidates, including Gavan Duffy, Lucas and John Sadleir, are returned to parliament, where they sit as the Independent Irish Party.

The League’s success is short lived and is ultimately destroyed and weakened when a number of prominent members break away and established the Catholic Defence Association. Supporters of the league are also intimidated by hostile landlords. The most serious blows to its success come when Lucas decides to take his complaint about the Archbishop of Dublin Paul Cullen to Rome, which alienates clerical support. Lucas dies in October 1855 shortly after the failure of his mission, a month later Gavan Duffy emigrates to Australia.

The League finally dissolves in 1859, and the Independent Irish Party disappears by 1860. The demand for tenants rights is however continued by Bishop Thomas Nulty of County Meath and taken up again as a popular cause by the Irish National Land League in 1879, when the “Three Fs” are anchored in the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881, previously pursued rigorously by Michael Davitt.