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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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Birth of Activist & Feminist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington

hanna-sheehy-skeffingtonJohanna Mary “Hanna” Sheehy-Skeffington, Republican activist and feminist, is born in Kanturk, County Cork, on May 24, 1877.

Sheehy is the eldest daughter of Elizabeth McCoy and David Sheehy, an ex-Fenian and Member of Parliament (MP) for the Irish Parliamentary Party, representing South Galway. One of her uncles, Father Eugene Sheehy, is known as the Land League Priest, and his activities land him in prison. He is also one of Éamon de Valera‘s teachers in Limerick. When Hanna’s father becomes an MP in 1887, the family moves to Drumcondra, Dublin.

Sheehy is educated at the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street, where she is a prize-winning pupil. She then enrolls at St. Mary’s University College, a third level college for women established by the Dominicans in 1893, to study modern French and German. She sits for examinations at Royal University of Ireland and receives a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1899, and a Master of Arts Degree with first-class honours in 1902. This leads to a career as a teacher in Eccles Street and an examiner in the Intermediate Certificate examination.

Sheehy marries Francis Skeffington in 1903, and they both take the surname Sheehy Skeffington, which they do not hyphenate but use as a double name. In 1908, they found the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a group aiming for women’s voting rights.

Sheehy-Skeffington gets into numerous scuffles with the law. She is jailed in 1912 for breaking windows of government buildings in support of suffrage as part of an IWFL campaign. That same year she also throws a hatchet at visiting British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. She loses her teaching job in 1913 when she is arrested and imprisoned for three months after throwing stones at Dublin Castle and assaulting a police officer in a feminist action. While in jail she goes on hunger strike and is released under the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act but is soon rearrested.

Being free from her teaching job enables Sheehy-Skeffington to devote more time to the fight for suffrage. She is influenced by James Connolly and during the 1913 lock-out works with other suffragists in Liberty Hall, providing food for the families of the strikers.

She strongly opposes participation in World War I which breaks out in August 1914, and is prevented by the British government from attending the International Congress of Women held in The Hague in April 1915. The following June her husband is imprisoned for anti-recruiting activities. He is later shot dead during the 1916 Easter Rising after having been arrested by British soldiers.

Sheehy-Skeffington refuses compensation for her husband’s death, which is offered on condition of her ceasing to speak and write about the murder. Rather, she travels to the United States to publicise the political situation in Ireland. In October 1917, she is the sole Irish representative to League for Small and Subject Nationalities where, along with several other contributors, she is accused of pro-German sympathies. She publishes British Militarism as I Have Known It, which is banned in the United Kingdom until after the World War I. Upon her return to Britain she is once again imprisoned, this time in Holloway prison. After release, Sheehy-Skeffington attends the 1918 Irish Race Convention in New York City and later supports the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Irish Civil War.

In 1926, Sheehy-Skeffington becomes a founding member of Fianna Fáil and is elected to the party’s Ard Comhairle. During the 1930s, she is assistant editor of An Phoblacht. In January 1933, she is arrested in Newry for breaching an exclusion order banning her from Northern Ireland. At her trial she says, “I recognize no partition. I recognize it as no crime to be in my own country. I would be ashamed of my own name and my murdered husband’s name if I did…Long live the Republic!” She is sentenced to a month’s imprisonment.

Sheehy-Skeffington is a founding member of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and an author whose works deeply oppose British imperialism in Ireland. Her son, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, becomes a politician and Irish Senator.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington dies in Dublin on April 20, 1946, at the age of 68 and is buried with her husband in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.