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Irish rebel’s granddaughter aims to carry on her legacy with U.S. tour

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington will come to the United States in honor of her grandmother's 1917 tour. | Provided photo

During a protest at Dublin Castle in 1912, an Irish suffragette named Hanna Sheehy Skeffington started breaking windows — with both hands.

“The police came out and automatically immobilized her right hand,” says her granddaughter Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, a retired ecology professor from Ireland who grew up hearing about her grandmother’s adventures. “My grandmother was left-handed like me. And that meant she could smash another set of windows.”

After Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s husband Francis was killed in the 1916 Easter Rising, she forged a passport and fled to the United States to speak out against British rule. It was an 18-month tour during which she packed Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and met President Woodrow Wilson.

“The sense of family pride that your grandmother broke windows and went to prison is not that common,” Micheline Sheehy Skeffington says. “I come from a long line of troublemakers.”

A century later, the suffragette’s granddaughter is carrying on that legacy in her own way. She won a landmark gender-discrimination case against her employer of 34 years in 2014, an Irish university, and this fall plans to travel the United States to speak about women’s rights and her grandmother’s legacy, including a four-day stop in Chicago.

Irish activist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (left) with fellow suffragettes. | Courtesy of Micheline Sheehy Skeffington
Irish activist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (left) with fellow suffragettes. | Courtesy of Micheline Sheehy Skeffington

Sheehy Skeffington plans to recreate her grandmother’s U.S. tour down to the boat trip she made across the Atlantic. She’ll arrive in Chicago with a film crew, hoping to raise enough money to fund a full-length documentary about her travels.

“Obviously, we’ve got things that Hanna didn’t have, but we won’t have equality until we’re treated with respect as well,” Sheehy Skeffington says.

She calls Chicago a key city for the tour. About 100 years after her grandmother rallied a crowd of 3,000 Chicagoans, Sheehy Skeffington will speak at Loyola University Oct. 25 and at the Irish Books Arts & Music Festival Oct. 28-29.

Festival organizer Maureen Smith says Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s story still resonates with feminists and history buffs.

“Women were not included in history in the same way men were,” Smith says. “Whenever you don’t pay attention to the rights of one part of your populace, it’s something to be vigilant about.”

In Ireland, Sheehy Skeffington says the family name means something — though not what their ancestors had hoped. When they were married, Hanna and Francis took each other’s surnames.

“That was rare for the husband to do,” the granddaughter says. “His family were disgusted.”

Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on their wedding day. | Micheline Sheehy Skeffington
Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on their wedding day. | Micheline Sheehy Skeffington

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington crusaded with reformers like Chicago’s Jane Addams, served two prison sentences for suffrage militancy and met with figures like President Wilson and Henry Ford. Francis, a newspaper editor, died a martyr for the Irish independence movement, shot without trial by a British firing squad.

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington worries that her grandmother’s work got too little notice, as women were silenced after the revolution — though at the time, she says, “She was quite a sensation.”

On tour, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was banned from speaking at Harvard, nearly abducted to British-ruled Canada and angered British supporters in Chicago.

She told a crowd at Orchestra Hall that Ireland “is a rebel, to a man, and the women are the greatest rebels of all.” The Chicago Tribune reported that when a British man heckled her from the balcony, an Irish onlooker “struck the offender over the head” amid yells to “put him out.”

Micheline Sheehy Skeffington’s tour comes a few years after she made news with her case against the National University of Ireland Galway. After she was passed over for three promotions, the botanist sued her school, where women account for 21 percent of senior lecturers.

“Someone has to say enough is enough,” Sheehy Skeffington says. “That’s the legacy I have from my grandparents.”