The 1913 women’s walk for suffrage in Britain is well-known. Over 50,000 women arrived in Hyde Park London demanding the vote. The abuse they endured extended to imprisonment and the brutal force-feeding of those on hunger-strike in prison. In Ireland’s nine counties that comprised Ulster suffragettes, Unionist and Nationalist together, held mass rallies in Ormeau Park. A century later their struggle and their bravery was commemorated in Ormeau Park. Dr Margaret Ward, the Director of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency in Belfast and renowned women’s suffrage scholar addressed the meeting and led the commemorative walk for women in the park. This is her address:
Sisters and friends,
We are here today to commemorate the fact that 100 years ago women throughout Ireland were marching, protesting and going to jail because they demanded the vote. Women from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales were part of a mass, international, movement of women. In Ulster there were around 1,000 members in 20 different suffrage organisations. Proportionally the Suffrage Movement had as many members in Ireland as they had in England.
Between 1910 and 1912 18 women from Ireland – north and south – were imprisoned in Holloway jail in London for their participation in militancy – breaking shop windows in Oxford Street when Members of Parliament yet again voted against another attempt to have a bill for women’s suffrage passed by the House of Commons.
Dr Elizabeth Bell from Newry, the first woman in Ireland to qualify as a doctor, was one of those imprisoned, as was her friend Margaret Robinson, who ran a girl’s school in Whitehead. Later, between 1912 -14 there were 36 convictions for suffrage militancy in Ireland – in the north 8 women were held in Crumlin Road jail. Dr Bell was the doctor who cared for the hunger striking suffrage prisoners.
Belfast suffragettes held open air meetings in places like Carlisle Circus, Ormeau Park and outside Methodist College. They filled the Grand Opera House and the Ulster Hall. Despite the Home Rule issue, these crowds were made up of Unionist and Nationalist women united in a common cause. Living close to Ormeau Park, in Candahar Street, was Margaret McCoubrey, another suffrage militant. Detectives used to follow her around, hoping to get evidence against her.
Speaking in Ormeau Park in 1913, Mrs Chambers of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society said, ‘if it were women’s work to fit the children to go into the world, it was equally important to see that the world was a fit place for their children’. And women could only achieve that if they had the vote.
From Dublin, suffrage militant Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was invited to speak in Ormeau Park – and she was here in August 1913 – I feel so privileged to be speaking in the space she occupied exactly 100 years ago. It was a very lively meeting as the crowd reacted to her Dublin accent. She stood on a lorry, introducing herself as ‘only a voteless woman’ and as a such, standing by no political party.
She attended the rally not to claim any good came out of Dublin but she believed that outside of Hell something good comes out of any place. What she wanted to say was that women needed the vote so that they could have an influence on changing the social ills that existed.
Frank, her husband, also spoke. He argued that women’s right to the vote was a basic civil liberty and the audience should look beyond sectarian divisions. He also tried to convince the Ulster unionists in the audience that the methods advocated by the suffrage militants were the same as those put forward by Carson and the other leaders who were organising opposition to Home Rule.
So, 100 years later, we commemorate the memory of our sisters and brothers in the suffrage movement. And we need to remember that women didn’t only want the vote – as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington said, they wanted to change society, to end wife beating, white slavery, the abuse of children, the exploitation of women workers – they would be appalled to see what little progress there has been. We have the vote, but we have very few female politicians to represent our interests – only 20 women out of 108 Members in the Northern Ireland Assembly. One hundred years later, the fight continues and remembering the legacy of those who went before us is one way of renewing and invigorating our spirit for that task.
Words: Dr Margaret Ward
Pictures: Phil Scraton