The Harp Without the Crown – Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington


“I may say that the people of Ireland look to the people of the United States as their best friends. Personally I feel at home here. I almost think it is my country. At least I do not feel a stranger here.”

“I think Butte has more interest in Irish Affairs than any other city in the United States and that is saying a lot…..”The three best supporters of the Irish cause are Boston, Chicago, and Butte.”

Quotations from Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington during a February 17, 1923 address to a Butte audience at the Empress Theater.

Hi, this is John Conlan, host of the Rocky Road to Dublin here on KBMF, and welcome to this episode of The Harp Without the Crown, where I will be discussing when Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Irish feminist and social reformer, visited Butte in 1917 and 1923.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was an Irish Nationalist committed to Irish independence but was most known in Ireland for being a feminist and advocate for Women’s Suffrage. She was co-founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise, established the Women’s Workers Union, and was instrumental in getting Ireland’s women the right to vote in 1918, a full two years before the United States. A pacifist opposed to World War One, she showed her bravery and commitment to the fighters participating in the Dublin 1916 Easter Rising by bringing food and supplies to those inside the General Post Office (GPO), where the Proclamation for Irish Independence was read. Her husband Francis, an Irish journalist, was murdered by British troops a few days after the start of the Easter Rising.

She made trips to America in 1917 and 1923, Both trips coincided with two important historical events in Irish history – the Irish Independence movement and passage of The Irish Free State Treaty, and were the focus of her speeches while in America. Of particular interest to her during the 1917 trip was to bring attention to the murder of her husband by the British and advocate for Irish independence and voting equality for women. The British authorities were fearful that Sheehy-Skeffington would speak against the British Crown during the 1917 trip to America and denied passports for her and son Owen, forcing both to slip illegally into America. While in America she was followed by US Secret Service agents and British spy agents who reported back to London with details concerning her activities. There was an unsuccessful attempt to capture her and Owen at the Canadian border. However, that did not stop her from giving 250 speeches while in America. At the conclusion of her 1917 trip she could not legally return to Ireland and was arrested and jailed in England, which led to a hunger strike. She never feared imprisonment for her activities and proudly stated, “a Rebel’s education is never complete until you have been to prison.”

Her 1917 trip to Butte was sponsored by the Butte Robert Emmet Literary Association. It was dramatically reported in the press that Sheehy-Skeffington, “arrives as the sigh and sob and the sound of a wail comes to Butte with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the widow of an Irish martyr and editor, who arrived here late yesterday afternoon.” Her first trip to Butte coincided with the debate happening in the aftermath of World War One, where the international community discussed the future of democracy for the small nations of Europe, such as Ireland. During her first trip to Butte, Sheehy-Skeffington discussed democracy for these small nations and the right to exist without colonial ties. She used her Butte trip to inform freedom loving Americans about the colonial conditions in Ireland, which she described as miserable. Sheehy-Skeffington successfully collected money from Americans that would go to the Irish Relief Fund, which was established to aid the dependents of those affected by the Easter Rising of 1916. The 1917 trip raised $40,000 nationwide, which included a contribution from Butte.

Her 1923 trip coincided with the debate occurring in Ireland and Irish America concerning the passage of Irish Free State Treaty, which she opposed because it established dominion status for Ireland and not complete independence from England. At that time there was a split among the Irish population over the Irish Free State Treaty and a Civil War happened in Ireland as a result. She was asked by Irish President Eamon De Valera to travel to America to raise money for the anti-treaty side and refute British propaganda that supported the Irish Free State Treaty. America was considered a potential ally in the fight against this treaty and many Irish activists, such as Sheehy-Skeffington, wanted Americans to view this treaty as a violation of Irish civil rights because it kept the Irish as subjects of the King of England..

It was this 1923 trip that seemed to really impress the Butte Irish community. Hanna Sheehy- Skeffington arrived in Butte February 15, 1923, with Lynda Mary Kearns and Kathleen Boland. The newspapers reported they were in America to collect funds for the 13,000 Irish dissenters, including 80 women, that were imprisoned in Ireland and England at the time. In addition to this effort, she was tireless in promoting Irish independence and opposition to the Irish Free State Treaty. The delegation accompanying Sheehy-Skeffington included Kearns, who was a Red Cross nurse and former head of the Hospital Corps of the Irish Republican Army, who also assisted the fighters at the GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising. Kathleen Boland’s brother, Harry, was a prominent Irish politician actively involved in the Irish Independence movement.

The well known and influential party arrived from Minneapolis as part of a larger tour that included major American cities such as Boston, New York, and St. Louis. That night she addressed a large crowd at the Empress Theater in Butte. Father Hannan of Butte’s St Mary’s Church presided over the event. The purpose of her speech in Butte was for Ameicans to know the true state of Ireland and to refute the reports coming out of England, “that portrayed Ireland as benefiting from continued colonial rule.” While in Butte, she made it evident that most Irish would vote for independence and were not in favor of a continued colonial relationship with England. She concluded her Butte address by saying, ‘the Free State Treaty is a paper goat run by British militarists.” During her stay in Butte, Hanna also spoke in Anaconda, attended various social gatherings, was honored at a banquet held at the Thornton Hotel attended by 200 people,

and was a guest at a reception and concert held at St Mary’s School that included the singing of patriotic songs by High School Students from St Mary’s Parish. The 1923 trip raised $123,000 for the Irish Relief Fund, which included a contribution from Butte.

John Devoy, leader of the Clan Na Gael, the largest Irish American nationalist group in America, praised Hanna by saying, “her tour of the United States did more real good for the cause of Ireland than all the Irish orators over the past twenty-five years.” As with many of the Irish activists profiled here on the Harp Without the Crown, Sheehy-Skeffington’s visit to Butte provides a glimpse into the Butte Irish Community. Support for Irish independence solidly remained in the Butte Irish community thanks to Sheehy-Skeffington.

Her visit to Butte is further evidence that the Butte Irish community was highly respected and included in any nationwide discussion relating to Irish affairs. That fact is impressive because Butte actively participated in the discussion of Irish events, just like the much larger urban Irish communities in America. However, it is not surprising that Butte kept up with these issues because Ireland sent its best ambassadors, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, to gain support for Irish independence and Butte was receptive to the message.

This has been John Conlan and thanks for listening to this episode of the Harp Without The Crown.