The pictures from RTÉ news say more than words could. In the Dublin South-West by-election there are eleven candidates, just two of them are women. In the by-election in the constituency of Roscommon-South Leitrim, the situation is worse; just one woman out of ten candidates. So much for the declarations by the main parties that they will be inclusive: the one party fielding a woman candidate in both constituencies is not a party of the Left, but is the conservative Fine Gael party.
The exclusion of women is part of a long tradition. Symptomatic of that tradition is the writing of the historian F.S.L Lyons. Search the index of Ireland Since the Famine, his seminal work on Irish history, for Sheehy-Skeffington, and the name is easily found – the name of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington is easily found. Search the text and the references are all to Sheehy-Skeffington and his murder. Sheehy-Skeffington is described by Lyons as,
‘one of the best-loved figures in Dublin and a notable champion of all sorts of minority causes. He was a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a worker for women’s rights, a socialist, above all a pacifist’.
No mention whatsoever of Hanna, his wife, from whom Francis Skeffington had acquired the surname ‘Sheehy’; no mention of Hanna’s role as a founding figure of the Irish women’s movement; no mention of Hanna being imprisoned for her beliefs; no mention of the sense of betrayal felt by radical women at the conservative Catholic clerical state that emerged after 1922. Lyons, writing in 1971, had remained uninfluenced by the women’s movement that emerged in the 1960s; uninfluenced to the extent that he could write a history completely excluding Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.
He seems not to have been favourably disposed to the idea that women might play a significant role in history. Neither the women’s movement nor the suffrage movement find a place in the index of Ireland Since the Famine, though the Ladies’ Land League is mentioned; it is a subject for opprobrium. Writing of agrarian violence during the time of the imprisonment of Charles Stewart Parnell between mid-October 1881 and 1882, Lyons comments:
‘Much of this, as the Chief Secretary himself pointed out, was due to the growth or revival of secret societies, though it may also to some extent have been the product of the irresponsible behaviour of the Ladies Land League, organised by Anna Parnell to keep up the running while her brother was in prison, but regarded by him as so reprehensible that one of the first things he did on his release was to suppress it’.
Lyons’ choice of words leaves no doubt as to his own personal assessment of the role women played in the movement. Perhaps Lyons was at least honest, unlike those who now publicly espouse inclusive principles, and then adopt exclusive practices.
The long historical tradition of overlooking women persists in 21st Century politics. The day when Ireland is comparable with Rwanda, where women comprise some 56% of the members of parliament, remains a long way off.