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  • Reverse Currents:Irish Feminist and Nationalist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and U.S. Anti-imperialism, 1916–24
  • Elizabeth McKillen (bio)

During the easter rising of 1916, British troops arrested pacifist and suffragist Francis Sheehy Skeffington while he was out trying to prevent looting on Dublin streets, executed him without trial, and covered up their actions by burying him without notifying the family. They had apparently not counted on the indefatigable detective skills of Francis's wife Hanna, who soon used social networks and political skills cultivated during her career as a suffragist to uncover what happened to her husband. With the assistance of Sir Francis Vane, a sympathetic British officer, Hanna soon forced the arrest and court martial of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who had issued the command to execute Francis.1 She also traveled to Britain and convinced Prime Minister H. H. Asquith to launch a broader inquiry into the incident. Yet Sheehy Skeffington proved dissatisfied with the results of both the court martial and the inquiry, and she soon "made up [her] mind … to go to America and to tell [the] story of British militarism to every audience in the States that I could reach."2

Over the course of the next eight years, Sheehy Skeffington spent extensive time in the United States on lecture and fundraising tours on behalf of Irish independence; she also published widely in the [End Page 148] American and Irish American press. Sheehy Skeffington's roles in shaping the Irish nationalist and suffrage movements during this period have received significant scholarly attention, but this article seeks to shed new light on her activism by exploring the ways that she contributed to intellectual currents within both Irish America and the American left on questions of imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.3 Erez Manela in his classic book The Wilsonian Moment emphasized the importance of a transnational flow of Wilsonian ideas about national self-determination in inspiring anticolonial rebellions in such diverse countries as China, Egypt, India, and Korea during the World War I era. Yet, as subaltern theorists have recently insisted, the intellectual flow of ideas was often a two-way street, and marginalized actors from colonial areas sometimes exercised surprising influence over larger and more powerful nations by using their institutions, media, and diaspora networks to disseminate their own ideas.4 For no group was this more true than the early twentieth-century Irish, who enjoyed the benefits of a sprawling and politically influential Irish immigrant community in the United States.

An older literature on Irish America detailed the efforts of its leaders and politicians to shape U.S. foreign policy formulation with respect to Ireland and explored some of the disagreements that developed between Irish American nationalist leaders and visiting Irish male rebels such as Eamon de Valera.5 The role of Irish women lecturers [End Page 149] who came to the United States in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion, however, has only recently received attention. To date, most studies of women lecturers have focused on their success in raising funds for the Irish rebellion and in publicizing the Irish nationalist struggle. Some have also detailed the ways in which these women interacted with Irish American women and encouraged an expansion of female organizational activities within Irish America. Catherine Burns has explored the ways in which both Irish and Irish American women used American patriotic rhetoric to justify their Irish nationalist work. The contributions of Irish women lecturers to ongoing debates about key U.S. foreign policies, however, remain largely neglected.6 Yet many Irish female lecturers, Sheehy Skeffington included, remained in the United States for long periods of time [End Page 150] and proved to be quite popular speakers and political strategists. Although both Irish and Irish American women nationalists emphasized their loyalty to the United States, U.S. intelligence agents engaged in extensive surveillance of their activities because they feared their subversive influence in undermining U.S. foreign policies.7

Sheehy Skeffington's aim during her first lecture tour in 1917–18 was primarily to expose British brutality and raise funds for Irish independence, but her lectures intersected and clashed with President Wilson's policies during World War...


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