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A photograph from our collection showing three un-named suffragettes and one named suffragette (Mary Leigh on the right) standing outside a shop in Batley Photo by: Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Hatchets and hunger strikes for the vote - Irish suffragettes grew militant before World War I

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A photograph from our collection showing three un-named suffragettes and one named suffragette (Mary Leigh on the right) standing outside a shop in Batley Photo by: Kirklees Museums and Galleries

Irish suffragettes resorted to some violent means in the early twentieth century. They threw hatchets and burning chairs before Ireland had even gained Home Rule or independence.

On July 19, 12 the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith met with some militant demonstrations during his visit to Dublin. Suffragette Mary Leigh threw a hatchet with the text “The symbol of the extinction of the Liberal Party for evermore” at his moving carriage as he passed over O’Connell Bridge. The hatchet missed its intended target and hit the arm of John Redmond, the leader of the Home Rule Party who was travelling in the same carriage. She evaded arrest, but was later arrested for her part in the events at the Theatre Royal.

The next day he talked at the Theatre Royal about Home Rule, which would create a two house legislative assembly subordinate to Parliament in London. Leigh threw a burning chair from the balcony into the orchestra pit. They attempted to set the projector box on fire by spreading flammable liquid around it. The projector box caught fire, exploded once, but the the fire was quickly extinguished.

Dublin history blog “Come Here to Me!” quotes The Irish Times, “At this moment Sergeant Copper saw a young woman standing near. She was lighting matches. Opening the door of the cinemagraphic box, she threw in a lighted match, and then tried to escape. But she was caught by Sergeant Copper and held by him. She is stated to have then said: ‘There will be a few more explosions in the second house. This is only the start of it.’”

Gladys Evans was accused of attempting to set fire to the cinemagraphic box. Leigh, an eloquent speaker represented herself. Baines had been at the Theatre Royal, but she lodged Evans and Leigh in a room on Mount Street where rubber gloves and flammable liquid were later found. Capper was accused of being Evans’ accomplice, but charges were withdrawn for lack of evidence.

Evans, Leigh, Jennie Baines (who was using the nom de guerre Lizzie Baker) and Mabel Capper were on trial for seven days at the Green Street Special Criminal Court in Dublin. Officers charged them with “having committed serious outrages at the time of the visit if the British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith.” Leigh and Evans received sentences of five years of penal servitude and Baines received seven months hard labor.

The accused were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU had been formed by British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 as an women only suffrage organization emphasizing action over words. The WSPU printed a statement saying the sentence was “an outrage which is not devised as a punishment to fit the offenses, but to terrorize other women.” They raised a petition of the sentences.

Evans went to Mountjoy Jail in Dublin and went on hunger strike. The first Irish suffragette to be force fed, she was force fed for fifty-eight days. She was released on October 23, 1912 for ill health. Leigh also went on hunger strike and was released on September 21, 1912 after forty-six days of hunger strike. She was soon re-arrested and a re-trial was attempted, but ultimately dismissed. Baines went on hunger strike, but the prison doctor thought force feeding would be bad for her health and she was released in a couple days. Although Capper was not imprisoned for the Theatre Royal incident, she was imprisoned more than half a dozen times for incidents related to the suffragette movement.

The United Kingdom granted women partial suffrage in 1918 and the Irish Free State granted full suffrage in 1922.
 

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