Artist, Activist, Suffragist

Handwritten letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison regarding an article about the Vacant Land Cultivation Society, of which Harrison was Honorary Secretary
Part of the Irish Archives

I think that you damage all your “good works” by being a Politician.

Handwritten postcard from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison, 1912

Social Campaigner

After moving to Dublin in 1904 at forty years of age, Irish portrait painter Sarah Cecilia Harrison became involved in a number of social reform initiatives and campaigns, including the Dublin City Labour Yard, the Vacant Land Cultivation Society, and the Dublin Unemployment Committee. She was also active in Irish suffrage organisations including the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), co-founded by Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA), founded by Quaker couple Anna and Thomas Haslam.

In 1911, Harrison joined the committee of the IWSLGA, taking on a more active role in organising campaigns and lobbying efforts. She also spoke regularly at meetings of the IWFL, although she disagreed with members of the organisation about their more militant campaign strategies, which included civil disobedience and property damage. She contributed to Ireland’s only suffrage newspaper the Irish Citizen, published by the IWFL, and worked with the Sheehy-Skeffingtons on a number of social reform issues, including women’s trade unionism.

I am sure that Dublin is not yet prepared for a Lady Mayoress! I hope you won’t spoil your influence on the corporation by taking up too many subjects. If you can do Labour Yard & pull the Gallery through it will be enough work for one year.

Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison, discussing her work with the Dublin Corporation, 22 January 1912

City Councillor

Members of both the IWFL and the IWSLGA worked together to support Harrison’s successful local election campaign in 1912, when she became the first female city councillor elected to Dublin Corporation, representing Dublin's South city ward. She was motivated to stand for election by the belief that Dublin Corporation was failing the unemployed and that the Corporation’s Distress Committee was inefficient and corrupt. Although she supported Home Rule, her campaign focused on progressive policies and good civic administration, independent of party politics; she therefore appealed broadly across social and political lines. During her tenure as city councillor, she advocated for improved conditions for tenement dwellers; an inquiry into police brutality during the 1913 Lockout; and equal pay for female Corporation employees. She also lent strong support to her friend Hugh Lane’s campaign to establish a gallery of modern art in Dublin.

You are a great marvel, certainly! How you can manage to do all you do, I can’t think! Your letters to the Press were most timely & to the point.

Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison regarding her support for the Municipal Gallery, 3 March 1913

A Triumph for the Suffragettes

collection of letters from Lane to Harrison, held in the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art, suggests that Lane had mixed feelings about his friend’s involvement in the suffrage movement and local politics. In one letter from 1908, he admonishes his friend for not reading more newspapers:

‘The idea of your not reading the papers regularly when you meddle in so many Public questions. Let us pray that women never get a vote!'

In a 1912 letter inviting her to join him and some visitors at the Municipal gallery, he cautions Harrison to come ‘as an artist, not as a suffragette!’ However, Lane also celebrated Harrison’s achievements, writing in 1910 that

‘[Lane's sister] Ruth is delighted that your charming ‘group’ is to appear in the “Weekly Times” as she subscribes to that journal. Your appearance in the centre of it will be a triumph for the suffragettes!’

His letter refers to an article in the Weekly Irish Times about the Vacant Land Cultivation Society, of which Harrison was Honorary Secretary. A photograph of the group accompanying the article showed Harrison as the sole woman surrounded by male committee members. In truth, Harrison was not a suffragette but a suffragist – in contrast with the more militant approach of suffragettes, suffragists believed in peaceful, constitutional campaign methods.

It will certainly be fortunate if you are not elected, as you want a rest & so do your opponents. They will be more likely to welcome you back when they have forgotten all your projects that they must dislike!

Letter from Hugh Lane to Sarah Cecilia Harrison, regarding the 1915 Dublin Corporation elections, January 1915

The Representation of the People Act 1918

In January 1915, Harrison stood for re-election but lost her seat to a candidate supported by Dublin employers. Three years later in 1918, The Representation of the People Act granted the vote to women in Britain and Ireland who were over thirty and met certain property qualifications. In 1922, under the provisions of the independent Irish state's new constitution, female suffrage was extended to all women over twenty-one years of age. By contrast, women in Britain had to wait until 1928 for equal suffrage, and women in France until 1944. When the Irish general election was held in December 1918, Harrison had a prominent place in the suffrage victory procession, escorting ninety-year-old veteran suffragist Anna Haslam to vote in William St. polling station in Dublin.

Hugh Lane's letters to Sarah Cecilia Harrison feature in the Decade of Centenaries exhibition, Roller Skates & Ruins, on view in Room 11 at the National Gallery of Ireland until 10 March 2024.

Further Reading

Margarita Cappock (ed.), Sarah Cecilia Harrison: Artist, Social Campaigner and City Councillor, Dublin: Dublin City Council, 2022


Marie Lynch, ESB CSIA Fellow

Published online: 2023