28 May

Forgotten Irish Suffragettes

An Irishman’s Diary

Leila Gertrude Garcias de Cadiz (also known as Maggie Murphy) and her sister Rosalind joined an operation that involved smashing windows of the GPO. They were jailed for similar offences in London (above), where they went on their first hunger strike. Photograph: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Frank McNally, The Irish Times

THE SAME day as our Sisters supplement, by happy coincidence, an e-mail arrived from an English couple called Simon and Jill Muggleton. Other Muggletons might sound like characters in a Harry Potter book. But these ones were real, and were writing to thank this newspaper for its help researching a forgotten Irish suffragette with an unlikely name: Leila Gertrude Garcias de Cadiz, also known as “Maggie Murphy”.

After an appeal for information last year, the Muggletons made contact with Cadiz relatives in Ireland, London, and Australia, and learned of others in New Zealand and Africa. “Shows the coverage of your newspaper!” wrote Simon. And of course he’s right: it’s well known that ours is a readership on which the sun never sets.

The research to date has yielded impressive results, not just about Leila but about her sister Rosalind, also a suffragette. Among other things, it explains why their noms de guerre (Rosalind’s was “Jane Murphy”) were necessary, because they were radical even by the standards of the time. They suffered jail more than once, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed. They were also expelled from the Irish movement, ultimately, for being too militant.

Militancy, if not Irishness, was in their genes. A male ancestor was a duke who earned the isles of Cadiz for military service, but later defied the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered him burned. Thanks to a sympathetic guard, he escaped with his life, if not his title and lands, and so was left only a surname to pass on to his descendants.

How some of the latter ended up in Ireland is a tortuous tale. The suffragettes’ grandfather was a barrister who lived to Trinidad. His son Thomas de Cadiz in turn moved to India, where his children – Leila and Rosalind included – were born.

Then the children’s mother died, and later their father. So the orphans had to be raised instead by Thomas’s brother-in-law and his wife, who lived in Co Roscommon. That sealed one part of the sisters’ fate. But when their new father also died in 1895, they were left to be brought up by their mother and an aunt, which may also have influenced their subsequent course.

At any rate, by her early 30s, Leila was deeply involved in politics. In 1910, she and Rosalind joined the Irish Women’s Franchise League, founded by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and also signed up with Emmeline Pankhurst’s British equivalent, the Women’s Socialist and Political Union. The groups were at first mutually sympathetic, but the IWFL’s unease about tactics in Britain led to a rift and, ultimately, to the sisters’ expulsion.

Before that, in June 1912, they had joined Sheehy-Skeffington and others in an operation that involved smashing the windows of the GPO, the Custom House, and Dublin Castle. And if that attack unwittingly foreshadowed events of 1916 and after, it was not alone among suffragette tactics.

A few months earlier, jailed for similar offences in London, the sisters had undergone their first hunger strike. This was a stock weapon of the movement and was met by the stock response: force-feeding. Such was the brutality of the latter method, however, that the government soon abandoned it in favour of the “Cat and Mouse Act”, which allowed for starving prisoners to be released (and if necessary rearrested later).

The Dublin window-breaking landed the sisters in jail again, this time Mountjoy, and they again refused food. Interestingly their male counterparts in Sinn Féin at first disdained to follow their example, because as Sheehy-Skeffington put it, they thought it “womanish”. Only later, when the Gaelic origins of the protest were re-emphasised, did it become a favourite republican weapon.

The Suffragettes’ guerrilla war raged in the years after 1910, with militants burning houses and post-boxes, scorching golf courses, breaking street lamps, plugging keyholes in Government buildings, and cutting phone lines. They attacked paintings in galleries too. And then there was the most famous incident, on June 4th, 1913, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom, and became the movement’s first martyr.

The Cadiz sisters’ part in those events, if any, is not known, even to the Muggletons. But a war was coming that would change everything, simultaneously distracting from the suffragettes’ campaign while advancing its aims. On August 22nd, 1914, the sisters wrote to The Irish Times in response to an appeal for women to volunteer as nurses. A prerequisite for such service, they argued, should be the franchise: “No longer can the men talk of women’s militancy. We suffragettes are willing and eager to work. Our help is needed, and needed badly, now that so many men must go to the front. We want to help the women and children left behind, and to do so effectually we need the power of the vote. Surely, if we are capable and non-hysterical enough to go as nurses to the war, we are equally efficient to register our votes.”

In the event, they did spend the war years as nurses, tending the wounded from both the Easter Rising and the European front. Rosalind suffered a severe spine injury in the process and had restricted mobility for the rest of her life. Neither sister ever married, although this does not appear to have been a political choice. Like many of their generation, they both had fiances who died in the war. So they spent their later years living together, frugally but “with many cats”, in south Dublin.

Rosalind was first to die, in 1964. Leila survived her by a few years, before ending her days in a nursing home in Donnybrook. Perhaps aptly, she departed this world during the revolutionary summer of 1968, and shortly before the start of what is now called the women’s movement, which she would probably have seen as just another phase in the struggle.

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