Johanna Mary [Hanna] Sheehy-Skeffington, (1877-1946)
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878–1916)
Owen Lancelot Sheehy-Skeffington (1909-1970)
The Sheehy-Skeffingtons – the feminist and Irish nationalist Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, her husband, the pacifist, suffragist and writer, Francis, and their son, Owen, a founder member of the Humanist Association or Ireland – were notable Irish atheists.
Hanna and Francis
Born into the Roman Catholic tradition and educated by Dominican nuns and Jesuits, Hanna Sheehy and Francis Skeffington had both already abandoned Catholicism and become avowed atheists when they married in 1903 (they took each other’s surnames as a sign of their shared commitment to gender equality).
When their son was born in 1909 they refused to have him baptised into the Catholic faith, making a public break with their religious backgrounds.
The Sheehy-Skeffingtons were founder members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Hanna was imprisoned twice for suffrage militancy in 1912-13.
During the Easter Rising of 1916 the couple were not directly involved in the fighting due to their pacifist principles, but Hanna provided the republican insurgents with food, while Francis formed a group of volunteers to try to stop the looting of businesses in Dublin.
It was while doing this that he was arrested and shot without trial. The officer responsible was court martialed, and a public enquiry followed, but no-one was ever brought to justice.
After Francis’s death, Hanna became more overtly nationalistic in her campaigning against British influence in Ireland, becoming a member of Sinn Féin and being jailed on several occasions for her republican activities. Her feminist activism also continued and she was heavily involved with the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union. She died in Dublin, aged 68.
Owen Sheehy-Skeffington studied at the École Normale Supérieure and became a lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin. After a spell in the Irish Labour Party, he was elected to the Seanad Éireann (Irish Senate) in 1954, after running as a liberal socialist independent.
He shared his parents’ atheism and, as well as being involved in the formation of the Humanist Association of Ireland, he sought to promote secular education in Ireland. He also led a long-running campaign to expose the abuse of children in institutions run by the Irish Christian Brothers and supported the efforts of victims to tell their stories.
Hanna, Francis and Owen are buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.