Anna Eggert Lecture Podcast: Ulster Suffragettes

Listen to Dr Margaret Ward's Anna Eggert lecture on 'Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes'

A century ago, a passionate crowd packed the Ulster Hall in Belfast to hear the iconic leader of the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, demand votes for women.

Leading feminist author Dr Margaret Ward returned to the same venue this month to deliver the latest Anna Eggert lecture for the Women's Resource and Development Agency on the Ulster Suffragettes, who risked prison and physical attack in their struggle for equality. 

Ward's talk, entitled Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes, touched on the leading figures in the movement and their attacks on bastions of male power that led to many of them being incarcerated in Crumlin Road Goal.

Ward, who is Director of the WRDA and a well known author of Irish women’s history, discussed the wider political situation at a time when Ireland was on the brink of civil war over the Home Rule crisis. Sir Edward Carson was a major target for the anger of the Suffragettes, as he fervently opposed the rights of women to vote.

'At this time women were becoming increasingly militant and were furious that they were being imprisoned while the UVF, led by Sir Edward Carson, were gun running and preparing for civil war but were unpunished,' said Ward. 'In response they burned down Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey, where the UVF were drilling their troops.'

Other places targeted by the suffragettes included the grandstand at Newtownards Race Course, the teahouse at Bellevue Zoo, Cavehill Bowling and Tennis Club and windows at Lisburn Cathedral. The protestors also poured acid on the greens at Fortwilliam Golf club and Knock Golf Club.

'The targets were seen as places of male entertainment or male power,' added Ward. 'Churches were regarded as one of those places. Several women were arrested and housed at Crumlin Road Gaol. Most of them were English or Scottish women who came over as part of the overall campaign, although three or four Irish women were also imprisoned.'

During her lecture Dr Ward talked about some of the key personalities in the Suffragette Movement in Ulster at the time, including Dr Elizabeth Bell, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Ireland. She was a leading suffragette who had been imprisoned in Holloway Women’s Prison when she took part in the WSPU’s campaign in England.

There was also Margaret McCoubrey, a Scot married to an Irish trade unionist from the Ormeau Road; Lilian Metge from Lisburn, an active local militant who was jailed for her part in the attack on Lisburn Cathedral, and Elizabeth Priestley McCracken, a writer from the Lisburn Road married to George McCracken, who acted as solicitor for the suffragettes.

The women protestors were subjected to physical abuse from groups of males opposed to their activities. In Ulster there were around 1,000 members in 20 different Suffragette organisations.

'They held open air meetings in places like Carlisle Circus, Ormeau Park and outside Methodist College,' said Ward. 'They filled the Grand Opera House and the Ulster Hall. Despite the Home Rule issue, these crowds were made up of Unionist and Nationalist women united in a common cause.

'They were part of an international movement that spanned the US, Australia and Europe. Proportionally the Suffrage Movement had as many members in Ireland as they had in England.

'They were divided on whether or not to be militant. Some of the groups supported direct action, while others were opposed to attacks on property. It was mainly a middle class movement but they tried to encourage working class women to get involved,” she added.

Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes was the final lecture in the Anna Eggert Series. The series was organised by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Listen to previous lectures from the Culture Northern Ireland archive.