CELIA HARRISON / Painter, feminist, nationalist and social reformer


Painter, feminist, nationalist and social reformer.

1863 – 1941

Sarah Cecilia Harrison was born into a well-known and well-off nationalist family in Holywood, County Down in 1863. She moved in 1873 with her family to London and it was there that she began to paint and to study art seriously. She won several awards while she studied at the Slade School of Art, she exhibited her paintings and travelled on the continent to further her studies. In 1889 she moved to Dublin where she established a reputation as one of the country’s leading portrait painters. She began a longstanding and productive relationship with the Royal Hibernian Academy to which she submitted more than sixty works over her career. She also submitted many works to the Royal Academy in London and became a member of several societies including the Ulster Academy of Arts. She remained a highly accomplished and respected artist who was frequently asked to exhibit and to teach.

Known to her friends and family as ‘Celia’, Harrison was exceptionally well-known in feminist and social reform circles. She was an active member of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, serving on its committee and attending ‘monster’ suffrage meetings in London as a representative of the organisation. Her portrait of Anna and Thomas Haslam, founders of the IWSLGA, is one of her best known works and is kept in the Hugh Lane Gallery. Harrison was a friend of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and co-operated closely with her Irish Women’s Franchise League on a number of feminist campaigns. She objected publicly to the force-feeding of suffragettes, but she remained implacably opposed to suffrage militancy. In this she was at odds with Sheehy Skeffington and some of her circle, but feminists of all persuasions came together to support Harrison’s candidature for election to the Dublin Corporation. They lobbied, fund-raised and campaigned for Harrison who in 1912 became the first female councillor to be elected to the Corporation. She was an active member, championing the rights of the poor, of women and of the unemployed, and becoming a tireless critic of corruption with Irish local government. She described the local government register as ‘disgraceful’ as the number of bogus voters on it allowed unionists and nationalists ‘to get their opponents off and their friends on’. This would not have made her popular.

Harrison’s nationalist credentials were impeccable: her brother was the nationalist MP Henry Harrison, and her great uncle was the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. Her implacable support for the Irish Party at a time when many Irish radicals were beginning to flirt with more radical alternatives brought her into conflict with some republicans and feminists, especially in 1912 when she refused to condemn the Irish Party for putting Home Rule before women’s suffrage. So sincere was her support that she campaigned for the Irish Party candidate who stood against Constance Markievicz in the 1918 general election. Yet, her relations with most feminists remained friendly, despite disagreements over nationalist tactics and loyalties. She worked with them on a number of campaigns including the promotion of free school dinners for poor children and maternal health care. In her work with Trade Boards, women’s trade unions and in her pioneering promotion of allotments, she also worked with many prominent trade unionists and socialists.

As an array of feminists, including republicans, unionists, socialists and militants, prepared to campaign for her re-election 1915, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington warned that ‘the women of Dublin will regard it is as an insult, and a fresh indication of the low status in which they are held by men in relation to public affairs, if Miss Harrison should be removed from the corporation in January’. But, she was not re-elected, partly because she had proved unpopular with some vested interest groups. Despite her unwavering loyalty to the Irish Party, Harrison was also a victim of its stubborn and ultimately ruinous refusal to take women politicians seriously. Never taken on as a formal local government candidate, she did not enjoy the protection and resources of the Party machine and she was never given the opportunity to strengthen the Party’s support among Irish women. Her short formal political career and her support for what turned out to be the ‘wrong side’ in early twentieth century Ireland, help to explain why so little is known about her energetic and pioneering political career.

It is unfortunate, though perhaps not surprising, that Harrison is best known for her complex relationship with Hugh Lane. The two were close friends and she was a strong supporter of his gallery. She did a good deal of voluntary labour for Lane and was devastated by his death in 1915. She eventually fell out with his family over her claim that the couple had planned to marry, and she disputed the validity of Lane’s will. She may have been unpopular with some of Lane’s supporters (some apparently called her ‘Saint Cecilia’ behind her back) but she remained central to continuing attempts to find a permanent resolution to dispute over the Hugh Lane bequest.

Harrison remained deeply interested and involved in various aspects of Irish political and cultural life into her old age. When she died in 1941 she was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, under the modest inscription ‘Artist and Friend of the Poor’. This is an accurate tribute and would probably have met with her approval. But it belies her remarkable career as a politician and social reformer and as one of the most energetic of all that generation of Irish women whose tireless efforts led to granting of women’s suffrage in 1918.

Thanks to herstorian Professor Senia Paseta for this week’s herstory.