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The First Seanad Éireann, women and the Senate Casket — Irishwomen appeal to a spirit of patriotism.

31 March 2020

This month's Library Blog post by Academy Librarian, Siobhán Fitzpatrick. 

At 11.00 a.m. on 30 March 2020 voting closed for 49 seats in Seanad Éireann.  The 26th Seanad (Senate) will comprise 11 Taoiseach’s nominees, together with six senators elected by the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College)  panels — three per panel — and 43 senators nominated by a range of bodies including Dáil deputies, city and county councils, educational, agricultural, community and arts organisations.  The latter senators sit on five distinct panels broadly representative of all sectors of Irish life.  In the current election 45 women are running for 49 seats across the gamut of panels.  Will women achieve a higher representation pro rata than in the recent Dáil elections which saw 36 women of a total of 160 TDs returned to the 33rd Dáil (22.5%)?  Apart from the fact that more women will vie for and are likely to attain seats than was the case in the first Seanad, the structure of the upper house of the Oireachtas has changed little since the first body sat on 11 December 1922.

This was a period of cautious optimism in the wake of the tumultuous events of the previous decade in Ireland — the 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Rising — as well as the upheaval of World War, the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic, and the more recent War of Independence and Civil War.  Remarkably, and perhaps a sign of things to come, women who had played an important role in the journey to independence, were reduced to four representatives, albeit independent ones, with strong political-activist credentials — 

  • Jennie Wyse Power (1858-1941) was a feminist, politician, founder of Sinn Féin
  • Eileen Cuffe, Countess of Desart (1857-1933), philanthropist, Irish speaker, company director
  • Edith Costello/Eibhlín Uí Choisdeailbh (1870-1962), writer, teacher, folklorist
  • Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929), historian, political activist

Membership roll of the first senate of the Irish Free State, presented as a ceremonial gift by Senator Alice Stopford Green on 26 November 1924.

Chaired by James Henry Mussen Campbell, 1st Baron Glenavy QC, Westminster MP and Lord Chancellor of Ireland 1918-21, the Seanad included poet, W.B. Yeats, writer and surgeon, Oliver St John Gogarty, five earls (Dunraven; Granard; Kerry; Mayo; and Wicklow), academic Douglas Hyde (later first President of Ireland) and a mix of representatives of the diverse political and cultural constituencies in the new state. 

Cogniscent of the different traditions represented in the upper house as well as of the formative role the body should play in the new state, in 1924, Senator Stopford Green commissioned Mia Cranwill (1880-1972), an artist specialising in fine metalwork to design and execute a casket intended to hold a vellum roll containing the senators’ signatures. The casket was to be placed on the Chairman’s desk in the chamber for the duration of each session. Mrs Green’s dedicatory speech was read on her behalf on 24 November 1924 —

‘Senators will agree that we should place no emblem before us in this Assembly that is not of Ireland, in spirit and in workmanship, carrying in it the faith both of the Old Irish world and of the New.  I have insisted, therefore, that the form of the casket should go back in direct descent to the ‘shrines’ designed by the Irish over a thousand years ago.  The artist has magnificently proved the power of that spiritual inheritance which has been bequeathed to us from an Old Ireland: and has shown that a really living art has no need to copy in slavish routine, and can to-day be as free and original and distinguished as in the times of ancient renown, supposed to have been lost. 

Thus the shrine in its intense vitality carries to us its own message.  That if we want to revive here an Irish nation we must dig our roots deep into its soil, and be nourished by that ancient earth.  In Old Ireland, a land of many peoples, it was not privileges of race that united Irishmen in one country and under one law.  It was a common loyalty to the land that bore them…’

The Senate casket was transferred to the Royal Irish Academy on the dissolution of the first Seanad in 1936. Since then it has been displayed on numerous occasions at the Academy and in exhibitions at the RHA Gallagher Gallery (Dublin), in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Los Angeles.

The casket’s design was inspired by Gallarus oratory, Co. Kerry, and wrought in Norwegian copper, overlaid with silver and with top panels of filigree silver and gold, ornamented with four large conical panels in blue, vermillion and brick-coloured cloisonné enamel.  Rather theatrically, the casket was designed to be carried ceremonially on poles in the manner of early Irish shrines; alternatively, it could be displayed on a beautifully crafted stand of Irish yew.

The designer, Mia Cranwill was a fervent nationalist of an old Danish-English family originally named Crayneswell.  She was highly skilled in metalwork and well-versed in Celtic motif; the casket is considered to be a high point of Irish Arts and Crafts production.  Cranwill left a written explanation of the elaborate casket imagery which gives us some indication of her character and quirky sense of humour:

‘To connect for ever the gift with the giver, the armorial bearings of the Stopford family were used… and the crest is the water wyvern. The wyvern typifies the donor who here turns towards a figure in decoratively-translated 20th-century morning dress ― (complete down to his spats!) ― who represents the recipient senators.  She appears to be bringing the crane… to the notice of the senators.  The maker’s signature is between the feet of the crane.

In succeeding years, this, should the individual meaning be lost, might be understood to mean Patronage introducing Art to the people.  Under the outspread wings of the wyvern are seen groups of heads in linear treatment: these are other government officials…  Below these are seen two queer little winged things out of the wyvern world.  One hears ‘thoughts are things’, and these must be wyvern thoughts on the wing, to settle in the minds of other senators or T.D.s and whisper that they also might give a gift of Art to the nation!’ 

 - enduring sentiments from two women, patron and artist. 

At a time when so many millions are seeking solace in the arts, Cranwill’s creation may be viewed in our online exhibition, ‘Creative women of Ireland: artists and writers from the archives’.

Siobhán Fitzpatrick
Academy Librarian

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