There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The name of Kathleen Cowan is virtually synonymous with accounts of the suffrage movement in Co Offaly during its most vital phase. As secretary of the Birr Suffrage Society, she reported on its activities in the local and suffrage press, organized and spoke at meetings in the town and throughout the county, and represented it at suffrage gatherings in Dublin. Beyond the fact of her involvement, however, little is known of her background. I was, therefore, particularly pleased to come on her name in the context of some unrelated research, and to realise that *my* Kathleen Cowan was the person described by historian Margaret Hogan as ‘tireless in the cause of women’s issues’ and one of the moving spirits in the campaign locally. This short account of Cowan’s life is intended to fill in some of the blanks in her story.
Born on 6 November 1885 at Cranbrook Terrace, Belfast, Kathleen was the daughter of Thomas Harrison, a law student, and his wife, Mary. A second daughter, Florence, was born two years later. Thomas was called to the Bar in 1886, but he also had political ambitions, and in 1891 successfully stood for election to Belfast City Council. In the same year, however, his wife died of TB, leaving him a widower and Kathleen and her sister motherless.
In 1893 Thomas Harrison remarried. His second wife, Lady Cowan as she continued to be known, was the widow of a leading merchant and former Mayor of Belfast. She was now an extremely wealthy woman in her own right, as well as the mother of eight children by her first marriage. For the next few years the couple, together with the two Harrison girls and Lady Cowan’s younger children, lived at her home, Craigavad House, an early Victorian mansion with views of Belfast Lough, near Holywood in Co Down. Thomas Harrison was re-elected to the Council in 1894 and again in 1897. In 1899, however, he resigned his seat, stating his intention to move to Dublin, and by the end of that year the family was established at number 65 Fitzwilliam Square, in the fashionable heart of the capital.
The census of 1901 shows Kathleen, her sister and two of her stepsisters living at Fitzwilliam Square and described as scholars. In fact, all four girls were currently pupils at Bedford High School for Girls, founded in 1882 as one of the relatively few establishments in Britain or Ireland offering a full academic curriculum. Here Kathleen excelled – in 1901 she was reported to have come fifth out of over three thousand candidates in the Oxford Local Examination, and went on to win prizes in German and Constitutional History. She also had talent as an actress, and may have taken drama classes in London after leaving school. However, neither she nor any other of the girls in the family went on to university. In 1904 she made her formal entrance into Dublin society when she was among the debutantes presented to the Lord Lieutenant at the first Dublin Castle Drawing Room of the season, and for the moment her talents were confined to Dublin drawing rooms, with her ‘delightful ease and aplomb’ in performance thrilling her stepmother’s guests at her musical soirees in Fitzwilliam Square.
On 26 April 1906 Kathleen was married in St Ann’s Church in Dublin to Francis Cowan, a lieutenant in the Antrim Artillery, and son by her first marriage of her stepmother, Lady Cowan. The bride wore white satin with silver embroidery, a long tulle veil and a coronet of orange blossom, and her three bridesmaids white taffeta and ‘white crinoline Gainsborough hats’. Over two hundred guests attended the reception afterwards at Fitzwilliam Square, among them ‘many of the leading people of Dublin and Belfast’, and the presents were described as ‘numerous and costly’.
Following a honeymoon in Cork and the West of Ireland, Kathleen and her new husband moved to Birr, where they set up home at 1 Wilmer Terrace. She was soon pregnant, and between 1907 and 1911 gave birth to four daughters, but despite this found time to immerse herself in the life of the town, whether that involved riding to hounds with the King’s County Hunt, supporting worthy causes such as the Birr Jubilee Nursing Association or the NSPCC, presenting toys and story books to the children at Birr Workhouse on Christmas Eve, taking the part of Portia in a Birr Shakespeare Society reading of ‘The Merchant of Venice’, or starring in a comedy put on at Oxmantown Hall in aid of the ‘Titanic sufferers’, when her performance was declared by one critic to have ‘reached a level of excellence not previously attained in Birr’.
The confidence and ‘elocutionary powers’ so much admired by Birr theatregoers were also in evidence at an anti-Home Rule meeting chaired by the Earl of Rosse, and held in Oxmantown Hall in July 1912. Following several speeches, and clearly to the surprise of the rest of the audience, ‘a lady’ – Mrs Cowan – rose to speak, and did so, it was noted, ‘without the least trace of nervousness’. Avoiding any discussion of the wider issue, she chose instead to focus on the possible impact of Home Rule on the Irish education system, which she described as having been starved and neglected by the current administration. However, she expressed a fear that matters would be ‘infinitely worse’ under an Irish government. Changes must be made, she declared, ‘and … those changes must cost money, which Ireland could not afford. Her only chance was the credit of the British Treasury.’
Oxmantown Hall (National Inventory of Architectural Heritage)
On 6 April 1910 the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the suffrage society founded just over a year before by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, held two meetings at the Printing House Buildings Lecture Room in Birr. The speakers included Kathleen Cowan, who was clearly already a vocal advocate for the cause locally, and who dealt briskly and humorously with ‘some objections quoted to her personally here in Birr against extending the franchise to women’. ‘We want direct influence’, she concluded, ‘and the sooner … the better it would be for the men and women of the country.’ Nearly two years later, on 3 February 1912, she was among the organisers of a meeting at Oxmantown Hall, which saw a ‘fair attendance’ turn out to hear Susanne Day of the Munster Women’s Franchise League put the case for the female parliamentary franchise, and two weeks later, on 19 February, she hosted a meeting at her home in Wilmer Terrace, at which a branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation was formed. She herself was unanimously elected secretary of the branch, which she declared to be non-political and (unlike the IWFL) strictly constitutional. Over the following months, she would become a familiar figure on suffrage platforms in Birr, described in one account as the ‘leading local lady’ of the cause, chairing visiting speakers such as Louie Bennett, Charlotte Despard and Alice Abadam, and organizing and speaking at meetings in Banagher, Roscrea and Limerick, as well as farther afield. In August 1913, for example, she managed to combine two of her enthusiasms by participating in a concert given by Sligo IWSF, her recitation once more proving her ‘an able exponent of the rhetorical art’, and in December of that year represented Birr at the Suffrage Week Conference in Dublin, chairing a panel entitled ‘If women had votes’, at the Rotunda Concert Rooms.
Wilmer Terrace, Birr (National Inventory of Architectural Heritage)
While the outbreak of war in August 1914 posed a dilemma for some suffragists, for those such as Kathleen who supported the union with Britain it was clear that war relief work must for the present take precedence over the suffrage campaign. Indeed, as she herself admitted at what was probably the last such meeting to be held in Birr for some time, on 3 March 1915, ‘it is almost useless to ask people to listen at this time to purely suffragist matters’, and instead the designated speaker, Susanne Day, focused in her talk on the work currently being done by suffragists for the war effort.
Now living at Croghan House, and with her husband away at war, Kathleen did at least have the company of her stepsister, Helen, whose husband, Major Henry Walter Weldon of the Leinster Regiment, was also at the Front, and who was currently living with her children at Clonbeale. Together the sisters busied themselves with relief work and fundraising under the auspices of the British Red Cross and other aid organisations. In April 1916, for example, they attended a concert in Oxmantown Hall in aid of British prisoners of war in Germany, and in July 1917 Kathleen supervised arrangements for the French Flag Day, which included a fair, and saw the French tricolour flying from business premises and private houses throughout Birr.
Cartoon from The Lepracaun, 1913
Although Captain Cowan was wounded in action, he did survive the war, and on 10 January 1919 he and Kathleen, together with her sister, Florence, were among the attendance in Oxmantown Hall for the Birr Victory Ball. Drawing together the gentry and military of the locality, the ball was described as ‘a very brilliant event in the social life of the elite of Birr, and probably has never been equalled, in the hall which has been the scene of so many joyous functions of the same order.’
If this report has a somewhat elegiac air, it is hardly surprising. The 1918 General Election, held just a few weeks earlier, had seen Irishwomen use their parliamentary franchise for the first time, if not yet on the same terms as men. But Sinn Fein’s overwhelming victory at the polls, coupled with the ongoing War of Independence, gave clear indication of impending revolution, and can only have filled most of the revellers on that January night with foreboding. Whether because of this or for purely personal reasons, the Cowans’ time in Birr was coming to a close. In May 1920 the household furniture and other contents of Croghan House were sold at auction, and the family moved north, settling in Helen’s Bay in Co Down, close to other family members and to their shared childhood home at Craigavad. Widowed in 1961, Kathleen died in Belfast in 1968, nearly half a century after leaving Birr. By then in her eighties and among the last of her generation of activists, she took with her memories of those heady days when Birr buzzed with suffrage activity and she herself was its ‘leading local lady’.
The Irish Citizen, the journal of the Irish suffrage movement, published 1912-1920. The cartoon shows Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond trampling on Irishwomen’s demands for equality.
Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement, Dublin 1984.
Louise Ryan, Winning the vote for women: the Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland, Dublin 2018.
Margaret Hogan, ‘Women’s right to vote, 1918: the campaign’, Michael Byrne ed, Offaly and the Great War, Tullamore, 2018, pp 77-85, pp 81, 79.
Newspapers consulted via the British Newspaper Archive https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Censuses of Ireland, 1901 and 1911 http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/
Records of births, marriages and deaths https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/civil-search.jsp
Northern Ireland will calendars https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/search-will-calendars
British Red Cross volunteers during World War I https://vad.redcross.org.uk/
 Margaret Hogan, ‘Women’s right to vote, 1918: the campaign’, Michael Byrne ed, Offaly and the Great War, Tullamore, 2018, pp 77-85, pp 81, 79.
 Weekly Irish Times, 17 February 1906.
 Northern Whig, 27 April 1906; Dublin Daily Express, 27 April 1906.
 Midland Tribune, 4 May 1912; Leinster Reporter, 4 May 1912.
 Leinster Reporter, 6 February 1909 and 6 July 1912.
 Leinster Reporter, 16 April 1910.
 Leinster Reporter, 2 November 1912.
 The Irish Citizen, 9 August 1913.
 Leinster Reporter, 18 January 1919.