Micheal Casey’s interesting article in these pages two weeks ago on the Westport-born militant suffragette, Meg Connery, made fleeting reference to the noisy public meeting in her hometown at which she was the main speaker.
The meeting in Westport Town Hall in January 1913 turned out to be a rowdy affair – not because of any intrinsic opposition to the suffragettes, but more because a boisterous element of the town had decided to make it an occasion of frivolity and high-spirited unruliness. It was, arguably, the first documented instance of ‘rowling’ – that uniquely descriptive Westport activity that would go on to be repeated on many occasions down the years.
The Mayo News account of the meeting lost nothing in the retelling, and despite his suitably detached tone, it was obvious that the reporter rather enjoyed the evening’s entertainment. He had already set the scene by reminding readers that there had been much conjecture and discussion for a full fortnight prior to the meeting. As it tuned out, ‘the general anticipation as to the character of the proceedings was fully justified’.
The imposition of a small cover charge failed to deter those who were intent on mischief, and the hall was well full for the appearance of the two speakers, representing the Irish Womens’ Franchise League in Dublin. Both were Connacht natives, but although Mrs Cousins was the opening speaker, it was obvious that Mrs Connery – whose father, John Knight, was head of the United Irish League branch in Aughagower – would be the main target of attention.
Mrs Cousins’ introductory address, in which she outlined the valid reasons why women should have the Parliamentary vote, was comparatively well received. Although interrupted by bell ringing and the blare of a trumpet, interspersed with occasional heckling, she at least managed to reach the end of her prepared script.
But her’s was but the warm-up act for what was to follow, and Mrs Connery was barely into her stride when the raucous element, gathered at the back of the hall, unleashed itself. Heckling and catcalling, the noisy clamour of whistles and rattlers, bells and motor horns, punctuated by the occasional fire cracker, were to be her lot from the hometown audience. More-mature attendees’ pleas to the rowdies fell on deaf ears, if anything encouraging the perpetrators to further hilarity.
All the while, a barrage of questions (neither pertinent nor intelligent, in the disapproving words of the Mayo News man) came from the mob, each greeted with merriment and renewed cheering.
“Any chance of you doing the washing?” demanded one. “Would you mind a cross child,” asked another wag, while the shouted query “Where’s the cradle?” seemed to have been the sign for particular hilarity.
This was followed by repeated massed renditions of a rowdy chorus from the rear of the hall, the lyrics diligently recorded by the press man.
‘Put me on an island where the girls are few / Put me among the ferocious lions of the zoo / Put me on a treadmill and I’ll never, ever, fret / But for goodness sake don’t put me near a suffragette’.
In the end, it took all of Mrs Cousins’ resolve to keep her composure and announce that the meeting had come to an end. But the cloud was not without its silver lining. When she called for a show of hands of those who were against extending the franchise to women, not a dissenting hand was raised. And when she called on those in favour, the vast majority obliged. And so, Mrs Cousins declared that the Westport meeting was fully in favour of extending the Parliamentary franchise to women.