On Saturday 7th January, at 2 pm, Afri will lay a bouquet of flowers at the bench in St Stephen’s Green commemorating Louie Bennett (1870-1956) – a tribute with which we also marked the 150th anniversary of her birth in 2020.
‘As we emerge from the Decade of Commemorations,’ said Professor John Maguire of Afri, ‘it would be difficult to find any other person who so vividly embodies the complex strands of our heritage, or the challenges of creatively reworking that heritage in today’s fraught world.’
Louie Bennett’s activism began in her forties, with her work for women’s suffrage. Coming from a Church of Ireland background, she was also a committed nationalist – which did not rule out ‘warm conversations’ with comrades such as James Connolly and Tomás McDonagh about her life-long opposition to militarism.
Always widening her scope of action, never abandoning any of her values or commitments, Louie Bennett was, during the so-called ‘Great War’, a key member of WILPF, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Her pursuit of Irish independence meshed with her fundamentally world-oriented work for peace.
Similarly, her decades-long pursuit of the rights and welfare of women workers – as, for example, a founder-member and the linchpin of the Irish Women Workers’ Union – blended with her insistence on broad issues of social justice and fairness: she was elected as the first woman President of the Irish Trades Union Congress in 1932, and held the position again in 1947/48.
In her eighties, her letter to the Irish Times in 1951 precipitated a controversy with her irascible friend the novelist Seán O’Faoláin. The dispute, in his journal the Bell, foreshadowed our current controversies about NATO and EU militarisation. As Ireland moved towards embracing foreign direct investment, she questioned the economic, social and cultural appropriateness of the US model, and its negative implications for foreign and defence policy, in the context of the Korean War.
Louie Bennett died on 25th November 1956. Her funeral was heavily attended, reflecting not only the astonishing reach of her activism but also the deep respect for her from all sides in so many different arenas. Just as impressive was the subscription list for the commemorative bench, unveiled in September 1958 by Dublin’s mayor, Catherine Byrne. The bench is now dedicated to Bennett and her colleague and companion Helen Chenevix (1886-1963).
Its setting in the Green recalls Bennett’s love of nature and her enjoyment of her garden. It is curved, reflecting her belief in encouraging conversation. In every area, in every dispute, she believed fundamentally in negotiation rather than violence. ‘She might well remind us,’ said Professor Maguire, ‘that Article 29 of our Constitution, with its commitment to peaceful conflict resolution, is headed ‘Caidreamh Idirnáisiúnta’, which translates as international fellowship or conversation.’