On January 15, 1920, Josephine Cantwell made history by becoming the first woman to be elected to Kingstown Urban District Council.
Miss Cantwell won a seat for Sinn Féin in the Glasthule Ward. A century under the bridge later, exactly 50% of the 40 councillors returned for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in the 2019 local elections were female candidates, the highest of any local authority in Ireland.
In 1920, one of the first actions of the newly elected council was to officially name the town Dún Laoghaire, restoring its original Irish name that had been reprehensibly renamed Kingstown back in 1821 after the royal visit of King George IV.
Josephine Cantwell was born in 1867 to Anna Teresa and James Cantwell at 16 D’Olier Street, Dublin 2, in a family-owned business called The Star and Garter Hotel. The building was later occupied by The Irish Times in 1895 until the newspaper moved offices to Tara Street in 2006.
The Cantwells also had a house in Newtownsmith, Glasthule in the 1870s, later moving to 3 Hastings Terrace, Sandycove, where Josephine lived until 1924. She never married, and according to biographical information cited in a motion brought to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown by Councillor Victor Boyhan, the great love of her life, Daniel Clery, died in action during the First World War, while fighting for the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Gallipoli on August 10, 1915.
Josephine dedicated herself to public life, successfully running for election and coming second in the poll in Glasthule. She was elected on the first count alongside Irish Unionist candidate R. N. Potterton, winning 238 first preference votes, coming in second after his poll-topping result of 323.
Under the Local Government Act of 1898, women could vote in and run for local council elections. However, it took until 1922 for women to obtain full voting rights.
In 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to run for parliament, paving the way Sinn Féin’s Countess Markievicz to become the first woman elected to the House of Commons, but there were still severe restrictions on who could vote, as women had to hold either property rights or a university degree to be eligible. The election of Josephine Cantwell is a significant milestone in the long struggle for real and meaningful equality on this island.
Josephine Cantwell died on January 14, 1950. She is buried in the St. Patrick’s plot of Deansgrange cemetery. Cantwell Lane, running between Patrick Street and Mulgrave Street, was named in her honour in 2014. On Marine Parade, Newstownsmith, Glasthule, this plaque commemorates the members of the 1920 council, who were responsible for Dún Laoghaire getting its rightful name back.
One hundred years after her election, Josephine Cantwell should be remembered as a courageous and trailblazing woman in Dún Laoghaire and beyond.