Great Women: Viscountess Craigavon

Lady Cecil Craig, Viscountess Craigavon, was born in London on 22nd January 1883. Little is known about her early years. In 1904 she met her future husband, James Craig, at a shooting party in County Tyrone. After a ‘brief engagement’ she married Captain Craig in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, London, in March 1905. They had twin sons and one daughter and settled at Glencraig in County Down.[1]

Viscountess Craigavon. Image copyright of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cecil Craig took a keen interest in local politics. She was a founder member of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council (UWUC) and served as its vice-president (1912-23) and later president (1923-42). The UWUC ‘quickly developed into a strong, active and democratic body’ that united Unionist women around resistance to Home Rule.[2] By 1912 the UWUC ‘was the largest women’s political organisation in Ireland’ with an estimated membership of 115,000 – 200,000 members.[3] Although an ‘auxiliary and conservative organisation’ the UWUC gave Unionist women in Northern Ireland an opportunity to engage with constitutional issues and access to public speaking training. The pre-First World War UWUC was, nonetheless, explicitly ‘forbidden to discuss [women’s] suffrage or any issue other than Home Rule’ by the Ulster Unionist Council.[4] Viscountess Craigavon frequently canvassed during Northern Ireland election campaigns. She reminded newly enfranchised under-30 women voters in 1929 that ‘you really are a factor in the administration of your country’.[5] The UWUC papers are available for consultation at PRONI (Ref: D1098).

Viscountess Craigavon was heavily involved in local charitable work in Northern Ireland. She was a patroness and governor of the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children. She was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her work in the 1941 New Years’ Honours List.[6] She regularly appeared at civic ceremonies across Northern Ireland – including North Belfast. Donegall Street Congregational Church, ravaged by fire in 1931, was rebuilt and formally reopened by Viscountess Craigavon in December 1934.[7] This building remains a place of worship as is now known as Redeemer Central. The bridge from Trasna Island to Derrymacausey on Upper Lough Erne was opened by Viscountess Craigavon in 1936 and named ‘Lady Craigavon Bridge’ in her honour.

Lady Craigavon Bridge, Co. Fermanagh, shortly after opening in 1936
Viscountess Craigavon at the opening ceremony of Donegall Street Congregational Church. Belfast News-Letter, 10 December 1934

James Craig was appointed as the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in June 1921. Craig’s elevation to the House of Lords as Viscount Craigavon in 1927 conferred Cecil with the title of Viscountess. She consistently encouraged him in his political career and, as an ‘able public speaker’, substituted for him at major civic functions as her husband’s health deteriorated.[8] This included speaking engagements during the first royal visit of King George VI in 1937 and launching RMS Andes at Harland & Wolff shipyard in March 1939.[9] Following her husband’s death in November 1940, Viscountess Craigavon told the Belfast News-Letter of her intention to ‘continue to make her home in Ulster’ and would ‘not now be so much at home anywhere else’.[10] Circumstances appear to have changed during the war. Viscountess Craigavon resigned from her charitable and political commitments in Northern Ireland and re-settled in England in January 1943.[11]

Viscountess Craigavon died on 23rd March 1960 at her home in Merle, Wiltshire.[12] Her body was interred in the Craigavon tomb on the Stormont estate.[13] Cecil and James Craig are the only individuals buried at Stormont. The tomb, located to the east of Parliament Buildings, was commissioned following Lord Craigavon’s death and was completed in 1942.[14] A recent campaign to have the tomb restored was successful and this work was carried out during the summer of 2020.[15]

Footnotes:

[1] https://dib-cambridge-org.queens.ezp1.qub.ac.uk/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a2141&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes

[2] https://dss.nics.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/ulster-women-unionist-council-papers-d1098.pdf

[3] Pamela McKane, ‘“No idle sightseers”: The Ulster Women’s Unionist Council and the Ulster Crisis (1912-1914)’ in Studi Irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies, no. 8 (2018), p. 327.

[4] Ibid., p. 338.

[5] Belfast News-Letter, 24 April 1929.

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 1 January 1941.

[7] Belfast News-Letter, 10 December 1934.

[8] Irish Independent, 23 March 1960.

[9] British Pathe footage of the event can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8fWXTkk-9I

[10] Belfast News-Letter, 5 February 1941.

[11] Belfast News-Letter, 13 January 1943.

[12] Irish Independent, 23 March 1960.

[13] Irish Examiner, 23 March 1960.

[14] https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/stormont-estate-points-interest

[15] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/tomb-of-nis-first-prime-minister-is-restored-by-campaigners-disgusted-by-the-years-of-neglect-39431961.html

Members Involved

YEAR: 1861

Location: Duncairn Avenue

YEAR: 1860

Location: Donegall Street

YEAR: 1886

Location: Clifton Street