Harrison, Sarah Cecilia (‘Celia’) (1863–1941), painter and social campaigner, was born 21 June 1863 at Holywood House, near Holywood, Co. Down, third child of Henry Harrison JP (d. 1873), a prosperous landowner, and his second wife, Letitia, daughter of R. J. Tennent (1803–80), liberal MP for Belfast (1832–4, 1847–52). Sarah was a grandniece of the United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken (qv), and his sister, the philanthropist Mary Ann McCracken (qv). Sarah spent her formative years at 9 Chester Place, London, after the death of her father, and attended the Slade School of Art (1878–85), where she won several awards, training under Professor Alphonse Lergos. She then commenced studies at Queen's College, London, where she was awarded a silver medal for painting. While in London she maintained her connection with Ulster by exhibiting with the Ladies’ Sketching Club of Belfast. She continued her artistic education by studying in Italy, Paris, and Holland. In 1889 she moved to Dublin, working from 16 Fitzwilliam Place, and in the same year exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Her association with the academy would last until 1933, involving the exhibiting of over sixty works, mostly portraits. She also became a member of the Ulster Academy of Arts and the Royal Ulster Academy, and in 1890 travelled to Étaples in northern France to paint. In 1895 she exhibited at the Belfast Art Exhibition, and at the same venue in 1906 was represented by portraits of George MacDonald and Mgr James O'Laverty (1828–1906), MRIA.
Harrison was a careful, polished painter who demonstrated taut, controlled brushwork; her portraits were considered by some as remarkable for their delicate realism, and by others as demonstrating an honest and straight-forward likeness, close in style to those of Sarah Purser (qv). A disciple of Jack B. Yeats (qv), she joined him as one of the leading portrait painters in Dublin, and also gave private classes in her house at St Stephen's Green, where she was regarded as a strict teacher. In 1904 she became involved with the proposal to found a new gallery of modern art, and in 1908 on its opening at 17 Harcourt St. as the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, exhibited her portrait of the suffragette Anna Haslam (qv), which had been part of a collection of paintings by Irish artists at a Franco–British exhibition. The painting was noted by a contemporary critic for its richness of observation and precision of touch, and she also compiled the descriptive and critical notes for the first catalogue of the gallery.
An ardent nationalist and feminist with a strong social conscience, Harrison became a frequent contributor to the left-wing Irish Citizen. In 1909 she became secretary of the Dublin City Labour Yard, which gave employment to those who failed to secure relief from Dublin corporation's distress committee. She also joined the Irish Women's Franchise League, spoke regularly at public meetings, and heard the grievances of the unemployed at her house in Dublin. In 1912 she became the first woman to be elected to Dublin corporation, heading the poll as an independent candidate for the South City ward. Immediately, she initiated an inquiry by the local government board into the activities of the corporation's distress committee, and during increasingly bitter exchanges (she had no legal representation) with the corporation's legal team, she made serious allegations concerning misappropriation of funds, incompetence, the failure to keep an accurate register of the unemployed, and ignorance of the problem of female employment. Although the report of the inquiry did not substantiate her more serious allegations, the ultimate outcome of the inquiry resulted in the extension of relief to the able-bodied unemployed in the city, leading the Dublin trades council to refer to her as ‘the noblest, bravest and most accomplished woman in Ireland’. At meetings of Dublin corporation she argued for equal pay for female corporation employees, and for an inquiry into police brutality during the 1913 lock-out in Dublin city, and argued the case of slum dwellers before the Dublin housing inquiry of 1914, bringing social issues into the political arena and challenging the doctrine of laissez faire. In May 1913, at a protest against the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act (the ‘cat and mouse act’ being used against hunger-striking suffragettes), she insisted that to condone persecution for political views would lay the axe to the root of the tree of popular liberty, and in December 1918, she assumed a prominent place in the suffrage victory procession, escorting Anna Haslam to vote in William St., Dublin. She lost her seat on Dublin corporation in the election of January 1915, beaten by a candidate supported by Dublin employers.
The other great campaign of Harrison's life was centred on Hugh Lane (qv), and during 1912 she became involved with the quest for a home in Dublin for his paintings, becoming secretary of the fund-raising committee established for the purpose. She was a close friend and confidante of Lane, and shortly after his death in 1915 – the year in which she lost her corporation seat – she revealed that they had been planning to marry, though this may have been a delusion on her part, given that nobody else knew of the plan, and that he had insisted in a letter to Lady Gregory (qv) that his relationship with Harrison would never be more than a warm friendship. Although devastated by his death (she did not exhibit paintings for five years), she became a central figure in the debate concerning the legal status of Lane's will, insisting his paintings belonged in Dublin rather than London, and that the intention of his original will did not correspond with the details of her private correspondence. This led to bitter rows with Lane's sister. It was largely the efforts of Harrison and Sarah Purser that resulted in a public inquiry in Dublin in June 1928 into the desirability of erecting new premises for the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art and the paintings that Lane bequeathed by the inoperable codicil in his will. Harrison continued her social campaigning: she was a regular visitor and lobbyist in the dáil, where her portrait of Senator Thomas Johnson (qv) hangs. In 1932 she suggested the poor rate was too low for a city of Dublin's size, and in the same year attended a meeting of feminists in Dublin to honour the achievements of Mary Kettle, widow of Tom Kettle (qv). In 1931 Harrison was appointed an honorary academician of the Ulster Academy of Arts, and in the Belfast exhibition that year she was represented by portraits of Robert Lloyd Praeger (qv) and Senator Col. Maurice Moore (qv). She died 23 July 1941 at a nursing home in Drumcondra, Dublin.