Miche­line Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton’s new doc­u­men­tary will shine a light on a key voice in the fight for Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence – and re­veal her frus­tra­tion that women are still bat­tling for the same things to­day


THERE IS an an­tique writ­ing desk in the sit­ting room of Miche­line Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton’s home near Clar­in­bridge in Co Gal­way. It’s small by to­day’s stan­dards, or­nate and made in a dark wood with sev­eral shal­low draw­ers run­ning down its side. More or­na­men­tal than prac­ti­cal, it is a much trea­sured and loved pos­ses­sion.

It be­longed to her grand­mother, the cel­e­brated suf­fragette and Ir­ish na­tion­al­ist, Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton, a woman Miche­line never got to meet but was al­ways aware of.

‘I’m left-handed and so was she, I got that from her,’ Miche­line ex­plains. ‘And I was told by my fa­ther to be proud of that. As a suf­fragette, she was one of the women who broke the win­dows of Dublin Cas­tle in 1912. She was on Ship Street, near a bar­racks. They were out to her im­me­di­ately and grabbed her by the right hand, so she had another go with her left hand and broke a few more.

‘She was sen­tenced to jail for six weeks. It was only af­ter­wards that I re­alised it was a bit odd to be told to be proud of your grand­mother be­cause she was in prison and smash­ing win­dows.’

Miche­line’s fa­ther, Owen Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton, a univer­sity lec­turer and sen­a­tor, died when Miche­line was just 16. Apart from telling her to be proud of be­ing left-handed, he didn’t get the chance to share much more about her re­mark­able grand­mother who had died in 1946 at the age of 69. It was through her own re­search that she learned how im­por­tant Hanna had been in the fight for the vote for women as well as the bat­tle for Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence.

‘I mostly read about her in Mar­garet Ward’s book, she did a very thor­ough job,’ says Miche­line of Hanna Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton: A Life.

It was not only her grand­mother who was such an ex­tra­or­di­nary and in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in the evo­lu­tion of Ir­ish pol­i­tics. Her grand­fa­ther, Hanna’s hus­band Fran­cis Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton, was also a renowned rad­i­cal ac­tivist and paci­fist, who was ex­e­cuted with­out trial by the Bri­tish army dur­ing the 1916 Ris­ing.

His death on the or­der of Bri­tish of­fi­cer, Cap­tain John C Bowen- Colthurst – who was found ‘guilty but in­sane’ of his mur­der and/or man­slaugh­ter – was to have a pro­found ef­fect on his widow. In­censed by the in­quiry into her hus­band’s killing, which she dis­missed as a white­wash, she re­fused com­pen­sa­tion of £10,000 – worth over €1mil­lion in to­day’s money – from the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, a mas­sive sum of money, espe­cially to an im­pov­er­ished school teacher who had been left alone with a child to rear.

In­stead she de­cided to go to Amer­ica to tell the sub­stan­tial Ir­ish com­mu­nity there of the atroc­i­ties be­ing com­mit­ted back home. Be­liev­ing she was at risk of be­ing ar­rested her­self, she and her sev­enyear- old son Owen first sailed to Scot­land and then on to New York.

They trav­elled un­der false names and pass­ports, keep­ing them­selves to them­selves on the six-week jour­ney across the At­lantic Sea.

Over the next 18 months she spoke at 250 meet­ings in cities and towns all over the coun­try. She was cred­ited with do­ing more for rais­ing aware­ness of the Ir­ish fight for in­de­pen­dence than all the other speak­ers who trav­elled to Amer­ica in that time put to­gether.

It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary and gru­elling tour, espe­cially given how she had re­cently lost her beloved hus­band of 13 years.

Her only grand­daugh­ter has now be­gun to re­trace her steps around Amer­ica, speak­ing at the same places where Hanna ad­dressed sell- out crowds — au­di­to­ri­ums like Carnegie Hall in New York, Fanueil Hall in Bos­ton and Or­ches­tra Hall in Chicago. Hav­ing sailed from Southamp­ton in late Au­gust, Miche­line will spend three months

on her own tour of where Hanna came to be cel­e­brated as an Ir­ish na­tion­al­ist hero. Her trav­els are be­ing filmed and turned into a film/ doc­u­men­tary that she hopes will fi­nally shine a proper light on how in­flu­en­tial and im­por­tant Hanna was in Ire­land’s strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence.

‘John Devoy wrote about how she had done more for the cause of Ire­land than all the other Ir­ish or­a­tors put to­gether,’ says Miche­line of the famed Ir­ish rebel leader and ex­ile, who owned and edited the Gaelic Amer­i­can news­pa­per.

‘No­body re­ally knows her for that. She was a prom­i­nent suf­fragette, and yet she did all this for Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence. She raised so much money and years later she was sent back to Amer­ica again by Ea­mon De Valera be­cause he recog­nised that she was very well thought of over there.

‘I’ll also be speak­ing to sev­eral women’s stud­ies groups in places like Chicago, Mil­wau­kee and pos­si­bly in Har­vard, about my own case and the sit­u­a­tion for women in academia to­day in Ire­land.’

Ac­tivism and ag­i­ta­tion was to pass on down through the Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton fam­ily. Owen, who lec­tured French in Trin­ity, be­came a sen­a­tor known for his work cham­pi­oning hu­man rights. He cam­paigned for an end to cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment in Ir­ish schools and helped set up the Hu­man­ist As­so­ci­a­tion of Ire­land. And of course Miche­line has be­come a prom­i­nent fem­i­nist in her own right. In 2009, she took an equal­ity case against her em­ploy­ers, the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land Gal­way (NUIG). She won, mak­ing it the first case by any fe­male aca­demic in Ire­land or Bri­tain prov­ing gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion in pro­mo­tion.

She do­nated al­most all of the €70,000 she was awarded to­wards help­ing pay the costs of the five on­go­ing cases be­ing taken by five other fe­male lec­tur­ers at NUIG for the same thing.

It took five years to get a rul­ing on her own equal­ity case, a hard-won, not to men­tion ex­pen­sive, bat­tle that used up the bulk of her ➤

➤ life sav­ings. Her de­ter­mi­na­tion and tenac­ity, she says, came from her for­bears.

‘Well my grand­par­ents put their lives in dan­ger,’ she says. ‘So of course I had to do some­thing when I saw such in­jus­tice.’

We are sit­ting in the sun-room at­tached to her thatched cot­tage, in the town land of Bal­li­na­courty, Co Gal­way. Now re­tired, she was a lec­turer in botany, other­wise known as a plant ecol­o­gist, and her beau­ti­ful gar­dens and home re­flect her pas­sion for wildlife.

In­deed the sun-room is al­most smoth­ered in plants and shrubs, from the roof hang big bunches of ripe and deep pur­ple- coloured grapes. ‘I hope you don’t mind wasps,’ she says. ‘Can’t be avoided I’m afraid.’

Petite with slightly grey­ing hair held back in a neat pony­tail, she fixes some loose-leaf tea that she and her long-term part­ner, Nick, pick up when­ever they go to Eng­land, where Nick is from.

Re­tire­ment is clearly suit­ing her, although with the work on the up­com­ing doc­u­men­tary, fundrais­ing and her in­volve­ment in the cam­paign to help those five for­mer fe­male col­leagues still fight­ing their cases, she is con­stantly busy.

But after the ef­forts put into her own equal­ity case and the un­fair­ness that she en­coun­tered while work­ing at NUIG for al­most 30 years, her fam­ily project must be a wel­come re­lief. ‘I’m very glad to be out of it,’ she says sim­ply. In­deed, given how bla­tant the dis­crim­i­na­tion was over her be­ing pro­moted from a ju­nior lec­turer to a se­nior po­si­tion, it’s al­most a won­der she didn’t take a case sooner. NUIG has a par­tic­u­larly dis­mal record when it comes to the ra­tio of fe­male to male se­nior lec­tur­ers.

‘I was on the equal­ity com­mit­tee in the late 1980s,’ says Miche­line. ‘We pub­lished a re­port in 1990 that showed how we were the same as the na­tional av­er­age had been in 1974. We were al­ways worst. It’s im­proved, but it’s still way worse than all the other uni­ver­si­ties.’

She be­gan as a ju­nior lec­turer when she was about 27 and then moved up to be­come a col­lege lec­turer.

‘ The next stage is se­nior lec­turer and that’s com­pet­i­tive,’ she ex­plains. ‘I re­alised I was try­ing over and over again and be­ing turned down, four times I tried. Twice I was deemed suit­able but didn’t get it.

‘ There’s not a big dif­fer­ence in the money you get from ju­nior to se­nior but it can mean you don’t qual­ify for grants un­less you are a se­nior lec­turer. You’re also de­barred from go­ing for a pro­fes­sor­ship. So it jeop­ar­dises your ca­reer and it cer­tainly looks bad if you’re still at a ju­nior lec­turer level after so many years. For me it’s about recog­ni­tion, I’d been there for over 20 years and I was still be­ing told I was not good enough to be a se­nior lec­turer. I also got the im­pres­sion they were al­ways mov­ing the goal­posts.’

She was deemed suit­able for pro­mo­tion twice, in 2007 and 2009, but both times failed to get it.

‘In 2009, I asked how many had been pro­moted, I was told 17,’ she says. ‘So then I asked how many of those were women, it was one.

‘I still re­mem­ber the reg­is­trar with their fin­ger go­ing down the list, right to the end be­fore find­ing her. I sub­se­quently learned the woman was ac­tu­ally num­ber 17. It was pretty soon after that I took the case.’

She was ad­vised to lodge her case with the equal­ity tri­bunal by SIPTU and after a while re­alised she would need to hire lawyers. ‘ They were the ones to tell me that I needed to prove I was bet­ter than the men,’ she says. ‘I thought the statis­tics would prove my case. They showed that 50% of the men were be­ing pro­moted while only 6.7% of women be­ing pro­moted. There were 15 fe­male can­di­dates, one was pro­moted and of the 32 men, 16 were pro­moted.

‘I thought that was enough but no, the lawyers said I needed to prove I was bet­ter.’

After a num­ber of re­quests, Miche­line and her le­gal team were fi­nally granted ac­cess to the ap­pli­ca­tion forms of the can­di­dates.

‘ There were two boxes that were kept in my so­lic­i­tors’ of­fice,’ she says. ‘ The names were all redacted. There was just an M for male and F for fe­male. I did out a spread­sheet of those who had been short-listed and deemed suit­able. It went

across the page, one to 30, and there were five or six cat­e­gories, things like re­search, teach­ing hours, num­ber of papers pub­lished, con­tri­bu­tion to the univer­sity.’

As she went through them, she was shocked by the in­for­ma­tion in front of her.

‘I re­mem­ber clearly think­ing: “Hang on, I’ve pub­lished more than him, I’ve su­per­vised way more PhD stu­dents than him,”’ she says. ‘I re­alised half­way through that a whole load of things didn’t add up.

‘Sev­eral of the guys hadn’t reached the guide­lines, one didn’t have a PhD, one wasn’t ac­tu­ally el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply, all were pro­moted.’

Her case was heard in 2012, it took two years to get a re­sult. In the mean­time, Miche­line de­cided to take early re­tire­ment. ‘Oh I gave up and chucked in the job early,’ she says. ‘ The de­part­ment wasn’t be­ing treated well, there were all sorts of is­sues.’

Did her de­ci­sion have any­thing to do with her case and how she was be­ing sub­se­quently treated? ‘No­body knew, I didn’t tell peo­ple,’ she says. ‘I just didn’t make a thing of it and it wasn’t a pub­lic case.

‘All I can men­tion about it to this day is what was pub­lished in the rul­ing.’

Shortly after win­ning her case in 2014, five of her fe­male col­leagues lodged their own papers.

‘Four are go­ing to the High Court and one to the Labour Court,’ she says. ‘ They were told they didn’t de­serve pro­mo­tion and that they had been judged by their peers...’

She makes light of the money she do­nated to their cause. ‘Well I got back pay to 2009 and my pen­sion went up,’ she says.

‘I’ve no mort­gage and no kids so I thought: “What will I do with this?” I gave them €65,000, which will re­ally only scratch the sur­face, and kept €5,000 for a party.’

She says she had lit­tle choice but to prove that she and many other women in NUIG were be­ing dis­crim­i­nated against be­cause of their gen­der. ‘I took the case in hon­our of my grand­par­ents,’ she says. ‘I could hear them be­hind me, at my ear say­ing: “You owe it to your fel­low col­leagues.”’ De­spite her his­toric win, she is still not con­vinced all that much has changed for women since her grand­mother’s time — at least, not enough. ‘It’s been very slow,’ she says. ‘I’ve done my bit, but still there’s lit­tle change.

‘You need a com­plete cul­ture change as there’s a com­plete lack of re­spect for women in so­ci­ety at some level.’

How does she think Hanna would view things as they stand for women to­day?

‘I think my grand­mother would be an­gry, she’d say: “This is the same stuff I was fight­ing for.”’

As we fin­ish up she walks me back through her house and we pass the beau­ti­ful writ­ing desk that be­longed to Hanna, where she stud­ied as a girl, earn­ing her­self a place at univer­sity and where she got a de­gree, fol­lowed by a Masters in Ger­man and French.

De­spite good jobs teach­ing and as an ex­am­iner for the In­ter­me­di­ate Cer­tifi­cate, she risked and lost them to fight for bet­ter rights for women and to help se­cure Ir­ish free­dom.

‘I think she was so de­ter­mined and so­cially con­scious be­cause of what her fa­ther David Sheehy, [an Ir­ish Na­tion­al­ist politi­cian and MP] had done and be­cause of her great-un­cle Fa­ther Eu­gene Sheehy, who was known as the Land League Priest be­cause of his po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

‘From what I know of them, they be­lieved in equal­ity as well. In fact it was her un­cle Eu­gene, who was also her god­fa­ther, who gave her the writ­ing desk, to en­cour­age her to study. So you see, it all goes right, right back.

Miche­line looks through some old pho­tos of her fam­ily

Miche­line Sheehy Sk­eff­in­g­ton at home in Gal­way and, inset above, her grand­mother Hanna

Clock­wise from above left: Miche­line with her dad Owen; Owen with his mother Hanna; Owen again with his mother; Owen with his wife and Miche­line’s mother An­drée

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