IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MY GRANDMOTHER, THE REVOLUTIONARY
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