Lifestyle – Judy Murphy meets Micheline Sheehy Skeffington who is pursuing her family’s proud tradition of battling against wrongs
I often say I come from a long line of jail-birds and troublemakers,” says botanist and academic Micheline Sheehy Skeffington.
She hasn’t let the family tradition down, as the authorities at NUIG found out to their cost in 2014 when the lecturer won a gender discrimination case against the university at the Equality Appeals Tribunal.
If they’d studied their history more closely, those in NUIG who contested her charge of discrimination might have realised the calibre of person they were dealing with.
On the day we meet, Micheline is preparing a talk about her grandfather, the renowned journalist, social activist, women’s rights campaigner and pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington who was murdered on April 26, 1916.
Francis (Frank) had resigned as registrar of UCD in 1904 over that university’s failure to grant equal rights to female students, just one stance he took in a life of social activism.In 1914, Frank served time in prison because of his campaign against recruitment to British Army when World War One broke out. He once stated he was prepared to die for Ireland, but not to kill for it. He opposed the Easter Rising because he felt it was not the way for Ireland to achieve independence.
One hundred years ago next Tuesday, Francis Sheehy Skeffington was murdered in Dublin’s Portobello Barracks on the instructions of British Army officer Captain Bowen-Colthurst.
Frank had been arrested the previous day while trying to prevent looting as the Rising raged.
The unarmed pacifist had witnessed Colthurst shooting an innocent young man, who subsequently died. That was largely why Colthurst had Frank murdered, according to Micheline.
His wife, Hanna, Micheline’s grandmother, was as formidable as her husband, and as staunch a campaigner on social issues and women’s rights.
Offered £10,000 by British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in compensation for Frank’s death, she unequivocally rejected it. Hanna wanted an inquiry so the truth could emerge. As a result of her courage and integrity, Colthurst was court-martialled and found guilty but criminally insane.
Not long back from the battlefields of World War I, he was put in charge at Portobello while the normal captain was away. Colthurst served a year in Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for Frank’s death, then emigrated to Canada.
Hanna and Frank’s only child, Owen, was Micheline’s father. When Micheline was a child, Owen frequently remarked that she was left-handed like Hanna. That resonated.
“Not everyone was told as a child about a left-handed grandmother who was smashing windows,” Micheline remarks over tea in the conservatory of her home in Clarinbridge. The converted cottage is comfortable but unshowy, and houses a meditation space where her partner, Nick, holds meditation sessions. He, too, is a botanist and their traditional conservatory is home to plants of all shapes and sizes.
Micheline’s grandfather, Francis, met Hanna Sheehy, who came from a nationalist family, at UCD where both were students – although women weren’t allowed to attend lectures with male students.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.