At a glance, some might find the most interesting feature of Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, a botany and plant scientist, to be her Irish accent. They would be surprised, as many students are, to find that Sheehy Skeffington is a woman with a dynamic family history. During her presentation in Schmitt Hall at Montclair State University, which was funded by the Frazee-Baldassarre Professorship, she held a classroom captive with the memories and history of her grandparents’ impassioned activism.
Sheehy Skeffington’s good friend and professor of Irish Revival, Dr. Lucy McDiarmid, gave her a glowing introduction.
“[Sheehy Skeffington’s] grandparents were some of my favorite people in Irish history for their values,” McDiarmid said. “They were feminists, pacifists, political activists, humanitarians, socialists and they fought for their values. I invited [Sheehy Skeffington] here because I liked the idea of a whole family of enlightened political activists.”
Sheehy Skeffington’s visit to Montclair State was the last leg of her documented tour in retracing her grandmother’s own tour through the states in 1917. Sheehy Skeffington’s grandmother, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, was an influential activist in the 1800s. She fought for equality for women in Ireland and founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a large militant pacifist and feminist organization.
In 1903, Sheehy Skeffington’s grandmother married avid feminist and journalist, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who took her last name upon marriage. Along with her grandmother’s success, Sheehy Skeffington’s grandfather co-founded The Irish Citizen, a newspaper that focused on activist movements. He also fought fervently for the female vote.
Sadly, Sheehy Skeffington’s grandfather was shot by a firing squad without a trial in 1916 for his activism. His wife was not notified of his death for three days, and the British officer who ordered the murder was put on trial for it and released. The injustice of it sparked Sheehy Skeffington’s grandmother to leave Ireland with Sheehy Skeffington’s father, Owen, to tour around the states and talk about her husband’s death as part the battle for Ireland’s independence.
Sheehy Skeffington’s grandmother gave 250 speeches in places like Dreamland Auditorium and Carnegie Hall in 21 states. Sheehy Skeffington’s own tour was inspired by her grandmother as well as her own feminist activism.
In November 2014, Sheehy Skeffington won an equality case against The National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway, her former employer, where she was passed over for the promotion of senior lecturer. The case started after she applied for a promotion for the fourth time. She had first applied in 2000. Out of the 46 applicants for the promotion, seven women and 23 men made it to the interviews. The promotion was given to only one woman and 16 men.
Her case alone was outrageous, but upon a closer look she found that between 2001-2009, 50 men were promoted compared to 11 women out of 130 odd applicants. Sheehy Skeffington brought the case to the Equality Tribunal where she won. Recently, in 2017 she fought for five other women who were shortlisted along with her.
“If you see something of injustice and you have nothing to lose, you do something,” Sheehy Skeffington said.
After ending her presentation to a round of applause, professors approached Sheehy Skeffington to express their gratitude and their impression of her. Some students shared their professors’ sentiments.
“I thought it was interesting that [Sheehy Skeffington] still cared about what her grandmother did,” said a junior English major Adam Jawiech.
The story of her and her grandmother’s triumphs left an impression on all attendees. When her documentary “Hana and Me: Passing on the Flame” is released in 2018, the world will get to experience their triumphs as well.