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Sylvia Meehan (1929-2018) An Appreciation

by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

16 September 2018

To call Sylvia Meehan a Force of Nature would seem at first ridiculous to anyone who met her.  Such a metaphor is applied usually to those people who attack obstacles like a storm and, hopefully, blow them out of the way (Constance Marcievicz is an example). Sylvia was a natural force of another kind; like the sea on a coastline, she eroded the prejudices and ignorance of her contemporaries.

The writer met Sylvia for the first time at a party in Dun Laoghaire in 1974. He had previously made the acquaintance of two of her sons, but his hosts had met her. At all events, he was closest to the front door when she knocked and went to open it accordingly. He was faced with a quietly dressed woman older than any of the other guests. His immediate assumption was that she was a neighbour come to complain about the noise. However, that would have been the hosts’ problem. She was friendlier than a complaining neighbour would be. He brought her in and discovered she had been invited.

He cannot pretend that this started a beautiful friendship. Meetings with her could be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, he found her unfailingly cheerful, friendly, well informed and sensible, a person to be respected, even if he had not known, as he did quite soon of her problems as a widow and single working mother to five.

Respect became admiration when he considered her public career. Her achievements have been well publicized. Ironically, the writer learnt first of her original achievement, that of cracking a glass ceiling by getting the Gold Medal for Oratory at the UCD L&H, though it was inevitably later that he realized she was the same person as Sylvia Sheil. In the meantime, she had learnt the hard way the sexist discriminatory nature of Irish society. The marriage bar had cost her her first job and, when she rejoined the workforce as a teacher (where the bar had been abandoned) she felt the force of the pay differential between men and women. Though these stimuli gave an extra edge to her struggles, it would be very wrong to say that without them she would not have become the leader she did. This was in her from the beginning. While holding her position as school vice-principal, she helped found the Council for the Status of Women and her work there made her the obvious choice for Chair/CEO of the new Employment Equality Agency and Vice Chair of her Union and chair of the ICTU’s Women’s Committee. Later she would show her metal as President of the Senior Citizens’ Parliament in combatting ageism as well as sexism.  She was active, too, in the struggle for reproductive rights, though she could only applaud the recent repeal of the anti-abortion amendment.

As to her campaigning, some points must be made. Unlike many more vocal workers for her causes, she saw the unity of each. While it is inevitable that different battles be separated, it is too easy to compartmentalize them. An example of this occurred during the first campaign on the divorce referendum. A meeting was held with all the pro-divorce candidates for the current European Parliament elections on the platform, with one exception, the Sinn Fein candidate. The writer raised the matter from the floor. The chair might have answered that one or more of the panel would have refused to sit with a Shinner. Probably it would have been true. Nonetheless, she preferred to argue that Sinn Fein was a nationalist party and therefore could have had no position on the matter. Sylvia would not have recognized this ‘logic’.  While Chairman of the Equality Agency, she gave full support to the campaign against the frame-up of the IRSP members for the Sallins train robbery. She was always committed to a united independent Ireland.

The second point is Sylvia’s style. An article in the magazine Hibernia said once that if she said ‘all men should be abolished’ she would make it seem reasonable and possible. Of course, she never did say this, but she said persuasively many things that seemed just as outrageous to too many in the Ireland of the early seventies.  Was she more or less effective than the agitators, those who concentrated on such publicity initiatives as the contraceptive train or the many pickets? It is not important. Both approaches were necessary and will be so again.

But it is necessary to prepare for problems. Firstly, the gender struggle in Sylvia’s time has been fought within boundaries permitted by rampant capitalism. The new generation to whom Sylvia passed on the torch will have to fight against the laws of political economy. The ownership prerogatives of the Churches have to be brought down. Modern capitalism is less ready than its order’s founding fathers to attack such prerogatives whichever estate claims them. Up to now, the struggle has been able to avoid this problem. Its participants will not be able to do so. Secondly, if they fail to do so, we are seeing already waiting in the wings regressive national populists all too ready to reverse the gender gains that have been made. The gender war is not over. It will be fought fiercer and dirtier. For now it should be acknowledged that there will be less hope for any final victory in it had Sylvia Meehan never been.

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