Sheehy, Jeanne Iseult (1939–99), art historian, was born 15 September 1939 in Dublin, daughter of Edward Sheehy (d. 1956), a distinguished critic, and Anna Sheehy (née Kelly), an accomplished graphic artist. She had one brother, David, a picture restorer. Educated at Eccles St. Dominican convent before reading English literature and French at UCD (1957–60), she then worked as an assistante in Paris, where she studied art history at the École du Louvre (1961–3). After a period teaching in the UK at Loughborough and Newport (Gwent) Art Colleges, she worked as a woven fabric designer for Donald Davies in Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, and returned to art historical study, taking an M.Litt. (1968–71) at TCD under Anne Crookshank. From 1975 she lived and taught in Oxford as lecturer, then (from 1983) as principal lecturer, at Oxford Brookes University (formerly Oxford Polytechnic), retiring only months before her death in 1999.
She was one of the pioneer generation of historians of Irish art, initially (1970–73) a research assistant to, later co-author with, Fr Cyril Barrett (qv) (1925–2003), SJ, for the chapters on the visual arts (1850–1922) in A new history of Ireland, vi (1996), and collaborator with him in the catalogue to the Cork exhibition, 19th century Irish art (1991). Her seminal M.Litt. thesis on the then underrated Walter Osborne (qv) was published in 1974, and was followed by the catalogue to the important exhibition of his work in the NGI, Dublin, and the Ulster Museum, Belfast (1983–4). Groundbreaking research on nineteenth-century Irish architecture led to J. J. McCarthy and the Gothic revival in Ireland (1977) and ‘Irish church building: popery, Puginism, and the protestant ascendancy’ in Chris Brooks and Andrew Saint (ed.), The Victorian church: architecture and society (1995), 133–50, as well as publications on more mundane buildings – railway stations (‘Railway architecture, its heyday’ in Journal of the Irish Railway Records Society, xii, no. 68 (Oct. 1975), 125–38), or the estate village of Enniskerry (‘Powerscourt and Enniskerry – the architectural development of an estate’ in Agnes Bernelle (ed.), Decantations, a tribute in honour of Maurice Craig (1992), 213–21). She co-authored a survey work on Irish arts – Irish art and architecture (1978), with Peter Harbison and Homan Potterton. Her wide-ranging research led to her most important book, The rediscovery of Ireland's past: the Celtic revival 1830–1930 (1980). This early study, in what is now an established scholarly concern with the creation of national identities, traced the rediscovery and use of Irish antiquities of all sorts, linking contemporary political aspirations to these cultural manifestations. The book rigorously examines the degree to which her extensive examples could be said to be truly Irish. The examples included arts and crafts objects, and many were illustrated for the first time, making known the richness of this period in Irish visual arts.
She was a founder member of the Association of Irish Art Historians, giving the annual lecture in May 1985, and was active in the Dublin Civic Group, remaining involved in the conservation of Irish monuments after her move to England. She was (1986–9) on the committee of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. In Oxford she was a leading force and secretary (1984–91) of the Victorian group of the Oxford Architectural and Historical Society, involved in the conservation battles for nineteenth-century buildings, and was a member of the Oxford diocesan advisory committee on the care of churches (1987–93). Her home became a focus for Irish scholars and visitors and, as Irish studies developed in the University of Oxford, she was active in promoting links between interested scholars in the local intellectual community; her later writings on Irish subjects included ‘Lively Irishmen: the Ruskinian tradition in Ireland’ in Irish Arts Review, iii, no 4 (winter 1986), 66–9, and ‘The education of Irish women artists’ in Irish women artists (NGI exhibition catalogue, 1987). Her distinguished teaching at Oxford Brookes University hampered her research activity. Her final publication concerned the Antwerp Academy and its teaching programme, where Walter Osborne and other Irish artists had studied in the late nineteenth century (‘The flight from Kensington: British artists at the Antwerp Academy’, Art History, xx (1997), 124–53). She died 28 September 1999 of amyloidosis, and is buried at Kilmacanogue church, Co. Wicklow.