Skeffington, Owen Lancelot Sheehy- (1909–70), academic and senator, was born 19 May 1909 at Lower Leeson St. nursing home, Dublin, only child of Francis Skeffington (qv), formerly registrar of UCD, writer, journalist, and pacifist campaigner, from Downpatrick, Co. Down, and his wife Hanna Sheehy (qv), writer and activist for women's rights, of Dublin. His parents took the decision, on principle, not to have their child baptised. The murder of his father in 1916 by a British army officer marked his childhood and disrupted his early education: he attended primary school at Rathgar kindergarten and training college (1913–16, 1918–19); Boyland School, Santa Barbara, California (1917–18); St Brendan's, Sallynoggin (1919–20); and Earlsfort House School (1921–2). Several of these were in the forefront of progressive thinking at the time. His secondary education at Sandford Park (1922–7) provided a happy period of continuity and fulfilment. He entered TCD in 1927 with a junior exhibition and an entrance prize in French; after a full and active undergraduate career which included colours for cricket, a gold medal for oratory from the Historical Society, the creation of several new student societies and publications, and a reputation among his peers for passionate rational activism, he graduated with a first-class (Mod.) BA in English and French in 1931.
The following two years were spent in Paris, where he was a graduate assistant at the École Normale Supérieure, enabling him to renew contact with Samuel Beckett (qv) (whose lectures he had attended at Trinity), and to meet James Joyce (qv), a contemporary and friend of his father at UCD. At the same time, he began his doctoral studies with work on the group of l'Abbaye de Créteil, subsequently converted into a thesis on the work of ‘Jules Romains, the Apostle of Unanimisme’, for which he was awarded a Ph.D. at Trinity (1935). The years in Paris also coincided with those of Andrée Denis (qv, as Andrée Sheehy-Skeffington), a daughter of Sheehy family friends with whom he had often stayed at Amiens; they were married at Amiens town hall on 23 March 1935. They had three children: Francis Eugene (b. 17 May 1945), Alan Richard Louis (b. 22 August 1947), and Micheline Joan (b. 7 November 1953), all of whom took degrees at Trinity. Coming from a family of teachers in the French third republic, Andrée Sheehy Skeffington undoubtedly offered more active moral support to her husband's subsequent public life than she gives herself credit for in her biography of him. With no compensation accepted by Hanna Sheehy for her husband's murder, the young couple had no private means, lived on a junior academic's salary, and were also dogged by Skeffington's early health problems; two years after their marriage, Skeffington's collapsed lung, caused by TB, resulted in their separation, enforced by his sojourn in a Swiss sanatorium at Davos (1937–8). He resumed work at Trinity in the autumn of 1939.
A worthy heir to the demanding intellectual commitment of his parents and their families (his grandfather David Sheehy (qv) was a Parnellite MP; his aunt, Mary Sheehy, married Tom Kettle (qv), killed in the war only a few months after Francis Skeffington), he was a brilliant orator, a fearless champion of civil and human rights, and an inspiring teacher, known simply and affectionately to generations of Trinity students as ‘Skeff’. Conditioned early to self-sacrifice on issues of principle, he was taken by his father at the age of 3 to visit his mother in Mountjoy jail, to which she had been sentenced for two months for her actions in defence of women's rights; at the age of 5, he was taken by his mother to visit his father at Mountjoy, where he had been imprisoned on account of his campaign against conscription. These impeccably nationalist credentials (which he never invoked) gave him assistance of an unusual kind in the public arena, causing him initially to be underestimated by his political adversaries, who were lulled into a false sense of security and stereotyped misconceptions by his lifelong loyalty to the Trinity College of the time. He not only brought his own university into the liberal front line of Irish national debate, but he made a significant contribution to the liberalisation of postwar Ireland with his interventions on issues such as the role of the church; censorship; education; the reasoned recognition that at least four of the ‘occupied six counties’ had unionist majorities; and terrorism. When, at his third attempt, he was elected to Seanad Éireann for Dublin University, he was already a leading participant in major public controversies; as a senator (1954–61, 1965–70), he spoke, often at length, to some 300 motions, persistently assailed complacency and apathy in high places, and was dubbed ‘the Man of the Senate’ by the Irish Times.
On one occasion he proposed, without a seconder, a motion regretting that the government had failed to act on its statements against unlawful paramilitary activity; when asked in mid-flow if he was continuing to speak simply in the hope of finding a seconder, he replied ‘Yes’, and continued. Although it failed, this out-of-order attempt to promote a legitimate issue occupies ten double-columned pages of senate reports (Seanad Éireann, Parliamentary Debates, xlv, cc 982–1006 (15 Dec. 1955)). On 10 June 1970, following his untimely death after a heart attack, Owen Sheehy Skeffington's trail-blazing example as a senator for Trinity was saluted by the cathaoirleach of the seanad, who paid tribute to his courage and independence: ‘he was never dismayed if his point of view was a minority one and indeed seemed at times to revel in a position of isolation. . . Though few senators have not crossed swords with him at one time or another, no one could withhold admiration for his honesty, integrity, and moral courage’ (ibid., lxviii, c. 409 (10 June 1970)).
If the exploits of the public figure lend themselves to memorable anecdote, they should not be allowed to eclipse Sheehy Skeffington's unselfish, uninterrupted commitment to teaching and the encouragement of his students. Too committed to his students to be bothered by reproaches of an inadequate academic publishing record, he could have pointed to his truly remarkable career as a thesis supervisor: those whom he shepherded to postgraduate qualifications in modern French literature included many university lecturers and several professors. Many of them were British and returned to the UK marked by the unfailing fair-mindedness of their Irish mentor, and all of them would have been happy to hold a student audience as he did.
The moving tributes of his friend Sean O'Faolain (qv), his cousin Conor Cruise-O'Brien, and Ruaidhrí de Valera (qv) are published in the informative biography written by his widow. The tributes and commentaries published in the Irish Times after his death matched those accorded to a major figure of state, a fitting homage to a man who from 1940 to 1970 was perhaps the most prolific unpaid correspondent of that newspaper, sounding the alarm and calling for action on issues such as the long-running ‘liberal ethic’, the need for a reformed Labour party, the national health plan and the mother-and-child question, apartheid, and the proposed merger of Trinity and UCD. A published collection of his innumerable letters would provide not only a lesson in style but a commentary on the social history of the Republic in those years.