Lynam, Sybil Mary Joan (‘Shevawn’) (1914–98), administrator, author, and linguist, was born 16 April 1914 in Dublin, daughter of Charles Lynam, engineer, and Margaret (‘Mai’) Lynam (née Moran), both from Co. Galway. Her father served in the first world war as an officer in the Royal Engineers, for which he received the MC and was created a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. Joan had one brother, Robert, and an extended family of relatives who played a part in her upbringing and later life after her parents separated during the war, giving custody to her father. Her early years were difficult: a series of moves, including time in Connemara, Co. Galway, with her paternal grandmother, Agnes Lynam, and in France. She attended primary school in Brittany and subsequently lived in England (1923–31), where she was educated at Sacred Heart Convent, Weymouth, and at St Mary's Convent, Ascot; in Spain (1931–2), as an au pair to a family in Madrid; and in Germany (1932–3), also as an au pair, in Cottbus. In 1931 her father, who had supported her since the war, had retired to London from his position as chief engineer of the Iraq Petroleum Co. Joan's love of Spain and its people, especially the Basques, influenced her career, as did her aunt, Janet Hunter Perry, a lecturer in Spanish based at King's College, London, who had facilitated her attendance at a Spanish history and literature course in Madrid's Centre of Historical Studies. She became an authority on Spain and was fluent in Spanish, French, and German.
In 1933 she returned to London to live in Highgate with her uncle, Dr Edward Lynam, and his wife Patty, sister of Janet Perry. There she became close to her first cousins Joss Lynam (a future civil engineer who became a renowned mountaineer and outdoor sports promoter in Ireland) and Elizabeth (‘Biddy’). She attended a secretarial course at Mayfair Secretarial College and gravitated into journalism and secretarial work, which notably included joining the staff of Gaumont British Pictures (1934), first as personal assistant to suspense film director Alfred Hitchcock. Subsequently, in Hitchcock's acclaimed production of The 39 steps (1935), based on John Buchan's spy novel, Lynam was secretary to actor Robert Donat (leading opposite Madeleine Carroll) during filming in Spain. Her copy of the screenplay became a prized possession. She was in Spain during the early phases of the civil war, which began in 1936. Her indignation at Gen. Franco's nationalist uprising was hardened by subsequent executions and deportations of Basque resistance fighters by the nationalists. Her adventurous life and career were sharply curtailed in the late 1930s by tuberculosis and two years (1938–9) in a sanatorium at the Swiss alpine resort of Arosa.
As war broke out in 1939 she found herself back in London, working initially at the BBC (both in London and Bristol) as an expert on Spanish and other foreign language broadcasts. She worked at the Ministry of Information in the same capacity but was subsequently posted to the British diplomatic mission in Dublin as secretary to the poet John Betjeman, who in 1941–3 was wartime press attaché in Ireland. Betjeman was highly impressed by the extent of Lynam's literary and professional knowledge of Europe, accumulated through her exceptional international experience. After the war, as a freelance journalist in Dublin, she worked for the Irish Times (including some months as correspondent in Spain) and for a number of British newspapers. She was employed about 1948 as a broadcaster by Radio Éireann, hosting her own series, ‘Hither and yon’, a magazine programme of Irish social affairs. In 1949 she reported on the last Dublin tram to Dalkey, a frequently repeated historical recording. In 1950 Lynam went to Paris, where she was involved in the hectic activity of postwar reconstruction in Europe, working in turn at the leading state agencies of the day. She served with the Marshall plan for European recovery and with UNESCO. She finally became editor of NATO's newsletter in 1958, raising it to the status of a noteworthy journal during her four-year tenure. During the 1950s she had adopted the pen-name ‘Shevawn Lynam’, by which she was subsequently known even by her friends. Banned from Spain for several years by the Franco government for her republican views, Lynam undoubtedly turned disappointment to advantage in the mild notoriety she achieved.
In 1963 she returned permanently to Ireland, working in the Irish Tourist Board (Bord Fáilte) for nine years as its editorial publicity officer. While this was an ideal environment for an Irish person of her experience in the dynamic years of economic development, Shevawn Lynam saw herself, at heart, as a writer. Adopting the principle of ‘writing about what you know’ she published her first novel The spirit and the clay (Boston, 1954), an acclaimed story based on the tragic fate of Basque fighters she had known in the Spanish civil war. Her book was immediately translated into German and published in Frankfurt, and in 1956 was translated into French. She dedicated the book to her aunt Janet in London and intended to publish more novels. However, insufficient public exposure, ill health, and the necessity to make a more reliable income prevented her second novel on Spain from being completed. Over the years, and particularly with regard to Spain, she concentrated on journalism in Irish, British and European publications, including the Irish Times, the Observer, World Review, and the film journal Sight and Sound.
She returned to radio broadcasting in the 1970s with contributions to RTÉ's long-running ‘Sunday miscellany’ and, to maintain a reasonable income, worked in the tourist season as a multilingual guide. The pressure of guiding was later identified by her cousin Joss as a possible cause of her declining health, particularly after a fall at work which resulted in partial disability. Since her return to Ireland in 1963 she had restored a cottage at Cronroe near Ashford, Co. Wicklow, sufficiently close to Dublin and far enough from it to concentrate on her public life and find the tranquility required for authorship. Her second book, Humanity Dick, ‘King of Connemara’, 1754–1834, published in London in 1975 (with an Irish edition in 1989), was a biography of the eccentric Irish MP Richard Martin (qv) who campaigned for animal rights and supported catholic emancipation. It was a much-praised labour of love, as Lynam herself kept a small menagerie at her rural retreat.
Lynam had worked hard in her career, refusing to depend on others for a living, and remained unmarried. Her attractive personality and wide social circle kept her active till the last year of her life. Her closest living relative, her brother Robert (‘Bob’), lived in Zimbabwe. She died 4 November 1998 at St Columcille's hospital, Loughlinstown, Co. Dublin, and was buried near there at Shanganagh cemetery.