HERSTORY is a cultural movement that tells the life stories of historical, mythic and contemporary women.
Sheelagh Murnaghan was born in Omagh, Co Tyrone, Northern Ireland on May 26th 1924. She was the eldest of eight children and came from a family immersed in politics and the law. Sheelagh was educated at Loreto schools in Omagh and Dublin before attending Queen's University Belfast where she read Law and served as the first female President of the university's Literary and Scientific Society (TheLiterific). Called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1948, she was the first practising female barrister in Northern Ireland. She was a member of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for Northern Ireland and in1953, compiled a table of all cases and a consolidated index of every court case heard in Northern Ireland since 1925.
A keen sportswoman, Sheelagh played hockey for Instonians, Ulster and Ireland. She captained the Ireland Team in 1955-56 and 1957-58, and toured South Africa and the United States with the team. Reporters described her as "A diminutive but ferocious fullback." On one occasion she played at Wembley Stadium before nearly 50,000 cheering schoolgirls and television cameras. She continued to referee matches into the 1970s.
In 1959 she joined the Ulster Liberal Party-a cross-community organization with links to the UK Liberal Party. In November 1961 she was elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons to represent Queen's University. She was one of just eleven women to serve in the Northern Ireland Parliament during its 51-year existence. Throughout her parliamentary career she was a voice of moderation and reason in a deeply divided society and a passionate defender of all those denied equality. She brought forward a bill seeking the abolition of the death penalty in Northern Ireland and she campaigned for the rights of Travellers. In 1967, she helped set up a school for Traveller children in Belfast. On one occasion she gave a tramp a room in her attic.
In June 1964, Sheelagh put forward the first Human Rights Bill ever presented in a British or Irish parliament. Modeled on the United States Civil Rights Act and on Canadian Human Rights legislation, the Bill proposed the outlawing of discrimination on grounds of creed, colour or political belief. The Bill was rejected by the Northern Ireland Government. Sheelagh brought forward new versions of the Bill in 1966,1967 and 1968. She sought to end the discrimination in housing allocation, employment and voting rights, which existed in Northern Ireland then. She told the Commons: "There are degrees of citizenship in this country. In my opinion discrimination is not something, which should be lamented and forgotten about. It is something to be angry about. While there is one case of discrimination people should be concerned."
In her Human Rights Bills, Sheelagh also sought to end pay discrimination against women in the workplace. "This is something which cannot possibly be justified. I cannot conceive of any just argument in the case of a job, which is clearly the same job with exactly the same conditions and everything else, for paying someone less merely by reason of the accident of sex."
Four times the Human Rights Bills presented by Sheelagh were rejected by the Northern Irish government. Many people from across the political spectrum have voiced the belief that if Sheelagh's proposals had been accepted the whole history of late 20th century Northern Ireland could have been very different. Sheelagh's parliamentary career ended at the 1969 Northern Ireland General Election when the Queen's seat was abolished. She served as a member of the Community Relations Commission from 1969 to 1972. Following the introduction of Direct Rule from London in 1972, she was appointed by Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw to serve on his Advisory Committee. From 1970, she chaired Industrial
Tribunals. She was outspoken in her condemnation of the violence, which erupted in Northern Ireland from 1969. In February 1970, her Belfast house was bomber by Loyalist paramilitaries. She refused to be intimidated. She told reporters that she was not afraid, cleaned up the wreckage and carried on with her work.
In 1983, Sheelagh chaired a Tribunal which heard the very first case of sexual harassment brought before a court in the UK or Ireland. The case involved a female apprentice mechanic who had been subjected to harassment by male colleagues. In her ruling, Sheelagh found that "the main reason for the harassment was the fact that she was a female in a man's world, and that it amounted to Sex Discrimination." The barrister who appeared for the plaintiff, Noelle McGrena QC,has stated that:
"In making such a finding, Sheelagh Murnaghan paved the way for others in sexual harassment cases within these islands, earning herself a place among the pioneers who have properly influenced society's attitude to women in the workplace generally."
Sheelagh's ruling helped pave the way for sexual harassment to be made a criminal offence in the UK and influenced employment law in the Republic of Ireland as well. The American feminist historian, Constance Rynder credits Sheelagh with demonstrating "the potential for utilizing existing mechanisms to incorporate sexual harassment into the general ban on sex discrimination."
Sheelagh was seen as a slightly eccentric figure, who smoked cigars and drank brandy. She loved dogs and would arrive for Tribunal hearings with a pile of papers under one arm and a dog under the other. The dog would sit under the table while Sheelagh fed him treats. The Traveller women affectionately called her "the cigar lady." She never married and was sometimes lonely, but she was "the linchpin" of her large family of siblings, nieces and nephews.
Sheelagh Murnaghan did not live to see the Peace Process or the Good Friday /Belfast Agreement. She died on September 14th 1993 from cancer at the age of just 69. She once told a colleague that "Nobody could have a greater sense of failure than I have." She was too harsh on herself. While she could not persuade the government of the day to accept her Human Rights Bills much of what she campaigned for did become law within a few years. Brilliantly described by the Queen's University scholar, Dr Charinda Weerahardhana as: "the wise doctor of Ulster's ills", Sheelagh Murnaghan deserves to be remembered and honoured.
Read more Herstory biographies here.
by Ruth Illingworth