Lives Remembered

Sylvia Meehan: Fighter for women's rights, pensioners and equality

Sylvia Meehan pictured during her student days at University College Dublin

SYLVIA Meehan was a widowed young mother-of-five when it first hit home how women were paid less than men for the same work.

As a newly-qualified teacher in Dublin, struggling to provide for her family, she saw how a man in a nearby school who was separated from his wife had his salary boosted by a 'married man's allowance'.

"I resolved to do something about that with other women in the post-1960s women's movement," she said.

Membership of the EEC in 1973 brought with it an obligation to introduce equal pay legislation but when the government resisted change, Sylvia helped set up the Council for the Status of Women.

And when the Employment Equality Act was eventually passed and the Employment Equality Agency created to enforce it, Sylvia was chosen as its first chair.

She held the post from 1977 through to 1993, fighting for fairness on issues including pay, maternity leave, childcare and sexual harrassment in the workplace.

She recalled how during one dispute she "received a letter explaining that it would be psychologically damaging for one particular group of men to receive a wage packet the same size as a woman's".

"I replied that I was not aware that men had weaker intellects (though sometimes, as in this case, I had my suspicions) and proceeded to apply the legislation to the group concerned."

Born in Dublin in 1929, Sylvia was educated by the Loreto Sisters at North Great George's Street and studied legal and political science at University College Dublin, where she was the first woman to win the gold medal for oratory from its Literary & Historical Society.

She was a school and college best friend of Miriam Daly, who would go on to be a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast and was shot dead as a republican activist by loyalists in 1980. Sylvia herself always took a close interest in events in Northern Ireland.

In 1954 she married Dennis Meehan, a station supervisor with Radio Éireann, and they had five children, John, Niall, Sarah, Richard and Rosa.

After his death in 1969 Sylvia took on a teaching job in the Ursuline Convent School in Cabinteely. She was soon appointed assistant principal, and became involved in trade union activity through the ASTI union.

In her retirement Sylvia turned her attention to the rights and needs of fellow pensioners as president of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament, an umbrella group for older people's organisations.

In 2010 she received the Dublin Lord Mayor's Award in recognition of her lifelong pursuit for equality for women and for empowering older people.

Sylvia Meehan (née Shiel) died aged 89 on Thursday morning at St Mary's Residential Home in Galway.

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Lives Remembered