Medieval historian held in high esteem by all who knew her


SHEELAGH HARBISON:IT MIGHT seem remarkable to have had two famous children out of a total of two, but that wasn’t the only remarkable thing about Sheelagh Harbison, who has died at the age of 98.

The daughter of a bank manager, Frederick MacSherry, and his wife, Helen McDermott, she was born in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, just after the start of the first World War.

Her long life saw her, at the age of 54, create a new life for herself as a medieval historian at Trinity College Dublin.

This followed the death of her husband, Dr John Austin Harbison, who was 25 years her senior, and the raising of her sons, former State pathologist Dr John Harbison and the renowned archaeologist Dr Peter Harbison.

Sheelagh Harbison’s roots were in Corofin, Co Clare, and she went to live there in the early 1920s with her parents and John and Gertie MacNamara, relatives of her father’s family.

This was to prove crucial: John MacNamara, a doctor who had served in the Indian civil service, became her teacher at home until she was 12. He inspired in her a rich curiosity, particularly for history.

When she married JA Harbison in 1934, he was already a distinguished Dublin doctor. He went on to become the city’s medical officer of health from 1948 to 1956 and played a critical role, with Dr Noel Browne and others, in the fight against tuberculosis.

In 1936, the couple were invited by a German Dublin-based radiologist, a Dr Stumph, to a medical conference in Germany. There, they were taken to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s Alpine retreat, where Sheelagh Harbison stood within a few feet of the infamous dictator, and would have been introduced to him were it not for the presence also that day of a visiting Polish delegation.

It was following her husband’s death in 1967 that she had the opportunity, at last, to carve out her own path, and she took it with a relish that made an unforgettable impression on those who came to know her subsequently.

At a time when it was very unusual for people in their 50s to enter university for the first time, Sheelagh Harbison undertook an undergraduate degree in general studies at Trinity College Dublin, which included history.

Her talent was spotted by the great professor of medieval history Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, who arranged for her to have special tuition in Latin so she could enter the honour school, and study for a moderatorship BA degree in history and political science.

She took her degree in 1972 and went on to complete an M Litt on William of Windsor, an English justiciar of Ireland in the later Middle Ages, subsequently published in a festschrift for Prof Otway-Ruthven.

She continued to work in TCD as a tutor until the 1990s, working also under Prof Jim Lydon. When he retired, she contributed also to his festschrift an essay on Colony and Frontier in medieval Ireland.

Another important work was her study of Rinndoon Castle on Lough Ree for the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.

An indication of the esteem in which she was held in Trinity was her election to honorary membership of the college’s senior common room in the 1990s, a rare honour.

Johnathan Bailey, who studied with Harbison as a youthful undergraduate, told The Irish Times this week that she was “brilliantly able to combine the attitude” of her generation with that of her [much] younger fellow students and “had a wonderful sense of balance, humanity and fun”.

Sheelagh Harbison is survived by her two sons, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

Sheelagh Harbison: born September 2nd, 1914; died October 14th, 2012