Interview with Mamo McDonald, October 16, 1998
MM: My name is Mamo McDonald and I'm Cathaoirleach of Age and Opportunity is a national agency, which is about challenging stereotypes and changing perceptions of older people here in Ireland. Cathaoirleach is an Irish word, which means the chairperson, and it's genderless, which is why I like it, rather than chairman or chairperson or whatever. Age and Opportunity. OWN is the Older Women's Network, and the genesis of that was in 1993 when we had the European Year of Older People.
Organizations in regards to age are a fairly new phenomenon in this country. We're not as far ahead as the Americans who have things like AARP and the Grey Panthers. It's very new here in Ireland. It was like all the other things which are set up here in this country -- immediately after it started, patriarchy took over. All the organizations tended to be headed by older men. And then when this European year happened, the minister for health at the time appointed a committee to deal with the year and appointed a committee of eighteen men and three women. And it was then we started to question. In Ireland, as in other places, there are far more older women than there are older men. At 75 there are twice as many women as there are men. And in Ireland there are three times as many widows as there are widowers. So we said, Hey wait here a minute, what's this all about? So that prompted us then to set up an organization, which is specifically for older women, so older women could discuss and feel comfortable about issues that are specific to them and so they could start addressing them.
MT: And how has that gone so far?
MM: It went quietly at the beginning and now we're building up the network around the country. But this summer we put out a very challenging press release and there's been an enormous media interest in it. And we had women all over the country writing in, calling in, saying, We want to be part of this.And we had a convention in Maynooth College.
MT: I think I saw something about it in The Irish Times.
MM: Yes, the news and all the radio stations and RTE, they all showed interest in it, because the nature of the press release was challenging in itself. It talked about older women taking control of their own lives and directing their own lives rather than being told what to do. And I suppose our generation of women were the docile ones you know, we were the ones who accepted whatever was dished out to us.
You see, ours was the generation that when we were married we had to give up paid work. That was the law in this country. We were also the generation of women who did not have access to birth control -- even though birth control was available. Our version of it here in Ireland was being told by your confessor to put yourself in God's hands. And then you got stuck with a house full of children. I myself have eleven children: two daughters and nine sons.
I suppose it was regarded as a bit unusual that I would be such an activist with such a family. But I had a husband who took pride in me getting involved. So I had that kind of positive attitude at home, to really get into things. I joined the Irish Countrywomen's Association, which is the conservative side of the women's movement. Now I claim that it is part of the women's movement because when no one else was doing it, the ICA was addressing the needs of women in rural Ireland. Helping women to educate themselves, to direct themselves, to try out things that they would never try out themselves. I joined originally, like most women joined, to learn crafts and to meet other women in the town I had moved into. I was from the south of Ireland but had married into a northern town. And there I discovered opportunities not just for interaction with other women but also opportunities for voicing opinions about things that were dear to my heart. And then I began to notice that through working within in the ICA you could bring something about which you felt very passionately and you could finish by walking into the office of a government minister about that cause. Through the ICA I discovered the opportunity for developing an issue and sounding it out. Family issues and consumer issues were the platforms that I became known with within the association.
And eventually I became the national president, and there were 27,000 members in the country. So that led into a whole area of involvement and travel and work -- and interaction with other organizations and with the more radical women's movement. And they tended to dismiss our side of things as being hide bound in conservatism. And I suppose we saw them as these brazen women -- you know bra burners and wavers of contraception and trains from Belfast. To us they were little short of having horns and cloven feet. I suppose I grew up in the conformist tradition, accepting things as they were. For instance at the time when I had to give up my employment when I was getting married, it didn't strike me as anything peculiar. I accepted it. I found things like the fight for contraception a bit distasteful. I was in the midst of having a multiplicity of babies.
But on one occasion, I had to go with two women from the radical side of the women's movement to Europe as part of the European Women's Lobby, and we had to present a joint report. So we had to get together. And what I discovered was that we thought the same on far more issues than those issues on which we thought differently. So I began to see that we needed one another. They had done things. They had kicked doors open and then we were invited in. Working together we could do much more then being so polarized. There was this need to form alliances. So my opinion started to change. I became more radical. I'm all for, by the way, access to contraception now. And life's experiences had taught me that, you know, women in Ireland were, more or less -- not more or less, more! -- under the patriarchal thumb. And that the laws were against us.
So I sometimes describe myself as a born again feminist. I didn't start out as a feminist but I became one. And I find it a bit irksome when someone says, "Oh I'm all for women's rights but I'm not a feminist." I'm very proud to call myself a feminist.
My generation of women, because of being taken out of paid work and then having big families, by the time the law was lifted about paid work, at that stage we had too many family responsibilities to be able to get back into the paid workforce. And then when we got older, we began to be pointed at as this new problem. Increasing numbers of women were living to an older age because of better health services and the like. And now we were going to be this big burden on the state. And we ask, "Who the hell made us a burden? It didn't just happen! We were made dependent; we were made to be the sort of women we are. We have been the backbone of the voluntary services in Ireland." And if all the volunteers in Ireland were to withdraw their work, certainly the health services would collapse. Because there's so much volunteerism going in. I remember some years ago going with a group of women from Ireland to France. And we met up with women there, but they were all professional, social workers and such. They said there wasn't an organization in France that was the equivalent of the ICA. And they couldn't understand how women with families could be out there and campaigning and volunteering and doing so many things that they always had to pay people to do. Where we took it as a matter of course. As something we did because we were women in the home. So we feel we have contributed. And now when it comes to this stage in our lives and we're put down as "non-contributory" pensioners, we find that extremely insulting. We don't like it. And we want them to change the name of the people who are being paid a state pension but who didn't have a financial contribution. We say our contribution was not financial, but there was a contribution in time and effort and giving.
MM: The young women nowadays, they don't know about some of the battles we had. And then there was the law about domicile. If a woman was living in Ireland and if her husband abandoned her and went off to live in Timbuktu, she was registered as living in Timbuktu. Even though she might not have ever left the shores of Ireland. Wherever he lived that was your domicile. And then there was the one on criminal conversation. That was a law that in essence said that women were the property of their husband. And if a woman was married and another man seduced her and took her from her husband, the husband was entitled to claim compensation on the grounds of criminal conversation. Because just as his dog or his car or his house was his property, so was his wife. And that was one that the ICA campaigned on and won at the end of the 70s or the early 80s.
MT: So can you explain about the marriage bar for people who may be completely ignorant about it?
MM: The marriage bar was a law that was brought in in the 1940s I think -- around the time when there was a depression in the country. And it was a clever little dodge thought up by our politicians where a woman when she married she had to give up, if she was working in the public service or in the banks or in insurance or if she was a teacher or a nurse, she had to give up her job. When she married she was expected to stay at home and keep house for her husband and any children. By law she was precluded from working. And so what did that mean for women? First of all, benefits for working women came in -- the pension rights which were very important. But also dental care and optical care that went with a job, they lost all those benefits. So women that stayed at home lost any pension rights that would've accumulated and lost all those other benefits as well. They partially lifted it in the late 60s, and in the late 70s it was scrapped. But it's quite recent you know that it was completely lifted.
MT: That brings me to the crux of one of the issues that I'm really interested in. At least in the US, there seem to be two prevailing stereotypes of Irish women. One is probably a hold over from another time -- that a woman is very much under the influence of the church and the family and not having a whole lots of rights of her own. And then there's this other image -- of women like Mary Robinson. And more and more women in government. And there's no in between.
MM: Yes, well, you see, for years Irish women were part of that one tradition and now have very much embraced the ethos of the other tradition -- the one which believes that women are entitled to choices. That women are entitled to direct their own lives. And not be so set and led by a hierarchy or a patriarchy or any other archy! And that's why in Older Women's Network we have decided not to have a hierarchical structure. We're all equals.
MT: I'm curious about your own personal background -- would you have ever guessed when you were younger that you would be doing this sort of thing? Did you have a career in mind? Did you think you'd get married and have kids?
MM: Well I grew up in a house that had five sisters. And then at the end of the sisters there was a gap. And then my brother was sort of the after thought in the family. But I was very lucky in having a father that never gave us that slightest inkling that women were lesser beings than men. And he raised all five daughters to be competitive to be in there competing with the best. And feeling that we had every right to be.
I joined the bank. I was the second in the family. I would've loved to go to college. But there were six of us altogether to be educated. My father worked in a bank. He was the bank manager. So I joined the bank -- which I never saw as being a career. I always wanted to be something like a writer. I remember once in primary school when these missionary nuns came round and asked us what we wanted to be, so I said I would like to be either a film star or a nun in Africa. That was my choice at that stage. But I loved words and I loved writing from the time I was very young. I've continued to do it through my life, and now I'm part of creative writing groups and competing in competitions for poetry. So I'm beginning to come out, as it were, as a writer. My grandfather had been a journalist and I suppose there was a tradition of writing or working with words. And I have two sons who are journalists.
But how did one do those kinds of things? I suppose when I was leaving school, the careers one would be steered towards would be nursing and the bank and business, working in shops. I got the opportunity of being an air hostess but my parents said no. The very idea of being up there in the skies -- they were afraid of crashes and things. And being near the top of the family, parents tend to be more protective than as they go down. Because the sister after me went and applied without letting them know and became an Aer Lingus air hostess.
But another opportunity I got was to go and teach English to children in Spain. And I thought this was really adventurous and I started to learn Spanish. But again my parents -- and you see we were of the generation that did what we were told. If your parents didn't think it was a good idea then you didn't do it. Not that they were despotic or very strict. But they were very considerate about it and they thought it a good idea that I should join the bank. I did. And I had a career of one year and two months. I grew up in the south of Ireland and was appointed to a bank up in the border counties, in Cavan, just south of the NI border. And I met a man two weeks after I went there, and a year later I got married. And settled in the north. So I was far away from my own people but made a good life for myself in this northern town. And I'm one of these northern people -- I wouldn't want to leave now.
MT: How has living along the border has affected you?
MM: I went to live in the town of Clones in County Monaghan, which was in one time a very prosperous market town. It had a railroad junction there through which 52 trains a day passed -- north, south, east and west. But in 1957, that was 7 years after I married, the railroad in that region of the country was completely closed down. And I can remember in Clones entire families, extended families, leaving together because there was no work for them now. They'd all been working for the railroad. I remember one evening seeing this procession going past our house -- and they were headed for the last train going out of Clones. They were an extended family. And now they were all emigrating as a family group. There must have been twenty or more of them in the group. And the entire street of neighbors was accompanying them on their last journey out of the town. It was a very poignant scene.
It was the forerunner of a drain on our town that started then. Being right on the border, we had all the disadvantages of towns north of the border. We were bombed. We had I think three bombs. I remember when my children were small there were several bomb scares. And in the middle of the night we had to drag the children out of bed and rush to the car and drive down the country where my sister was living just to be safe. On a couple of occasions there were bombs in the town and they very much affected the businesses in the town because you had to regroup and reorganize and restock. Lots of things got destroyed.
But what really killed the town as a commercial entity was the closing of the border roads in 1982. Now after the European Union started we had seven years of prosperity. And they were the only years of prosperity in the business that I can remember. Things were going well for the farmers. And things went very well for people in business. Ours was the clothing business. And for those few years we had a thriving business. It seemed like we had turned the corner and everything was going to be fine. And then in the very early Spring of 1982, they closed down many of the border roads. They cut off a lot of the access routes into the town. They put huge craters at them and then these steel and concrete bollards.
Our business had been mainly dependent on the northern customers. Our parish was nine miles north of the border and only three miles south if it. And the parishioners used to come -- ours was their market town, Clones. But they couldn't get access to their market town. And when they tried to come round about ways they were closer to either Monaghan on one side or Lisnaskea on the other. So Clones died commercially. And our business died with it. We struggled for a number of years. Trying everything we could think of it to turn things around. But all efforts seemed to fail.
Eventually I started a tea shop in part of the business, and that kind of kept me ticking over because the local people supported it. I was able to make a modest living. But by and large the business went down as a result of the border troubles. And I think when people talk about the fact that there were other losses -- of course it doesn't compare to loss of life or limb -- but people died other sorts of deaths too, and our town was one of the victims of one of those kinds of death.
So we have been regrouping since the early 80s. The people have a fighting spirit. They rise above whatever is thrown at them. We've been trying to turn things around in various ways. Now what we have decided to go for is our heritage. We have a very rich archaeological and historical heritage. And also a wonderful tradition of lacemaking. That's been one my great passions. Not that I'm a lacemaker. I say, I don't make lace. I talk lace.I'm really interested in the stories about the lace and in the lives of the women who made it. It started in our town as famine relief scheme in 1847 when the famine was at its height, as a means of alleviating poverty. And here were women who were eventually creating works of art. And they are on display in museums and galleries all around the world, and we don't know who made any of it. Here were women who were totally anonymous artists.
That really came home to me a few years ago when we held a convention of European lacemakers, in 1993. We had women in from different countries. And we had some women in from Italy. We knew that the lace from which our lace sprang was an Italian lace made in the gulf of Venice from the island of Verano. And here you had women from the neighboring island of Palestrina. They had a book with them about their lace and about the museum where their lace was displayed. And you heard about the man who started the museum and the name of his son who was now the director of the museum. And they also showed this very beautiful picture of a very young girl sitting making her pillow lace. And she was el piccola marietia . The little lace maker. And I said, Well what was her name?and they said, Oh we don't know her name. But we know that six months after this portrait was painted she died of tuberculosis. And she had been making lace since she was a tiny child.They had the name of the artist who'd painted the picture. So here you had a book about lace and about lacemakers, and there was not one lacemaker named, but the three men who had input and any connection with the lace were named.
So that spurred me on. I was collecting lace at this point and I had established a little gallery in our shop. I had built up a collection. It eventually went to the restored Canal Stores in our town and has grown. But what I started to do as I collected the lace was to research the stories about the women who made the lace. I wrote a little drama presentation about these women and what their lives were like. And, you know, stories about the lace -- for instance, Count John McCormac, his wife, who was also a beautiful singer but who gave up her career in favor of her husband's, she always wore Clones lace. Which was our lace. She wore it at her concerts. And she wore it at her wedding. So we told the stories -- about people connected with lace and about the lacemakers. So our exhibition that we have in Clones is called Lace and Lacemakers.Because we had the women who made the lace center stage. They're very central to our exhibition. So it's very different to any other lace exhibition I've seen. I've seen them in America and in France and in Belgium. Only ours tells the stories of the women. Their stories deserve to be told. And I know the women whose stories are up there in lights, they take tremendous pride in seeing that they have done something which has a value, that is worthy of being recorded.
I think that is just symptomatic of women's lives. That the wonderful things that women have done over the years -- like those women, the original women who turned our town around. They turned it around economically by introducing lacemaking after the famine. Because after about 7 years of terrible terrible suffering -- there had been a workhouse in our town -- that had changed. The town had began to achieve a measure of prosperity once again. But no one ever thanks the lacemakers for that. I was working on a paper recently on economic history. And the book I was consulting was regarded as the definitive book on economics in Ireland. And on all the pages of that book there is no mention of lacemaking. And lacemaking was one of the major factors which helped many places in Ireland to recover in the years after the famine. And also in later times, in the early 1900s when things were very difficult for people over in the western seaboard. The congested district boards set up lace schools. They brought teachers from places like Clones to come as teachers and establish lace schools. And again that sort of craftwork and making lace became a very important part of the turn around in the economic fortunes of these places. But it doesn't figure anywhere in any history book.
[For more info. about Irish lacemaking, click here]
MT: That reminds me -- someone was telling me about a lecture that Margaret MacCurtain did called "The Anonymous Woman of History." Your story just reminded me of how true that is.
MM: That's right. And like the United Irishwomen, who were the women in 1910, who were the originators of the ICA, one of the things they did was, they clumped their hairpins together until they were able to buy one goat. One goat. And they got milk from this one goat and were able to upgrade nutrition standards in their very impoverished homes -- and to help to stem the infant death rate.
In 1995, when I went out to Nairobi for the United Nations' End of Decade for Women, we went out to see some rural schemes that were being done. And one of the groups of women we met had an experimental garden and a women's co-operative. They were learning better ways of contouring the soil to prevent soil erosion. But they were also funding this through making baskets and bowls out of gourds that they grew and selling those co-operatively. And what they were doing was buying a goat in turn for each member of the group. And here they were, 75 years later, using exactly the same means to get them started on some road to some sort of solvency as the women had done in County Wexford in 1910. And I thought it was wonderful. You felt such a sisterhood with these women at that stage in their struggle.
Just before I went out to Africa, there was in The Irish Times a depiction of a typical West of Ireland family around the turn of the century -- and here you saw a little donkey with turf laden panniers at his side, and then you saw the woman and she with a child beside her holding onto her skirt and this big pannier on her back full of turf as well, and then you saw the husband standing beside her holding the reins. And then we went out to Kenya. And along the roadsides you saw these little huddles of men sitting around drinking beer and philosophizing, and then you saw the women walking along the roads with the babies on their backs and children at their skirts and big loads on their heads. So here the women were the backbone of everything that was happening over there. But still they have no say. And they were at the same stage of impoverishment.
But what was the most noticeable thing about it was their capacity to rise above that deprivation and that level of oppression that they had. And be so focused on making better lives for themselves and their children. And wanting the same things that we wanted: better access to education, better access to health services, those basic things, basic opportunities for our children. That their wants were so similar to our wants.
MT: We've talked a little about Older Women's Network. Could you sum up some of the issues that you feel are important for older women?
MM: Well we had a convention recently in Maynooth in which there were over a hundred older women from all over the country. And some of those women were women like myself who had been activists all their lives. But quite a high proportion of them were women who had never belonged to any society or any organization. And had heard about the convention maybe from attending a day-care centre or something.
There was this great exuberance, this great enjoyment in life, this capacity to let their hair down and not be worried about seeming a bit foolish in some of the games we played -- which is so unlike when you have a mixed group or a men's conference where everyone's in their dignity and not wanting to diminish themselves in front of their peers. Older women let go of many of these inhibitions. The fun level was very high.
But as well as that then there were issues. A lot of the issues had to do with poverty. Women who were marginalized through the sort of thing I've been talking about like not having access to paid work and being dependent on the state. At the same time most of them felt they managed well within the structures of the incomes that they had but could well do with other things. But they wanted to be part of the general women's movement which would be focusing younger women to be sure that they didn't finish up in the sort of situation of impoverishment that their older sisters had encountered. That would be an issue for them -- that younger women would have access to paid work and to build up pension rights for themselves.
They also were very focused on health issues The mixed ward situation was one of them. They don't want services that determine that you go into a ward where there are men and women. Now it's particularly pertinent in the case of older women, whose hearing might be impaired, who find it more difficult to understand and communicate with medical staff. And then they find their symptoms and their ailments being discussed loudly within mixed ward situations. You can tolerate it when it's all women there, but when on the other side of a flimsy barrier there's whole bunch of men, you just don't want it. So it's one of the big issues that the Older Women's Network have taken up.
One of the major issues for rural women -- you know there is this much publicised free travel pass that is given to people of pensionable age. And that's great, having this free pass. But it's not much good if there's no transport. In many parts of rural Ireland there is no public transportation. So what's the point in having a pass? So they want it expanded so that you'd be entitled to so many vouchers that you could use for taxi services -- for instance if you needed to go to health centers. This would be good for someone who has some sort of a chronic illness -- for instance varicose ulcers -- that needs to go each week to have them dressed. We heard a woman talk who has a dependent and frail husband. She has to pay someone to stay with him when she goes to have her veins dressed. She has to pay another neighbour to drive her to the health center. She lives out in the country, no public transport. And then she has to wait 2-3 hours before she is seen.
And then, in the case of one woman I know who'd been 17 times to have varicose veins dressed, the specialist never spoke to her until he would be washing his hands and he'd say, Next week again. And that was all he said to her. And she said, I'm just a pair of ulcerated legs that comes in once a week.He doesn't see that there is a person attached. And those kinds of areas -- just better communication, giving a person their dignity, their respect, their name -- wouldn't cost anything.
There's another issue, of older women going into hospital, and they immediately start being called by their given name . For some women, that's great, and it makes them feel at home. But other women who've always been addressed as Mrs. McDonald or Mrs. McCarthy, they might not appreciate it. All they want is that the caregivers would ask how they would like to be addressed. And they feel it's just a little mark of respect.
So things as simple as that came up along with major care issues as well -- but those simple things can be just as important because sometimes as women grow old, they become invisible. You know the harsh reality is, women, by and large, are seen for their physical attributes and their reproductive capacities. And when both of those assets are gone, when you've lost your youthful good looks and you're no longer of childbearing age, gradually you become invisible. I even notice it now, walking around my own town, where young people just go right by you -- children I've known all their lives. It isn't that they're meaning to do it -- they just don't see you. And lot of women talked about this invisibility factor that is now part and parcel of their lives.
MT: Where does the name Mamo come from?
MM: My name is very suitable for someone of my age. When I was born, my baptismal name was Mary Frances. So I was called Mary. But I had an older sister named Eithne, and she started to call me Mamo. And it kind of stuck. But I maintain that I am one of the people who grew into their name because over in the West of Ireland, the name for grandmother is mamo, spelled m-a-m-o, same as mine. And I am now the grandmother of 22 children, and it hasn't finished yet. Although none of my children will never have a family the size of mine.
MT: How do you think things have changed in your lifetime for women -- for example, the opportunities that are available for your daughters as opposed to the ones that were available when you were their age?
MM: Well, I'd like to go back to my grandmother's time. My grandmother went as a young woman with nothing but a primary education to America to keep house for some brothers of hers who had emigrated before that. And she became engaged to a man in America. But before she got married she wanted to go home and visit her parents because it would seem that it would be the last time that she would see them. And she came back to Ireland and she met my grandfather when she came back -- the man who became my grandfather. She never returned to her fiancé in America, and she married my grandfather instead. But she had the experience of being in the United States, being out there without any qualifications. And [when she came back], she started a lodging house. And she had all this money that she made. And though she had a mixed family of sons and daughters, all her daughters not only had second level education but she saw to it that they had third level education as well. So all the women in the family were educated to third level.
But in Ireland after the 1937 constitution and this emphasis on the importance of women's role within the home, there was a tendency for women to be seen merely as wives, mothers and homemakers. And so the impetus for girls having qualifications became less important. Because even if you had a qualification and became a nurse, say, or a civil servant, you had to give it up when you got married anyway. So I suppose it seemed a bit irrelevant to be educating girls to the third level. But my generation, because I didn't have the opportunity, I was very determined that if I had any daughters, that they were going to have the qualification. If they married and their marriage broke up, or if they never got married, they would have a career type qualification that they could take up and leave down for a few years if they wanted to. One of them became a teacher and the other became a nurse. And both of them gave up working, from choice, when their children were small. One of them has gone back to being a nurse. The teacher goes back and does a little bit of subbing but she loves being at home. But she has her qualification and she can take it up at anytime.
You know Joyce McKinley's book A Sixpence in Her Shoe? They have a sixpence in their shoe.
Because by the time -- I could've gone back to work at a certain stage, but I didn't have any qualifications. I had lots of skills but I didn't have any qualifications. And I suppose that's why I started the tea shop, because I was always a good cook and a very enthusiastic baker, and I said, Okay, let's use the skills I've got and the business experience I've got. I really enjoyed working at it for six years. But I do think it's so important for girls to have the paper qualification. I would see it as very necessary.
MT: Do you feel like you've been inspired in your life and work by any particular women?
MM: Yes, indeed, I have indeed. There's one woman in particular. She died only a couple of years ago. She was 97 when she died. And her name was Muriel Gann. She was part of the Anglo-Irish section of the population. Her father was an inspector for the congested districts board. And she grew up over in the West of Ireland seeing the poverty of local people but also seeing the wonderful tradition of crafts there.
She made that her life's work -- preserving these crafts. Things like weaving and spinning. All these very very traditional crafts. Muriel Gann became a member of the ICA in 1929, and she established country markets. She was a champion of traditional Irish crafts. But what I loved about Muriel was her undying enthusiasm. She was never put down by anything. She never had much money -- she lived on very little. It was her enthusiasm for all things Irish and traditional and the work of the countrywomen -- she was their champion. And I thought she was a wonderful woman. She was very much honored by the Royal Dublin Society. And she got an honorary doctorate in Trinity for her work in Irish crafts. She really made a mark. And she was my great heroine.
MT: What about when you were little -- what kind of role models did you have?
MM: One of my heroines was Granuaile! I thought she was wonderful. I loved the name O'Malley. Grace O'Malley. A pirate queen -- there was something very romantic and swashbuckling about it all. Queen Medb of Connacht would be another one. She challenged everything. She was a great judge of good breeding stock so she went to war about it. Where I am going this evening, I am going down to Sligo, and Queen Medb's cairn, at Knocknarea -- she was buried standing up so that even in death she could survey the acres of her Connacht kingdom. She was another heroine of mine. I used to love those types of women.
[For more info about Granuaile and Queen Medb, see the history section of the links page]
MT: In reading the Irish mythology, it seems like Ireland has its share of strong women leaders.
MM: Well yes, under the Brehon laws, it was a matriarchal society. But things change... but we're going to get it back to that of course! We've every intention of it!
MT: Do you see yourself as a leader?
MM: I see myself very much in the voluntary sphere. I see myself I suppose as a political leader with a small p -- in other words in the unpaid end of the political spectrum. I have made changes I do believe but it's more from being an enthuser and a bringer along of people than being an outfront leader. There is a Sufi tradition called the aniogram where you learn self knowledge. Everyone belongs to one point in a nine-point circle. And I'm a number three. And number threes are people who are always finding new challenges and aiming for the stars -- and sometimes forgetting the mundane things. Like I'm a very bad letter writer. I mean to do it but I'm always doing such exciting new things that they get forgotten. But a number three works well as part of a team rather than the outfront leader -- we leave that to the number eights. And I would see myself as being part of a team, not solely on my own, but with that kind of team structure -- that's the way I like to do it.
MT: Do you think that having had more women recently elected to the Dáil and two women presidents has had any impact on attitudes about women -- or any real change for women on a daily basis?
MM: I do think it has made an enormous change in the image of women in Ireland. I'm a great admirer of many of the women we've elected to the Dáil and to Europe and of course of Mary Robinson herself. I think yes, because nowadays, it's an image ridden society in which we live and anything that raises the profile and image of women is good for women.
I also think that many of them -- you know it's good to have to have women who are not feminists in the ranks -- but also feminists who are committed to the causes of women, that' really great. Women like Liz McManus. I remember the day Mary Robinson was elected and I was driving down through the country. I was about Athlone and I was heading for County Clare and I was all on my own but I cheered and I sang the whole rest of the way. It was so exciting. I really felt that we had arrived at last.
[Formore info about Mary Robinson & other Irish women political figures, see the government section of the links page]
But then when we went to Nairobi in 1995, I discovered that when we would say we were representing European Older Women, a blind came down over people's faces. And generally we weren't seen as being a legitimate part of the women's movement. That was the message I kept spreading when I came home -- that the most important thing for the new older women's movement was to form alliances with the wider women's movement. So that's what we've been working on for the last few years.
MT: It seems like the role of older people has changed a lot -- going from a revered vibrant part of the community -- storytellers etcetera -- to this invisibility that you talked about.
MM: In Ireland older people don't see themselves as being held in low esteem. They see themselves as being respected. But that doesn't translate into being included. And gradually over the years older people have been pushed to the margins of society. And rather than being seen as somebody with something to contribute from a life rich in experience, they don't have any part of policy decision making in matters that affect their lives.
For instance you don't see older people represented on health boards or education boards or on housing bodies. I maintain there should be a mother, a carer, and a volunteer on every health board by right, you know? Because they're very glad to call on older people, especially older women, to do the servicing for Meals on Wheels, for day-care centers, but when decisions are being taken at the statutory level, they are not included. This new buzzword we hear, partnership, it's got to include that.
I was invited to go onto a committee that consulted with different groups of women at all ages and stages about women's healthcare. And now I'm on the implementation board of that. But it's through constant -- you know it doesn't happen over night. But if you do keep hammering, it does sink in eventually. But there is no doubt about it, that as people got older -- in the media, for example, it was very glaring. Because as men presenters aged, they still remained presenters, but older women, as they aged, seemed to just quietly disappear, or they were put into other roles in the media.
MT: That reminds me of that ad on the back of the bus that I keep seeing with an older woman with sheets pulled up around her face with a terrified look on her face. It's always this image of the older woman as being vicitimized.
MM: And when you go up north where I live they have these signs -- it's a triangle with an old man and old woman, and they say, Elderly people crossing. And they're all hunched over. It's just the image it gives. You see that image down there beside you? That's the image I love. That's Grace Slattery. And Grace is 87 now. And there she is enjoying a bit of pop music with this young lad. There can be very positive images put out, too. We have a media council now -- we're writing to the media whenever we see very negative images of older people.
MT: One last thing -- I was reading in the Age and Opportunity newsletter about how you first got involved--
MM: When I was asked back in 1989 would I like to chair a committee to organize Ireland's first national day on ageing, I said, Ageing, who me? I really didn't think it had anything to do with me. But I really feel extremely lucky that it happened, and that I decided after a little thought to take it. It came at the perfect time for me. I was still in my 50s at that stage. But it came at a time when I was gradually coming around to the idea that time was very finite. And that I had to get on my toes to do all the things I wanted to do. It has helped me to come to terms with my own ageing self -- and to realize that it can be a very fruitful time -- and a very exciting one, too.
I've had three ambitions in my life -- that I wanted to do before I died: to build a house, to make a garden, and to write a book. So a few years ago I built a cottage. And while it is a modern cottage inside, we used where could old materials, so it looks like an old cottage that's been restored. That gives me great satisfaction because I love that look. And I'm making the garden. And I started in 1977 to write a diary, and I've been keeping a journal ever since. So from those years I have a day to day book on my life. And from the pages of those books, I have the material for the great Irish novel and all kinds of other things besides! So if I have the time I'm going to write those, too. I'm also writing quite a bit a of poetry and getting a great amount of satisfaction from that.
There's all kinds of things I still want to do. I maintain that when I turn up my toes, that they'll write as my epitaph, Dammit, she tried.
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Granuaile, Queen Medb and Women's HistoryKatie Donovan
Women in GovernmentKatie Donovan
Older Women's Network
Age and Opportunity
Irish Women's History
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