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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 27, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    A Woman Who Made A Difference

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    It is impossible to convey to those who weren’t around at the time the sheer excitement of Mrs Gaj’s Restaurant in the Dublin of a previous era. It was a gathering-place for the left and liberals in an Ireland that was still a cold house for adherents of such views.

    Much has been made of the fact that the women’s liberation movement was brought into being and nurtured there in its early stages. But if I’m not mistaken it was also the meeting-place for  supporters of the left-wing Labour TD Noel Browne.

    No doubt there were other groups who met there, not to mention the casual encounters among the customers who came from a colourful range of backgrounds.

    I should have mentioned already, in case you didn’t know, that the occasion of this piece is the fact that Margaret Gaj (pronounced “Guy”) has died. The restaurant she ran was on the corner of Baggot Street and Pembroke Street. The food was not in the Guilbaud’s class (or maybe it was, since I’ve never been to Guilbaud’s) but to my untutored palate it was simply delicious.

    The mushrooms on toast were out of this world! Mrs Gaj was a kindly Scot and I recall one day coming in, a shivering teenager dripping from the rain and without a huge sum of money in my pocket – maybe after attending a protest against apartheid in South Africa organised by Kader Asmal, or a march about the Vietnam War – when she took charge in a motherly fashion and fed me beyond what I could afford.

    It was really more like being at a party than in a restaurant. The staff were particularly nice and I recall the kindly Phyllis who looked after us at the tables.

    The ferment of ideas made an excellent sauce for the dishes placed in front of us. Every sort of faction, tendency, trend and political fashion other than outright Tory was heard to make its case (there may have been an occasional Tory as well.)

    Remember in those days we didn’t have the internet to vent our spleen and there were no trolls working out their hangups at the keyboard, thank goodness. Indeed I cannot think of any latter-day alternative but then the political scene is totally different now. We are like a family in grief over the grave illness and possible death of our economy whereas in those days the world was bright and new and everything seemed possible if you worked hard enough to bring it about.

    Ireland was emerging from a half-century of closed conservatism both political and social. When I tell young people the conditions imposed on women in  those times – the marriage ban in the public service for example (you had to leave when you got married) –  they simply refuse to believe me. And let it not be forgotten that there were single women who opposed the lifting of the ban because they didn’t want “married wans” coming back and taking their promotions. It was the EU/EEC brought that to an end – against the wishes of our own rulers.

    Farewell then, Mrs Gaj, you made a major difference to the life of our city and our country, and your many grateful customers and friends (generally the same thing) unite in their grief and in conveying deepest sympathy to your nearest and dearest.

    Death of Margaret Gaj

    Mon, Jun 27, 2011

    MARGARET GAJ, a prominent figure in left-wing campaigns and the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, has died in Dublin.

    A native of Scotland, she ran Gaj’s restaurant in Baggot Street, Dublin, with her Polish husband. The restaurant gradually became the venue for meetings of a group of women who went on to set up the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in 1970.

    The restaurant became part of the folklore of the women’s movement within Ireland and is frequently referred to in chronicles of its history. Anne Stopper’s story of the movement, which was published a number of years ago, included reference to the restaurant in its title, Mondays at Gaj’s .

    Journalist Mary Maher, a founder of the women’s movement in Ireland, said yesterday that Ms Gaj was formidable and also kind.

    “She was absolutely fearless in taking on the establishment,” Ms Maher said in describing Ms Gaj’s contribution.

    © 2011 The Irish Times

    • Doubting Gerald FitzDesmond says:

      Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, come in for your mushrooms on toast..! .Sounds like a real hotbed of radical feminism: women … cooking and waiting on p*icks…if that’s not an insult to the priapic member…Sounds like another one with a mammy fixation..Ireland’s political elite whah?…Jaysus Wept…

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      Just think you claim to have been a teenager at a time when there was such a left leaning establishment in Baggot Street where no doubt ‘even’ some gays (no doubt called something else at the time)/artists/lefties and perhaps even left footers were allowed. But now look, you are part of the establishment!

    • @1: One of your better ones, I have to say. LOL :D
      @2: So wounding to be lacerated as a conservative by the Fine Gael equivalent of the most uncritical and partisan Celtic or Rangers supporter :-) For the record: I have many friends in FG and admire (without necessarily always agreeing with) some of their representatives – such as Richard Bruton – quite a lot. I suspect they would find your distorting-lens approach embarrassing. With friends like thee …

      The trolls are living up to their reputations today! I feel kinda sorry for them …

    • Doubting Desmond FitzGerald says:

      You know you’re only mad about me… ! ;”)
      I expect when you say trolls you’re referring to the barbie troll…

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      ” We are like a family in grief over the grave illness and possible death of our economy whereas in those days the world was bright and new and everything seemed possible if you worked hard enough to bring it about” – translation: we were young then, and idealists. Now we’re ould and kynics.
      Know how ya feel Deaglan.

    • Garreth Byrne says:

      Ah yes, Gaj’s Restaurant had a threadbare stairs winding quickly up to the first floor. I was a student too and often treated myself, at such cheap prices, to the cuisine ordinaire anglo-hibernienne. The only concession to continental cuisine was the delicious lemon tea. ( Mangez votre fierte Guilbaud.) The staff were driven off their feet and Mrs. Gaj did her best to keep both staff and hungry eaters happy. Actually there were lower-case tories eating there – they were humdrum civil servants from government offices in Merrion Street. “I’ll have your restaurant closed down,” said one irritated customer when Mrs. Gaj displayed on the entrance noticeboard a famous Irish Appeal for Peace in Vietnam sheet for sympathetic customers to affix their signatures on. I did, and collected a few dozen signatures in my spare time – and that’s how I ceased to be a customer and became an acquaintance of Mrs. Gaj. All kinds of people ate there. She often had Noel Browne, with whom she campaigned on corporal punishment and capital punishment issues. Conor Cruise O’Brien and future wife ate there in the late fifties. The writer Christine Longford (sister of Frank Pakenham) often dined there and was a delicate, frail lady when Mrs. Gaj sat me beside her one afternoon. Former prisoners, lonely gays, feminists and many others, some of them intellectual and artistic waifs and strays, dined at Gajs. Somebody should write a history of Gaj’s Restaurant and the people and causes that revolved around an important institution that was stamped with Margaret Gaj’s unforgettable personality.

    • Ted says:

      I well remember it – a slice of pineapple on a slice of gammon was our usual, about 50m from where we lived in a flat for £18 a week in the late 70s. A very different Dublin with Des Traynor’s private bank for the tax-unfriendly elite getting up and running on Pembroke Street.

      Little did we know we were being allowed our illusions while the wealthy establishment ran the country into the ground, later telling us we’d have to tighten our belts because ‘we’ were living beyond our means. Plus ca change.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Sounds like she was a great woman. Wished I’d heard of her restaurant and she before. I presume that ”irritated customer” bred, for there are a lot like him in Ireland today and since March 2003. All anxious to placate foreign despots and let them drag their slaves across the Ho’Lie Ground in return for the usual 30 pcs AG and messes of pottage. Nothing really changes does it? Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.

    • Desmond FitzGerald says:

      @3: Deaglán, now FG is in government we can go through the list of al lthe things I believe it has got wrong so far – eg it beggars belief that every single minister has not provided the Minister for Finance with an excel spreadheet to layout the details of every single person in their department being paid more than €100k and the entire details of their pay package and for the Minister to put a stop to it.

      The salary cuts the government took don’t go far enough.

      There’s been no reform of the Oireachtas expenses system etc etc.

      It has done nothing to cap pensions in payment, be it to a former President, Judge, Minister or Quango appointee at a max of €60k.

      As I’ve explained to you before, with all due respect, I fundamentally disagree that all elected reps are essentially decent and honest or put the greater good first. I also fundamentally disagree that there are not a vast array of issues were the answer is black and white/right and wrong ie if you claim an expense paid by the taxpayer you publish the receipt. No ifs or buts.

      Nor do I agree that it is right to try divert attention from who is to blame for the mess Ireland is in by trying to blame people who had no power at all during that time. The ones to blame are the politicians and the media who failed to be impartial and hold the government to account.

      So now that FG is in power, hopefully for a long time, we’ll get to see if FG loses touch with reality as easily as those in FF did and if FG is as easily corrupted by too much power for too long.

    • DFG says:

      Are you saying Mrs Gaj’s mushrooms were ‘magic’ !

    • DFG says:

      I’ve got a great anecdote about Paddy Packenham I might tell it to you sometime over a plate of mushrooms on toast…

    • Margaret's Grandaughter says:

      As a grandaughter of the late Margaret Gaj, I thank you for your kind words.

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      @12. You’ve an ancestor to be proud of. That means more than I can say.

    • D de Gorgeous says:

      I hope you didn’t meet any of those Shiitake Mushrooms…!

    • D de Boudoir says:

      Actually a Deaglan de Breadun sounds like a tasty little dish to be savoured with a nice glass of vino…food heaven…! ;*) ;*)

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Don’t be talking about shitake mushrooms. Best teppenyaki ever had was kobe beef wrapped round those gorgeous magnificent mushrooms in the Okura Garden (sp?) hotel in old Shanghai. Magnif. I’m drooling. Even more that usual.

    • D de Bourgeois says:

      How very apt that you should favour a mould that is grown in the dark and fed on b/sh*t…You are what you eat…hardly haute cuisine…!

    • I’d venture that ’twas a fair distance from haute cusine you were reared yerself :-)

    • John O'Driscoll says:

      Where I was reared we et our cuisine outta dhrawers.

    • Gabe Buno says:

      And so she has been laid to dignified rest in the presence of many relatives, friends and admirers. May the ideals of the late Margaret Gaj live on in new generations of citizens.

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