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