In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE
is a community activist and runs Kilbarrack CDP, an independent community development project, and is also on the board of Saol, which works with female drug addicts and their children in Dublin’s north inner city. Along with Kathleen Lynch, she is a member of Praxis, an education group starting community learning circles based on the theories of Brazilian educational philosopher Paolo Freire
‘I GREW UP IN Ballyfermot in the 1950s, the eldest of 13 children. It was a great place to grow up: I loved school, did really well in the primary cert and got a scholarship to second level at 13. But the scholarship didn’t cover books, the uniform, extra-curricular activities. There was a fee for typing paper, 1s6d, for business studies: for four months, I ducked paying and things were getting nasty. One day, I said, ‘Sister Immaculata, I haven’t got your 1s6d, I’m never going to have your 1s6d’. And I left.
“I started work in the sewing factory on Monday. I felt angry from the age of 13 to 33, the point at which I joined Klear [Kilbarrack Local Education for Adult Renewal] set up by five working class women. I’d followed the stereotype of the working class woman – by that age, I had five kids and a bad husband.
“My life began at 33. We five women were all great readers, and even though it was a recession, and I was now parenting five kids alone, it was a magic time. Four of us set up a group to look at politics, at women’s studies.
“We invited Kathleen out to talk about equality in education. When I saw her I felt she was a friend before I knew her: it was her ideas, her respect, how she ‘got’ us. The minute I met her in Kilbarrack, I knew her for life. Later, at a conference in TCD around 1986, there’d been a big debate about whether ‘community women’ – a polite term for working class – would be invited. I sat next to Kathleen: she kept poking me, saying ‘you’re not going to let them away with that, are you?’
“She invited me to speak at a UCD seminar, said, ‘Come to the house and we’ll talk about what you’re going to say’. After that, she asked me to do a good few things – asked me to co-write some articles. I began to reflect on social class and wrote a poem, Class Attack, that developed into a play. There is a big class divide in Ireland, made all the worse for not being acknowledged. My friendship with Kathleen came together over Class Attack.
“Gus Martin invited me to do an English degree but Kathleen persuaded me to do equality studies.
“Here’s the friendship of her: the day I was doing my exam to get into the masters, she picked me up and brought me to the exam centre, a posh school in Blackrock, and was there when I came out. And the pride of her the day I graduated! “Another side of our friendship are the hooleys: Kathleen and her husband John give great hoolies – Kathleen loves singing and dancing.
“When I first met her what impressed me was her energy, her unflinching honesty. She was so brainy, could take the most complex thing and make it understandable. She’s always animated, loves people, gets and respects them . . . she’s a lovely woman, that’s what I thought. . .
“The biggest thing about her is her generosity of spirit – I love her to bits.”