Journalist who advocated for women’s rights
Obituary: Ysabel Mavis Arnold. Born: June 7th, 1937. Died: July 18th, 2017
Mavis Arnold (centre) at the launch in 1987 of her booklet ‘Irishwomen into Focus’, with (left) Thekla Beere, former chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women, and the then minister of State for women’s affairs, Nuala Fennell. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Ysabel Mavis Arnold: a co-founder of the Women’s Progressive Association, she was renowned for her ability to ability to cut through tense moments with a funny remark.
After news broke that the political journalist Bruce Arnold’s home telephone had been tapped by An Garda Síochána, his wife Mavis couldn’t resist joking with her feminist friends about how the poor fellows tasked with the job must have been forced to listen to “earfuls” about the trials and travails of the “women’s movement”. It was late 1982 when The Irish Times revealed that Bruce Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy were being “listened into” because their journalism was viewed as a possible threat to national security.
Ironically, at the time, Mavis’s feminist activism was primarily preoccupied with researching and writing a ground-breaking book with Heather Lasky on a tragic fire in a Co Cavan industrial school which, when published in 1985, exposed the exploitation of vulnerable children by the Catholic Church and the State. This was 15 years before the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was established in 2000 and Children of the Poor Clares: the Collusion between State and Church that Betrayed Thousands of Children in Ireland’s Industrial Schools proved to be uncomfortable reading for an establishment still bent on sweeping an ethos of institutional abuse under the carpet.
Born in Mussoorie Hill Station, above the northern city of Dehradun, India, to Mary and Major John Cleave, Ysabel Mavis Arnold along with her sister, Maureen, and their mother were rescued when their ship was torpedoed after being mistakenly despatched home by the military authorities. They proceeded to live in Sligo for the duration of the war while John returned after peace was brokered and Monica, the youngest of the three siblings, was later born but sadly John died within a year.
It was there that she met Bruce, her husband and life-long love, during his first term and they both acted together with Dublin University Players in William Saroyan’s Jim Dandy. The couple was married on August 1st, 1959, in Sligo, with a reception at the family home, Glen Lodge, nestled under Knocknarea and overlooking Ballysadare Bay. They then headed off on a honeymoon odyssey across Europe which culminated in Wagnerian operas in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth.
Progressive, passionate, innately curious and filled with a rainbow of wit and warmth, Arnold worked as a journalist for the Guardian, the Sunday Independent, the Irish Press and the Irish Medical Times, mainly on lifestyle and consumer topics.
A co-founder in 1969 with Gemma Hussey, Hilary Pratt and Mary Henry of the Women’s Progressive Association (later called the Women’s Political Association), Arnold was renowned for her ability to call a spade a spade and for clearing difficult impasses, particularly during her tenure as chairperson, with her wonderful sense of humour and ability to cut through tense moments with a funny remark.
Inspired by the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s in the United States, the group – with a slogan “Why Not a Woman” – used radical strategies to facilitate women’s access to the corridors of political power, in both the Dáil and the Seanad.
Workshops for women
In later years, after her friend Gemma Hussey left politics in 1989 and became director of the European Women’s Foundation, Arnold led many workshops for women, whose central and eastern European native countries were just emerging from the grey mantle of communism and its repressive regimes.
While Arnold may have continued as an activist, writer and journalist after she was married and while rearing the couple’s three surviving children, Hugo (1962), Samuel (1964-2014) and Polly (1965), she was foremost a home-maker, loving partner and mother. If Bruce loved a sense of occasion, it was always Mavis who delivered the goods – starting preparations from scratch usually at 5pm – the Aga range producing such old-fashioned dishes as rib of beef, steak and kidney pudding, crème caramel, usually accompanied by a perfectly chosen bottle of wine.
This love of freshly cooked produce was honed from early childhood in her Sligo home, where Arnold’s mother had set the example of using the best-quality ingredients bought from the local butcher and grocer and supplemented by her huge kitchen garden.
Cooking and baking wasn’t only for the family though. As the children attended St Patrick’s National School in Dalkey, Arnold, along with the other mothers, regularly baked cakes for the local market to raise funds for their campaign to create multidenominational education. Influenced by the impact of sectarianism on children in the North at the time, the campaign was called the Dalkey School Project and was effectively the genesis of the Educate Together system, which now has 90 schools nationwide.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in early 2008, with the constant love of family and friends, Arnold bore her illness with typical grace and forbearance under the care of the staff at Carysfort Nursing Home, Glenageary. She is survived by her husband, Bruce, son, Hugo, daughter, Polly, sisters, Maureen (Nichols) and Monica (Flanagan), daughters-in-law, Sue and Fiona, grandchildren, extended family and friends.