Dr Miriam Hederman O’Brien obituary: Trailblazer for women

Crusader and campaigner for equality and social justice

Miriam Hederman O’Brien: Her  style of influencing involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement.  Photograph: Paddy Whelan

Miriam Hederman O’Brien: Her style of influencing involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

 

Dr Miriam Hederman O’Brien
Born: June 6th, 1932
Died: March 14th, 2022

Although she had an unusual upbringing – being mainly home-schooled until the age of 12 but taking piano lessons from Dr Kuypers at Newbridge College while her mother went about her business – Miriam Hederman was always a stand-out person.

With two brothers who were more than a decade older, she grew up in an adult household and, with one a lawyer and the other a priest, her memories of the dinner table were of discussions, debates and making your point clearly, concisely and, of course, with corroborated evidence.

Sent to Mount Anville at the age of 13, she was one of a class of 10. When she finished secondary school in Ireland at the age of 16 she was sent to Rome for a year, taking classes through French while she picked up Italian. Her sheltered upbringing hardly prepared her for Italian life but her experience germinated her love of Europe and her awareness of the inequalities in society.

Although her original plan was to become a concert pianist, while in Rome she decided she was not quite good enough to be world class so she would make her mark on another stage.

She decided to study law, but her father, worried that she would need something to fall back on, insisted that she also take a degree in modern languages. So, in 1950, she came home to attend University College Dublin and contemporaneously the King’s Inns. She loved UCD and entered student life with vigour, joining 11 student societies. She graduated with a BA in 1953 and was called to the Bar in 1956.

From her student days she had been an active member of Pax Romana and the European Youth Movement. In 1954, along with Garret Fitzgerald, Donal Barrington and David Thornley, she was a founding member of Tuairim, a society for people aged 21-40 that provided a forum for informed, impartial discussion on economics, politics, social sciences, education and the arts.

Rather than pursuing a career in law, she became a journalist. She had begun broadcasting in France as a student and in her early journalistic years she was a prolific writer. She wrote about world figures who were seeking to improve the lives of their people. She interviewed leading Irish politicians, industry leaders and people who interested her. She pursued topics such as education and the place of women in society. Her work appeared in the Irish Independent, the Irish Press, Interplay, an international current affairs magazine published in New York, Pioneer Magazine and Creation Fashion magazine, where hers was the thought-provoking piece. She freelanced with Radio Éireann and RTÉ throughout the 1960s.

Life as a freelance woman journalist was hardly lucrative and she also worked as a translator from French and Italian and as a book reviewer.

Not content just writing about or discussing societal issues, she actively campaigned for equality and social justice on a number of fronts

She met her husband Bill (William S O’Brien) at college debates and they spent their married lives with their five children in Malahide where they were immersed in the community, most particularly in the Grove Lawn Tennis Club, a four grass court club with 400 junior members.

He was the law agent for the National Bank and when it merged with Bank of Ireland, went into practice with Bell, Brannigan, O’Donnell and O’Brien. It is a great testament to him that while the marriage bar prevented many Irish women from working and fulfilling their career or intellectual potential, he encouraged her to take on every challenge that took her interest. Bill died in 2016.

Not content just writing about or discussing societal issues, she actively campaigned for equality and social justice on a number of fronts. Among her papers (which are in the UCD Archives) is a letter from the professor of zoology at UCD written in 1967 as a reply to her request to support the advancement of women’s careers. “I can’t see that I can contribute very much to the task which you are undertaking in regard to employing women in fairly senior positions… when it comes to any of them marrying, their success as employees of the college alters as their attention is divided between home and college duties. My opinion is that women should retire on marriage as they do in the Civil Service.” Needless to say, the professor’s opinion did not influence her as she campaigned for women throughout her own career.

From her involvement in the Traveller site Cara Park in the 1970s to the formation of the Sr Stephen Fund for Mount Carmel School in the heart of Dublin 1 in the 2000s with her former class from Mount Anville, she always had a cause on the go and worked energetically to bring practical benefit to those she supported.

Although she was never tempted to enter politics, she was actively involved in forming policy recommendations through organisations such as the Foundation for Fiscal Studies, NESC, the Irish Centre for European Law, and the Statistical & Social Enquiry Society of Ireland, and her influence spanned many disciplines.

She was a member and subsequently chairwoman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. She also served on the Advertising Standards Authority. She was a member of the Top Level Appointments Committee for senior posts in the Irish Civil Service from 1992 to 1998.

From the 1950s when she was involved in the European Youth Campaign throughout the subsequent decades, she was always active in European affairs. From her student days she was an active member of the Irish Council of the European Movement.

Dr Miriam Hederman O’Brien, chairwoman of the Commission on Taxation. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Dr Miriam Hederman O’Brien, chairwoman of the Commission on Taxation. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Over the next five years the commission was to publish five reports which spanned the entire spectrum of taxation measures and administration in Ireland

In 1979, while she was campaigning to encourage women to vote in the first elections for the European Parliament, public sentiment in Ireland was more focused on the inequity of the Irish taxation system and, after mass marches the government established the Commission on Taxation with Miriam Hederman O’Brien as chairwoman. Over the next five years the commission was to publish five reports which spanned the entire spectrum of taxation measures and administration in Ireland.

Commissions and investigations

Her skill at getting to the nub of the problem, enabling the airing of contesting opinions, and drawing a topic to a conclusive decision meant she was called upon to chair a number of contentious and sensitive commissions and investigations.

  • North Dublin Action Plan (1998)
  • Forum on Youth Homelessness in the Eastern Health Board Region (2000)
  • Advisory Group on Trauma and Elective Orthopaedic Services for the North Eastern Health Board (1998)
  • Independent review of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, commissioned by the then North Eastern Health Board, which reported in 1995
  • Expert Group Inquiry into Blood Transfusion Service Board 1995 (regarding contamination of blood which led to the infection of women receiving blood transfusions with Hep C)
  • Commission on the Funding of the Health Services 1989
  • Inspector into Letterkenny Regional College 1994
  • Carlow Cathedral renovation

In 1985 she accepted an appointment to the board of Allied Irish Banks (AIB), becoming the first woman on the board of an Irish plc. Strong on the principles of good governance, she was deeply disturbed by the Dirt (deposit interest retention tax) revelations in 1993.

She was appointed Chancellor, University of Limerick in 1998, becoming the first woman to hold this position in a university in Ireland.

And all the while she supported outside interests in music and culture. She was a director of the Dublin Grand Opera Society, 1982-1987. She was a director and subsequently chairwoman of Music Network, 1995-2007, whose remit was to bring live classical performance to venues throughout the country. She was chairwoman of the International Executive of the European Cultural Foundation from 1996 to 2003 and, through this organisation, encouraged studies to promote intercultural exchange.

She was also a trustee of the Louvain Development Trust for the Irish Institute for European Affairs in Belgium from 1982 to 1999. Her participation in European organisations kept her in contact with peers across the continent.

She adopted a style of influencing that involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement. She was a crusader in her own unique way

The topic for her PhD from Trinity College Dublin was The Road to Europe, Irish attitudes to European integration 1948-1961 which was published by the Institute for Public Affairs in 1983. She regularly gave lectures in University of Limerick, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork and elsewhere. With such knowledge of the Irish journey to membership of the European Union, it was not surprising that she took great interest in other countries as they applied for membership.

Under the Killeen Fellowship in Trinity, she undertook post-doctoral studies on exchange training, education and professional formation between Ireland and Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. She was awarded the European Silver Order of Merit Medal in 1984 and Order of Merit of the President of Poland in 1992.

Recognising the restrictions of being a woman and coming from a small rather distant island, she adopted a style of influencing that involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement. She was a crusader in her own unique way.

Her last public service was as chairwoman of the joint standing committee of the Dublin Maternity Hospitals from 1997. She stood down in recent years knowing that her declining health was hampering her ability. Fiercely self-demanding, her deteriorating health was devastating to her. Not being able to “do” was a difficult cross to bear for such a phenomenal woman.

She was awarded honorary doctorates from the Pontifical University of Maynooth 1995, National University of Ireland 2001, University of Ulster 2002 and University of Limerick in 2008. She was elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 2005.

In 2013 she was presented with an award for being a trailblazer for women by WXN.

In her keynote address to an extraordinary assembly of women at the presentation, she spoke passionately of the need for women to be active public servants, to aim for a better society by getting involved in processes of change. After the dinner when she was slipping away – she had snuck out of hospital to attend – a very young woman caught up with her to tell her she was an inspiration. That evening she told the room “I come back, again and again, to the importance of women contributing to society and to public service. In my experience, women have an innate capacity to examine theory and to relate it to the reality of life – and that is actually how you solve societal problems.” She may have been speaking in general but to those who knew and admired her, these words captured her own purpose, contribution and legacy.

She is survived by her five children: Donat, Aoife, Eilis, Dervilla and Murrough and her 10 grandchildren.