Ex-Labour senator scored many firsts for women

EVELYN OWENS: EVELYN OWENS, who has died in her 80th year, was a pioneering woman in public life, a key campaigner for equal…

EVELYN OWENS:EVELYN OWENS, who has died in her 80th year, was a pioneering woman in public life, a key campaigner for equal pay, the first female chairman of the Labour Court and the first female leas-cathaoirleach of the Seanad.

She was born in 1931, the fourth in a family of six children, in Vernon Gardens, Clontarf, Dublin. In 1938, following a few years in Limerick, the family returned to Clontarf, where Evelyn lived the rest of her life.

Education for her, as for all the Owen girls, was at the local Holy Faith Convent school where she was a good student achieving superior results in the public examinations.

On leaving school in 1948 she sat the Dublin Corporation entry exams, was successful and commenced work in the city treasurer’s department. She studied for a diploma in public administration in Trinity College Dublin - after some fuss about getting “permission” from her parish priest allowing her to attend Trinity.


She made progress in the Corporation but there was one feature in particular that she found hard to take: she could not understand why a female doing a particular job was paid a certain rate, while a male doing the same work was paid a different, greater rate. Equal pay became her cause and so she became active in her trade union, the Irish Local Government’s Officials Union. Here, she held several offices including that of vice-president before becoming the first woman president of the union.

During these years, she was a member of the public services committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, chairman of its women’s advisory committee and a member of the Council for the Status of Women.

As a result of holding these positions she was able to work tirelessly to advance the interests of women and to achieve greater equality.

She was an active and committed member of the Labour Party and held a number of different positions including chair of the Labour Women’s National Council. This brought her into contact with many of the politicians and activists of the time, particularly the late Frank Cluskey, for whom she had the highest regard. During these years she formed enduring friendships as a result of her political work, many of which she was able to keep up to the end.

In 1969 she was nominated for Seanad Éireann by Ictu as a candidate for the Labour Panel, was successful in the election and, after serving two terms as senator, was duly elected leas-cathaoirleach of the Upper House, the first woman to have achieved this high office.

In 1984 she joined the Labour Court, first as deputy chairwoman and subsequently as chairwoman, a position she held in 1997. She found this job both challenging and fulfilling; and was generally considered to be a very good chair with a record of relatively peaceful and stable industrial relations during her period of office. Following her retirement in 1997, she undertook a number of assignments on a pro bono basis including membership of the board of the new Beaumont Hospital and of the Irish Medical Council.

Besides this record of outstanding achievement and public service, there were other facets to her life. She loved to travel and at one time or another visited most parts of the globe except the Far East. Her travelling companion for many years was her old Dublin Corporation pal Kay Heffernan and they formed an intrepid pair as they made trips to Alaska, Peru and the Middle East. Evelyn found Kay’s death a few years ago a great blow.

While all this was going on, she quietly engaged in low-profile good works wherever she saw the opportunity and need.

Her brother Seamus and sister Marie predeceased her. She is survived by her sisters Ita (Corcoran) and Nuala (Grouse) and her brother Gerard.

Evelyn Owens: born 1931; died September 26th, 2010