Mairéad Manton obituary: Disability campaigner, poet and artist
She wove her power wheelchair through crowded streets with a dexterity that would have been the envy of the finest rally driver
Mairéad Manton: her legacy lives in her poetry and in her art, in her attitude to equality and her role as a leader
Born: May 30th, 1959
Died: November 20th, 2018
Mairéad Manton was a leader in the Irish disability movement, and was one of the first people to move into independent living in the mid-1980s. She was a poet and artist, and a woman for whom tenacity and resilience were bywords for life.
Manton was the eldest of six children. Her father, Jimmy Manton, was from Loughrea, Co Galway, and her mother, Peggy (née Gaffey), came from Moore in Co Roscommon. The couple moved to Portrane, Co Dublin, in the 1950s where they both worked as psychiatric nurses.
Manton was born with cerebral palsy, and attended residential school in St Mary’s in Baldoyle, Co Dublin, where she completed her Inter Cert. She left school after that and moved to the Cara Cheshire Home in the Phoenix Park.
From a young age Manton wrote poetry, initially using her alphabet board. Later she embraced the emergence of assistive technology through the use of a Lightwriter: a portable keyboard with a built-in speech synthesiser.
In the mid-1980s this technology was limited in scope, and Manton had no choice but to accept its highly robotic male voice synthesiser. Ever the pragmatist, she used it effectively until, finally, a model became available with a female voice.
Manton ultimately achieved her goal of living independently when she signed up to be part of a European-funded project called Operation Get Out, spearheaded by the late disability advocate Martin Naughton.
She moved into an apartment in Sandymount, Dublin, but found the leafy suburbs less than socially inclusive, and a few years later moved into a flat in the well-known Herbert Simms-designed Dublin City Council housing known as Mercer Street.
Just a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green and her beloved Grafton Street, Manton embraced this new-found independence with gusto and became a permanent fixture of city life.
She wove her power wheelchair through crowded streets with a dexterity that would have been the envy of the finest rally driver, and it was here that she expanded her eclectic social circle, often holding court in Bewley’s or in Davy Byrne’s, where she could enjoy encounters with friends and acquaintances over a glass of port in convivial surrounds.
Manton was a brilliant advocate, and actively participated in many demonstrations, including campaigns to reinstate the mobility allowance and to reinstate personal assistance hours, a lifeline for anyone with a disability.
Defying impressions of physical frailty which those who weren’t acquainted with her might have presumed, Manton was fearless in the face of what she saw as crass political decisions resulting in tacit social exclusion and her constructive obstruction tactics at a committee hearing on the mobility allowance in the Oireachtas during the depths of the recession were the source of not inconsiderable admiration and envy on the part of those less experienced disability advocates who witnessed them.
When Manton spoke, she did so slowly, deliberately and with a distillation worthy of her role as a poet.
Manton’s Armistead Maupin-like tales of life in the city were legion. Ever the adventurer, all of her stories were entertaining, many were funny, but some were depressing in their reflection of Irish attitudes to disability.
On one occasion, while she was in Brown Thomas, a man approached her and took away her Lightwriter, saying “I just want to show this to someone, I think it might be good for my wife”, leaving Manton unable to even verbalise a protest.
Manton had her health issues, but rarely did she allow these to curb her enthusiasm for Dublin’s vibrant social city life. She self-published a volume of poetry annually, and her 2018 volume, What’s Another Year? arrived from the publishers on the morning of her funeral in Brackenstown, Swords.
Manton’s poetry cut to the quick, shot through as it was with her innate and unquenchable sense of social justice. She was an observer of people and of life, and used her keen skills of observation to distil tales of diverse existence in the heart of the city with empathy and enormous insight.
Manton was often described as an inspiration, but not in the traditionally patronising way that that word can be used in relation to disability. She inspired friends and acquaintances to be their best selves through her capacity for empathy and her visceral engagement with the world.
She was endlessly patient and always interested in others, maintaining relationships across decades and across the world, and always turning the conversation around to the perennial: “How are you?”
Role as a leader
Manton’s sudden passing was a shock, but her legacy lives in her poetry and in her art, in her attitude to equality and her role as a leader.
The emergence of personalised budgets for people with disabilities was something Manton longed for, as she saw this as an essential stepping stone to greater autonomy. Sadly it didn’t come soon enough for Manton personally, but neither did it limit her insistence on pushing boundaries and living her life to the full.
Mairéad Manton is survived by her brother Shay, sisters Deirdre, Siobhan, Emer and Nuala, aunts Nora and Dilly and by her personal assistants Violeta, Natasha, Martha, Edita and Marzena