Mamo McDonald obituary: A pioneering ‘born again’ Irish feminist

Former president of Irish Countrywomen’s Association who inspired younger women

Mamo McDonald viewing paintings in National Gallery, 2004. Photograph: John Cogill

Mamo McDonald viewing paintings in National Gallery, 2004. Photograph: John Cogill

 

Born: September 12th, 1929
Died
: June 17th, 2021

Mamo McDonald, a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights, former president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) and former cathaoirleach of Age & Opportunity, has died.

She was an articulate spokeswoman on women’s rights to good healthcare, social and financial independence, and she worked hard to highlight how women’s contributions to society both historically and in contemporary times was often undervalued and unrecorded

As a member of the Older Women’s Network during 1993-2012, she gave a public voice to the concerns of older women in Ireland. McDonald was a co-founder of Age & Opportunity’s nationwide Bealtaine Festival of Arts & Creativity held every year in May and won a People of the Year award in 1999 for her services to Irish women and older people.

Sometimes she described herself as a “born again” feminist. “I didn’t start out as a feminist but I became one,” she said. She had strong female role models growing up. Like other women of her generation, she had to give up her job in the bank when she married, due to the marriage bar, which was lifted in 1973.

McDonald later campaigned for the removal of such terms as “non-contributory” pensions for married women, claiming that many women not earning an income contributed greatly to society both in the home and in the voluntary sector.

Mamo McDonald, then cathaoirleach of Age & Oppourtunity, at a conference in Monaghan, November 2000. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Mamo McDonald, then cathaoirleach of Age & Oppourtunity, at a conference in Monaghan, November 2000. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mary Frances (her sister nicknamed her Mamo, and it stuck) Bowen, the second of six children of Jack and Brigid Bowen (nee O’Grady), was born in Tuam, Co Galway. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Bandon in Cork and then to Kilfinane, Co Limerick, when her father was appointed the bank manager there.

She attended the Dominican College Sion Hill, in Blackrock, Co Dublin, in 1940-1945. A sporty teenager, she excelled in camogie and recalled later how ridiculous it was when Archbishop Charles McQuaid stopped girls playing competitively because it was an “unseemly” thing for girls to do. Following her secondary school education, Mamo wanted to go to university but she followed her parents’ advice to do a commercial course in Limerick city.

Clones activism

She moved to Cavan to take a job in the Munster and Leinster bank, where within a short time, she met her husband-to-be, Eugene McDonald. The couple married a year later in 1950, just after Mamo’s 21st birthday, and set up home over McDonald’s drapery shop in Clones, Co Monaghan, where their 11 children grew up.

McDonald’s involvement in activism began in her local Clones branch of the ICA. “I joined originally to learn crafts and meet other women. But I discovered opportunities to voice opinions … and that working within the ICA, you could bring something about which you felt passionately and you could finish by walking into the office of a government minister about that cause,” she said. In the 1950s, the ICA was prominent in encouraging rural families to bring electricity and piped water supplies into their homes.

Over the years, McDonald became known throughout the organisation for speaking out about family and consumer issues. She honed her public-speaking skills at the many further education courses she took at the ICA headquarters, An Grianán, in Termonfeckin, Co Louth. She was president of the ICA in 1982-1985, which brought her into contact with other nongovernmental organisations and saw her travel all over Ireland, listening to women’s experiences.

Optimistic, generous spirited and extroverted, she inspired and motivated a younger generation of women and had great fun while doing so. One colleague said she drew energy from being with people, didn’t bear grudges and started every day afresh. Her personal heroine was Muriel Gann, a champion of Irish traditional crafts and the founder of the Irish country markets.

And although the ICA was deemed the more conservative branch of the women’s movement, McDonald said that when travelling to Europe with more radical members as part of the European Women’s Lobby, she realised they had exactly the same views on the majority of issues. “I became more radical after that. And life experiences had taught me that women in Ireland were more under the patriarchal thumb and the laws were against us.”

When McDonald succeeded in bringing the Association of Countrywomen of the World tri-annual conference to Killarney in 1986, she invited prominent Irish feminists including Mary Robinson, Margaret MacCurtain, Nuala Fennell and Nell McCafferty to speak at the conference.

Supportive husband

McDonald said that her husband – with whom she ran McDonald’s drapery shop in Clones until his premature death in 1979 – took pride in his wife’s involvement in the ICA. She also often spoke about how the 1970s and 1980s were difficult times to rear a family in a market town on the Border where trade was severely impacted by road closures and Border check points.

She was a brilliant cook and baker, and ran a teashop in the basement of the drapery store, which eventually closed in 1994. After that, she moved out of Clones to live in a new house her family built her for her in Drummully, Smithborough, Co Monaghan, close to her daughter Niamh’s home.

In her 70s, McDonald pursued her lifelong ambition to get a third-level education. She took a degree in women’s studies at University College Dublin – followed by a master’s degree on the topic of Women Who Kept Diaries – and described these times as among the happiest days of her life. An avid diarist, she pursued her love of writing by joining creative writing groups and competing in competitions for poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Circling (Arlen House), was published in 2015.

In Monaghan, she brought attention to the archaeological and historical heritage of Clones and in particular the tradition of lace-making. She researched the stories of female lacemakers and spoke widely about their work. She was a co-founder of the Clones Lace Co-operative and the Clones Lace International Summer School.

In 1995 McDonald went to Nairobi for the United Nations End of Decade Women’s Conference. While there, she was struck by the industriousness of female craft workers who were improving the lives of their families through co-operatives similar to how Irish women had done in the past.

In an interview for Irish Feminisms: Past, Present and Future, she said women needed to stand up for each other. She said: “There’s nobody will listen to you like a woman will listen to you when your back’s to the wall.”

In January 2020 she moved from her cherished cottage to Ballybay Nursing Home, where she spent the last 18 months of her life. She is survived by her children Eoin, Darach, Donald, Cathryn, Brian, Niamh, Lonan, Frank, Niall and Ross; 32 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and sisters Margot and Breda. Her husband, Eugene; and son, Vincent, predeceased her.