Mary Anderson/Emerald O’Leary: champion of women’s rights

Obituary: a founder of Irish Women’s Liberation Movement who helped women onto juries


Mary Anderson was one of the 12 founding members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in September 1970, and one of two women whose legal action forced the government to change the law to include women on juries by right.

In her 30s she left Ireland for good, initially joining a theatre troupe in Fort Worth, Texas, and changed her name to Emerald O’Leary. She died of cancer in San Francisco where she had settled. There she wrote poems, painted in oils and became a mother (elder) of the City of Refuge church in Oakland.

Mary Anderson was born in London in 1947 to Molly O’Leary, an Irish-born civil servant. As often happened then, her father, an Irish immigrant named Walsh, had two families, one on each side of the Irish Sea. “My father’s other children didn’t know about me until I was six,” she told a San Francisco radio station in 2013.

Contraceptive Train

Molly O’Leary went to great lengths to conceal her only child’s illegitimacy. A friend in the registrar’s office produced a birth certificate in the name of Mary Anderson, the surname chosen at random from a telephone directory. Molly O’Leary then changed her name to Anderson, and the cover story was complete. Mother and child lived in the newly multicultural borough of Brixton until Walsh died and then they moved to Dublin when Mary was about 12.

After school, she got a job as a reporter on the Irish Independent, at a time when young women were beginning to make their presence felt in the nation’s newsrooms. Journalists dominated the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement: Nell McCafferty and Mary Maher worked at The Irish Times, Mary Anderson and Mary McCutcheon at the Irish Independent, Mary Kenny at the Irish Press and Nuala Fennell was a freelance. Máirín de Burca would later join the Sunday Tribune.

The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement only survived a year, but it scored some noticeable victories. The May 1971 Contraceptive Train protest, in which 47 women went to Belfast to buy contraceptives which were illegal in the Republic, and flaunted them in the face of customs officials on their return, went around the world.

But the aims went wider and deeper. Irish women were disadvantaged in law in many ways. They were paid less, and had to resign from State jobs on marriage. Three campaigners were invited to put their case to a group of students. They decided to make brief initial statements before going into the detailed case against discrimination against women. Anderson went first. “I’m a bastard,” she announced. McCafferty was next: “I’m a lesbian,” followed by historian Margaret MacCurtain who said: “I’m a nun.” The students were instantly won over.

Women on juries

Anderson and de Burca were arrested outside the Dáil in August 1971 after a march against the Prohibition of Forcible Entry and Occupation Bill. Essentially they were protesting against legislation to deal with housing protests and squatting. They were charged with using threatening and abusive language and with obstructing police. The women’s barrister, Mary Robinson, took proceedings in the High Court. She argued that they could not receive a fair trial as their case would not be heard in front of a panel of their peers, due to the absence of female jurors. Robinson also argued that the jury would be composed only of men who owned property. Few women did then, a married woman’s home was held in the name of her husband. They won on appeal and the law was changed.

And a wrong close to Anderson’s heart would be remedied in the 1980s, when her friend Nuala Fennell, by then junior minister for justice, abolished the status of illegitimacy, ensuring that each child was equal in the eyes of the law.

But by then Anderson was living in the United States. After her mother died she joined a touring theatre troupe which insisted she took a stage name. Instead she took her mother’s surname and added to it, and became known as Emerald O’Leary. For a woman who preferred women to men, and neither married nor had children, the bohemian San Francisco area was a magnet. She settled there, immersing herself in the life of her church and the arts and befriending many who loved her dearly.

“She was flamboyant, carefree, caring, and cheerful,” said her lifelong friend Nell McCafferty. Her poetry was direct. “There’s only line in this poem that matters Paul – We are the ones that love you”, she wrote for a friend who needed a hug. She wrote about and prayed for forgiveness – forgiveness for all, including the father who had abandoned his baby daughter and her mother all those years ago.


Mary Anderson aka Emerald O’Leary: September 8th, 1947-December 19th, 2016