Mary Maher obituary: Trail-blazing journalist with a career marked by firsts

As women’s editor, her section ‘became a forum that would not otherwise have been there’

Mary Maher  in 2013. Photograph: Frank Miller

Mary Maher in 2013. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Mary Maher

Born: November 9th, 1940

Died: November 30th, 2021

Mary Maher’s idea of getting to work for a liberal Boston paper was to go to Dublin.

In the mid-1960s, she wanted to quit working at the right-wing Republican Chicago Tribune and was attracted by the Boston Globe (and the Kennedys). In her three years at the Tribune she had, however, escaped the “stultifying society desk” to work as a “real reporter” in the newsroom.

Partly because of a previous Ireland visit this Irish-American was advised,over lunch with an Irish diplomat,that a year at The Irish Times might provide invaluable experience for Boston.

A song her father and grandfather sang – “If they’d only give old Ireland to the Irish, that is my wish for the Irish!” – had helped make her “determined from an early age to get to Ireland”.

“I really didn’t mean to stay for over 50 years,” she said later of her detour to Dublin, where Irish Times news editor Donal Foley gave her three months’ probation, on £15 a week.

During 36 years of illustrious, often trail-blazing journalism this Irish Times star was left to assume that her probation was over.

Mary Maher in the late 1950s/early 1960s
Mary Maher in the late 1950s/early 1960s

“Her career has been marked by a number of firsts; records set and broken, glass-ceilings smashed by dint of hard work, determination, good humour and dedication to her union,” said National Union of Journalists’ Irish secretary Séamus Dooley in his 2014 citation of Maher as an NUJ Member of Honour.

In the early Irish Times days, she became the first women’s editor, in Ireland, of a section that refused to follow the norm of treating cooking, buying clothes and homemaking as the only concerns for women.

Originally suggested by Foley (in the pub), the idea of “Women First” was: “Why not a woman’s page with serious articles, scathing social attacks and biting satire and all that?”

‘Wrongs of women’

Maher described the task as combining “the real reporter bit with a concentrated focus on the wrongs of women, plus useful factual information for the women whose work happened to be running a home”. There were articles on censorship, slum property, the housing shortage, the class bias of education, exploitation of “factory girls”, women drivers (as often better than men) and ones challenging the unions to take up equal pay.

The other dailies followed suit within months, starting their own pages. Maher explained – rather modestly – that “when the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement burst upon us in 1969, the women’s pages became a forum that would not otherwise have been there”. She did not want to be remembered for that movement only, though she was a key founder-member. She joked about missing the famous Belfast “contraceptive train” – because she had just given birth.

The late author and dear friend Maeve Binchy, who succeeded Maher as women’s editor, recalled: “Mary Maher from Chicago had the great advantage of not knowing the sacred cows and by the time she did know, she had enough courage not to care about them.”

Former editor Conor Brady recalled how she “enlivened the news pages with her lyrical prose and sharp-eyed analysis of Irish social conditions”.

Insightful coverage

Recalling Maher’s insightful coverage of the Dublin Housing Action Committee and tenement life, Dooley quoted a veteran trade unionist: “Some of your crowd came up and had a look. Mary stayed and listened.” A fond memory of Maher’s was of listening to the late Belfast MP Gerry Fitt speaking from the back of a lorry.

Maher became the first Irish Times woman to return to work after marriage – to Des Geraghty, later president of Siptu – and the first to get paid maternity leave. She became the first ever “mother” of the chapel at the paper, held many senior union positions and was a long-time delegate to the Dublin Council of Trade Unions and to NUJ conferences in Britain.

When Maher retired as an assistant chief subeditor in 2001, she received a “knock-down”, then a noisy, exuberant, tribute traditionally reserved for male printers. Only her first editor, Douglas Gageby, had been so honoured.

Mary Maher on her retirement from The Irish Times in 2001. Photograph: Frank Miller
Mary Maher on her retirement from The Irish Times in 2001. Photograph: Frank Miller

Among many awards was one from the National Gay Federation “for above average journalism”. Another was an NUJ gold badge for her leadership during a turbulent time at the paper. In the 1980s, she broke the story of Garda Majella Moynihan’s pregnancy.

She became the first NUJ member appointed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal, in 2017 editing a book on its history. She served as deputy regulator of Reg Tel, the premium rate phone regulator – “my dirty phone calls gig”. She served on the Legal Aid Board, was a founder-member of the Clé Club and the Larkin Hedge School at Liberty Hall, Dublin.

Author and playwright

Maher was also an author and playwright. The Devil’s Card concerns a famous Chicago murder of 1889. She was a fourth generation Chicagoan whose forebears were involved in the Irish nationalist cause; she drew on that background for this semi-fictional 1992 work, praised by Kirkus Reviews, a prestigious US group.

In 1973 she wrote You and Your Baby (Lifestyle Ireland). She collaborated with her (separated) husband Geraghty on his 1994 book about their friend: Luke Kelly – A Memoir. She contributed to Rapunzel’s Revenge: Fairytales for Feminists (1985), to If Only (1997), short stories of love and divorce, and to True to Type (1991), an Irish Times tribute to colleague the Rev Stephen Hilliard, who was murdered.

1980: The Irish Times women journalists from left: Mary Maher, Geraldine Kennedy, Patsey Murphy, Ranagh Holohan and Christina Murphy. Photograph: Pat Langan
1980: The Irish Times women journalists from left: Mary Maher, Geraldine Kennedy, Patsey Murphy, Renagh Holohan and Christina Murphy. Photograph: Pat Langan

She wrote the introduction and several stories for Changing the Times (2003) by 15 Irish Times women, edited by Elgy Gillespie. Her plays included Desperadoes, about Dublin street children. With colleague Róisín Ingle, Maher collaborated on a posthumous book of Maeve Binchy stories.

Excelled academically

Born to Bonnie Burns and lawyer James Maher, she was basketball captain at school and excelled academically there and at Barat College. The Mahers hailed from Killenaule, Co Tipperary.

Dooley said Maher, inspired by Jim Larkin, “brought bread and roses, song and laughter” inspiring many in the wider trade union movement. In Left Lives in Twentieth Century Ireland Volume 4 – edited by Mags O’Brien (2021)– Dooley’s chapter celebrated her influential union role.

In dementia, however, she was barely aware of the Covid-19 pandemic and was cared for at Shannagh Bay nursing home in Bray. She died in hospital. Mary Genevieve Maher is survived by her daughters Maeve and Nóra, grandchildren Níon, Kit and Finn; her brother Jerome and sister Bonnie.