Born: December 28th, 1931
Died: September 23rd, 2021
Mervyn Taylor was the first member of the Jewish faith to attain full ministerial rank in Irish politics. While he did not trade on his faith politically, it defined his values and propelled him to champion policies that promoted equality.
His success in this regard is his defining legacy. But since his death – at home, aged 89 and surrounded by his family – he has also been remembered, widely across the political scene, as a modest, unassuming, empathetic and kind-hearted man who never sought to gain personally from his years in public office.
As the first and only minister for equality and law reform from 1993 to 1997, in coalition governments led by, respectively, Albert Reynolds and John Bruton, he reduced the opportunities for discrimination by piloting employment equality and equal status legislation through the Oireachtas.
In 1995, he led government efforts to remove from the Constitution the prohibition on divorce. The referendum deleting the ban, thus allowing the Oireachtas legislate for marital break-up, allowing people to move on with their lives, was passed by a margin of just 0.5 per cent of votes cast.
Mervyn Taylor was born in Dublin and spent most of his childhood years growing up in Leinster Square in Rathmines. His only sibling, an elder sister named Gertie, had been born in 1926.
Their parents, Abel Taylor and Miriam Taylor (née Copperman), both had strong family connections to Poland.
Abel Taylor’s birth name was Abel Chaiet – chaiet being the Hebrew word for a tailor. Abel’s father was a tailor, as had been his father before him, and so the family had been named according to the traditional occupation of its main breadwinner, a common practice among Ashkenazi Jews.
The Chaiet’s home was a shtetl (yiddish for small town or village) named Janow, near Bialystok in eastern Poland. Abel was one of four children. An elder sister and brother migrated to England in the early years of the 20th century and, around 1920, Abel’s father, Tzvi Aryeh Chaiet, said there was no future for him in Poland and that he – the boy – should join his siblings in England.
And so Tzvi took off his coat and gave it to his son for his journey, it being the only thing he had to give him. The young Abel, then in his mid-teens, walked westwards with a cousin, moving between Jewish communities across Poland, Germany and the Netherlands.
The journey took 18 months, the boys walking, hitching lifts on horse and carts or, by working on farms, occasionally saving enough money to pay for a train ticket.
Abel eventually got a boat to England and settled in Leeds. His cousin, Abi, went to Paris where he married and had a family that managed to survive the coming war.
Abel’s other sister, Leitzi, remained in Poland, married and had six children there but she, her husband and all their offspring were murdered in the Holocaust, as was Abel’s mother (Mervyn’s paternal grandmother), Feige.
Mervyn Taylor’s mother, Miriam Copperman, came from Plotz, a large town not far from Warsaw. The Copperman family were in the copper business, making kitchen utensils but Miriam Copperman’s father, Jacob Gershon Copperman, broke with family tradition, trained as a rabbi and worked in tailoring.
Jacob Copperman, who was not wealthy, also left Poland for Leeds – “at that time, the conditions for Jews in Poland would not have been great”, Mervyn Taylor wrote in a family memoir, in characteristically understated fashion. Jacob saved money in England and eventually sent for his wife, Sara, to join him followed by their children, each one at a time.
Miriam was eight when she made the journey from Poland to England, moving with another migrating family. She travelled on a Russian passport because much of contemporary Poland was then part of the Russian Empire. The Taylor family still have the document.
Abel and Miriam met in Leeds, probably as members of the wider Jewish community and as fellow migrants from eastern Europe, and they married. Both had found work in the rag trade – he as a tailor, she as a seamstress. She had no formal education but, a strong-willed and determined woman, she taught herself how to read, write and play the piano.
Miriam’s brother, Avram Copperman, had left Leeds for Dublin and sent word back that there were good prospects in the Irish city. With this recommendation, Abel and Miriam moved to Ireland around 1922-1923.
“In Ireland,” Mervyn wrote in his memoir, “my father began using the name Taylor – he changed it by deed poll after he’d been in Ireland for some years . . . My mother never changed her name – she was known as Mrs Chaiet all her life.”
In business terms, Miriam was the driving force in the marriage but both partners worked hard. Each ran clothes shops (hers was on Mary Street, Abel’s on Talbot Street) while Abel also ran a small clothing factory for a time.
This was the context of Mervyn Taylor’s childhood and youth, the family history and life events that formed his outlook – hard-working, enterprising parents who had fled meagre circumstances and persecution for the safety of England and Ireland, only to witness at a distance the genocide of those left behind.
In Dublin, the young Taylor attended Zion National School, a Jewish primary school in Bloomfield Avenue off the South Circular Road (later incorporated into Stratford College in Rathgar) and also Wesley College (then on St Stephen’s Green).
At the age of just 15, he entered Trinity College to study law – largely at the behest of his mother who had determined that he would be a solicitor. Many of his fellow students were men of mature years, many of them former British soldiers unable to pursue third-level education in the UK because of post-war demand on places.
This made him very conscious of his comparative youth.
“The term started in October and the first exam was in December/January,” he wrote in his memoir. “I worked like a dog for that, day and night, because I was so conscious of my youth. The majority of the others . . . were men in their 30s.”
After graduation and the Law Society, Taylor apprenticed with Herman Good solicitors – his introduction to the legal world and also the world of Labour Party politics, Good having been a candidate for the party. While working with Good (where he was paid £5 a week), Taylor met Don Buchalter and, in 1954, the pair decided to set up their own general practice law firm – Taylor & Buchalter – which continues.
Now in his late 20s and unmarried, Taylor’s life changed for the better as a result of his sister and brother-in-law setting up an encounter. While on holiday, the pair had met a family from London, the Fishers, and decided that their daughter, Marilyn, was the perfect match for Mervyn.
They arranged for the Fishers to visit Dublin and engineered a meeting between Mervyn and Marilyn. It had the desired result: in 1960, they married – she was 20, he 29.
Marilyn’s father, Samuel Fisher, was a prominent member of the London-Jewish community and a British Labour Party councillor. He served as mayor of Stoke Newington, then mayor of Camden, before in his latter years being appointed Baron Fisher of Camden.
Under the influence of Marilyn (a London University economics graduate and latterly author of several books for young adults), politics assumed a prominent place in family discussions. As the Irish Labour Party became home to academics and intellectuals, including Conor Cruise O’Brien, Justin Keating and David Thornley, and evolved into a force for reform and progressive politics, Taylor was attracted to it.
In the 1970s, he was elected to Dublin County Council, representing Tallaght. He served as council chairman and, in 1981 at the third attempt, he was elected a Labour Party TD for the Dublin South-West constituency, holding the seat at every election until his retirement from politics in 1997.
At constituency level, he earned a reputation for unfussy hard work and, within the party, he began to rise to prominence.
He was variously party chairman and also Labour chief whip. He was minister for labour briefly in 1993 but his main achievements were as minister for equality and law reform in the 1993-1997 period, during which he also saw into law the Interpretation (Amendment) Act 1993 which provided for gender-inclusive language in all acts of the Oireachtas.
He set up a Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, which had a majority of members living with disability and their families.
“The report it produced was far-reaching and shone a light for the first time on the marginalisation that thousands of people with disabilities suffered,” his former Labour Party colleague and disability rights campaigner Fergus Finlay wrote this week in a tribute.
In retirement, Taylor engaged in legal consultancy with his old firm but he shied away from political retrospectives.
In an interview with The Irish Times in 1993, he identified his Judaism as the source of his empathy with minorities. “It comes from 2,000 years of history,” he said.
“For him,” says his son, Gideon Taylor, “nothing was about himself . . . It was always about the issue, never about him.
“His Judaism shaped his values. His experience as a Jew drove him to work to promote equality, particularly towards minorities and people who were treated differently, and also inclusion. He was a proud Irishman, a proud fighter for justice and a proud Jew. He never forgot from where he came.
“Above all else, he was a family man. His love for Mum and for all of us was boundless.”
That love and affection was returned in measure as, at a family virtual get-together last weekend to mourn and share memories, each of his eight grandchildren insisted on speaking and expressing their feelings for him.
Mervyn and Marilyn Taylor lived for almost their entire married life in an unpretentious house in Templeogue. Downtime with the children included holidays in Newport, Co Mayo, or messing about in a small boat on the Grand Canal at Robertstown or on Blessington lake.
Hobbies included bridge and poker. He was partial to a glass of whiskey.
On his death, President Michael D Higgins described Taylor as “one of the most gracious, unselfish and kindest members ever to serve in the Dáil”.
Ailing from cancer, Taylor was philosophical about his impending death and happy at the life he had led.
“I’m 89,” he said to his children. “I’ve had a wonderful life, a wonderful wife, wonderful children, wonderful grandchildren, wonderful friends and a wonderful career.”
He is survived by his wife Marilyn, his children Adam, Gideon and Maryanne, their partners Mikhal, Deborah and Jonathan, and his grandchildren, Hannah, Axel, Dana, Samuel, Ariella, Matan, Elinoa and Lielle. He was predeceased by his sister.