Padraigín Ní Mhurchú obituary: Formidable workers’ representative

Setting standards and challenging assumptions became the hallmark of Ní Mhurchú’s life

 Padraigín Ní Mhurchú: Stood up for the rights of the ordinary person.

Padraigín Ní Mhurchú: Stood up for the rights of the ordinary person.

 

Padraigín Ní Mhurchú

Born: February 20th, 1949

Died: June 4th, 2019

Padraigín Ní Mhurchú was born into a Monaghan farming family in 1949. She started her formal education in a one-room country school for boys and girls at Rakeeragh, Monaghan, moving to complete her primary education at St Louis Girls’ National School, Monaghan and her second level as a boarder at St Louis secondary school in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan.

Her brother Eamonn recalls a key and perhaps critical quality, “she always stepped out to make a difference in her world as she found it…a woman who was an action-taking realist, selective about her interventions”.

A colleague from within the trade union movement, Séamus Dooley, later recalled the impact of her well-honed interventions in her 30 years at the Labour Court as a formidable, often daunting, worker representative: “Forensic in her questioning, mainly of the employer side but woe betide a union official who appeared before her without homework done. She set exacting standards for herself, and for everyone else”.

Setting standards and challenging assumptions became the hallmark of her life. In 1967 she had joined the civil service as an executive officer with the Revenue Commissioners. By 1970 she had been elected local representative for the Civil Service Executive Union, and in 1972 to its executive committee.

In the mid-1970s she moved from the civil service to a full-time position as assistant branch secretary, later appointed as branch secretary, with the Workers Union of Ireland (WUI). Throughout the 1970s, she served as an active member of the Women’s’ Advisory Committee of Congress. In this role she became known to the officers of the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU).

The IWWU had been established in 1911 at a time of significant upheaval in industrial relations across these islands. At its peak membership in the late 1950s, the IWWU organised more than 7,000 working women across Dublin, Waterford, Navan and Drogheda. At the final executive meeting of 1980, it was agreed that Ní Mhurchú be appointed deputy general secretary. She was a direct and immensely capable woman, devoid of arrogance and, as former colleagues and friends will attest, a woman with a ferocious appetite for a smoke.

New territories

Ní Mhurchú became the general secretary of the IWWU in 1984 . The question of finance and declining membership prompted the development of a strategy to harness the energies of an emerging modern and often highly individualised workers, women outside the orthodox workforce the IWWU had historically organised.

Ní Mhurchú was instrumental in charting new territories, including the proposed and controversial move to organise part-time workers. The need to reassess the 1970s legislative protections for equality became self evident as the positions of women in printing, laundries, the retail sector, catering, cleaning and at all levels became precarious and left families vulnerable.

This small, all-women trade union could no longer serve the industrial needs of its members, even as the numbers of women in the paid workforce increased. In negotiations led by Ní Mhurchú, the union’s last general secretary, the precise terms and objectives of the IWWU were framed, and it was proposed to the members that the Irish Women Workers’ Union amalgamate with the Federated Workers’ Union of Ireland, led by Billy Attley. In 1985 the proposal was passed unanimously.

Ní Mhurchú served this unique trade union for just under five years, a relatively minor indicator in a working life of almost 50 years. And yet, she left her mark in this very public arena. She became a member of the board of management of the non-denominational school attended by her children, and to keep promises made to Ruth and Eoghan that if she said she would be at school plays, she would deliver – with a wave from the back pew to let them know that she had landed.

Studied law

Ní Mhurchú was subsequently nominated by the ICTU to serve as a worker representative of the Labour Court, the first woman to do so, in 1984. In 1992, while serving at the court, she studied law in Trinity College and was nearing the final year of her degree when she suffered a major brain haemorrhage and stroke. She was hospitalised for more than a year.

In 1993 she returned to work at the court and, in stages and with considered persistence, recovered a modicum of the liberty which had been so swiftly plucked from her. She was an honest woman who stood up for the rights of the ordinary person. She remained at the court, on her own terms, until her retirement in 2014.

Ní Mhurchú is survived by her children, Eoghan and Ruth, by her brother Eamonn Murphy, by her former spouse and loyal friend, John McAdam, by her many colleagues and by her devoted, lifetime companions.

Ba dhuine uasal ionraic í a sheas ar son cearta an ghnáth duine in a cuid breithiúnais, aireoidh muid uainn go mór í.