Flickers of Markievicz? Four new women representing the West

Galway West had no female TD for decades until Connolly and Naughton’s success

When Máire Geoghegan-Quinn became the first woman to hold a Cabinet post since 1922, this newspaper recorded that the “tiresome comparisons with Countess Markievicz are way off beam”.

"For one thing, the new Minister for the Gaeltacht is younger than the stern countess who gazes out from Liberty Hall portraits, and she's certainly better looking,"the interview in June 1980, a few months after her appointment by Taoiseach Charles J Haughey, observed.

Three months before, this newspaper's Saturday Column had singled out the "attractive and articulate" 29-year-old Gaeltacht minister from Carna, and decided there was some hope for the Irish language after all. As if anticipating such value judgments, even from a socially liberal newspaper, Ms Geoghegan-Quinn had recounted how every now and then, "maybe after a television programme", someone would tell her they liked her dress.

“And you realise they haven’t really been listening to you at all, but watching you,”she said at the time, adding “I wonder would it be the same for a man?”

Three-and-a-half decades later, the “come ons” that one young, male candidate in Galway West experienced – as testified to this reporter – during the election campaign would suggest that beauty contests in Irish politics cross gender divides.

Home patch

Still, it took almost 20 years after Ms Geoghegan-Quinn’s departure from national politics for her home patch to return a woman again. Last weekend, Galway West returned two – former city mayors

Catherine Connolly

(Independent), who was originally a

Labour

councillor, and

Fine Gael

senator

Hildegarde Naughton

.

Across the constituency boundary, Fianna Fáíl's first-time Galway East candidate Anne Rabbitte also took a seat. Again, she was the first woman since Fine Gael's Bridget Hogan O'Higgins, who served five terms after her first election in 1957.

Over the county border, Mayo lost one woman – Fine Gael's Michelle Mulherin – and gained another in Fianna Fáil's Lisa Chambers – a first for the party in the south of the county since Beverly Flynn.

Only one of the four new west coast women is a gender quota candidate – Anne Rabbitte – but she admits to being a bit annoyed about that.

"I was gutted actually," Ms Rabbitte (45), a financial analyst and mother of three living in Portumna says. "I would far prefer to have gone before the convention delegates, because you are only as strong as the strength of your grassroots support."

Though her late father was Fianna Fáíl, Ms Rabbitte is not from the “born to the trade” background of rural TDs, and only joined the party after she attended a public meeting hosted by it on crime. Within a nine-year period, she had lost both her parents, and her husband, and had her 19th century Victorian house broken into.

“They took up the staircase, spindle by spindle, and broke 32 panes of glass, and the damage amounted to €40,000,”she says. “I became a woman possessed for a while, until a very good friend told me I had three beautiful young kids and this should not be my fight.”

Rapturous applause

She sat in the back of the room at the

Fianna Fáil

public meeting, and when she spoke – about youth, drink licensing and the responsibility of parents – she got a rapturous round of applause. Limerick TD

Niall Collins

approached her. “I said my name is Anne Rabbitte, and you’ll hear more of me . . . and it was like a flick of a switch and I had my mind made up,” she says.

She became a county councillor just 18 months ago, and decided to put herself forward for the general election when she knew the highly respected TD Micheál Kitt wasn't running. Her mother-in-law May Callan from Dunleer, Co Louth,and her sister Breda Devine from Drogheda were among a strong team behind her.

Ms Rabbitte says that the impact of flooding and the lack of broadband came up constantly on doorsteps, while the situation of children with special needs was an issue that women raised with her in particular. Older voters were “insulted” by the €3 increase in the State pension.

Repealing the Eighth amendment was not a priority in her areas, she says, but she recognises that there is “need to address the issue”. She points out that she is not in favour of abortion, which “almost pigeonholes me immediately”, but believes there is much merit in a serious discussion.

Fellow party member Lisa Chambers (29), newly elected in Mayo, is cautious about her stated support for repealing the Eighth Amendment.

“It depends what is there to replace it, and I don’t think that as a country there is support for the system in place in Britain,” the barrister and former councillor says.

“There is a feeling that there should be services for women caught in extreme medical situations, and I wouldn’t be opposed to a referendum, but my concern is that the debate is already venomous, with two opposing voices and no one taking the middle ground.”

Distant relative

Ms Chambers is a distant relative of former Fianna Fáil senator

Frank Chambers

who sang

The West’s Awake

after her election, and to

Jack Chambers

, the newly elected 25-year old deputy for Dublin West. Frank Chambers’s daughter is also called Lisa, and was involved in advising Renua during its foundation. “I was in the Army reserve and a friend asked me to go to a Fianna Fáil meeting,” Ms Chambers says. “I joined seven years ago, and ran in the 2011 general election and am chair of the local cumann.”

Nothing, she says, could replace face-to-face canvassing. She says issues which came up included lack of broadband, which is perceived as a serious obstacle to job creation in the region, along with the state of the health services and childcare.

She notes that childcare costs were raised by both men and women – “it’s a family issue”.

Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton (39) concurs, and says childcare came up repeatedly – as did broadband – on doorsteps in the city. The classically trained soprano and primary teacher – who topped the poll in an unofficial election which her school, St Patrick’s Boys NS, ran last week – first stood for her party in Galway West in the 2011 general election.

She drew the ire of colleagues, and respect in other quarters, when she spoke out about councillors doing the bidding of a "hidden elite" who had been "pulling strings for the last 20 years". She was nominated to the Seanad not long after two party colleagues, city TD Brian Walsh and Senator Fidelma Healy Eames – were expelled in 2013 for opposing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. After her election last weekend, she admitted she wasn't initially in favour of the gender quota, but then recognised that women "need the leg up".

She played down claims that her party running mates were not overly supportive of her – sitting TD Seán Kyne had publicly rebuked her just days before the vote for criticising the lack of emergency beds for University Hospital Galway.

Naughton prioritises issues like job creation, regional investment, the new harbour development and transfer of University Hospital Galway to Merlin Park. On the Eighth Amendment, she believes there is a need for an "honest and open debate", and says it is "not black and white".

Assuming the mantle

Some seasoned observers have said that of the four new women from the west, Independent candidate Catherine Connolly (60) is probably closest to assuming the mantle of

Constance Markievicz

.

She made it clear after her election that she had no regrets about leaving the Labour Party, which she quit in 2006 after party headquarters failed to approve her as a running mate for Michael D Higgins.

Ms Connolly is "sick and tired" of being told Independents don't matter, and believes the crisis in health and housing is "manufactured" and completely unacceptable. The mother of two supports repealing the Eighth amendment, but says it one of a list of issues for her, including provision of integrated public transport, clean water as a human right, and an end to the use of Irish airports and airspace by foreign military. Coming from the Claddagh, she is passionate about the city environment, opposes the new harbour plan and the proposed bypass.

Having lost out by just 17 votes in 2011, Connolly received a strong preference vote and transfers from almost every candidate in both city and county. As a fluent Irish speaker, she featured in boxes in Connemara. Afterwards, she cycled home from the NUI Galway count centre on her bicycle, promising that she might get a second "rothar" for Dublin.

Countess Markievicz used a similar mode of transport, sporting a black bonnet with cherries. Her advice to other women back then might come in handy for dealing with that rare species, the undiplomatic male reporter: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver...”