It may have been over half a century since she first graduated from the groves of academe but feminist and civil rights campaigner Nell McCafferty had lost none of her feistiness as she prepared to accept an honorary doctorate from University College Cork on Wednesday.
“I see where we are having a papal visit in 2018 – I saw the first one back in 1979. And this one looks like it will happen in the in the middle of an abortion referendum – you couldn’t make it up – isn’t life exciting?” she remarked drily as she surveyed the UCC quad bathed in autumnal sunshine.
Conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Literature for her “unparalleled contribution to Irish public life over many decades”, Ms McCafferty cast her mind back to a day in 1964 when, as a young working class woman from the Bogside in Derry, she graduated from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), with a BA.
“It’s memorable to me because my mother had had a hysterectomy two weeks before but in those innocent days in 1964, I didn’t know about women’s bodies but I was apprehensive because all my friends had professional parents – doctors, teachers – and I was worried my parents might not fit in.
“But my father went up to the bar like a champion and stood his round and the women were around my mother because she had a hysterectomy and they were all heading that way. It taught me about solidarity among woman but it’s an awful way to make a breakthrough – to have a hysterectomy.”
Cost of education
Comparing the anti-abortion activists in the 1980s to US presidential candidate Donal Trump, Ms McCafferty said that she was struck recently by a speech given by her contemporary at QUB in the 1960s, Bernadette Devlin about the cost of education today.
“I was struck by a speech by Bernadette who was at Queen’s with me and she remembered the halcyon days of free health, free education – I had a grant which equalled half my father’s wages after that tax – free health and free education and paid to study. Sure, you couldn’t beat it.
"That's all gone and now her granddaughter is going to university and expects a bill for £50,000 at the end of it . . . I say two things in my life - 'God Bless the British welfare state' and 'God Bless Charlie Haughey for the free travel' – but I was really shocked at what Bernadette said."
Joining Ms McCafferty in receiving an honorary doctorate from UCC president, Dr Michael Murphy, was director general of RTÉ Dee Forbes who became a Honorary Doctor of Literature for her "outstanding leadership" and support for her native west Cork.
Others to be honoured at today's ceremony were West Cork businessman Kieran Calnan and US technology marketing specialist Regis McKenna – dubbed "the Silicon Valley Svengali" by Newsweek – who both became Honorary Doctors of Economic Science.