Tributes paid to pioneering journalist Mary Maher who has died aged 81

Trade unionist and feminist activist spent 36 years with The Irish Times

Mary Maher was the first women’s editor at The Irish Times

Tributes have been paid to the the journalist, trade unionist and feminist activist Mary Maher, who has died at the age of 81.

At The Irish Times, where she worked for 36 years, she became the first women’s editor shortly after joining the newsroom in 1965.

Her pages differed from what was the norm at the time, and instead carried articles on housing slums, corporal punishment and equal pay. Other daily newspapers followed suit with similar pages.

She explained 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 founding member. She joked about missing the famous Belfast "contraceptive train" because she had just given birth.

Ms Maher became the first female Irish Times staff member to return to work after marriage and the first to get paid maternity leave.

She became the first ever “mother” of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) 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 she 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 previously been so honoured.

Leading tributes to Ms Maher, President Michael D Higgins said there will be many people who will have been “deeply saddened” by her death.

“A passionate feminist and trade unionist, Mary was a true trailblazer, role model and inspiration,” he said. “Her importance as an activist in the public area was accompanied by a professional commitment in journalism that broke so many ceilings, all of which advanced the causes that affected women’s lives.”

Irish Times editor Paul O’Neill said she was among the last of an extraordinary first generation of women journalists who changed the newspaper and Irish journalism and contributed enormously to changing society.

“It was striking how her achievements and reputation rested so lightly on her shoulders,” he said, “And how, in a bustling and sometimes unforgiving work environment, her voice was one of reassurance, mixing wisdom, experience, perspective and – always – good humour.”

He added: “She gave her time generously and will be sadly missed - but also fondly remembered - by all of us who benefited from her insight and encouragement.”

Conor Brady, who was editor of The Irish Times for much of Ms Maher’s career, said she was one of the most inspired and inspiring women journalists at the newspaper from the mid-1960s through to the end of the century.

“She was a brilliant reporter and writer, with a capacity to capture the essence of her subjects in language that was clear, crisp, strong and powerful.

She was passionate about issues - injustice, discrimination, official or political failure or neglect. And she did not simply fill her own writing with her passion. She transmitted that passion to others as well, inspiring them and encouraging them,” he said.

“She embodied everything a good journalist should be: honest, accurate, courageous, fair, compassionate and always willing to acknowledge the limitations of a craft carried on under the constant pressures of time.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the NUJ, described Ms Maher as "an inspirational figure who blazed a trail by putting equality at the heart of the union's industrial agenda".

“Mary Maher was an NUJ member of honour, a role model for women and a passionate believer in the power of well organised, disciplined chapels. She will be missed for her hard work, her dedication and for her good humour,” she added.

Séamus Dooley, assistant general secretary at the NUJ, said Ms Maher was “a mould breaker who made a sustained contribution to the struggle for equality and social change”.

Rosita Sweetman, a friend of Ms Maher who worked alongside her in the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, said she was "key" to the success of the organisation.

“Because she was American, she had a different mindset. She didn’t care as much about what people said or thought about her. She was very influential as a writer and in her presence,” said Ms Sweetman. “She was really feisty and honest. Whatever she felt, she said it; she didn’t beat around the bush. She was so strongly feminist.”

Máirín de Burca, another key member of the movement, said its very first meeting took place in Ms Maher’s home. “She was there from the very beginning. Without her, perhaps it wouldn’t have got going as quickly and as painlessly as it did. She was a stalwart member who was always there,” she said.

Ms de Burca also paid tribute to Ms Maher’s “staunch trade unionism” which arrived at a time “when it was needed most”.

“She was also a very good friend. An all round decent person who would do anything to help you,” she added.

Ms Maher was born on November 9th, 1940, into an Irish-American family in Chicago. The Mahers hailed from Killenaule, in Co Tipperary.

She was being cared for at Shannagh Bay nursing home in Bray, Co Wicklow. She died at St Vincent's hospital in Dublin on Tuesday morning.

She is survived by her daughters Maeve and Nóra, grandchildren Níon, Kit and Finn, her brother Jerome and her sister Bonnie.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times