Obituary: Dr Moira Woods

Doctor, feminist and social campaigner who set up Europe’s first dedicated sexual assault treatment unit

Born: September 6th, 1934

Died: March 27th, 2023

The pioneering doctor, feminist and social campaigner Dr Moira Woods, who has died aged 89, was the medical director of Ireland’s first sexual assault treatment unit in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin. She also worked in the Dublin Well Woman Centre and was co-director of the Irish Family Planning Association, giving women access to contraceptives at a time when many family doctors were unwilling to prescribe them.

When the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre was set up in 1979, Dr Woods was the doctor to whom many victims were sent. She was also involved in Children at Risk in Ireland, a treatment centre for abused children. In 1980, she opened Ireland’s first menopause clinic and wrote about the post-coital (morning after) contraceptive pill in 1982.


A co-founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Ireland in the 1960s, Dr Woods also campaigned against the Vietnam War, and with the Dublin Housing Action Committee for better public housing for Dublin’s poor.

She was prominent in the movement against the constitutional amendment of 1983 which gave the foetus equal rights to the mother. In 1992, she was the doctor who cared for the 14-year-old female rape victim in the X case, which led to the landmark Irish Supreme Court case establishing the right of to an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk.

However, arguably Dr Woods’s most important work was at the sexual assault treatment unit at the Rotunda Hospital, where from 1985 until the mid-1990s she saw more than 900 children, protecting many of them from further abuse. The unit, which was originally set up to support adult women who were sexually abused, became a place where teachers, social workers and parents brought children to be assessed at a time when sexual abuse was a shameful secret in Irish society.

Radical and well informed, she was fearless in her engagement with authority

“At a time when the medical profession in general was terribly closed and hostile to anything liberal, or even to acknowledge that rape and sexual abuse existed, she was very supportive and a real leader,” said one former colleague in a newspaper article about Dr Woods in 2002.

Susan McKay, Press Ombudsman, author and early member of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, described Dr Woods as a radical free thinker. “In the 1970s and 1980s, she provided medical services to women in areas that people weren’t allowed to talk about. She also treated women suffering from depression who had been forced to give up their babies for adoption, which she believed was much more traumatic than permitting abortion,” said McKay.

In 1997, Dr Woods was subjected to a Medical Council Fitness to Practice Committee inquiry, following allegations of professional misconduct in relation to her diagnosis of sexual abuse of children in five families in the 1980s.

The inquiry, which continued for five years – becoming the longest fitness to practice inquiry in the history of the Medical Council – found her guilty regarding her diagnoses in three families, but not in two others. She was not struck off the medical register, but was advised to work in multi-disciplinary teams in the future.

She took sabbatical leave and thereafter moved to live in Italy for the next 26 years. She never appealed the verdict or spoke publicly about it, but many of her colleagues felt she was unfairly judged. “The Medical Council did not find that any of the children considered had not been sexually abused,” said one colleague at the time.

During and after the inquiry, Dr Woods was subjected to vicious personal harassment. Friends from her days at the Women’s Liberation Movement felt that Dr Woods had been targeted by conservatives due to her campaigning work. “She had fought for contraception, against rape and child abuse, for a woman’s right to choose,” said Mairin De Burca, a feminist and friend.

The former senator and medical doctor Dr Mary Henry, who knew Dr Woods well both professionally and personally, said she was very courageous in her work on women’s health and the sexual abuse of children. “She was also a wonderful mother,” she said.

At a time when the medical profession in general was terribly closed and hostile to anything liberal, or even to acknowledge that rape and sexual abuse existed, she was very supportive and a real leader

Kathleen Cecilia Moira Fann was born in London, the eldest of three children of Kathleen (née Brennan) and John Fann, a British colonial civil servant. One of her earliest memories was being evacuated to Australia when the Japanese attacked Burma where her father was stationed. She remained in Australia with her mother and siblings for three years until the war ended and they could return to England. After the war, when her father was re-stationed in Burma, she attended schools in the UK, staying with a family in rural Wales during the holidays.

She excelled academically at school, but her defiance against rules resulted in her being expelled from her second boarding school and put on a plane to Kenya, where her father was then employed.

At the age of 15, while in school in Kenya, she applied to various universities. She matriculated for Oxford but chose to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) instead, because they took undergraduates at the age of 16.

While at TCD, she won medals for psychiatry and surgery and the hospital prize for medicine. She married a fellow student, Roger Hackett, on her 21st birthday; the couple had two children, Penny and Denis. When that marriage broke down a few years later, she worked as a GP in Leicester before returning to become a lecturer in the Department of Physiology at TCD.

Back in Dublin, she began a relationship with her former lecturer, the ear, nose and throat surgeon Robert (Bobby) Woods. Despite both of them having previous marriages, they wed in 1965 and lived on Ailesbury Road in Dublin 4 with their four children Christopher, Catherine, Timothy and Benjamin.

Wanting to spend more time with her children, Dr Woods completed the Higher Diploma in Education and briefly taught at Muckross Park College. She also lectured in physiology at UCD, and wrote medical articles for newspapers and women’s magazines. During these years, she was heavily involved with the Irish Peace Movement, the Irish Voice on Vietnam, the Dublin Housing Action Committee and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Radical and well-informed, she was fearless in her engagement with authority, and personally requested Irish bishops to condemn the American bombing in Vietnam. For one demonstration, wearing a judge’s robes and a wig, she conducted a mock trial of the then US president, Richard Nixon, from the back of a lorry on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. During the early years of The Troubles, when the IRA was tarring and feathering young women for going out with British soldiers, she shaved her head as a gesture of solidarity with the women.

In the 1970s and 1980s, she provided medical services to women in areas that people weren’t allowed to talk about

The Woods family home was always teeming with children and an open house to friends from medicine, law, the media, arts and politics. Moira, who was an excellent cook and generous host, thrived on the intellectual excitement of radical debate.

She was bereft following the death of her husband Bobby from cancer in 1971. Yet, she remained energised by her campaigning activities. Some time later, she began a 20-year relationship with Cathal Goulding, the former chief of staff of the Official IRA, with whom she had two children, Aodghán and Banbán.

By the early 1990s, her relationship with Goulding had broken down and her work at the Rotunda had become exhausting so she sold her Dublin home and moved to Tuscany.

“This became the new place where dinner parties went on late into the night and where her grandchildren were brought in the summer holidays, where Moira made dozens of new friends,” says her son, Christopher Woods. In Italy, she also met the Italian-American Guido Ceen, with whom she lived for 20 years.

She returned to Ireland in 2021 after a fall, determined to get walking again and back to Italy. However, that wasn’t to be; instead she spent the final year of her life in a nursing home in Dublin.

Moira Woods (née Fann and formerly Hackett) is survived by her children, Penny, Denis, Christopher, Catherine, Timothy, Benjamin, Aodghán and Banbán, 12 grandchildren and her sister Bridget. She was pre-deceased by her husband, Bobby Woods, her partners Cathal Goulding and Guido Ceen, and her brother Michael.