Ten trailblazing Irish women who made a difference

An Irishwoman’s Diary

What were you doing when you were 15? I was watching Top of the Pops and eating Wibbly Wobbly Wonders. Máirín Johnston, on the other hand, was getting sacked from a shirt factory for trying to join a trade union.

The Liberties teenager would go on to dedicate her life to fighting for the rights of workers and improve the lives of women and their families. Now 90, she hasn't packed away her placards just yet. Her story, and the stories of nine other women who fought for workers' rights, social justice and equality, are told in the fourth volume of Left Lives in Twentieth Century Ireland – Women, just published. And what stories they tell. Over a period of 135 years, the women blazed a trail in campaigning for voting rights, workers' rights, and basic human rights for all.

Viewed through the prism of 2021, the contraceptive train might look like a quaint stunt

The book, edited by Mags O'Brien, aims to ensure the work of these women will never be forgotten, but some of them are barely remembered in the first place, as Charles Callan notes in his chapter on Helen Chenevix. The suffragette and trade union activist, who was born in 1886, opens the book, and journalist Lyra McKee, born more than a century later, closes it. More than 100 years may separate the two women, but it appears they left a similar lasting impression on those who met them.

The book tells of Chenevix's quiet power when she calmed a stormy meeting of the Irish Trade Union Congress. She had proposed a resolution seeking world peace. You would think delegates would have no issue with such a worthy resolution, but all hell broke loose when some delegates claimed it was a communist resolution.

Chenevix, “a frail, gentle, grey-haired tiny figure” rose to speak. She began almost in a whisper, but the uproar started to die down and when she ended her speech, she received a storm of applause. Her resolution was passed unanimously.

Meanwhile, Mary McAuliffe tells the story of Margaret Skinnider who fought in the Easter Rising and was wounded by a sniper. When she was later refused a military pension, she was told that the relevant Act governing the pension was applicable to "soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense".

Of course, no book about female activists would be complete without reference to the contraceptive train and more than one of the women profiled had a role in this event. Some 47 women took the train from Dublin to Belfast in May 1971 to purchase contraceptives, which were not legally available in the Republic. Máirín Johnston was pregnant at the time and was one of the first women stopped by customs officials on their return to Dublin. An RTÉ microphone recorded her defiantly telling a customs officer who enquired about her contraband that it was her contraceptive jelly "and you are not getting it".

The women later admitted that they were ill-prepared for the trip as they didn’t realise that they would need prescriptions to buy the contraceptive pill. On discovering this setback, they bought other contraceptive paraphernalia instead. And Nell McCafferty hit on the ingenious idea of buying aspirin and removing it from its box, because customs officers wouldn’t know what the pill looked like.

One of the architects of the event, Mary Maher, delighted in telling people her very good excuse for not making the trip. She was busy giving birth to her daughter, as Séamus Dooley outlines in his chapter on the journalist and trade unionist.

Viewed through the prism of 2021, the contraceptive train might look like a quaint stunt, so it is easy to forget that the women faced the real threat of prison, not to mention public opprobrium. Johnston told BBC Radio 4’s In Living Memory show that she was absolutely terrified: “I could see myself pregnant, two small children at home, ending up in a cell in Mountjoy and I didn’t like it one little bit.”

Mary Kenny, who appeared to be one of the most gung-ho of all the campaigners, told the same show she had to grit her teeth to go through with it because she knew that her mother would hate it. "And indeed she did, to be sure, and there was a lot of froideur within the family for some time after that and a lot of ordinary Irish women didn't like it and they thought it was a very rude thing to do."

McCafferty mostly remembers the desperate boredom of waiting around in Belfast for the return train after the visit to the pharmacy. “I marched them up and down the one street…trying to entertain them,” she told the BBC programme. “There was four or five hours to go. We should have organised an earlier train,” she said ruefully.

So, just like war, being on the contraceptive train involved long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. But in this particular battle, the women were on the winning side.