What were you doing when you were 15? I watched Top of the Pops and ate Wibbly Wobbly Wonders. Máirín Johnston, meanwhile, was being fired from a shirt factory for trying to join a union.
The Freedoms teenager will dedicate her life to fighting for workers’ rights and improving the lives of women and their families. Now 90, she has yet to put away her signs. Her story, and the stories of nine other women who fought for workers’ rights, social justice and equality, are told in the recently published fourth volume of Left Lives in Twentieth Century Ireland – Women. And what stories they tell. Over a span of 135 years, women have led the way in campaigning for the right to vote, workers’ rights and basic human rights for all.
Seen through the lens of 2021, the contraceptive train could look like a picturesque waterfall
The book, edited by Mags O’Brien, aims to ensure that the work of these women will never be forgotten, but some of them are hardly remembered in the first place, as Charles Callan notes in his chapter on Helen Chenevix. Suffragist and union activist, 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 seems they left a similar lasting impression on those who met them.
The book chronicles Chenevix’s quiet power when she calmed a stormy Irish Trade Union Congress meeting. She had proposed a resolution seeking world peace. You would think delegates would have no problem with such a valid resolution, but all hell broke loose when some delegates claimed it was a Communist resolution.
Chenevix, “a small, frail, gentle, gray-haired figure” stood up to speak. She started out almost in a whisper, but the uproar started to subside and when she finished her speech, she received a storm of applause. Its resolution was adopted unanimously.
Meanwhile, Mary McAuliffe tells the story of Margaret Skinnider who fought during the Easter Rising and was injured by a sniper. When subsequently refused a military pension, he was told that the relevant law governing the pension applied to “soldiers as they are generally understood in the masculine sense”.
Of course, no book on women activists would be complete without reference to the contraceptive train and more than one of the profiled women played 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 arrested by customs officers upon their return to Dublin. A RTÉ microphone recorded her defiantly telling a customs officer who inquired about her contraband that it was her contraceptive jelly “and you don’t get it”.
The women later admitted that they were ill-prepared for the trip because they didn’t realize they would need prescriptions to buy the birth control pill. Discovering this setback, they bought other contraceptive accessories instead. And Nell McCafferty had the ingenious idea of buying some aspirin and taking it out of its box, because customs officials wouldn’t know what the pill looked like.
One of the event’s architects, Mary Maher, was happy to tell people her very good excuse for not making the trip. She was busy giving birth to her daughter, as Séamus Dooley points out in his chapter on the journalist and trade unionist.
Seen through the lens of 2021, the contraceptive train might look like an odd shot, so it’s easy to forget that women faced the real threat of prison, not to mention public stigma. Johnston told BBC Radio 4’s In Living Memory show that she was absolutely terrified: “I could see myself pregnant, two young children at home, ending up in a cell in Mountjoy and I didn’t like it at all. . “
Mary Kenny, who appeared to be one of the most enthusiastic activists of all, told the same show that she had to bite the bullet to go through with it because she knew her mother would hate him. “And indeed she did, of course, and there was a lot of coldness in the family for a while after that and a lot of ordinary Irish women didn’t like that and they thought that it was a very crass thing to do. “
McCafferty especially remembers the desperate boredom of waiting in Belfast for the return train after the visit to the pharmacy. “I made them walk down the same street… trying to entertain them,” she told the BBC show. “There were four or five hours left. We should have organized a train earlier, ”she said regretfully.
So, like war, being on the contraceptive train involved long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. But in this particular battle, women were on the winning side.