Ann and Katherine say it loud

Ann Louise Gilligan is a former nun, her partner Katherine is a Washington-born academic -- and together they brought a case of same-sex recognition to the High Court. Ciara Dwyer meets the fun-loving lesbian theologians who are living life to the full

COMMON GOOD: Ann Louise Gilligan, left, and Katherine Zappone decided to spend their lives together six weeks after they first met

EVERY morning in their Brittas home beyond Tallaght, Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone take turns bringing up breakfast to each other in bed. On Sundays they have pancakes.

They work hard during the week -- Ann Louise in the department of education in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, and Katherine in her policy consultancy work. They go hill walking with a group called the Bootleggers and are in a wine club. At the back of their house there is a building called The Muse, where they hold courses and have quiet Fridays.

The Muse links with An Cosan, a community education centre in West Tallaght, which they dreamt up years ago. Its aim was to give people skills and get them off welfare. An Cosan now employs 70 people.

Ann Louise and Katherine decided on this endeavour when they first met and fell in love with each other in Boston College in 1981, where they were doing their doctorates in theology. Dubliner Ann Louise was an ex-nun and Washington-born Katherine was already a lesbian and all set on an academic career.

"We decided that we wanted to do something for people with far less than we had," says Ann Louise. "It was just as simple as that."

"Our desire for each other is matched by our shared desire for common good," says Katherine. "Imagine creating something like An Cosan together with the community. You really feel like you're bringing about some change for the good. Why wouldn't you want to do it?"

Because you are tired after your day's work and you could just relax and watch EastEnders instead, I tell them.

In her 50s now, Ann Louise tells me that she was raised in an era where everyone had time to do things for others. She was in The Samaritans and The St Vincent de Paul.

"An Cosan brings us out of ourselves and our world, too. We now have a community in our lives," she says. "This morning we left very early and so I phoned one of our friends Terry, and asked would he run up to the house to let out the hens? When we met Terry more than 22 years ago, he was a young man, a painter and decorator with a small family and now he is taking a degree in psychotherapy."

Katherine and Ann Louise are lesbian feminist theologians. They married in Canada in September 2003. Many Irish people will be familiar with them and the case they brought against the state which ended up in the High Court in 2006. They wanted same-sex marital recognition but it was denied.

Their fight continues and they will be going to the Supreme Court. It all started

Ann Louise has a BMW motorbike ... Katherine drives a red convertible

when they were updating their wills and learnt of the legal quagmires involved in leaving property to the other and the taxes which had to be paid because they weren't married under Irish law.

They were shocked that all they had saved for could go down the drain.

When they first contacted the Revenue with queries, the tax officials were confused by their status. Yes, they were married -- but of the same sex. The pair thought it was time to fight for their case.

"Out-f**king-rageous," says Katherine. "Yes, we did it because of the wills but above all we did it for ourselves, to be free. Imagine feeling really free for the first time, free about who you are. Maybe it's hard to understand, for others who have not been despised by society. I don't give a sh*t what people think any more. I know who I am, our partnership has given me the greatest happiness of my life and it's created a lot of good in the world, so shag off."

Going to court meant coming out to the nation and the danger of losing work. St Patrick's in Drumcondra, where Ann Louise works, is linked with the Catholic Church. Thankfully, she didn't lose her job.

"I don't think I was afraid," says Ann Louise, "but if you asked me why didn't I come back with Katherine after I met her and run around the corridors saying,'Hi, here's my partner. I'm a lesbian,' I didn't do that because I assumed there would be prejudice -- there's a lack of tolerance in the teachings of the Catholic Church." (When they first met, Ann Louise was teaching theology at St Patrick's.) "But if somebody came up and knocked on my door and said, 'I believe you're a lesbian', I would have said, 'You're dead right, now what?'"

"We never denied our relationship," says Katherine, "but I don't think that anyone ever asked explicitly."

"I would say to anyone who is gay now, go for it, come out," says Ann Louise, "you'll have a freer life and nothing will happen to you. That's been our experience."

Ann Louise has a BMW motorbike. Every Saturday, she zooms off on it to Blessington to do their weekly grocery shop. Katherine has a red convertible sports car. It is her pride and joy, until the roof starts acting up and they have to get out the instruction booklet. Ann Louise is a good cook, while Katherine is great with computers. Although both are sociable, Ann Louise claims that she loves to spend time quietly with a book, whereas Katherine is more gregarious. They have dinner parties and enjoy theatre.

The pair led a fruitful life. Recently, they have vowed to have more fun. Every so often, they have an overnight in Dublin, where they stay in the Conrad or the Westbury, always requesting a king-size bed (for Katherine). They kick up their heels, catch a concert -- such as Joan Baez -- or a film, like Sex and the City. When they went to see the film Mamma Mia, they danced in the aisles. These fun-loving lesbians live life to the full and have loads of male friends. They can be endearingly self-mocking about some of their former feminist stances, like the way they refused to go to their graduation because they saw it as a patriarchal ceremony.

"Weren't we full of bull?" says Katherine, who later on happily attended her MBA graduation with her parents. In the time I spent with them, they were warm, open and great fun.

"I always believed that if I didn't enter religious life I would have been a racing car driver like Rosemary Smith," says the former nun, Ann Louise. "I was quite wild as a kid."

I believe her.

As a sixth-year student in Loreto College, Foxrock, during a little break Ann Louise used to nip out to the shops on a motor scooter that her father had bought her. With a list from her classmates, she'd stock up on goodies.

"Can you imagine anybody in sixth year now having that freedom?" she says. "My father had a red MG. One day, when I was home for lunch he said, -- 'Why don't you drive yourself back to school?' He told me that there were two things which I needed to know -- how to steer and where the brake was. He got into the back of the MG, opened the newspaper and I drove from Nutley Park to Foxrock."

Ann Louise was brought up believing she could be anything she wanted to be. The fact that she was a girl was irrelevant. She didn't wait for a man to furnish her with a destiny. She had intentions of her own. On leaving school she went her own sweet way and became a nun. Her father was horrified. Having been surrounded by inspiring nuns from an early age, she was drawn to the convent.

From her early schooldays, the Loreto nuns had a very positive influence on her. As a young girl, she remembers Mother Imelda greeting them every morning with a hug.

"When we were preparing for our First Communion, she told us how much God loved us. I thought how could anybody do anything wrong. I was a complete innocent. I was very interested in the community lives these nuns lived and their commitment. They were very happy women. Also, there was a line in the scripture which had a deep influence on me. It was, 'What return shall I make to the Lord for all He has given me?'"

And so, Ann Louise got her hair clipped, did silent retreats and was so secluded from the world that when her mother wrote her a letter mentioning The Beatles, she replied by asking why she had written about insects. She went on to teach in the school she had attended and enjoyed her time there.

"I achieved a development in myself that quite honestly I would never have achieved had I not been a nun. I learnt discipline and quiet study. Had I not had that life, I'm not sure that I would ever have pursued an academic career. Community life was great. I was taught the organ, which I would play at Benediction."

The life of the missionary had appealed to her, but when she was told that she was to stay in Dublin her love of convent life waned. Eventually she left. She didn't believe her faith was strong enough to sustain her vocation.

"I have nothing negative to say about those women and the life that I lived there. It was very hard to leave, but it was probably equally upsetting for the others because I just vanished. You weren't allowed to say you were going."

Her father said that the day she left was the happiest day of his life.

After that, she worked as an au pair in Spain, then spent two years on a scholarship in Paris before securing a job teaching theology in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. Then, in 1981, it was off to Boston College to do her doctorate in theology, where she met Katherine Zappone.

Growing up in Washington, Zappone used to go to mass before school. When she would play with her friends, she would pretend to be the priest. She was, as she says herself, "in love with God".

"It was about being with people who also had a belief in the goodness of life and wanting to do good things," says Katherine.

"Oh, she's so good," says Ann Louise, mocking with affection. "She'd test the rules but never break them."

Although Katherine's friends had found her a boy for her prom, she was attracted to girls from the age of five. She had a best friend Katie, with whom she had an intimate relationship for 13 years, but that was over when Katherine started at Boston College. She remembers the first time she saw Ann Louise, the only other theology doctorate student there.

"I thought Ann Louise was gorgeous, but I couldn't dare hope she would be attracted to me. She looked so straight. But I don't know what that looks like, maybe I did, too."

Six weeks after they met, they promised themselves to each other for the rest of their lives. They would become engaged and the following October they would make a formal commitment to each other.

"It really felt like we were destined to meet," says Katherine.

Ann Louise having shed her nun's habit, and lived a bit in Paris -- she had been kissed by a man by then -- was still pretty innocent and yet she couldn't ignore her love for Katherine. She was surprised by it but happy to go with it, even if it was for a woman.

"I was falling in love with her and quite willing to go with that," says Ann Louise. "I felt nobody should tell me who I should love. I just knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this person."

And that's exactly what they did, happily, lovingly and with plenty of laughs.

'Our Lives Out Loud: In Pursuit of Justice and Equality' by Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone, O'Brien Press, €24.99

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