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Wednesday 28 June 2017

Margaret Gaj

Feminist who ran a restaurant that played a central role in radical politics, writes Eamon Delaney

Those who visited and stayed at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan, a few years ago had the pleasure of hearing Roisin Conroy, the former firebrand Irish feminist and a long-time resident at the artists' retreat, reminisce each evening about the halcyon days of Irish feminism and radicalism in the Sixties and Seventies and, most notably, the role in it all of Gaj's restaurant in Dublin's Baggot Street, run by the inspirational Margaret Gaj.

Margaret, a native of Scotland, ran the restaurant with her Polish husband, Boleslaw. And it gradually became the venue for meetings which set up the Irish women's movement in 1970, so much so that a history of the movement by Anne Stopper, published a few years ago, referred to the restaurant in its title, Mondays at Gaj's: The Story of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement.

But it was also a meeting place for other political discourse, including supporters of the radical Noel Browne as well the Prisoners' Rights Organisation, of which Margaret was a founder member in 1973.

The restaurant played an important role in Irish politics and life, as did other venues along the fervent and creative Baggot Street stretch. But the business done in Gaj's was deadly serious.

Ireland was still a deeply conservative society. In the civil service, women had to leave if they got married, and there were huge inequalities in terms of pay and conditions. Family planning was virtually unheard of, and particularly unjust and primitive was the treatment of women in the courts in terms of the custody of children and judicial separations. Divorce was unheard of.

Margaret was a passionate advocate in trying to change all this, and inspirational to those who followed her. Among these were pioneers like Mairin de Burca, Nell McCafferty, June Levine, Eimer Philbin Bowman and Mary Maher -- who last week recalled Margaret as "formidable, kind and absolutely fearless in taking on the establishment."

Another activist was author Mary Kenny, who although moving to a more conservative world view, still regards the early feminism of Margaret Gaj as crucial to the progressive development of life and society. It was simply about freedom, she said -- "freedom from all those restrictions which hampered liberty: the scolding elders who were always seeking to lecture you 'for your own good' with archaic piseogs about men not respecting you once you'd yielded to them, or the necessity of obtaining a steady job in a bank: oh, how the landscape was littered with controls and restraints and 'thou shalt nots' of custom, law and practice".

Margaret Gaj (nee Dunlop) was born in Glasgow in 1919 to Irish parents. She was a pacifist and conscientious objector, and rather than joining the army in 1939 as her two brothers and sisters had done, she opted to join the Red Cross. While working as a nurse, she met and married a wounded Polish soldier, Boleslaw Gaj. He had been captured when the Germans invaded Poland, but escaped and served as an electrician with the RAF.

At the end of the war, the pair moved to Ireland and set up their famous restaurant. It immediately became a haunt for students and radicals, and was soon hosting meetings for various causes. Along with ex-prisoner Gerry Callaghan and now Labour TD Joe Costello, Margaret set up the Prisoners' Rights Organisation (PRO) and would often treat her ex-prisoner campaigners to a free lunch at her very reasonably priced restaurant.

One former colleague recalls that at meetings of the PRO, "everybody could speak and make suggestions and decisions were taken by consensus, but there was an unstated agreement among us that in the last analysis Mrs Gaj was the boss".

However, it is her contribution to the Irish women's movement for which she will be most remembered, and the way she helped to transform a situation where a country known for its formidable and even feisty women could also be so long in thrall to a supine and male conservatism.

Margaret Gaj, who lived in Rathmines, died recently in Dublin. She was buried in Cruagh Cemetery after Mass in the Church of Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines. She is survived by two sons, Tadek and Wladek.

Sunday Independent

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