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Monday 24 April 2017

The matriarch who served up stew and social progress

Rosita Sweetman

The death of Margaret Gaj this week marks the passing of an era. As proprietress of one of Dublin's coolest 'political' restaurants -- Gaj's -- she was at the hub of social life in the capital.

But Margaret also played a crucial role in the social activism that helped to transform Irish society.

Her genius was to bring the core members of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) together -- Mary Maher, Mairin Johnson, Mairin de Burca, Moira Woods -- and then give them a place (Gaj's) and time (hers) to develop a movement that was to catapult holy Catholic Ireland kicking and bawling into the 20th Century.

Mrs Gaj -- always Mrs as befits a matriarch -- was born in Glasgow in 1919 to Irish parents. A pacifist and a conscientious objector, when World War II broke out she joined the Red Cross, and it was through nursing she met the man she would marry -- a Polish man named Boleslaw Gaj.

After the war ended, the couple settled in Dublin and Mrs Gaj opened her famous, eponymous eatery on Baggot Street.

Except Gaj's wasn't really a restaurant at all. Not that the food wasn't good -- it was fantastic: big plates of hot stew and fresh green vegetables for less than five shillings a pop, with nosegays of fresh flowers on every table. But it was the people who came, and what they were there for, that gave the restaurant its renown.

Trade unionists, aristocrats, lawyers, bank robbers, prostitutes, students, artists, prisoners, civil-rights activists and Women's Libbers all rubbed shoulders around the scrubbed hardwood tables.

An old-school socialist, Mrs Gaj befriended those up against the Establishment: it was she who posted bail for Marie McMahon; it was her battered little car that collected Dublin Housing Action committee members on bail, chased down recalcitrant husbands and sped activists away from the over-zealous cops.

If you couldn't pay for your meal, you didn't; if you (easily) could, you might have to pay double. Gaj's was our Left Bank, Greenwich Village, Colony Club all rolled into one, and Mrs Gaj ruled over it with an all-seeing, eagle-bright eye.

The IWLM was not Mrs Gaj's only political venture -- there was the Prisoners' Rights Organisation and the Dublin Housing Action Committee too -- but it was her most famous; the one that had the most profound effect on Irish society.

The '70s began with American women (and American books) bringing news of uproar in the age-old battle of the sexes; Mrs Gaj, always on the look-out for ways of expanding equality within society, decided it was time Ireland got some of the action.

The four Marys -- Johnston, De Burca, Woods and Maher -- met with her in Bewley's one evening; the game was on.

Within weeks the fledgling movement, which was now 20-strong, was meeting on Monday evenings upstairs in Gaj's, and the call to arms, Chains or Change, detailing just how discriminated against Irish women were, was published.

Actually it was barely credible when it was all written down. McMahon remembers almost crying with rage reading down through the list of barriers built in against women getting anything approaching financial or legal equality with men. There was no divorce, no contraception, no legal apparatus for a woman other than that signed for her by a man -- father or husband. Once married, women lost their jobs; if the marriage failed, the house and the children were the husband's 'property'.

Mrs Gaj took a back seat in the Monday-night discussions, but it was her politics that informed everything.

This was a women's movement hell-bent on burning society rather than bras, with legal whizzes like Mary Robinson constructing contraception laws, the women editors from the three major papers (Maher, Mary Kenny and Mary McCutcheon) all 'on side', and activists like De Burca and Nell McCafferty planning the most effective direct action to highlight the impossibility of many women's situations.

There were marches on Dáil Éireann, protests at the 40 Foot, raids on bars. It all culminated in the most direct-action protest of them all -- the famous 'contraception train' to Belfast. A group of 47 women, led by core members, took the train to Belfast to buy contraceptives (then still banned in the South) and returned home publicly brandishing them, sticking it to the customs officials and the police.

It was a wonderful, chaotic protest (the 'pills' brought back were aspirin because nobody had a prescription for the real thing, and De Burca didn't go since she thought it would look bad for a single woman to be buying contraceptives -- innocent days, indeed), but it was an inspired piece of political theatre that, eventually, forced a change in the law, and, immediately, a change in consciousness.

The IWLM was tiny and lasted less than a year, but thanks to Mrs Gaj's inspired choice of founder members, hot, cheap dinners and (free) space for the famous Monday-night meetings, coupled with her absolute fearlessness and years of social-activism experience, the group developed a focus, and strategies, that enabled it to agitate on key issues, get instant publicity and thus bring about social change.

One minute, Mrs Gaj would be deep in conversation with Robinson and Woods, finessing the Contraception Bill; the next, there would be a big shout of laughter as Frank Crummey, one of her oldest friends, came up with some outrageous new piece of agit-prop.

Gaj's outlasted the women's movement but gradually, as cappuccino and capitalism took over, its influence waned; the glory days were over. Mrs Gaj never stopped caring -- her last public appearance was at the launch of Frank Crummey's book Crummey Versus Ireland in 2010.

How strange to think that a Scottish woman with a Polish husband, who ran a restaurant on Baggot Street, had such a profound effect on Irish society. And now she's gone.

Go meiridh Dia trocaire ar an anim usal.

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