Saturday 24 August 2019

Campaigner Rosita Sweetman reborn 40 years later with bestseller back on shelves

Seventies campaigner Rosita Sweetman's bestseller is back on the shelves

Author: Rosita Sweetman at her home in Rathmines.
Author: Rosita Sweetman at her home in Rathmines.

Anna Coogan

Every so often things happen in life which make us feel reborn, and this is one of those times for feminist, activist and author Rosita Sweetman. Her eyes fill with absolute delight when she recalls the relaunch of her novel Fathers Come First in the city centre's Origin Gallery.

"There was a very warm atmosphere, and it was great to see so many of the core group turn out," Rosita says, recounting the guest list of formidable female movers and shakers who went along to applaud her, many of whom had fought the feminist battle alongside her in the 70s, and which included Mary Kenny, Nell McCafferty and Mairin Johnston.

"Tim Pat Coogan came, and he was running a very conservative newspaper in the Irish Press when myself, Anne Harris and Mary Kenny used to push the boundaries on the woman's page and drive him nuts," Rosita says of being a young journalist.

We're sipping tea in Rosita's cottage in Rathmines, which is a titchy Aladdin's cave of eclectic home furnishings, including a large paper mache head of a water buffalo made by Rosita's well-known jewellery designer daughter Chupi, an antique grandfather clock, and a large portrait of Rosita's mum Una when she was a young debutante in England.

"She was a libertarian who hated hypocrisy and religiosity," Rosita says of her mum who raised nine children on Sandymount Strand with her husband Edmund Sweetman, a barrister and later judge, and whose personality might explain Rosita's passion for not sugar-coating reality, but for instead confronting the unpalatable side of life - the lack of equal rights for women back in the 70s, and today the threat to our environment and how the food chain can often lead to ill health.

Rosita describes the relaunch of her novel, Fathers Come First - about a young woman struggling for independence in a male-dominated world - and which she wrote when she was aged 23 and working as a journalist in Dar es Salaam in East Africa where she had travelled with her partner, the development economist Johnny Pell (whom she later married and who is the father of her children Chupi, 30, and film producer Luke, 27) - as "being like a gift, and one which my daughter cheekily says I didn't have to do anything to make happen."

It was a lovely surprise for her, as she was relaunching Desmond Hogan's book The Ikon Maker which was also published in the 70s, when The Lilliput Press fell upon the idea of republishing her coming-of-age novel which had sold a staggering 60,000 copies when first published in 1974.

"Mores in society have definitely changed," Rosita says, and encapsulates the attitude to women in the 70s as "be a nice girl and stay imprisoned."

On the lack of information with which women were sent out into the world, she says, "The nuns told us that as soon as the key goes in the ignition, the mortal sin begins."

If today's young feminists receive rape and death threats online, Rosita, on the publication of her novel in 1972, and her two non-fiction books, On Our Knees (1972); a critical look at Irish society in the 70s, and On Our Backs (1979); which illuminated sexual attitudes in a changing Ireland, was vilified from the pulpit and denounced by the Catholic hierarchy.

"The Pope came to Ireland and The Late Late Show rang me to tell me it wouldn't be a good idea to talk about On Our Backs on the week he'd been in town," Rosita says of our lost Catholic sensibilities.

Rosita's marriage ended in 1997, and perhaps it's in her second and yet-to-be-published novel that we'll discover the ferocity of the pain she endured, as she admits her novels come from within her, and that her follow-up novel is about a marriage break-up and "is very dark and goes to the deeper extremities of feelings, as I wanted to write unflinchingly."

Following the relaunch of Fathers Come First, a small group of Rosita's pals adjourned to newspaper columnist Mary Kenny's apartment on Kildare Street for a celebration supper to mark the joyous reappearance of her novel 40 years after it had first hit bookshelves.

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