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Her Keys to the City: where to find the women who left a mark on Dublin

The brainchild of ex-Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland, this new book aims to right a historical wrong by celebrating 80 influential but often overlooked women, writes co-author Clodagh Finn

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Alison Gilliland, Maeve Binchy’s husband Gordon Snell and Clodagh Finn. Photo by Damien Eagers

Alison Gilliland, Maeve Binchy’s husband Gordon Snell and Clodagh Finn. Photo by Damien Eagers

Writer Katharine Tynan

Writer Katharine Tynan

Actress Agnes Bernelle

Actress Agnes Bernelle

Agnes (AV) Ryan, the entrepreneur and co-founder of Monument Creameries

Agnes (AV) Ryan, the entrepreneur and co-founder of Monument Creameries

‘Her Keys to the City’ by Alison Gilliland and Clodagh Finn

‘Her Keys to the City’ by Alison Gilliland and Clodagh Finn

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Alison Gilliland, Maeve Binchy’s husband Gordon Snell and Clodagh Finn. Photo by Damien Eagers

When I first heard the idea, I thought it inspired. Here was a plan from a Lord Mayor of Dublin to redress history’s glaring imbalance by awarding a woman the Freedom of Dublin for every year a man got the accolade since 1876.

There was a lot of ground to make up. Just seven women have received the city’s highest honour, compared with 79 men. And three of those — Ailbhe Smyth, Professor Mary Aiken and Kellie Harrington — were given the keys to the city as recently as last month, before Lord Mayor of Dublin Alison Gilliland’s term in office came to an end.

In one fell swoop, the number of freewomen of the capital city had almost doubled. But what of the many accomplished women who contributed so much to the life of Dublin over the last 150 years, but who cannot be honoured because they are no longer alive? The idea for Her Keys to the City, a book to showcase, champion and celebrate 80 women, was born.

Over the last six months, I have had the singular privilege of working with the now former Lord Mayor to seek out those women. It was an easy task because when we asked the public for nominations, we were inundated with suggestions. Many of them are in the final book: the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin, Kathleen Clarke; pioneering doctor Kathleen Lynn; entrepreneur and co-founder of Monument Creameries Agnes (AV) Ryan; multiple All-Ireland medal winner Kay Mills; trade unionist Rosie Hackett, and former artistic director of Dublin Youth Theatre Eilís Mullan.

Other familiar names are in there too, but they are recalled by family members who offer a unique perspective. Donal Buckley compares his late wife, the campaigner for survivors of industrial schools Christine Buckley, to a miner who could spot a diamond in the rough. “She could recognise people who would respond to her with resilience, and she helped a number overcome their setbacks and hardship,” he writes.

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Actress Agnes Bernelle

Actress Agnes Bernelle

Actress Agnes Bernelle

Sarah Binchy pinpoints the liberating moment in her aunt Maeve Binchy’s life that allowed her to shed her self-consciousness, while Leah Leslie recalls that her grandmother, singer and actress Agnes Bernelle, sent coded messages to the Resistance during World War II before settling in Dublin and helping to set up the Project Arts Centre.

Within the book’s 254 pages, you will find many familiar faces from all walks of Irish life — business, culture, science, education, sport, innovation and technology. There are many others who have been forgotten, or whose contributions have been overlooked.

How many know the name Delia Moclair (Horne), the first woman assistant master of the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin? Her success is all the more remarkable given that her family was evicted from their home when she was a child in Tipperary in 1888.

What of Kathleen O’Rourke, the under-the-radar co-founder with Lady Valerie Goulding of the Central Remedial Clinic? She also opened the first branch of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in Dublin, the first mass keep-fit system created by women for women. Kathleen’s cousin, Bishop John Charles McQuaid — later archbishop — insisted its members wear skirts over immodest shorts and remove the word “beauty” from the title, because it was too racy. The organisation thrived regardless.

Over five months, Alison Gilliland, the 353rd Lord Mayor of Dublin and only 10th woman in the post, and I worked with a dedicated team — writer Rowena Walsh, historians Dr Mary Muldowney and Maeve Casserly, artist Holly Christine Callaghan and designer Mark Dignam — to bring these stories together. The aim was to leave behind a book that goes some way towards correcting a historical imbalance.

My own hope for Her Keys to the City, as co-author, is that it will encourage us to look around the city and seek out the women, many of them hidden or obscured, who made it what it is. Instead of looking down O’Connell Street and remarking that all the statues are of men, we might tell the story of the single statue sculpted by a female artist. In 1893, the statue of Father Mathew, the temperance campaigner, was unveiled. It was sculpted by Mary Redmond from Tipperary, one of the few female sculptors of the time.

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Writer Katharine Tynan

Writer Katharine Tynan

Writer Katharine Tynan

When you see the Charles Stewart Parnell monument, you might also seek out the new plaque dedicated to his sister Anna Parnell, a little bit further down the street at the former headquarters of the Ladies’ Land League. She regularly left those offices after midnight to walk home alone — in the 1880s. The writer Katharine Tynan was horrified by this: “Grafton Street especially was a street in which it would be a scandal... for a lady to appear unaccompanied after the shops were closed. Anna took [that street]: gliding like a swift shadow on her way, apart in the hustling and rowdy crowd, quite alone, remote, wrapt away in her own thoughts. She was a fiery vestal. Under her delicate, shy coldness, she had passion and gentleness.”

Katharine Tynan herself is included in the book. Dublin City Council recently included a quote from her vast body of work on some 30 park benches to commemorate those we lost during the pandemic.

The stories of women are inscribed in the very fabric of our city, although we don’t always take the time to tell them.

The next time you go into the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, seek out the magnificent Viking collection and remember botanist Maura Scannell, who was the first in Ireland to apply botany to archaeology. She identified the kind of wood used in many of the wonderful artefacts excavated at Wood Quay in the early 1980s.

Look around. The stories of the amazing women who helped to make Dublin the city it is today are all around us.

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‘Her Keys to the City’ by Alison Gilliland and Clodagh Finn

‘Her Keys to the City’ by Alison Gilliland and Clodagh Finn

‘Her Keys to the City’ by Alison Gilliland and Clodagh Finn

‘Her Keys to the City’, published by Dublin City Council, is out now


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