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The widow vote: when women candidates ran for family seats


Campaign trail: Eileen Lemass with Dina Moran of Cabra (left) in the 1980s.

Campaign trail: Eileen Lemass with Dina Moran of Cabra (left) in the 1980s.

An Eileen Lemass poster

An Eileen Lemass poster


Campaign trail: Eileen Lemass with Dina Moran of Cabra (left) in the 1980s.

Believe it or not, gender quotas were on Éamon de Valera's mind as far back as the early 1940s.

In fact, Dev feared Fianna Fáil was over-quota when it came to a particular category of women, specifically widows. So, in 1944 he despatched his most loyal lieutenant, Dr Jim Ryan, to chair the party selection convention for the constituency of Tipperary.

Dr Ryan had acted as medical officer to the GPO garrison at Easter 1916 and was a co-founder of Fianna Fáil in 1926 with de Valera and others. His instructions from Fianna Fáil headquarters were very explicit: "Don't pick the widow."

By that stage, 20 years on from the State's foundation, a number of the old IRA-men-turned-politicians had died and had been replaced by their widows. The political realities of name recognition were buoyed up by the brutal reality that TDs' widows, like many another widow, often had large young families and scant means to provide for them.

However, in an era of near invisibility for women in Irish public life, Fianna Fáil's leadership feared they would be derisively dubbed the 'Widows' Party' if the trend took hold. And yet the trend was not unique to de Valera's party.

The Tipperary widow was Mary Bridget Ryan, whose husband Martin Ryan had died at the age of 43 in 1943, leaving her with nine children aged three to 19. Pensions for TDs' wives and children were not introduced until 1968.

At the convention, it soon became clear that Dr Ryan was in considerable difficulty. The ­delegates, many drawn from the ranks of the old IRA, wanted nobody but the widow - and ­outright mutiny was the only ­other option available to him.

One young delegate, Bill Smith, is credited with summing up the mood. "You can nominate who you like - but you'll have to come down from Dublin yourselves to elect them yourselves. We're campaigning for Mary Bridget!" his son, Michael Smith, a future TD and government minister, recalled this week.

Dr Ryan assessed the mood and reluctantly reported back to headquarters. Mary Bridget Ryan went on to become TD for Tipperary, and later Tipperary North, serving from 1944 until 1961. Her own republican and party credentials, deemed to be on a par with that of her late husband, had engendered a fearsome local loyalty.

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of Fianna Fáil in 1976, Mary Bridget gave a rare interview to The Irish Press in which she recalled the pattern of her life as a politician, parent and farmer. Each Monday she took a pony and trap, or hackney car, from her home at Rearcross to Birdhill railway station, on the Limerick border, and caught the Dublin train.

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Rarely missing a sitting, she worked away at Dáil business, dealing with correspondence and tabling questions on constituency matters. Her one delight was being able to buy the children's clothes in Dublin. On Thursday or Friday she travelled back to resume farm and family duties and on Sundays she received all constituency callers seeking help.

Dáil widows were to be found across all the parties. Fine Gael's Bridget Mary Redmond, a TD from 1933 until 1952, was the widow of Captain William Redmond who had died in 1932. She continued over half a century of continuous parliamentary representation for Waterford, begun by Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, in the British House of Commons in 1891.

A marvellous book, Women in Parliament, published in 2000, and edited by Maedhbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, tells these widows' stories and an update of this is long overdue. What comes across is the demands of day-to-day life and the frequent harshness and disregard they encountered.

The last TD's widow to be elected to the Dáil was Eileen Lemass, wife of Noel Lemass and daughter-in-law of Seán, back in 1977. Family dynasties continued but from then on, it was mainly politicians' daughters who succeeded, again buoying up the pitifully small proportion of women TDs.As a personal footnote to his to history, Mary Bridget Ryan lost her Dáil seat in the 1961 election but continued as a county councillor until 1969. She refused a presentation from the constituency party telling them she should make a presentation to them in honour of their support for her.

John Downing is Political Correspondent

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