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Obituary: Mamo McDonald, former ICA president who was a tireless champion for the rights of women and older people

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Mamo McDonald served as president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) in the early 1980s

Mamo McDonald served as president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) in the early 1980s

Mamo McDonald served as president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) in the early 1980s

Mamo McDonald, who has died at the age of 91, was a national figure who served as president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) in the early 1980s and as the first cathaoirleach (chair) of Age & Opportunity, which was founded in 1988 to improve the quality of life for older people. She also played other important roles in a changing Irish society.

The second of six children born to Jack and Brigid Bowen (née O’Grady), in Tuam, Co Galway, on September 12, 1929, her original name was Mary Frances, but her older sister Eithne nicknamed her “Mamo” and it stuck.

Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Bandon, Co Cork, and then to Kilfinane, Co Limerick, where her father took up an appointment as a bank manager.

In the early 1940s she attended the Dominican College Sion Hill, at Blackrock, Co Dublin, one of the oldest girls’ secondary schools in Ireland, where she was a star camogie player.

Afterwards she took a commercial course in Limerick city and got a job in Cavan with the Royal Hibernian Bank. It was there that she met her husband-to-be, Eugene McDonald, whose family had a drapery story in Clones, Co Monaghan.

The wedding took place in 1950, soon after her 21st birthday and, in line with legislation at the time, as a married woman Mamo had to give up her job with the bank, only 14 months after she started in the position. The couple lived over the shop in Clones and reared a family of 11 children: two girls and nine boys.  

She devoted many years to the ICA, which was founded 1911 by Anita Lett and Ellice Pilkington, great-granddaughter of the patriot Henry Grattan. Having originally been a member of the ICA in Croom, Co Limerick, in 1947, she helped established the Clones guild (branch) in 1959.

In due course she became head of the Monaghan federation (county committee) and was approached in 1978 to run for ICA national president. Eugene took a very positive approach, but she didn’t make it on that occasion.

“Had I been elected I would have been away a lot, but it was providential because within a year Eugene suffered a fatal heart attack,” she wrote later.

“The evening stays with me. I was setting up a world record for pancake making at an open stall on the Diamond, assisted by my friends on Clones ICA guild.

“He called over in the evening and said: ‘You are daft, clean daft to be at this craic all day.’ He headed off to practice for the (Clones) Festival golf competition due to be held the following day. He never came home.”

After her bereavement she reduced her level of involvement with the organisation but, as she put it, “the Clones guild members who clustered round me like a second layer of family” encouraged her to re-engage. On May 16, 1982, she was inaugurated as ICA national president.

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Her accession to the ICA leadership coincided with significant progress by the women’s movement in Ireland and she wrote later: “Our more conservative organisation was seen as having no part in it.

“They sneered at us and we, in turn, were very disparaging of them. However, during my term of office we were invited to attend a women’s conference in Bonn together with Irish feminists and to deliver a joint report.

“This experience taught me that instead of being at odds with one another we could and should collaborate.”

She was instrumental in bringing the triennial conference of the Association of Countrywomen of the World (ACWW) to Killarney in 1986. Leading Irish feminists were invited to speak, including future president Mary Robinson, writer and journalist Nell McCafferty, the late Minister of State Nuala Fennell TD and historian Margaret MacCurtain (also known as Sister Benvenuta).

The most poignant episode of her presidency took place when famine occurred in Ethiopia and the ICA raised money and aid for the victims.

During her term of office, Gemma Hussey, then minister for education, appointed her to the National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA) and she wrote later: “I was a member of that body during the stormy years when the Regional Colleges in Dublin and Limerick morphed into universities as DCU and UL respectively.”

The ICA was represented at her funeral and the condolences section on rip.ie features expressions of sympathy and tributes by ICA members and groups from Maynooth to Westport, Dublin to Limerick and Westmeath to Mayo, among other places.

Niamh Smyth, Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan, described her as “a champion for women across Ireland, she will remain a national treasure in the hearts and minds of all who had the pleasure of meeting her”.

The outbreak of the Troubles made life difficult in Clones and Mamo recalled having to take her children from their beds in the middle of the night and drive to her sister’s house in the country because of bomb scares.

Road closures at the Border with Northern Ireland greatly reduced the number of customers coming to the town — many of them from Co Fermanagh — and affected the level of business at the drapery store which Mamo was running with her son Donald since Eugene’s death.

Energetic beyond measure, she opened a teashop in the basement, which also helped to make up for the reduction in income from the drapery store and she continued in business until 1994.

At that stage Mamo moved to a new house, designed like a traditional cottage, which was built for her at Drumully, Smithborough, Co Monaghan, where her daughter Niamh was a close neighbour.

In her 70s she achieved a long-held ambition by enrolling in a degree course on women’s studies at University College Dublin. Having completed that, she went on to take a master’s degree, where her topic was Women Who Kept Diaries. She kept a diary herself, as well as participating in creative writing groups and poetry competitions.

Her first poetry collection, entitled Circling, was published in 2015 by Arlen House. She was one of the founders of the Clones Lace Cooperative and the Clones Lace International Summer School and was among the recipients of the People of the Year Awards in 1999.

In January last year she moved from her cottage at Smithborough, outside Clones, to St Anne’s Nursing Home in Ballybay, where she spent her final 18 months. Eugene had died in 1979 at the age of 56 and their son Vincent died in 2017.

She is survived by eight sons and two daughters: Eoin in Carndonagh, Darach in Derry, Donald (Clones), Cathryn Ganley (Ballisodare), Brian (Rockcorry, Co Monaghan), Niamh McCluskey (Smithborough), Lonan (Blackrock, Co Louth), Frank (Clones), Ross (Rockcorry) and Niall (Sligo), 32 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, as well as in-laws, nieces and nephews. Her sister Margot, who lives in Clones, was married to the late distinguished playwright Eugene McCabe, and her other sister, Breda, lives in Nova Scotia.

A poem she wrote entitled Other Gifts is dedicated to her sister-in-law Rosetta but could have been written about Mamo herself: “One day in a crowd / a stranger said: / ‘See that lady over there / the one with the hat / hasn’t she got a smile / that would light up a room.’”


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