Friday 16 November 2018

Teacher who learned the hardest lesson

The case of unwed pregnant teacher Eileen Flynn split the nation in the Eighties. Last week, she died, aged 53, on the day after her 11th wedding anniversary. Maeve Sheehan recalls her life

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

IN 1982, the scandals that shaped the nation were deeply embedded beneath the surface of Irish life. Fr Sean Fortune, the infamous paedophile priest, was unleashed on the unsuspecting parish of Templetown in Co Wexford. In his home in a Dublin parish, Fr Michael Cleary, the celebrity priest, successfully concealed the child he fathered with his housekeeper. A decade would pass before the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey, left the country amid allegations of a son in America.

Within this climate, a Catholic teacher dared to have a child by a married man and was sacked from her teaching job in a convent school.

Eileen Flynn, who died last week at the age of 53, challenged her dismissal and

became an unwitting cause celebre, outraging conservative Catholic society while being heralded by the liberal forces for change.

The sacking of Eileen Flynn was one of the many divisive clashes that littered Ireland's journey towards a more open society, in a decade littered with bitter divorce and abortion referenda. Her predicament took on a sprawling political significance, but at its heart was a love story that irrevocably changed the lives of those involved.

Eileen Flynn came to the Holy Faith Convent in New Ross in 1978, with an honours degree from Galway University. Nuns noted her to be a gifted teacher, and after a probationary year she landed a full-time job.

One day, she passed a crying child who had fallen over the street and brought her home. The child's father was Richie Roche, who ran a pub at The Quay in New Ross. He was separated from his wife and was raising three young children, Rebecca, Regina and Patrick, alone. He kept the pub shut until 7pm each evening so that he could look after the children by day.

Eileen befriended Richie, eventually falling in love with him after the death of a friend brought them closer together.

"One thing led to another," she told the Equality Appeals Tribunal. "I moved into number 7, The Quay. The main reason was that I genuinely loved the man and I was pregnant."

She concealed her pregnancy as long as she could, fearing for her job.

Her pupils discovered her secret. Two teenagers saw her walking through a doorway and noticed the bump. One of the girls told her father, Jack Forristal.

"She and another 14-year-old girl were the first to notice it. It was a sensation," he later told Dublin Circuit Court. He declared that he would not allow his children to attend a school where an unmarried teacher was having an affair with a married man.

Another parent, Breege Mulally, wrote a letter of complaint to the nuns.

"I was worried. I found my children talking about things

they should not be talking about at that age," she told the court.

Challenged by the principal, Sister Pauline Leonard, Ms Flynn first denied that she was pregnant but later admitted it. She wept as Sister Leonard promised that her brother, a priest, would look after her in England. But Ms Flynn refused to go through with an adoption, nor could she leave the child's father, whom she loved dearly.

The school closed on June 3. Eileen Flynn had her baby boy five days later. She was sacked in August, with £IR2,000 (€2,539) representing four months' pay.

She contested her dismissal in the Employment Equality Tribunal, the Circuit Court and the High Court and lost each time.

At the core of the case was whether her private life was her own affair, and it was a question that divided Ireland. Debate raged. Teaching unions clashed.

Bank of Ireland refused to handle an appeal fund that set up to help her fight her dismissal. Dismissing her appeal in the Circuit Court, Judge Noel Ryan famously claimed that the nuns had been too lenient with her. Elsewhere in the world, women were condemned to death for this sort of offence, he said. Not that he agreed with it, he added.

Afterwards, Eileen Flynn retreated into anonymity, living above the pub on the Quays with Richie, his three children and two children of their own. Richie expanded his pubs and she helped him run them as well as raising the family.

She emerged in the spotlight briefly in 1997 to address a conference in protest at a clause that allowed schools to take action against teachers who risked undermining the ethos of a school. That same year she married Richie Roche in a civil ceremony, as she was no longer a practising Catholic.

Eileen longed to teach, but the notoriety made her unemployable.

"It ended my teaching career," she later said in an interview in the Irish Independent. "I'm too long out of it. I accept I was a scapegoat but I have no time for bitterness, you just get on with your life. That's not to say you don't think it's wrong."

She did return to teaching, however. In recent years, she

got a job in the Christian Brothers' secondary school, where she was made a permanent staff member last year. Ms Flynn died suddenly on Tuesday.

It was the day after her 11th wedding anniversary and she was in a bar in New Ross with friends. She stepped outside for a cigarette, where she collapsed and died. Simon Kennedy, the solicitor who acted for her, said that Richie, her husband, and her family, were "devastated" at the suddenness of her death.

The Holy Faith convent, the school from where she was sacked, is no longer run by the nuns. It is now known as Our Lady of Lourdes secondary school, under the trusteeship of the Bishop of Ossory. Its current principal, Bernadette Ryan, was a close friend of Ms Flynn's.

"We were truly saddened to hear of Eileen's untimely passing. It's tragic at such a young age," said Ms Ryan. "I worked with Eileen and she was a valued friend and colleague."

She was laid to rest at Rosbercon, near New Ross, on Friday, to a guard of honour formed by students at the Christian Brothers school.

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