Saturday 24 August 2019

Mary -- fearless fighter to the end

My abiding memory is of her incredible courage and calmness. Her work had such a devastating impact in Irish society Fearless, relentless, tirelesss: three words synonymous with a maverick journalist who did more than any one else in her profession to cast light on the darkest chapter in modern Irish history.

It was those same three steely traits that saw Mary Raftery through the final year of her life.

Few diagnoses terrify a woman more than ovarian cancer, the silent killer that often does not reveal its lethal presence until it is too late.

In the summer of 2010, when Mary's doctors told her she had developed the disease, she faced that terrifying predicament with the same determination and courage that had served her through her long career in documentary-making.

At first the news was promising. She was operated on, went through chemo and was given the all-clear. Then last year, she developed an infection in her gall bladder. During routine surgery to have it removed, her medical team were devastated to find the cancer they thought was in remission had spread throughout her body.

Late last year, she faced into harrowing treatment again, but her body could take no more, and she was brought back to hospital soon afterwards. A few days before Christmas, she was released before returning again in the final days of December. Last weekend, it became clear that she had only days to live.

Yet many of her colleagues and close friends did not even know she was ill. To those who did, she often brushed off the gruelling pain and tiredness, saying she was fine. She never wanted to become the story.

There would be no public displays of self-pity. No tears, no dramatic final interviews. She kept working for as long as she could, determined to see her final exposé through, a damning documentary called Behind The Walls which lifted the lid on Ireland's psychiatric hospitals and how this nation used to lock up more of its people in them than any other country in the world. "'Why'," she once said, "was the most significant word in a journalist's arsenal," and she never stopped asking it.

Some who didn't know her so well suspected something was wrong. Her face seemed puffy and her hair was thinning -- a giveaway sign of the side-effects of steroids given to terminally ill patients. And they were right.

At the incomprehensibly young age of 54, Mary Raftery -- a woman who in many ways singlehandedly rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland to its core -- was facing into the final months of her life.

She planned her humanist funeral with heroic bravery. Some who came in contact with her towards the end say she displayed an acceptance, a coming to terms with her limited life-span. Not that her work had been done -- far from it -- but that she had achieved more than she could imagine through her revolutionary research into the systematic abuse of the country's most vulnerable citizens.

She had given a voice to the voiceless. She knew that legacy would endure long after her body had turned to ash.

Raftery had a privileged childhood growing up in the comfortable suburb of Goatstown. Her late father, Adrian, was a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the family travelled the world. One of four children, her early years were spent in Washington and Paris before the family settled back in Dublin when she was 12.

Her mother Ita was a teacher and inspired a love of reading and music in her daughter, who was an accomplished cellist.

Raftery started secondary school in the middle-class convent of Mount Anville, Churchtown, but felt suffocated by its air of privilege and regularly clashed with authority, asking awkward questions and challenging the establishment.

An incendiary essay about the scandals of Pope Julius II was an early hint of her disenchantment with the Catholic Church.

Her parents decided to move her to the more free-thinking surrounds of Miss Meredith's School on Pembroke Road, a beloved Dublin institution for middle-class daughters of liberal Catholics.

She was the sharpest girl in her class and one of just three pupils who attended maths and physics class every day at the nearby boys school, St Conleths.

Former classmate Naomi Coyle was another. "When Mary came to our school, she had been living in Paris and was quite fluent in French," she recalls.

"I remember thinking how sophisticated she was. Even at 12 or 13, she was trying to convince us of the magnificence of Wagner while we were all reading Jackie magazine.

"Mary was different. She was someone who didn't need to be part of a crowd. The rest of us were very busy in our gangs but she was very self-contained.

"She was at ease in her own skin even then, which was unusual for someone in her early teens. She had her principles and was quite happy standing by them and being herself."

In 1975, Raftery began an engineering degree in UCD but soon became embroiled in student politics and opted out to do an arts degree instead.

It was at college she met her future husband, David Waddell, a civil servant in the Standards in Public Office Commission who was president of the Students Union at the time.

As a student, Raftery founded Bulletin magazine, which led to a job in journalism working for In Dublin. Her first story was about the lack of proper breathing apparatus for the Dublin Fire Brigade, which sparked an investigation, the first of many her work would ignite.

In the early 1980s, she was writing a piece for Magill on Dublin's heroin crisis when she got to know a criminal family from the inner city. She was struck at how one household could produce so many 'rotten apples' and felt it must have had something to do with the fact that they had all spent time at an industrial school.

It was her first step on the road to breaking down the wall of silence that had shrouded the State's most horrific secret for decades: the widespread physical and sexual torture of children in industrial schools run by religious orders.

In 1994, she joined RTÉ where she worked on Today Tonight, Check Up and Prime Time. Five years later, she produced the cataclysmic States of Fear -- a set of documentaries that revealed, in her words, "the extremely vicious and sadistic physical abuse, way off the scale, and horrific emotional abuse, designed to break the children".

Her 1999 book Suffer the Little Children -- The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools -- written with Eoin O'Sullivan of Trinity College -- was equally powerful.

Her work led to an apology to all victims of institutional abuse from the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on behalf of the State.

It also resulted in the Ryan Commission, which heard the stories of victims in private, and the establishment of the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which to date has compensated about 14,000 people, who have been given an average of €63,000 each.

In 2002, she made Cardinal Secrets with reporter Mick Peelo, which investigated the cover-up of clerical child abuse in Dublin's Catholic archdiocese. This brought about the passing of the Commission of Investigation Act 2004 and the Murphy Commission.

That year, she left RTÉ to work as a freelance journalist and spend more time with her only son, Ben, who was then 10.

One close colleague who mourned her passing this week was Miriam O'Callaghan.

"My abiding memory is of her incredible courage and calmness. Her work had such a devastating impact in Irish society but whenever you interviewed Mary she was just so calm. I knew she was ill, but we never dwelt on it. I would say, 'You're doing great', and she would say 'Yeah'.

"She was a complete sweetheart too, a genuine dote. When I was in hospital with my son, she came in and brought me lovely books.

"And she was always very fair. With the likes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, she'd say, 'go easy on him, he's one of the good guys'."

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