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Surviving and thriving in a male-dominated world

General Election 2020: Playing GAA with the boys, overcoming sexism and fighting the old guard, Cllr Lisa McDonald talks life and politics with Simon Bourke

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Cllr Lisa McDonald with her husband Richard Simpson, son Cormac, daughter Caragh and dog Cooper

Cllr Lisa McDonald with her husband Richard Simpson, son Cormac, daughter Caragh and dog Cooper

Cllr Lisa McDonald with her husband Richard Simpson, son Cormac, daughter Caragh and dog Cooper

In the last 99 years there have been 35 different Wexford politicians elected to Dáil Éireann.

Of those just one was female, Avril Doyle; the Fine Gael TD who served three terms between 1982 and 1997 and was Mayor of Wexford town from 1975 to 1976.

In the forthcoming General Election, out of a field of 15, there will be four female candidates in Wexford. One of those is Lisa McDonald, a woman who has thrived in male-dominated environments from an early age.

Selected at corner-back in the Our Lady's Island boy's football team at U-12 level, Lisa's sporting career was ultimately thwarted by her other great love; politics, and, in particular, Fianna Fáil.

'I was a very good footballer and played camogie with Martin's. Then, when I went up to UCD, I joined the ladies football team. But I never trained with them once,' she recalls.

Shortly thereafter the first-year student joined another club.

'I met them, Fianna Fáil, it was Malcolm (Byrne) actually. I was in the year behind him, he was a second year. He was in the theatre with Fianna Fáil streamers and I followed him out and asked him, "What do I do to join?"

'He told me to go down to the concourse. I had already joined the ladies football team, and I joined Fianna Fáil on the same day. Fianna Fail took over, ever since.'

This lifelong love affair with the nation's most successful political party has seen Lisa serve as a member of Wexford County Council from 2004 to 2007, as a Senator from 2007 to 2011, and, in last year's local elections, saw her gain a place on the newly-formed Rosslare Municipal District Council.

Yet her rise through the ranks hasn't been plain sailing, with one of the biggest challenges coming from the old guard and its outdated attitudes towards the fairer sex.

'I think the support structures are not there for women,' she says when asked why the county has only had one female TD in its history. 'A lot of the membership in political parties is getting older, and that can be a challenge in itself.

'There's certain people who'd still call me "a good little girl"; I'm 45 years of age, I run a business, I have my own accolades, there is a mind change that's required in certain areas.'

Upon reflection, Lisa says possessing a certain level of naivete helped her endure comments like that, and worse.

'I feel sometimes "my goodness, I managed to survive it," but that's possibly because when I went to UCD I threw my heart and soul into Fianna Fáil and into politics.

'At that point I could see no barriers for a woman at all, now I could say that that was a bit bright eyed and bushy tailed of me,

'I was a little bit optimistic, because you can't have it all, it's very difficult to have it all, you have to choose at certain points in your life.'

One choice Lisa made was to become a mother, a role she combines with her day job as a solicitor, her position on the Rosslare Municipal District Council and now, her pursuit of a place in Dáil Éireann.

'The whole thing is a balancing act and it can be challenging, especially if you're late and you're saying to your children "look, I have to go," and you're told you're being selfish, and then a row ensures, particularly with my daughter Caragh (10), she's very headstrong. It can lead to a bit of aggro.'

Helping to lighten the load are Lisa's parents, Marjorie and Eddie, who live just a mile away - perfectly situated to bring the two youngest members of the family to hurling training.

'They're both coaching in St Martin's GAA at the moment,' says Lisa. 'That helps, they can take care of the training, I don't have to be there to bring them, but I like to be there from time to time,

'I love nothing more than going to their matches, stepping out onto grass is the best way of cleansing your mind, all the toxicity of the day.'

Hurling, football and the GAA in general play a central role in the lives of the McDonald family, with each and every one of them, including Manchester-born husband Richard, involved in one way or another.

'My son, Cormac (13), is actually a brilliant footballer he's on the St Peter's team, but hurling would be the game of choice in our family.

'My father has an All-Ireland Hurling minor medal, and my brother was on the Wexford team, Tony Dempsey had just called him up to the panel when he got run over by a truck, he's never really gotten over it, he was 19 at the time.

Liam Griffin described him as the best underage hurler he had seen at that point.'

Growing up in a house in which both parents were involved in the GAA, but with different clubs, led to the occasional flashpoint.

'I was raised on the sideline to a degree, my father was St Martin's, mother was Our Lady's Island.

'And back in the 70s the Martin's were the more salubrious, well-off club, and my mother robbed footballs out of the garage and brought them down to Our Lady's Island, they didn't speak for three weeks after that,' she laughs.

However, when the inter-county season begins old rivalries are quickly forgotten, the entire clan uniting as one to follow the purple and gold.

'We all go to Wexford games together, the four of us, plus my parents. We squeeze into the car with the sandwiches and tea, the old school way.

'We just love it, that's what we do for a social outlet.'

'I don't tend to go out that much, I'm private that way. I meet friends every so often, go for walks with our dog, he's a cavachon, called Cooper, he's named after the Gooch.'

Now in full election mode Lisa relies on mindfulness and playing the piano to help her unwind, to switch off from the day's events, a day which usually ends some time around 9 p.m.

'My mind's racing, I can't shut if off. and I'm finding now relearning the piano is the best thing for me. At the moment we get in from canvassing at about nine, and go to bed around eleven generally.'

One instrument which Lisa has yet to master is the saxophone, yet that didn't stop her trying her hand when she saw a young busker playing the instrument during her walkabout with party leader Micheál Martin last week.

'I never got round to learning the saxophone, it was something I always wanted to do. Then I met my husband and his name was Simpson,' she laughs.

'That was definitely a sign last week. Micheál convinced me to do it, I said, "I won't be able to get a sound out of it", but I did.'

While her skills on the sax are unlikely to woo voters, Lisa believes she'll be 'in the mix' for the last seat of the five and that she offers an alternative option for voters.

'The people of Wexford deserve a choice in the South of the county, they deserve that choice, the power base shouldn't be in the North, we have a bigger percentage of the population down here.

'I also want to give them the choice to vote for a woman and a mother and a family person, a business person, all those things I represent that the other candidates don't bring to the table.'

Wexford People