Tuesday 12 November 2019

The day that changed my life: Katherine Zappone on marrying her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan

Part two: In an exclusive extract from her new book The Day That Changed My Life, Independent.ie's executive editor Caitlin McBride interviews 31 prominent Irish women about the biggest moments in their lives. Here, she shares insights from a selection including Minister Katherine Zappone and Professor Andrea Nolan, OBE

Minister Katherine Zappone, centre, and Ms Zappone with her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan at their wedding in Dublin after the Yes vote for Marriage Equality was passed, inset
Minister Katherine Zappone, centre, and Ms Zappone with her late wife Ann Louise Gilligan at their wedding in Dublin after the Yes vote for Marriage Equality was passed, inset
Katherine Zappone. Picture: Steve Humphreys
Sabina Brennan
Professor Andrea Nolan, OBE, Vice-chancellor and Principal at Edinburgh Napier Uinversity
Amy Huberman. Photo: Frank McGrath
Professor Andrea Nolan, OBE
Orla Barry. Photo: Luc Percival/Sportsfile
Amy Huberman. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
The Day That Changed My Life

From a visit to Auschwitz to discovering a passion for psychology, in an extract from her new book, Caitlin McBride talks to five inspirational Irish women about the pivotal moments in their lives.

Katherine Zappone

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

For 36 years, Katherine Zappone was in a loving relationship with Dr Ann Louise Gilligan, an academic whom she described as an "educator extraordinaire" after her passing in 2015.

Katherine and Ann Louise were instrumental in bringing attention to the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015, having spent years fighting for equal rights. The day that changed her life, Katherine says, was September 13, 2003, the day she married Ann Louise.

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"In around 1999 or 2000, we had made a decision that we were going to look for some legal recognition of our life partnership -which was a momentous decision for us," she says.

"We brought together a legal team and started to develop a strategy and, one day, my youngest brother Mark phoned me and mentioned he was heading to Canada for a wedding. Ann Louise was there separately for work."

Mark was en route to a wedding between two men in Victoria, British Columbia, the second province to legalise same-sex marriage in Canada. You could argue that this phone call was fate: unlike other juris­dictions, like Vermont in the United States and Toronto, Canada, it wasn't a requirement to be a resident to marry there, or even register for a civil partnership.

"Ann Louise phoned me and said, 'There's a possibility we could actually marry here.' That was in July and by September 13, we were married.

"We flew to Seattle first and then drove with my parents, both of whom were in their early eighties, to Canada. I have four siblings and they came with their families.

"We had the most beautiful moment in Anne's home," Katherine recalls. "I had my close family, Ann Louise's sister [June Kelly] and brother [Arthur Gilligan], who happened to live nearby, come too. It was a fantastic moment."

Following the formalities, they returned to Seattle where Katherine's sister had a surprise for the couple.

"She had us come into their home blindfolded. Inside, there was a beautiful three-tiered wedding cake and other family and friends had gathered to celebrate with us. We were deeply moved by that.

"I never knew this until my own wedding, but when my sister got married in her early twenties, she was so upset to think that I would never have the experience of marrying the one I loved.

"I hadn't even shared my identity with her at that point. She adored me so much and wanted me to have what she had. As she toasted me and Ann Louise that afternoon in her home, she told us this.

"We had an extraordinarily loving relationship. It was incredible: we worked together, we lived together, it was just magic most of the time.

"We were together for 36 years. I loved her every single moment of it. I still love her of course, and she me.

"All that love for all those years was because of the incredible, loving relationship we had and the wedding we had in Vancouver. That's why that moment was so special."

Read more: The day that changed my life: Amy Huberman on visiting Auschwitz with her father Harold

Professor Andrea Nolan, OBE

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Professor Andrea Nolan, OBE, Vice-chancellor and Principal at Edinburgh Napier Uinversity

Principal and Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University

Andrea Nolan is many things: a veterinarian, a professor, the principal and vice chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University, one of Scotland's most prestigious universities, one of the few Irish women to hold an OBE and a trailblazer; but she is, most importantly, a mother.

The day that changed Andrea's life wasn't becoming a mother for the first time, it was giving birth to her third child Maeve in 1994, who has Down syndrome. At the time, Andrea, originally from Dublin, was a lecturer in veterinary pharmacology at the University of Glasgow.

"Maeve was born in Glasgow and, when she was born, neither I nor my husband noticed anything different about her. The doctors took her away about 20 minutes after she was born because her hands were quite blue... We didn't see her for about three or four hours after that, and then a consultant came in and told us that our daughter had Down syndrome, and, in addition, cardiovascular problems. It transpired she had a hole in her heart.

"It's hard to describe the early times with Maeve. Because we didn't expect it - it was challenging," Andrea says. "Falling totally in love with her and watching her grow has opened my mind to what it is to be human, what it is to be vulnerable and what it means to have amazing courage and strength. I feel that I derive so much courage from her."

Maeve's birth proved serendipitous not only in the ways she changed the family dynamic, but also in leading Andrea down an extraordinary career path.

When Maeve was born, Andrea had applied for a job at the Home Office to work as a veterinary surgeon. She interviewed for the position and was offered the job just a few days after Maeve was born, a job she already knew she could no longer accept because of the significant changes in her personal and family life.

"If Maeve hadn't been born with Down syndrome and her heart issues, I would have accepted the job. But I felt so strongly that it wasn't the right time to make that kind of decision when I felt I was all over the place... so, I stayed in the job I was in and became a very successful academic."

She went on to become the principal and vice chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University and, in 2013, was awarded an honorary OBE.

Andrea credits her daughter's willingness to live a fulfilling life as the impetus behind her own courage. Maeve practises judo, attends drama clubs, learns the piano and vibraphone, and faces her fears head on. "I've frequently seen Maeve climb her own personal mountains and, if I'm facing difficulty at work or speaking to a large crowd, I think of her. She would just go for it.

"She has her own desires and needs. She's got incredible emotional intelligence. She connects with people's moods and will understand if I'm distressed or anxious. As a person, she's hugely complex, her character is rich and underpinned with immense strength and bravery. It blows me away."

The Day That Changed My Life is in bookstores now

The Day That Changed My Life

"Amendment: An earlier version of this story stated that Mr Arthur Gilligan had passed, but he is alive and living in Canada. We apologise to Mr Gilligan for this error. "

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