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Sisters Abú

They triumphed and they never got complacent
Rosita Sweetman

In the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, all we really cared about was houses, stuffing our faces, and money.  That and sitting on our arses watching – on a 68” flatscreen HD TV, naturally – overblonde, overbotoxed mediocrities orgasming over houses, nosh and money.  Just minutes before the land of Joyce and Beckett morphed irrevocably into a vipers’ den, peopled by shysters and their barbie-doll trophies, along came the Recession.  Phew.  The shite houses are now worth nothing; the smug bastards who ‘ruled’, i.e.  milked, our little island in the Atlantic for the past ten to 15 years, are looking serious, their mistresses bailing.  The orthodoxy that bellowed Money is our God, and thou shalt not – on pain of madness, social ostracisation or exclusion from the social pages of VIP magazine – question that, ever, ever, ever, ever, you fucking hippie you, is no more.  Yay for the fucking hippies and the transnational liberté, egalité and fraternité of the 1970s that spawned Black Power, the Women’s Movements and Gay Rights.

Cue the Sisters of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.  The trail-blazers who smashed the icy grip of Holy Catholic Hypocritical Patriarchal Ireland, and frogmarched a loudly-complaining system, into the 20th Century.  But hang about, the Sisters are getting on in years.  Many of them have died.  Have the remainder – all clinking zimmer frames, false teeth, and replacement hips – lost their mojo? Won’t they have ditched heartfelt feminism for twinsets, pearls and social democracy? Have they heck.  At the November relaunch, in glorious hardback, of June Levine’s eponymous Sisters, Nell McCafferty, barely out of the operating theatre, lacerated the boys in Dáil Eireann as they whip the Xmas bonus from those on welfare, and cut Children’s Allowance, meanwhile simultaneously gladhandlling €77 billion of our money to the smug bastards who caused the problem in the first place.  Nell excoriates a government suffering from “penile erectile dysfunction”.  I want to weep.  Grown men do weep.  Tears of joy.  We may be getting older but we are still here, and we can still give a bloody good bite.

Máirin de Burca, now in her 70s, says “of course you mellow with age.  You realise most people are just trying to get along”, before articulating a detailed list of what remains to be done.  Yes it was brilliant, unreservedly so, that as a result of the Women’s Movement, women, particularly married women, for the first time had the choice of working outside the home.  De Burca remembers her own mother, “miserable”; “imprisoned in the home with small children.  We were miserable too”.  Dr Emer Philbin Bowman, brought along to one of the early meetings by her friend, poetess Evan Boland, remembers being “flabbergasted” at the gender inequality in medicine, something that hadn’t even occurred to her as a problem having known only her own mother’s ascent up to a professorship in Trinity.  She now lives her politics (“with a small p”) and feminism, as consultant psychiatrist at the Well Woman Clinic.  “Once you become sensitive to the issues [of gender inequality] I don’t think you change”.

Of course there are difficulties.  Women now have three jobs, says Nell: the home, the family and work.  And in the rush to join the fun, women, says de Burca, “adapted to male working conditions without demanding changes, not just for women, but for parents.  Every sizable outfit should have a creche for godsake’.  But creches were far from most of our minds in the early 1970s.  It was more Let’s march on the Dáil! Yay! Let’s take over the Gentlemen Only snug in Neary’s! Double Yay! Let’s invade the Forty Foot! Treble Yay! The brilliant and sober among us – Mary Robinson, Mary Maher, Maura Woods – smiled indulgently as they drafted bills and articles that would crunch through the societal and governmental bullshit like a stilleto.

Sadly of course the ranks of the Sisters have been seriously thinned recently with the loss in the last 18 months of Nuala O Faoláin, June Levine, Nuala Fennell; not to forget Mary Holland, Mary Cummins, Christina Murphy and Róisín Conroy.  As Mary Kenny puts it: “When young, your world is built on theory; when older: on experience”.  And yet, far from being marginalised curiosities who did something way back when, that made things somehow better for women, the surviving Sisters are still on fire.  “Women are stronger than men”, says Marie Mc Mahon.  Huzzah! I say let’s throw ALL of the current Dáil Deputies (male and female) out on their arses (and their big fat expense accounts, big fat bonuses and big fat cars after them) and hand the controls of the MotherShip to the Sisters, Mothers, Grandmothers, Aunties, Godmothers and Daughters of the Revolution.  SMUG BASTARDS BEWARE.