Mná na hÉireann

On International Women’s Day I choose to be parochial.

Of course, across the planet many in the half of humanity without a Y chromosome lead lives of culturally sanctioned oppression.

Across huge swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, little girls are ritually butchered in ceremonies carried out by women.

Sadly, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is now a problem in Ireland among African, mainly Nigerian, immigrants.

These new Irish are welcome here and they enrich us, but their boys and girls deserve the protection of the state as do all the children of this nation who we cherish equally.

Note to Third World: if you want to empower women, educate them.

It really is that simple.

Educated women will, in time, organise to demand the building blocks of a better life; an existence which they control and contains choices.

Central to that is that they free themselves from a cycle of continuous pregnancies in their fertile years.

Contraception is now freely available here in Ireland in a way that was unthinkable only a few decades ago.

The abortion issue continues to be divisive, but not along gender lines.

The tragic case of Savita Halappanavar is probably the turning point in finally providing Irish women with a full range of options when faced with a crisis pregnancy.

Here in Ireland in my lifetime, the lives of women have been transformed for the better.

The Married Women employment barrier in the Civil Service is gone and our last two Presidents have been women.

Unlike our neighbours, as citizens in this republic we elect our head of state.

In the last decade our Tánaiste has been female and, at the time, the leader of her party.

Although I detested Mary Harney’s politics, she was a step closer to a female Taoiseach.

When the Irish state was created in 1922 men and women had equal suffrage from the get go.

However, there were huge societal barriers against the advancement of women mainly placed in their way by Mother Church.

The creation of the Magdalene laundries remains a stain on our nation that no amount of historical steam cleaning will eradicate.

These laundries ran until the 1990s when Ireland had a female President in Mary Robinson.

The decade I brought my brood to Ireland to settle seems to have been a watershed period.

Two of my Donegal trio are two without a Y chromosome.

They will have lives that would be unrecognisable to their grandmothers.

There is, of course, still a way to travel.

For example, a recent report stated that women are still underrepresented in science and technology.

However, the progress is undeniable and women are forging ahead in education.

Well, number one daughter has her heart set on reading virology as her chosen specialism in Trinity where her big brother is currently cruising towards a First in geology.

The baby of the brood has told me that she wants to do something with languages. Like her siblings, she has been educated in a Gaeilscoil and she’s totally fluent in English and Irish.

New languages flood into her brain and she has a ready home for them.

Whatever she decides for her higher education and her subsequent career it will be her choice.

The three of them were reared to think for themselves regardless of their gender.

That cognitive ability isn’t gender specific, but previous generations in this country thought it was.

A century ago, a teenage girl in Westport County Mayo reckoned that if her country went to war against the Brits then it wouldn’t be just her brothers that got involved.

She was a very effective Cumann na mban operator.

That same girl also had a notion for a fine young lad from Westmeath who was in the town learning the tailoring trade.

He was also in the Irish Volunteers with her brothers.

That woman would one day have a grandson growing up in the west of Scotland.

From her and her daughter in law I got everything I have ever learned about determination and believing in something.

From my other grandmother, the one who reared me, I was taught by her example the importance of giving and loving to those around you.

In the end, any society that tries to restrict the lives of women will eventually crumble.

The story of Ireland and of women is very similar.

The lesson is clear and it is that freedom isn’t given out like a PR freebie at a presser.

Eventually, it has to be taken from the grasp of the powerful.

That is why 1916 had to happen and oppressive laws around contraception had to be broken in 1970s Ireland.

Since Mary Maher and her sisters publicly and illegally brought contraceptives on the train from Belfast to publicise the fact that the Republic of Ireland did not allow condoms to be sold or prescribed.

Eventually the matter was settled in court and people got real about this stuff.

The same girleen is a grandmother now and I’m proud to call her my friend as well as a colleague in the NUJ.

Because of women like Mary, my two cailiní will soon step out into the world in expensive shoes of their choosing and in a direction that they have chosen to head in.

They stand on the shoulders of women like Julia Derrig, Mary Maher and the wretched inmates of the Magdalene laundries.

Everyone gains in a society when women are empowered.

In this house the token male would never claim to understand any of the resident females (sorry Rusty) – they’re known unknowns.

I just realise it is a far off country of which I know little, but they make my life whole.

This is their day.

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