Psychologist Maureen Gaffney: "I don’t think any child under 12 should have a smartphone"

Well-known psychologist, broadcaster and writer Maureen Gaffney was honoured with an Alumni Award at UCC, in Cork recently. CHRIS DUNNE catches up with the Midleton woman, who launches her new book in early 2020
Psychologist Maureen Gaffney: "I don’t think any child under 12 should have a smartphone"
Dr Maureen Gaffney UCC Alumni Achievement Award recipient. Picture: Clare Keogh

WHEN the late Gay Byrne used Maureen Gaffney’s voice for his popular ‘Mystery Sound’, it was the shortest competition in the history of the ‘Gay Byrne Hour’.

“For some reason, my voice is very recognisable,” says the Midleton-born psychologist, broadcaster and author, who was the first girl from her school, St Mary’s High School, Midleton, and the first in her family, to go to university.

“People tell me my voice is very familiar to them on radio,” says Maureen.

Gay Byrne was reunited with Maureen Gaffney, the psychologist from his old radio show, on The Meaning Of Life  on RTE One.
Gay Byrne was reunited with Maureen Gaffney, the psychologist from his old radio show, on The Meaning Of Life  on RTE One.

“I was very fond of Gay Byrne,” adds the mother of two grown-up children, who worked as a clinical psychologist with the HSE, as a senior lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, and who served on State and other boards, including as a Law Reform Commissioner.

“That was my favourite job for 10 years,” says Maureen of the latter role.

“I was the only person who was not a lawyer working on the Law Reform. It was intimidating at first.

“We passed the most progressive legislation in the EU regarding rape and sexual abuse. Before that, rape in marriage was not a crime. I think if I hadn’t followed the path that I did, I’d have been a very happy barrister!”

Maureen’s latest book, Your One Wild And Precious Life, is out in 2020.

“Gay was a world-class broadcaster who could easily have made his mark in the UK and in the USA,” says Maureen, praising her old friend, who passed away on November 4, 2019.

She made her own mark quite young when, as a Midleton secondary school student, she decided she wanted to go to university. Realising she needed Latin to do so, she enlisted the help of Mother Philomena at St Mary’s High School to tutor her.

“My parents hoped that I’d get a place training as a national school teacher,” says Maureen.

“Many of their generation never continued their education after leaving national school, and many of them didn’t even finish national school.

“Back then, classes were huge, with 50 or more pupils in each class.

“My father was a bus driver and often he didn’t have work, travelling to England to find employment in the ’80s,” says Maureen, who lives in Dublin with her husband, John.

“My father would loved to have gone to university.

“I remember lot of our neighbours in Midleton having to go to Dublin or England for work, like my dad.

“Emigration is at the centre of the Irish experience of being modern.”

Maureen’s parents were both hard grafters, passing on their work ethic to their daughter and to their son, John.

“Both my parents were very encouraging when I told them that I wanted to go to university. My grandmother and my mother were very supportive,” says Maureen.

“I got into a bit of a panic when I found out I needed Latin to get into UCC.”

Mother Philomena was very supportive too, if very stern!

“She agreed to tutor me in Latin without saying a word to me,” says Maureen.

“Mother Philomena taught English and History. We had an understanding and I remember the ante-room off the nuns’ chapel where we did Latin classes for two years. It was freezing!

“But Mother Philomena was very inspiring. She never knew the effect she had on me.”

Maureen was a diligent and a determined pupil.

“I did extremely well, and I got an honour in Latin! I initially studied English in UCC with psychology only as a second subject. I soon became besotted with psychology because it explains all the things I am interested in; people, ideas, why we are the way we are. I’m interested in why I think the way I do.”

Maureen was in for a few surprises at UCC in 1968.

“Women weren’t allowed to wear slacks!” she says, laughing.

“Things moved on swiftly, though. When my brother John went to UCC four years later, things had progressed at a huge rate.”

Maureen was a typical student.

“I got fined for smoking!” she says.

But she kicked the habit, adding: “I couldn’t afford to smoke!”

The psychology student loved life on campus. Recently, Maureen was among the UCC alumni honoured for their amazing success in their chosen fields, excelling in their life’s work, demonstrating leadership in their field, and who have been a source of inspiration.

Maureen Gaffney.
Maureen Gaffney.

In 1974, Maureen won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, enabling her to do a master’s degree in social science.

“The library stayed open until 1am,” says Maureen.

“They had to push me out of the place.”

This trail-blazer’s heart belonged in UCC.

“UCC campus is one of the most attractive campuses in the world,” says Maureen.

“The surroundings, the chapel among the trees, as well as the beautiful grounds, make the college one of the loveliest landmarks in Cork city.”

Maureen has lovely memories of growing up in Midleton too.

“My mother is from Midleton, my father a Dubliner who loved the city,” says Maureen.

“My mother, who passed away eight years ago, was so centred in Midleton, that even when we were away on holidays in France or Italy, she talked about the town and the people there.

“One of our favourite outings was to the Midleton Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. Going there for a few messages took hours! My mother knew everyone. She had a wonderful sense of continuity. I have it as well.”

Madge kept her daughter up-to-date in community affairs.

“She’d fill me in about neighbours and their children whenever I was home.

“Midleton was always full of stories about how people’s lives played out. Everybody knew everybody else,” says Maureen.

“You don’t have that in the city, it is a much smaller circle, with people’s lives very much like your own.”

What is her new book, Your One Wild And Precious Life, all about?

“Well, it has taken me three years to research and write it!” says Maureen.

“The book is about how you develop and change from the moment you are born until the moment you die; the human life cycle.”

Unlike in Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It, where the sad Jaques portrays the seven acts of man, Maureen says, now we are living longer, there are ten stages to our lives.

“Unlike previous generations, we no longer expect to leave education forever in our twenties, be ready for the mortgage and 2.4 kids in our thirties, have one career until retirement, give up on love or adventure or intellectual challenges as we age. We have longer to grow up!” says Maureen.

“The period between middle-age and old age is a whole other stage. Half the people today in their late 60s or early 70s consider themselves in middle age. How young you feel, how you think about your life is very relevant to your health.”

Maureen doesn’t rest on her laurels, she runs her own business, providing leadership skills to organisations and businesses including multi-nationals.

Apart from her work, she is passionate about her grand-children and passionate about cooking.

“I love cooking. I love everything to do with it.

“Even though the last few years at Christmas my daughter cooked for 11 of us at her home in Cork. She didn’t allow me to lift a finger. I got the five-star treatment!

“Now there’s a new member in the family; I may get to cook more often for her and the family.”

Does Maureen think children in today’s modern world are indulged too much?

“I don’t,” she says. “Childhood is over soon enough. I believe in giving them all their little heart’s delight. I remember as a child, my mother and my grandmother giving me lots of dolls. I had nine dolls at one time! I had a state-of the-art dolls’ pram too. My father gave me books.”

What about smartphones?

“I don’t think any child under 12 should have a smartphone,” says Maureen.

“The possibility of bullying and easy access to pornography is too great.

“I don’t see why there is an assumption that it is a human right to have technology at our finger-tips. The old Nokia phone was sufficient.

“I never use my phone for the internet, only calls, or WhatsApp-ing my friends, and email, which is essential for my job. I prefer to read the newspaper.”

Maureen’s husband, John, has taken a leaf out of his wife’s book.

“He’s given up using the smartphone!” says Maureen.

So now he can enjoy his wife’s passion of home cooking even more?

“I make time for that,” says Maureen. “I’m a great cook!”

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