TO mark the ground-breaking 100th anniversary of women finally winning the right to vote, the Cork city St Patrick’s Day parade Grand Marshal will be made up of a collective of female political representatives, with deceased politicians represented by family members.
In total, there have been 25 female elected representatives in Cork including five female Lord Mayors.
MEP Deirdre Clune, of Fine Gael, was first elected to the Dáil in 1997, succeeding her father, Peter Barry, on his retirement. Her grandfather, Anthony Barry, had also a been a TD. But Deirdre says that “coming from a political family is probably enough to turn you off politics”.
With a background in engineering and a spell working in England, Deirdre moved back to Cork and started a family with her husband. She became involved in community associations including her local Parent Teacher Association. She also became involved in Fine Gael.
“I think I had the realisation that politics is in my blood, whether it’s politics with a small ‘p’ locally or with a bigger ‘P’ in the Dáil. It’s a way of changing things. I came up locally, through the grassroots, which is always good.”
After losing her seat in 2002, Deirdre, a member of Cork City Council from 1999 to 2007, became the 68th Lord Mayor of Cork in 2005. She regained her Dáil seat in 2007 but lost it four years later. She was subsequently elected to the Seanad and was elected to the European Parliament in 2014.
As an MEP in Brussels, Deirdre, a mother of four boys, says the travelling can be tiring. “But it’s easier in that my family are all grown up now. My youngest is 21. When I was travelling to Dublin, there was a lot of juggling,” she said.
One oft-cited reason as to why there is a low representation of women in politics is because political life is not family-friendly.
“I talk to my Swedish colleagues about this. They do a lot of work through telecommunications, in other words, remotely. But you have to be present for the voting.”
Deirdre says there is sometimes “talk of shorter working days at the Dáil, spreading the hours over five days rather than three. But I don’t think that would work if politicians are away from home. This issue goes for men as well as women. A lot of young male politicians are involved in their children’s lives. Politics is hard on family life. You value the time you have at home at weekends.”
None of Deirdre’s sons are interested in going into politics. When she visits schools and talks about the ‘marriage bar’ when female civil servants and other public servants had to resign from their jobs when they got married, with the banks operating a similar policy, the school girls “can’t believe it.”
“While there is “a lot of work to be done in terms of equal gender pay, the gender quota for elections was quite successful the last time. Hopefully, it will encourage more women to get involved in politics,” said the MEP.
Politics is also in the blood of Catherine Clancy who was the Lord Mayor of Cork in 2013/14. She was the first Labour Party woman to hold the position.
“My father was political and my grandfather set up the Fianna Fáil Cuman in Tralee. My father was involved in tenants’ rights. There was an issue to do with increasing the rent of social housing tenants in Cork.”
Catherine also took a stance on the issue and was part of a strike when she was 15 years of age, blocking traffic on the streets outside City Hall. Her father, Thomas, was jailed for two weeks for his involvement in the dispute. Action included taking over Cork City Council chamber, says Catherine.
Catherine, who was a Labour Party councillor from 2009 until 2014, says that being Lord Mayor was a wonderful honour.
“It’s the same chain that Terence McSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain wore. I started the process of having Cork recognised as an age-friendly city.”
Despite women having made in-roads in politics, Catherine, a mother-of -three says “it still involves juggling” and adds: “I started in politics when my children were in secondary school. The year I was Lord Mayor, I was conscious I was missing from the house. I have a wonderful husband who made it easy for me. I left the house and didn’t come back for a year!”
Catherine would like if the Council Chamber wasn’t so male-dominated.
“Even the work place in City Hall is very male dominated. I know we have a female CEO (Ann Doherty) but I’d like to see a more balanced workplace and more play areas for children (in Cork).”
Asked if she ever experienced discrimination in her public service role, Catherine says: “I sometimes found that I’d make a contribution to a discussion and the attitude was ‘now let the real contributor speak’. I felt that once or twice.”
Catherine is on a number of voluntary boards including the Eating Disorder Centre in Cork. She says she never had any ambition to run for the Dáil.
“Politics is a hard and all consuming space to work in. When you come out of it, it’s very hard to go back into it.”
Catherine handed over her Lord Mayor’s chain of office to Mary Shields, a Fianna Fáil councillor, who was Lord Mayor in 2014/15. She was first elected in the local elections in 1999. Based in Bishopstown, Mary, a mother-of-seven, has always been involved in her local community.
“People sought me out to get into politics, rather than me seeking it. Because I was a stay-at-home mum, I had time on my hands and I like to help people. I am now nearly 19 years in City Council.”
Being Lord Mayor, she said, was amazing.
“It was a great privilege and a huge task, but very satisfying. It wasn’t the posh events that I enjoyed the most. It was visiting schools and meeting people.
“The volunteers in Cork are absolutely amazing. There’s a huge band of people out there helping others. That impressed me very much.”
Asked what advice she’d give to people interested in becoming involved in politics, Mary says to think local.
“Join your local Cuman and look around your area and see where you can get involved. That way, people will know you when you arrive at their door.
“When I got involved in politics, I didn’t have any ulterior motive. I did it because I had time on my hands and I love helping out in my community. I never had any inkling to go for the Dáil.
“Politics is particularly difficult for women. Child care is the big issue, across the board.”
Mary will not be voting for abortion up to twelve weeks.
“Maybe the eighth amendment needs to be looked at and tweaked in places but I’m anti-abortion. I would look at it from a humanitarian point of view.”
Representing the late Chrissie Aherne (who was Lord Mayor of Cork in 1989/90) will be her daughter, Irene Sarl, who will be part of the Grand Marshal group. Irene, who is retired from her job as a clerical officer at City Hall, says she is very proud of her mother’s achievement. Chrissie became a Fianna Fáil councillor in the late sixties.
“She died in 1995, at the end of her career,” says Irene. “It was a nice way to go out. She was a great role model for us.
“My father was in the Blackrock Fianna Fáil cuman. When we were young, we licked stamps and put leaflets through doors, helping our dad. He was the one working in the background. Mom was willing to put herself out there. It’s not an easy thing to do although it might be easier now.”
Irene was never tempted to go into politics. “It can be very hard and if you’re in a party, you have to toe the line which wouldn’t exactly be my cup of tea.
“My brother, Pat, who has passed away, was involved in the Cuman doing background work. I’m one of seven and there’s only two of us left. I’m the only daughter left.”
Irene was thrilled to be presented by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, with a portrait of her mother, which was in City Hall. It’s a painting that she will cherish, reminding her of her mother’s pioneering spirit.