Cork politician was a shining example for Mná na hÉireann

In the latest of our ‘She’s Inspirational’ series, NICOLA DEPUIS looks at the inspiring life of Cork woman Eileen Desmond - politician and social welfare reformer
Cork politician was a shining example for Mná na hÉireann

Eileen Desmond was in the political arena for more than 20 years.

EILEEN Desmond was a woman of great resolve. Over the course of more than 20 years in the political arena, she championed the rights of women to equal pay, divorce and contraception.

Following Constance Markievicz, she became the second woman ever to hold a senior cabinet post. One of her greatest achievements was an unprecedented increase of 25% in social welfare payments during an economic depression.

Eileen Harrington was born on December 29, 1932, in Kilcolman, Kinsale. Her mother Ellen Harrington, née Walsh, was a seamstress and her father Michael was a postman and part-time fisherman.

Eileen grew up in a council cottage with her sister Patricia, who was 13 months her junior. Eileen inherited a respect for education and an interest in world events from her father, while her mother taught her to never follow rules blindly. Although Ellen was a religious woman, she was never one to adhere to strict religious regulations.

At the age of 17, Eileen moved to Dublin by herself where she took up the position of civil servant with the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. In Dublin, surrounded by the tenements and slums of the late 1940s, Eileen experienced real poverty for the first time in her life and was deeply affected by it. She became a volunteer with the Legion of Mary and took a night-time course in social studies.

At the age of 19, Eileen met Dan Desmond, a TD from Crosshaven, who offered to drive her home for Christmas. At the time very few people owned cars and so a lift from a TD was considered a big deal. A relationship blossomed between the pair and they were married in 1955.

As a result of the marriage bar that prohibited married women from working as civil servants, Eileen was forced to resign from her job.

Tragedy struck only eight years later when Dan, by then deputy leader of the Labour Party, died while being treated in hospital for tuberculosis. Eileen was left a widow with two young children at the age of 32.

Dan’s death caused a by-election in the mid-Cork region and Eileen, who was recovering from tuberculosis at the time, was asked to run in it.

Having acquired a working knowledge of the political world, she put her name forward and soon became one of the youngest members of the Dáil.

From the outset, Eileen was devoted to improving the lot of women. She was angry at the marriage bar and the huge differences in pay between women and men working in the same jobs. She wanted to put an end to discrimination and financial injustice.

One of her major roles during the early years was in helping illiterate people to fill out social welfare and medical card forms. Her sense of kindness and sensitivity attracted the disenfranchised, who had been cast aside by various TDs in the past.

In the 1970s, Eileen was involved with then Labour senator Mary Robinson in the landmark case of Cork woman Josie Airey, who took the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights and successfully challenged the lack of free legal aid in civil cases. Prior to this case, Josie had been unable to obtain a legal separation from her husband because she couldn’t afford the necessary legal fees. This ground-breaking case led to the establishment of the family law courts.

Eileen was instrumental in introducing divorce bills to Catholic Ireland, providing the framework for the eventual lifting of the ban on divorce in 1995.

She was highly vocal on the issue of legalising contraception in Ireland, a public stance that resulted in her being denounced from the pulpit for promoting immorality.

She was also involved in pressuring the then Minister for Health, Charlie Haughey, to improve the working conditions of nurses and to elevate nursing to the standard of a profession in Ireland.

As Eileen’s sister, Patricia, was a nurse, Eileen had heard first-hand about the mistreatment nurses were all too often subjected to from the hierarchy of the medical world.

Eileen was elected to the European Parliament in the 1979 European elections for the Munster constituency. She returned to domestic politics again in 1981 when a Fine Gael/ Labour Party coalition came to power and appointed her Minister for Health and Social Welfare. Eileen was now in a position to impact upon national legislation.

However, a few weeks after her appointment her health failed and she suffered a life-threatening haemorrhage. Despite this, when a major political dispute meant that, without her crucial vote the government would fall, Eileen was taken by ambulance from Cork to Dublin and carried into Leinster House on a stretcher. This incident became a source of great conflict within Eileen’s family, who feared she was sacrificing her health in her dogged pursuit of better rights for her constituents.

While still recovering from her illness, Eileen set about tackling the double portfolio of health and social welfare. She announced a new National Combat Poverty Agency and she fought for and gained an historically high 25% rise in social welfare payments.

During the abortion debate, Eileen made it perfectly clear from the outset that she was pro-choice, despite the fact that TDs suspected of not supporting the pro-life movement received mountains of hate mail and harassing phone calls.

At a debate in the Dáil, she declared: “We already have a ban on divorce in our Constitution and it has done untold damage over the years. Under no circumstances will I support another constitutional ban on an issue that affects the lives and health of women.”

Eileen died on January 6, 2005, aged 72. At her funeral. Michael McCarthy, the Labour Party senator for Cork South West, praised ‘her formidable but understated abilities’ and declared that ‘her legacy is to Mná na hÉireann, who have a shining example of what can be achieved, whatever the barriers or prejudice, to advance the interests of all of us.’.

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