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Graeme Cooper

Fair City's Úna Kavanagh 'I had a social welfare book called 'Unmarried Mother's Allowance''

Today, RTÉ will air an all female episode of Fair City, interlacing narratives of strong female characters, writes Úna Kavanagh.

I RECENTLY VISITED Robben Island prison in South Africa and was profoundly moved by how the prisoners under shoot to kill policy cared for each other. “Each One – Teach One” rings out in my mind. The mantra of Mandela.

Those who could read and write took one prisoner who couldn’t and taught them. They broke lime rock in a quarry day after day.

Today those prisoners are professors all over the world.

What would it mean to me if I couldn’t read or write?

I value my education so much. It gave me such a beginning in life. As a young single mother I struggled, but achieving a BA and MA from The National College Of Art and Design, changed my life and my young daughter’s life in a profound way.

It pulled me out of a difficult life and gave me a chance in the world. All children deserve a good education, but in the poorest countries girls are denied it more often than boys.

Education is vital for moving out of poverty. Every additional year of school that a girl completes increases her future earnings, which is good for her family, her community and her country.

I look at my daughter today. She had the choice of education and holds two degrees. That makes me feel proud and happy. All daughters deserve to get an education.

#BeBoldForChange campaign this year for IWD 

It was not that long ago that a woman in this country couldn’t sit on a jury, as any Irish citizen who sat on a jury had to be property owners according to the 1927 Juries Act, thus excluding the majority of women.

Before 1976 they were unable to own their home outright. Our mothers could not collect the Children’s Allowance because in 1944, the legislation that introduced the payment of child benefits to parents specified they could only be paid to the father.

Irish women could not choose their official place of residence. Once married, a woman was deemed to have the same “domicile” as her husband. Women could not get the same pay for jobs as men.

In March 1970, the average hourly pay for women was five shillings, while that for men was over nine. The majority of women were paid less than male counterparts.


The list went on and on

Yes, while many laws have changed and our rights have been somewhat addressed, there is more, much much more to achieve nationally and internationally. IWD is a day, one day, given to highlight these and many more issues regarding women.

In our very recent history the Magdalen laundries in Ireland were still open. 30,000 women were enslaved by the state, and 30,000 families destroyed by it. The last laundry closed its doors only in the 1990s.

In the 1980s, I was the owner of a social welfare book called “Unmarried Mother’s Allowance”, and every day I felt the label of a church and a state.

The mother and child homes also existed. It could have been me incarcerated.

Women in this country, in our lifetime, shamed and blamed

Only in the past few days the names of the children found in the mass burial ground in Tuam were released, because of the tireless work of historian Catherine Corless.

We are indebted to her for tearing open this despicable history so now we can remember with respect and dignity the children who lived their short lives in this home. As a woman and mother my heart breaks.

This is our country, our shared history, our inheritance of injustices. It is important to keep highlighting and standing in solidarity with women fighting for their own justice.

So what now?

What needs to be done? As women? As mothers and daughters? For our nation and all?

We must keep going as a family in solidarity. On IWD we give voice. We stand. As a movement, a body to challenge the systems of discrimination. Even in small ways.

I remember as a 13-year-old, asking my history teacher why all my books were written from the perspective of “he” rather than “she” or “one”.

I would read the same set of sentences with the “she” pronoun to demonstrate this and was told to sit down. I went to The National Library to research women in the 1916 Rising because I didn’t believe there was only one.

I had an innate curiosity instinctively about discrimination. It still exists, even in the current climate of the arts.

Inequality in the arts

The Waking The Feminists movement was created to address the blatant inequities of gender discrimination. Women In Film and Television was launched too. A new commitment came from The Irish Film Board to address gender inequality.

MAM (Mothers and makers) was created with particular emphasis on coming together in solidarity with mothers who face challenges working in the arts so they do not become isolated and invisible.

Today, RTÉ will air an all female episode of Fair City. This groundbreaking episode interlaces narratives of strong female characters with contemporary challenges. An episode that highlights the complexities of the everyday lives of ordinary women of all ages.

This unique episode is a joy to be a part of but also special to me because of the current storyline for Heather. It exposes the challenges that a family face trying to deal with a health service which is failing them, and a very vulnerable woman who is trying to cope with the aftermath of a serious brain injury.

Finally, in trying to sum up my thoughts on IWD, I remembered this:

“No matter how small the action, we all have ability to make a difference in the life of someone less fortunate,” Nelson Mandela.

Úna Kavanagh has a BA and MA from the National College Of Art and Design, Dublin. She has worked extensively across disciplines for over 25 years in her native Ireland, UK, America, France and the Middle East. Her practice ranges from extensive work in theatre, film, television and radio, to her artistic collaborations.

Kate Beaufoy: ‘Who cares about the carers? I was a fit fifty when I took on a job of care. I nearly cracked up’>

‘I had to come to terms with the fact that at my age, I was unemployable’>


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