Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

An Irish Life. Nell McCafferty in interview.

Nell McCafferty’s autobiography, Nell, published in November 2004, is full of great stories both from the civil rights, and women’s struggles. Despite dealing with deadly serious issues, McCafferty says feminism was fun. Her wit, compassion and sense of the ridiculous, used with such great effect in her journalism and campaigning, are much in evidence throughout the book.“We enjoyed the struggle, at least at the beginning. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, the obstacles to women were incredible, ludicrous, and stood out like a sore thumb. Ireland was full of men in suits who never had to deal with the likes of us before, and to see them challenged by someone as formidable as Mary Robinson – it was great. It is terrific if you are a revolutionary and you can achieve the revolution in a short time!“

Although not now actively involved with any organisation, McCafferty is still considered a prominent feminist, and regularly asked to “do gigs”. They day we met, she was due to speak later that evening on the subject “Has feminism gone too far”. She says the organisers have assumed she would be on the politically correct side, but “perhaps they should not be so sure”. She says she wonders if life has really become better for women as they deal with all the new pressures of juggling work and home, marriage breakdown, and running several families. “At first it was so simple, the obstacles so obvious. Now you are dealing with all the complicated stuff – three jobs, childcare, commuting, three children by three fathers. I do not have the answer, and I am glad I don’t have to deal with it. My excuse is always: don’t ask the prophet for a blueprint! I prophecised that we must work outside the home, but I never said how it would be done exactly. I just sketched the big picture, someone else deal with the details. I have forgiven myself for not providing the blueprint: that is not my job – someone has to look at the big picture first! I keep asking, and I really want to know, how are you going to make it work? Who is out there looking for a solution? I am bemused there is no great cry from women, and men; but I guess it is just a fallow period at the moment. Change will come. I think it takes 20 – 30 years for each generational change to really seep through. And jobs for women outside the home have only really happened in Ireland in the last ten years. But I do wonder, are you all happier now!? “

It is interesting that the role model for this feminist prophet was a traditional homemaker – her mother Lily. Central to McCafferty’s book is a fascinating and moving portrait of her mother, a truly remarkable woman who seems also to embody McCafferty’s statement about women sanctioning the revolution – as well as feeding the revolutionaries! Lily jumps off the pages and we see clearly how she inspired and supported Nell throughout her life. “My mother was one of the last of the full-time homemakers. We lived like royalty, she did everything for us. She never had her own job, and I know she would have liked to have her own money and not have to wait for my dad to hand it over. But she loved looking after us, and lots of other people too: she always had an open house where everyone was welcome. In 1968, when we were all reared, in a way she was redundant – but then civil rights happened, she became active in local politics and her house became a political salon and part-time refuge. Our house was always at the heart of the local community, and my mother was very much at the centre of it. All the neighbours came to my mother with their problems. There were a lot of things people could not talk about –but mammy would talk about it for them!”

However the one thing that could not be discussed was the fact that Nell was gay. Despite their terrific relationship, it remained a closed subject. Yet McCafferty opens her book with
a declaration of her sexuality. She says she was “terrified” of her mother’s reaction. “Once the book was out there could be no ambiguity anymore.At the start, I was not sure if I could publish it while she was still alive. When I started the book, I decided to write everything down, and said to myself I could always take things out! But when it was done, – well, I felt this was the time, I had to be honest. So I took a deep breath and sent it off. I was terrified though, of how my mother and the neighbours, our street, would react. They have been through everything else – war, wife beating, rape, marriage breakdown –this was the last taboo. “

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