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Maureen O'Carroll TD 1913-1984
University College Galway graduate, BA, 1935
By Mary J. Murphy
Although sometimes called ‘Little Mo’ in jest, usually by political detractors in Dublin, the only ‘little’ thing about the mighty powerhouse that was Maureen McHugh O’Carroll was her stature. A graduate of Galway University 80 years ago, Maureen was an extraordinary woman who packed enough into her 71 years to fill three lives. All who knew her spoke of her remarkable presence and the adjectives just keep on rolling when people tried to pin down the unusual reserves of energy she possessed. The vitality. The verve. The vim, vigour and determination. The chutzpah and sheer unstoppability that were contained inside her modest little frame were obvious to all as her defining characteristics.
This woman, the mother of the well known Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll, Eilish O’Carroll and their eight siblings, was Ireland’s first female Labour TD, elected in Dublin North Central in 1954. Prior to marrying Gerard O’Carroll in Dublin in 1936, she had been a Novitiate in Jesus and Mary College in Gortnor Abbey in Crossmolina, where she had boarded as a secondary school student.
There, she was known as Julia or Julia Mary McHugh, her father having been the Caherlistrane-born journalist, Michael J. McHugh. His own drive, determination and energy levels were also remarked upon by contemporaries and he too led a singularly productive life.
As an 18 year old, Michael McHugh wrote startlingly mature articles in the local Tuam Herald newspaper, and went on to work in The Freeman’s Journal in Dublin in the early 1900s. That’s where Maureen was born, in Manor Street, in 1913. Michael was an intelligent, educated man who was heavily involved in Gaelic League circles in the capital. He was also a documented 1916 combatant in Dublin during the Rising, a member of Michael Collins’ intelligence inner circle around the Castle, a linotype operator, a man who wrote a version of the Bible in Irish, a trusted member of the IRB, and one of the original 1913 Irish Volunteers, well known to people like Piaras Beaslaí and Seán MacDermott.
As a matter of some interest, McHugh is one of two (at least) Caherlistrane-born participants in the Rising, the other being Eva O’Flaherty of Lisdonagh House. Eva, the first cousin of the poet, Eva of The Nation, ran St. Colman’s Knitting Industries on Achill Island for 50 years before her death at almost 90 in 1963. She was a great friend of Seán MacDermott, was a bicycle courier of some description around the GPO in 1916, (and was the subject of my second book).
Maureen McHugh was the oldest of Michael McHugh and Elizabeth O’Dowd’s four children, and her father was by far the greatest influence on her as a child. When he died in 1924 , Maureen was in her teens, and told her own daughter Eilish that he had left an indelible mark on her. “He believed that education was the key”, explained Eilish.
“He loved all things Gaelic. He led my mother to believe that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anything she wanted to be. Hence her amazing record in politics and social affairs”.
And amazing it was because Maureen was actively involved in social housing matters, and in the Lower Prices Commission, set up after WW II to try and counteract profiteering on the black market. Housewives were finding it impossible to afford basic foodstuffs for their families, and Maureen was right there in the middle of that fray from the 1940s on. Other women active in that arena at the time were Mairéad McGuinness (mother of Proinsias MacAonghusa and mother-in-law of Judge Catherine McGuinness), and Jill Tweedy of the Irish Housewives Association, not at all as innocuous a grouping as its quaint title might suggest.
Many’s the politician at the time felt its teeth, including (the likes of) Seán Lemass, then Supplies Minister. While in the Dáil, Maureen was also instrumental in setting up the Ban Gardaí (who formed a guard of honour at her funeral in 1984), and was actively involved too in having the status of illegitimacy removed from birth certificates. She also had a huge interest in matters pertaining to the adoption of Irish children to the United States.
Maureen served as the first female Chief Whip of the Labour Party, and in between raising ten of her own children, plus another cherished addition, she lived a ‘normal’ life with cabinet-maker husband Gerard, in Finglas.
Eilish O’Carroll remembers her mother as having been a great reader, usually having The Irish Times propped up in front of her when she was doing the dishes. The telephone hopped interminably and the door bell ringing constantly, as endless callers came to seek Maureen’s assistance for innumerable causes. Brendan O’Carroll, her son, is the creator of the Mrs. Brown’s Boys TV series, and his older sister, Eilish, plays Winnie McGoogan in that show.
A formidable woman in every respect, Maureen O’ Carroll proceeded to storm the social barricades following her graduation from Galway University in 1935, righting wrongs and fighting injustices. That’s because she was forced to resign her teaching post barely a year later, upon her marriage to Gerard O’Carroll – that was the fuel that flamed her passion for reform.
Maureen O Carroll’s extensive links with Galway are explored in a new book called Caherlistrane by this writer, launched by Eilish O’Carroll in October 2015.