Nell Mc Cafferty — Feminist, Activist, Breaker of Irish Taboos

Nell McCafferty Image Credit: Mark Condren

Nell McCafferty spoke out to the nation in 2004, on the Irish Friday night institution of The Late Late Show. She pleaded with the parents of gay young Irish people, asking for their acceptance and love. A poignant first for Irish TV.

Personally, it was the first time I had heard of someone, who was Irish speaking openly about being gay, and in particular, it was the first time I had heard of an Irish woman speaking so openly about being gay — and unashamedly so. She became emotional when she described being gay as the last great taboo in Ireland.

Despite Nell’s public bravado, she shared something shared by many other LGBTQ+ people around the world (not only Irish) — being in fear of how her mother would react. She mentioned whilst speaking with Late Late host Gay Byrne that she only hoped her elderly mother wasn’t watching and that she had been given a sleeping pill, sparing her the shame of worrying what the neighbors would say.

Just Call Me ‘Nell’

Image Credit: Penguin Books

In Nell’s self-titled autobiography, Nell, published in 2004, her writing style is a very Irish combination of cynicism and wit. It is here where you learn about the life of the provocative, feminist, journalist, and activist. You learn about Nell’s coming to terms with her sexuality — and not letting it define her. The book marked Nell’s “official” coming out, she was 60 years old. When speaking with The Guardian she said, “I give them a week to call me a lesbian, then I’ll say it’s getting boring, just call me Nell.”

“…just call me Nell.”

Her words and actions throughout her work as an activist and journalist were lightyears ahead of the time. In particular the defiant actions in a Dublin bar, Neary’s pub. In the early 1970s, Nell and 30 other women entered the bar, each ordering a brandy. The group then ordered a pint of Guinness (it was illegal for women to order a pint unless accompanied by a man as it was deemed ‘unladylike’) and were refused. Nell then drank her brandy and walked out without paying, “He refused to serve, we refused to pay.”

Goodnight Sisters

I continued my reading of Nell’s work by reading ‘Goodnight Sisters’ which was published in 1987. It was here where Nell documented her career as a journalist for The Irish Times. She detailed her time spent in court reporting on cases, she highlighted the cases against women and how they were treated, particularly unmarried women or those from poor areas.

‘Goodnight Sisters’ had a very modern feel to it and it is hard to image that this book was written over 30 years ago. It brought attention to the major social and legal inequality that women in Ireland faced throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The Pill Train

Image Credit: areeyna_ann/ Shutterstock

Nell was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. On May 22nd 1971 Nell and a group of women traveled from Dublin to Belfast, via train in order to but contraception, which was legal in Northern Ireland and illegal in the Republic of Ireland.

On arrival in Belfast the group was informed that in order to obtain ‘the pill’ — the main reason for their trip — they required a doctor’s prescription, which none of the IWLM members had. However, they did buy a load of condoms, aspirin, and spermicide, in a somewhat symbolic act. They refused to hand over the loot when they arrived in Dublin.

“It was the fervent hope of those who embarked upon the Pill Train that the Irish government would arrest us on our return, making us instant martyrs and obliterating all our sins,” Nell wrote. “If you want to progress socially…we told ourselves, the first thing you have to do is go to jail.”

“If you want to progress socially…we told ourselves, the first thing you have to do is go to jail.

A ruling in 1973 stated that marital privacy protected the use of contraceptives by married couples. However, at the same time, the constitution still banned their sale.

Eventually, in 1979 the sale of contraception in Ireland was legalized by the Health (Family Planning) Act, with a doctor’s prescription.

Nell worked hard throughout her career to ensure the voices of those who were discriminated against were heard. Her autobiography gives a fascinating look into her life and her activism. Nell is now 76 years old and lives in Dublin.