An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Monday, June 27, 2005  

Greatest Woman - this week's ST

Conspiracy theories apart, the right woman won

In the end, justice was done. For a few days it appeared that we would expose ourselves to international ignominy by voting Michelle Smith as Ireland’s greatest woman in a telephone poll organised by the Marian Finucane show on RTE Radio 1.
Those Olympic medals may be tarnished in the eyes of the right-on liberal establishment, but there is an inexplicably large element of the population that subscribes to bizarre conspiracy theories surrounding the discovery of whiskey in the swimmer’s out-of-competition urine sample. They phoned in their thousands for what they thought was the ‘Ireland’s greatest victim’ competition.

The Irish penchant for the underdog and pity for the sinner is rarely subject to the scrutiny of the world’s press, who were titillated by the Smith story. Fortunately, sense prevailed and Nano Nagle, founder of the Presentation order, took the gold.

The poll was always going to be problematical; how does one define greatness? It can be measured in terms of achievement in one’s field, through personal bravery, bringing glory to one’s country or through great works that improve the lives of others. Even if Smith’s reputation were intact, personal success should not qualify one for the position of “greatest”.

If the poll had been for men, perhaps Peter Sutherland would have been nominated. His unfortunate but increasing resemblance to a large slug has not deterred the European Commission, the WTO and Goldman Sachs from appointing him to senior positions, earning him a fortune. But his success would never be confused with greatness.

A more relevant comparison could be drawn by crossing the water to examine the careers of Steve Redgrave and Winston Churchill. Redgrave is surely the greatest Olympian, having won five consecutive gold medals in the games for the endurance test that is rowing. But in the BBC’s greatest Briton competition he was no match for Churchill, whose inspirational leadership saved the country during the second world war.

I was relieved Mary Robinson didn’t win the RTE competition. The former president gets a lot of credit for what one biography calls the “universally acknowledged most successful presidency in the history of the state”. While that universal acknowledgement exists, I am not convinced it is correct.

Robinson’s greatest achievements stem from her days as a barrister when she won important human rights for travellers, women and homosexuals. True, she came from a privileged background which facilitated a fine education. But she justified this investment with her determination, and used the law to bring about much-needed social change.

Things become a little murkier when her presidency is examined. Her election in 1990 was by no means secure until Brian Lenihan’s campaign imploded. But it is her supposed achievement in transforming the presidency that irks me.

Her principal triumph was in securing more money for the post, which allowed her to entertain on a more elaborate and frequent scale than previous incumbents. But unless Ireland wanted a queen rather than a president, I fail to see why this was so significant. As far as the constitutional role of the presidency can be judged, it is clear that Patrick Hillery was her superior.

In the 1970s, the presidency was beset by controversy. Erskine Childers died of a heart attack only a year after his election in 1973. Then, two years into his term, Cearbhall O Dalaigh resigned after the infamous “thundering disgrace” remarks by Paddy Donegan. When Hillery, a former Fianna Fail minister and European commissioner, was asked to take over, what the country desperately needed was stability. This he provided, never more so than in 1982 when he stood up to his former cabinet colleagues and refused to yield to pressure to reject Garret FitzGerald’s request for a dissolution of the Dail. Given that this is one of the few constitutional powers possessed by the president, it is facetious to compare Hillery’s enormous constitutional test with Robinson’s tea parties.

Robinson’s career is far from over, and should she one day manage to overcome the hostility of the American government it is possible that she will become secretary-general of the United Nations. Only in the twilight of her life will we be able to judge her overall contribution and worthiness for the title of greatest woman in Ireland.

Fortunately, there were other nominees in the competition whose work changed the lives of others. I am not referring to the mythical St Brigid, regardless of the attractiveness of her eponymous cross. Nor Grace O’Malley, the supposed pirate, who probably rowed around in a currach rather than a majestic sailing ship.

Apart from legend and sentimentality, there were some extraordinary women nominated who, I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before. Dr Kathleen Lynn pioneered the BCG vaccination movement. Nora Herlihy founded the credit union movement in Ireland in the 1950s in response to the plight of women desperately trying to manage their finances.

Nagle’s victory is to be welcomed, however. Another woman of wealthy background and fine education, she risked everything to leave a legacy from which every Irish woman is a beneficiary. Throwing away her reputation, battling the state in penal times, and persuading her rich family to back her, Nagle established schools for Irish girls.

The class struggle often focuses on education as the path to freedom. For Irish women, Nagle’s pioneering willingness to provide them with the means of their escape creates a debt which has now been repaid.

It was a close call though. Just 3.7% separated Nagle and Smith at the finish line. But, as Michelle might argue, a win is a win.

posted by Sarah | 11:25 1 comments
But only 15K people voted in total - not very representitive. 1.5m people voted for the final of eurostar...
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