Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Nov 2016






Professor PATRICIA COUGHLAN, Emeritus Professor of English in University College Cork, on 2 November 2016, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, on NELL McCAFFERTY

A Sheansailéir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile,


It is an honour and a pleasure to offer a brief account of a person who, as they say, needs no introduction: Nell McCafferty is a person of national importance and is held in high esteem and affection by very many Irish people. Today’s award is a welcome and timely act of recognition for a radical, often galvanizing figure in the recent and contemporary history of our island.


Summary biography

Born in Derry in 1944, educated at QUB; secretary, NI Labour Party, 1968-70; co-founder, Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, Dublin 1970; Award-winning journalist and broadcaster. In the Eyes of the Law (1981); A Woman to Blame (1985, 2010); 2 selections of short journalism (1984, 1987).


Multi-faceted life’s work

First activism, then journalism, the two continuous with and arising out of each other.


Derry childhood

… as luminously rendered in the opening parts of her 2004 autobiography Nell.

Motif throughout, clearly shown as foundational to McCafferty’s own thoughts, writing, and life: the love and strength of Lily, her mother, and the mutual sustaining by Bogside women in a warm communal milieu.



Social justice (North; then Republic, c. 1970 on); Nell’s extensive work in civil rights’ activism in the North of Ireland was succeeded by her prominence in what was then known as “Women’s Liberation”, now more usually called “the women’s movement”.  


Her impulse of resistance to patent injustice was first formed in her Derry upbringing, at the sharp end of flagrant and systemic ethnic and sectarian discrimination. (Nell’s younger contemporary Bernadette Devlin called Derry “the capital city of injustice”). With exceptional drive, intelligence and courage, McCafferty has brought to bear on her whole adult life and work her close-up witnessing - and her direct experience - of material hardship and entrenched prejudice, in an utterly polarized society which was also petrified to and beyond the point of sclerosis. During and after her time at Queen’s University Belfast, her always-questioning spirit brought her to play an active role in the late-1960’s emergence of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, where her activist gifts and her capacity for critique of the status quo broadened and took a politically coherent shape, in the crucible of street protest and focused resistance.


Dublin 1970 onwards

She carried both the concrete insights, and the formidable capacity for critique, acquired in that experience, to her work in Dublin, where she moved in 1970 and became a professional journalist. This took two principal forms: her court reports for the Irish Times, later collected in the volume In the Eyes of the Law (1981); and her leadership in the Irish women’s movement.


The court reports are brilliant examples of what John Horgan calls “eyewitness journalism”: marked by understated wit, immediacy and a sharp eye for appearance, speech, action, and especially the absurd, they show the underbelly of the Irish social system as revealed in daily court encounters: a perspective both coruscating and searing.  These reports focus largely on the lives of people often rendered invisible to the Irish elite and most of the middle classes: the economically disadvantaged, inner-city dwellers, women, children, and other disempowered and marginal figures. (It would be more than two decades before Frank McCourt’s similarly revelatory Angela’s Ashes appeared, followed by other such narratives of obscure, disregarded lives).


Throughout her writing, Nell has always disturbed and flouted conventional arrangements, including that recourse to selective vision which enables unjust social arrangements to persist without significant alteration, and governing élites to prevail regardless of mass exclusion, North and South alike.


Nell’s major role in the Irish women’s movement

A founder member of the IWLM, Dublin [cite chair, packed Mansion Hse meeting, FD report, get date ref]


Women’s bodily, reproductive and sexual lives in Ireland

Sociologist Brian Inglis sees an “ongoing struggle [in Ireland since the 1970s] between taken-for-granted ‘traditions’ and newly emerging… meaning systems which [as he puts it] had very different understandings of women and sex.” (269) McCafferty’s “very different understanding” was expressed most brilliantly and forcefully in her 1985 book A Woman to Blame, now recognised as a classic both of eyewitness journalism and of women’s writing, about a scandal which marks a watershed moment in the painful emergence of contemporary Ireland: the 1984 Joanne Hayes or “Kerry Babies” case (Cork UP recently reprinted the book).



(The death of teenager Ann Lovett, and of her newborn infant, in childbirth, also in 1984, also stands in modern Irish memory as a signal instance of systemic Irish silence and denial concerning sexuality, the body, and reproduction, especially as this system bears upon and, as in this instance, victimizes, women. Nell’s short piece on Ann Lovett is reproduced in John Horgan’s 2013 selection of Great Irish Reportage.


”McCafferty argued that the [Kerry Babies] Tribunal was another incidence of hypocritical, prejudicial, moralising men standing in judgement over women, particularity in relation to their purity, fertility and sexuality…  [She observed] “a long line of moral policemen including bishops, priests, politician, doctors and pharmacists who, long before Joanne Hayes came to public attention, had controlled the lives of Irishwomen” (Inglis 227)


In an example receiving national prominence, Nell spoke in a - soon-notorious - Late LateShow Special in 1971, [with others including Mary Robinson on gender inequities in the Irish legal system], Nell addressed the plight of deserted wives, single mothers and widows, trenchantly showing how they were civilly disadvantaged by the Irish familist system which enshrined male dominance. Extensive reforms between then and now have rectified most of the gross inequities of that period; the perceived flagrancy of such radical challenges to the system in that period is difficult now to convey. (Yet the standard history observes of this occasion that “the behaviour and demands of the outspoken women were considered outrageous and bizarre”(Connolly(2002) 118)). Nell was at the forefront of those demonstrating [the new character of the collective women’s social movement], and the energy of young women, consciousness-raising and a concrete, radical politics(Connolly 120).


Bearing witness to lesbian and gay identities and lived lives

In 40-60’s Derry, lesbian orientation was unnameable (as was unmarried pregnancy, desertion by husband, child sexual abuse), not unknown or unrecognized, but, like these other matters, not mentionable to “a holy priest” though 17-yr-old Nell received calm unfazed advice from “the head nun”.


Quest …for emotional & sexual fulfilment

And, especially in her 2004 autobiography, she eloquently expresses the pain of the rejection of lesbian identity, in context of equally powerful representation of the power of the social construction of women according to governing marriage-and-children roles (she doesn’t use the theoretical language developed by feminist social thought in order to critique the subordination of women, but she unmistakably does that thinking). All her writing is shot through with a quicksilver humour, often of a dark kind.


This quest is intertwined throughout (e.g. in autobiography) with her radical ideological and political dissent, protest, and principled activism.

Here (and knowing it may make Nell laugh), I’d like to quote the Bible, borrowing the words of Paul (himself no great feminist) in his Epistle to the Ephesians 6.12.: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places”.


Underpinning Nell McCafferty’s lifelong gadfly role of - with vivid humour - calling out hypocrisy, exclusion, and oppression, wherever they are at work, has been the patent evidence of her underlying, unifying - and, of course, forever elusive - goal: freedom and justice, in the conduct of life and love and in the pursuit of happiness. It is in the interest of this goal that she has spoken truth to power, and for that we duly honour her.



Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hanc meam filiam, quam scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneam esse quae admittatur, honoris causa, ad Gradum Doctoratus in Litteris, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondee, totique Academiae.



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