It has been nearly five years since Constance Cassidy and her husband Eddie Walsh won their legal battle over right-of-way issues at their Sligo home, Lissadell House. It’s a struggle that, in retrospect, she considers to have been too bruising for her family. But that is in the past. This week, they are launching the first major exhibition at the property, famously the former home of Constance Markievicz, since the court case concluded. Fittingly, given the historical connections of the place, The Voice of Women: 100 Years of Achievement? looks at the progress of women in this country since they won the right to vote.
he heart of the project, Constance explains, is a list of 100 inspirational women they felt had “shaped the Ireland we live in today”. Starting with St Brigid, Grainne Mhaol and Queen Medb of Connaught, the list includes writers, broadcasters, religious figures, artists, sportswomen, journalists, legal professionals, politicians, suffragettes and teachers.
It also includes Constance’s own mother, Eileen Cassidy, a former senator, entered with the caption ‘homemaker, required to resign employment on marriage, 1958, appointed to the Senate, 1977, 1932-1995’.
Like Constance herself, Eileen was a mother of seven. “If I was asked what woman had the hugest influence on me in my life,” she reflects, “I would tell you what most women will tell you, that it was my mother.”
Tragically, both of Constance’s parents died in a car crash, at a time when only three of her children had been born. “That was very sad. She really inspired me very much.”
Their closeness came from the simple fact that her mother really liked her daughters, Constance explains, and even now she looks touchingly delighted at this fact. “I had huge respect for her, and I always tried to lift the burden of hard work. All of us girls were very close to my mother. I’d like to think it was the same with my girls.”
Her parents not being around to see her own children grow up is, she says, still a huge source of sadness; “I’m very sad because I think generations have so much to offer to young people, and one of the saddest things for me is that my mother, and father, died when my children were so very young. Because I think they missed that. I miss it very much.”
She was heavily grieving when her children were very young she recalls, and it took a long time to get over the deaths. “Particularly when both went together. But then I do feel that my father couldn’t have survived without my mother. They were very, very close. Both very hands-on as parents. And completely devoted to each other.” It’s a lesson, she says, that has informed her own marriage, to fellow barrister Eddie Walsh. The couple, now both Senior Counsel, first met in the law library, and will celebrate 30 years of marriage this summer. They will have to throw a party, she muses.
The secret to such longevity? Mutual support. “I’m hugely supported by Eddie, as a mother, as a worker. If I didn’t have that I wouldn’t be as confident as a mother or as a wife as I am. He is a great feminist. And I’m hugely supportive of him too you know. I like him, as well, sometimes,” she says with a gleam.
“What working mother has not taken a look at her life, with the stages of children growing up, and asked herself should I have stayed at home? I certainly have, a number of times. Would my children be better reared? But they all say ‘no, absolutely not’. And my husband says ‘no, you did what you had to do’. But you do question yourself. Every mother does. You cannot judge a mother. Every one of us just does the best we can.”
Constance is, of course, a highly -successful barrister specialising in licensing law, also her father’s area of expertise. Not that he encouraged this career path. “He felt it wasn’t a suitable place for a woman,” she explains, acknowledging, “it was different when I started off as a barrister.” Did she take any notice of his warnings? “No,” she smiles, shrugging dismissively. “I knew I wanted to try it to see if it would work. He said to me ‘go in there now, get yourself a little bit of pin money, a nice young fella and then you can settle down and start a family’. He really meant it. I said ‘OK, Daddy’. As you can see I did a few of those things,” she laughs.
It was her father who banned her from accepting any abbreviation of her name, telling his eldest daughter “you’re very small, very petite, Constance, so insist on your full name”. “So I wasn’t allowed be called Connie.”
Giving up work never occurred to her, she reflects. Being self-employed has been, for her, the key to managing it all. “I can make the time work for me. I can drop the children into school and I can pick them up. My mother didn’t particularly want to give up work. She was a teacher and a librarian. When I was quite small she used to say ‘I loved my job. I didn’t see why I had to give it up’.”
The exhibition is not just a celebration of women’s contribution, but also a examination of how far we have come. It was not, she says, conceived in the context of the #MeToo movement. “I’m not really into those movements. I think each individual has to make his or her choice.” She does not recognise the sort of behaviour being outed in other industries in her own. “It doesn’t really happen in the legal profession, certainly not in my experience anyhow. I don’t work in an office though. In that way I certainly haven’t recognised it.”
Mary McGee, who fought for the right to contraception in 1973, features on the list. “We weren’t allowed to have control of our own bodies at that time. Are we now?” Constance drawls with an interrogatively raised eyebrow, before confirming that she is a firm yes for repeal in the coming vote on the Eighth Amendment.
“My view as the mother of seven is that it is up to each woman individually to make her choice. I am pro life; you can be pro life and pro choice. No woman who is pro abortion takes that decision lightly. Not one woman. I’ve always had the same view which is that it is a matter for a woman herself. Not only will I be voting yes, but all the people in my family will be voting yes, I hope,” she says with a smile towards three of her daughters, Kate, Constance (referred to, despite her mother’s attempts at another ban on abbreviations, as Baby) and Jane, who have by this stage joined us.
Growing up, the girls say they were never conscious of their mother as having an overly busy life. “You were home all the time and you were always making us dinner,” says Kate. “But we’d know what she was doing; she’d obviously talk about her cases and say ‘oh I had a bad day today’, that kind of thing.” Their favourite memory of their mother growing up is the occasions when she would arrive at school, early and unannounced, on a Friday for an impromptu McDonald’s trip.”Ma would knock on the door three hours before home time, and say ‘now guys, who wants to go to McDonald’s?’ She’d just take us out, that was the best thing. ‘It is sunny, so I’m taking my children out’,” recalls Constance (Baby).”The teachers were probably scared of me,” her mother jokingly interjects, before wondering aloud “how could they possibly have been?” No doubt a redoubtable presence in court – all barristers are actors, she tells me – in person Constance is exactly the force of energy you would imagine. Straight to the point “isn’t it wonderful to be self-employed?” she hails me on arrival, she has a wicked sense of humour and a finely developed no nonsense barometer – when one of her daughters suggests a career in politics it is quickly agreed that she couldn’t handle the required plamasing. Her youngest, John is now 15, Elanor the eldest is 25, and she currently has a Junior Cert, a Leaving Cert, and two college final year students in the house. She is unfazed by the idea of the children all eventually moving out: “I don’t think we ever will,” Kate muses. “I don’t care,” says her mother, “they’ll do what suits them, what they want to do in their lives. And I’m so busy that I’ll probably say ‘bye darling, see you soon’.”
“Ma’s not very emotional,” says Kate quizzically. “I don’t think I’m very maternal at all,” Constance admits. “Well she doesn’t want to become a granny any time soon, she’s made that clear,” Kate laughs. “No, no, certainly not. I’ve no interest in that. Look if they go away to Australia or that, they do what they want to do in their lives, and I’ll go and see them as much as I can,” Constance explains. “When you come down to Cork we always have a ball,” Jane reminds her. “We sure do,” her mother laughs with her impish grin.
On Pancake Tuesday, the girls recall, she would get up early to make pancakes for every child in each of her seven’s classes. “She’d make 30 or 40 pancakes for every single kid,” Kate explains. “We’d put them in lunch boxes and bring them into school.”
When Lissadell first opened, the children moved to school in Sligo “so we could go to school and help at the same time, so that Ma would still be with us”. Now, almost five years later, Constance admits she still feels she would not take the case again if she knew what she knows now. “I would never recommend to anybody to be involved in litigation. It is soul destroying. Yes of course I’m glad we won but at the end of it I did feel the price we paid was too much, emotionally, and in every way. And it was very hard on the children. I think they knew, if we didn’t win, it wouldn’t be a good result.”
While she found the aftermath of the case the hardest, Eddie struggled throughout. “It took a lot out of him. I kept going throughout the fight, in the High Court and the Supreme Court. But afterwards, it had more of an effect on me than on him. He pulled his socks up and said ‘grand, that’s fine’, whereas with me I really felt that it was too much on us as a family. And it took me a while to get over that. But you know now, it’s fine. I love being down there, I love talking to people.”
The couple have always been heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the place – the tea rooms, the gardens. They spent the entire Easter holidays there; “we have the place spotless”, she says proudly. “During the court case, Eddie didn’t go down. He just was too emotionally connected to the place. I went down a bit, not much. If you’re asking now, Lissadell is great. The kids go down as much as they can. I try to get them to help tour-guiding or in the tea rooms.”
This week they will host a lunch for the women featured on the list,on Wednesday. Micheal Martin, as leader of the party of which Markievicz was a founding member, will launch the exhibition. The day is an open day with free entry to the exhibition for all women. Eddie has written to Leo Varadkar suggesting an event in December inviting the female political leaders of Europe to Lissadell to celebrate the centenary of Markievicz being elected to Westminster.
Referring to the exhibition’s list of 100 Inspirational Women, Constance points to a “long, long, long silence,” from women in Ireland after the Easter Rising. “Strong women fighting for something they believed in, and then, nothing. Absolutely nothing. If you look at our constitution, the place of the woman is in the home. They were put back in to rear children.”
Constance’s sister Pamela, who works with them, has a sticker with a message which clearly tickles her. It reads ‘A woman’s place is everywhere’. Constance’s own motto is ‘Get on with it’, her family tell me. It could as easily be that on her sister’s sticker.
The Voice of Women: 100 Years of Achievement?, Lissadell House, open day with free entry for women on Wednesday April 11, from 12 noon. Micheal Martin will launch the exhibition early afternoon. lissadellhouse.com
The National Gallery of Ireland exhibition, Countess Markievicz, will run from 27 October – 17 March 2019