BIG READ: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald's special connection with Glen of Aherlow

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Martin Quinn

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Martin Quinn

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Tipperary Tipperary Tipperary

Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald

Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald, has a strong connection to Tipperary and particularly to the Glen of Aherlow.

I wanted to find out more about this so I had a Zoom call with the lady herself and had a great conversation with her about her memories of childhood holidays in the Glen of Aherlow.

Mary Lou’s mother is Johanna (Joanie) Hayes from Gortavoher in the Glen of Aherlow. She was educated by the Dominican Sisters and later married Patrick McDonald and they lived in Rathgar. Joan and Patrick had four children, two boys and two girls, and Mary Lou is the second eldest.

Recounting her time spent in the Glen of Aherlow she says that while she is a very proud Dub she also considers Tipperary to be home.

“Every summer we would travel by train or car to Tipperary to the home of my grandmother, Molly Hayes. Molly (née Black) was married to John Hayes and they farmed in Gortavoher.

“Coming to a farm in the Glen of Aherlow was pure magic and enriching and exploring the Glen and roaming the fields and the mountains was like something out of a story book.

“In travelling down to Tipperary once we caught sight of the magnificent and iconic Christ the King statue we always felt that we were home and on arrival Molly would be standing outside to welcome and greet us. It was the start of our summer adventure and the memories are long lasting and wonderful,” she said.

Mary Lou explained that Molly’s house is still regarded as home to them as her mother was born there and her cousin still lives there.

She says that her summers in the Glen gave her a great feeling and understanding of rural life which she has carried with her in her political career.

“While we roamed the hills and fields around the Glen of Aherlow we also herded the cows with my uncle Liam and watched the milking progress from milking by hand to automation and the lorry arriving to collect for the creamery.

"It wasn’t all about life on the farm it was also about going to Mass in Lisvernane dressed in our Sunday best, going into Moroney’s shop in the village and also going into Tipperary Town. The trips to Tipp were a major highlight for us as it meant a visit to Kiely’s and to the bakery there.

“My great grandmother was Hannah Kiely so we always got special treatment when we were there and Larry Kiely would come out in his white coat to welcome us and to give us some pocket money, which we very gratefully received!

“I remember that my first time seeing a person of colour was when I was in the Glen. I was fixated by this incredibly beautiful looking woman, dressed very colourfully and she had a beautiful smile. My grandmother explained that she had married a local man and was living in the area.

“These are all very precious memories that I treasure from my time on holidays there,” she said.

I asked Mary Lou about the history of republicanism in the Glen and about people like Dinny Lacy who was killed in an action against Free State Troops at Ballydavid, Bansha and the O’Dwyer brothers from the same area who were murdered at their home by Crown Forces on October 18, 1920, and if she was aware of this history during her childhood in the Glen.

“Yes I would have been aware of the names and of the stories of Dinny Lacy and the O’Dwyers and others such as Dan Breen. My grandmother was a strong republican but she didn’t speak much about the war because she had her own trauma during that period.

"Her brother James O’Connor was executed by the Free State side during the civil war and this had a lasting effect on her. He worked on the railway and was engaged to a local girl Esther Quirke. It was a devastating loss and one that Molly carried with her all her life.

“Our family still talk about James and about the trauma visited on the family at that time.

“In order to understand history and to appreciate and know what was involved in the struggle for Irish independence it is therefore important to remember and commemorate this week Seán Treacy and the O’Dwyer Brothers, and all those who gave so much for the cause of independence 100 years ago. We owe them so much and we must never forget their role in the struggle."

I also asked Mary Lou about the violence inflicted on women during the War of Independence/Civil War as depicted in the TG4 documentary ‘Cogadh Ar Mhná’ (the women’s war) and though she hasn’t as yet seen the documentary she is very glad that it was aired.

“If you look at the history of war across countries and continents you will find many examples of sexual violence and gender based violence against women. We need to develop a complete understanding of conflicts and for that to be realised women’s stories must be told. The violence perpetrated against women has been mainly untold so it is important that a light is shone on it and I am glad that their stories of suffering, no matter how difficult it is to hear, are being aired in a public forum.”

Concluding the interview it was back to focus on the Glen of Aherlow and its impact as one of Ireland’s greatest scenic spots.
“The Glen is one of Ireland’s unsung gems. My uncle Liam used to say that it was ‘the last place that God made’ indicating an uncharted place. Much of the Glen is accessible now through nature and walking routes but it’s about keeping a balance between maintaining that accessibility and ensuring that the unspoilt beauty of the area remains intact. To experience a rich, rural and stunningly beautiful environment there is no other place I would rather be than the Glen of Aherlow, the place I also call home.”