Nell McCafferty

Ireland’s best known feminist

Nell McCafferty is one of Ireland’s most provocative and outspoken journalists, activists and commentators. Born in Derry’s Bogside in 1944, McCafferty, or Nell as she is known throughout Ireland, grew up in a city riven with sectarian and political strife, and on the verge of the explosion of the Troubles.

Anyone who knows Derry knows also that it is a city that wears its heart on its sleeve and anybody growing up in the city could not fail to be influenced by its politically charged environment. However, McCafferty’s generation also had the parallel influences of the US civil rights movement and the European student equality movements, and benefited from new legislation enabling working class students to gain a university education. This cocktail of political, social and sexual conflict, blended with a radical generation of newly educated young Catholic nationalists, was to have a revolutionary effect on McCafferty, forging an enduringly strident character.

The young, educated and politicised McCafferty was living in a conservative, Catholic city, largely governed by a minority Protestant population. She rapidly developed a heightened sense of inequality, and believed people were denied access to power because of their religion. This feeling of isolation was compounded by her age and gender, distancing her further from traditional spheres of influence within the Catholic population.

This sense of frustration was given an outlet in the civil rights movement of the late 1960s. For the first time in Northern Ireland, young people and women felt empowered to demand power, equality and respect in non-sectarian terms. The campaigns for civil rights saw characters such as McCafferty, Bernadette Devlin and Bridget Bond come to the fore in organising activity and agitating for change.

This period had a galvanising effect on Nell. McCafferty believed that opposition, when disciplined and organised, could effect change or at least highlight injustice. This was common sense reasoning, but in the late 1960s it became a reality in Northern Ireland, launching Nell McCafferty’s career as a polemicist and journalist.

The Republic of Ireland was fascinated if a little confused by events in the north at this time, but Nell’s voice provided a real insight into the anger and frustration of working class women. From a strongly socialist, feminist perspective, McCafferty wrote a column in the Irish Times which set about the systematic slaughter of Ireland’s sacred cows—the church and state, their attitudes to women and the working class and, of course, the role the British government in Northern Ireland. It was the controlled anger of McCafferty’s writing, always shot through with a rich vein of humour and irony, which gave it its potency.

As a writer, McCafferty has taken the use of human interest stories to a whole new plane, with detailed, often tragic, portraits of real people inspiring genuine sympathy from the reader. Her ability to challenge a reader has often seen her castigating individuals and then sympathising with their predicaments within the same piece of writing, defying the reader to understand before they judge, and then delivering that judgement in uncompromising terms.

Often criticised for a partisan approach in her writing, McCafferty is unapologetic, insisting that she is not an objective, factual reporter, but instead offers an insight based on her feelings, experiences and perspectives of events. If it is the job of others to present the facts, then McCafferty’s work might often be said to present the reality behind those facts. As Eavan Boland commented in The Best of Nell:

‘But do we really want an objective assessment? Wouldn’t we prefer the claustrophobia, the emotion, the local insight and partisan feeling that are so powerful at the time and perish so quickly in retrospect?…Like it or not, it is personal involvement, partisan feeling that recovers these details. Nell McCafferty’s writing is a treasure house of them. You need not share the politics to be thankful for the perception.’

Whatever its motives, the effect of Nell’s writing has been enduringly popular. With over 30 years of writing experience, McCafferty has grown up with one generation in Ireland, and spoken to many others.

In tandem with her reportage McCafferty has also been a hands on activist for a range of causes in Ireland, but principally as a feminist. She has been prominent in campaigns for contraception, divorce and equal pay among a range of other issues, and worked hard in the organisation of the feminist movement in Ireland. McCafferty has also been an outspoken nationalist on the Northern Ireland question, with empathy towards the IRA ebbing and flowing at different stages of the conflict.

The combination of journalism and activism has also made Nell McCafferty a popular television commentator in Ireland, never afraid to call a spade a spade and take on politicians, business leaders and the clergy live on air. Her passion and dogmatism have granted her a cult status, and it is hard to find a neutral opinion of Nell in the whole of Ireland.

For many in the Republic of Ireland, Nell McCafferty has been the most famous Northern Irish woman to emerge in the last three decades. The installation of Belfast’s Mary McAleese as Irish president may have challenged this position, but McCafferty’s life and career have seen her adopt a special place in the heart of Irish society. Being one of the few people in Ireland to be ubiquitously known by their first name only is perhaps Nell’s ultimate accolade.

Further Reading:
Goodnight Sisters (1987) by Nell McCafferty; The Best of Nell (1984) edited by Nell McCafferty.

By John Peto