On March 31st 1971, a small protest by activists from the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement grabbed nationwide media attention. Angered by the decision of the Seanad not to allow a reading for Senator Mary Robinson’s Contraceptive Bill which could have led to the legalisation of contraception, fifteen women who were accompanied by children made their way to the gates of Leinster House, forcing their way into the grounds. Shortly after 3pm, the women made their way through the Merrion Street gates, before a few of them snuck into the building through the open window of the male bathrooms!
Among the women who partook in the protest were the journalist Mary Kenny, Sinn Féin secretary Mairin de Burca and Margaret Gaj. Gaj was a fascinating character, born in Glasgow to Irish parents in the year 1919, she was a veteran of the women’s movement and many other progressive movements in Irish society. She also owned the popular restaurant and hangout Gaj’s on Baggot Street. In a 2011 obituary for Mrs. Gaj, Rosita Sweetman noted that ” trade unionists, aristocrats, lawyers, bank robbers, prostitutes, students, artists, prisoners, civil-rights activists and Women’s Libbers all rubbed shoulders around the scrubbed hardwood tables.”
The group made their way into the grounds of Leinster House singing ‘We Shall Not Conceive’ to the tune of ‘We Shall Overcome’, and were refused permission to speak to any Senators following the decision of the Seanad not to discuss the issue. One individual who did speak to the women was Joseph Leneghan, the Fianna Fáil T.D for West Mayo. The journalist Mary Kenny was among the protesting women, and raised the issue of his use of the term “whores knickers” in the Dáil with Leneghan. The Irish Times reported that “Mr Leneghan- he comes from Belmullet,said that knickers hadn’t come to his part of the country yet; they’d only reached Ballina.”
Leneghan went one better by offering to bring the women to the Dáil bar, and “he was preparing to lead them through the entrance but the attendant would only admit him and not the entourage.”
Three of the women (Mairin de Burca, Finn O’Connor and Hilary Orpen) noticed an open window they squeezed through, which led to the male toilets. Locking themselves in for some time, they succeeded in attracting the attention of several Senators who did come to speak to them. On being evicted from the premises, some of the protesters claimed to have been assaulted by Gardaí and registered complaints at Pearse Street Garda station.
While this invasion of Leinster House through the window of the toilets is a comical enough story, the women’s movement in the 1970s had serious teeth, and led many important progressive campaigns in Ireland, from opposing censorship (see this CHTM post on Spare Rib magazine) to the battle for contraception in Ireland. Not long after this event, the famed ‘Contraception Train’ action would follow, grabbing national and international attention.