Though mentioned before in passing on the blog, Margaret Gaj and her restaurant on Lower Baggot Street are certainly deserving of greater focus here. Indeed, her restaurant was such an important part of the story of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement that Anne Stopper christened her 2006 study of the IWLM Monday at Gaj’s. At the time of Gaj’s passing in 2011, she was remembered by Mary Maher as being “absolutely fearless in taking on the establishment.”
Margaret Gaj (née Dunlop) was born in Edinburgh in 1919 to Irish parents. In a 1976 interview with The Irish Times, she remembered how “I felt myself to be Irish. You could not be a Catholic in Scotland without feeling it.” A pacifist to the core, she joined the Red Cross and served as a nurse during the Second World War, and in that capacity she met Polish soldier Boleslaw Gaj, who she would marry. She and her husband arrived in Ireland in the late 1940s, using inherited money to obtain a farm and a restaurant at Baltinglass, though it proved a financial failure. She would joke that she came here “with more money than sense. Now I have more sense than money.”
In the city, she first opened a restaurant in Molesworth Street, but later moved to 132 Lower Baggot Street in the mid 1960s. Politically active from a young age, she had been a member of the Independent Labour Party in Scotland, and joined the Irish Labour Party, attracted by Dr. Noël Browne’s politics despite some political differences. She would drift from the party, but remained politically active across a wide variety of campaigns. She was particularly active with the Prisoners Rights Organisation, which sought to reform Ireland’s prison system, but was also active within the Dublin Housing Action Committee, and a passionate anti-war campaigner; in July 1971, she was brought to court charged in relation to a protest at the U.S Embassy, along with her 19 year old son Wladek.
One of the earliest references to her restaurant in the mainstream press comes from the Sunday Independent, who reviewed it in 1968, describing it as a hub of conversation. Indeed, references to the restaurant in the press tended to focus on the discussion rather than the cuisine:
In the room over the restaurant you will find people sitting and talking who are rather more concerned with ideas than with good. Supporters of Reform or the Labour Party may well by there or, if it is a Sunday, there may be a wine and cheese party in aid of pacifists or Grille, or a bring-and-buy sale to help the old age pensioners.
The food was affordable, and indeed plentiful. Nell McCafferty has written of food that was “homely, swiftly swerved, accompanied by pots of proper tea. Bacon and pineapple on toast, hamburgers and chips, apple pie and cream to follow.” The writer John Banville remembers the restaurant as “a haven of sanity, freedom and good cheer, and at half-a-crown, the bangers and chips were not only a bargain but also, as a friend of mine used to say, a great tightener.”
When the journalist Eileen O’Brien spent a day with Gaj in 1976, she described her as being, in the eyes of some at least,”an awful subversive. Respectable people scuttle off when they see her coming. She had a tart tongue and a habit of telling home truths which is uncomfortable.” There was fine praise too:
She is also a woman of steely determination. To the poor and to the outcast, to prisoners and to prisoners’ wives, she is a rock of strength. Children who are ill-treated, prisoners driven to the verge of suicide, the people of the Dublin slums: these are her friends.
Unsurprisingly given the clientele, which included plenty of left-republicans, the premises could attract the attention of the police from time to time. One obituary noted that the Special Branch were sometimes to be found in the vicinity, while elsewhere a veteran activist joked of enough detectives across the road to “fill Croke Park” on one occasion. Yet despite these occasional prying eyes, it was somewhere political activists felt comfortable, with Máirín de Burca remembering that “a whole generation of political activists have reason to be grateful to Margaret Gaj – not just for her unfailing personal and, at times, financial support – but for the home-away-from-home atmosphere furnished by the restaurant.” When the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement was born in 1970, the grouping met at Gaj’s, and she herself became treasurer. The IWLM were a remarkably active political body who punched above their weight during their short existence, remembered for (among many other things) making their case to the nation on The Late Late Show and organising the Contraceptive Train in 1971, designed to shame the authorities in the Republic.
There was much more than politics to Gaj’s, poetry readings and cultural events took place there too, and it was a welcoming and non-judgemental spot for Dublin’s LGBT community. Its proximity to UCD, before the college moved to the distant Belfield campus, ensured plenty of students as well. It was certainly one of the most diverse assortments of individuals under one roof in Dublin, with Rosita Sweetman remembering “trade unionists, aristocrats, lawyers, bank robbers, prostitutes, students, artists, prisoners, civil-rights activists and Women’s Libbers” among the hungry.
In August 1980,Gaj’s closed its doors for the last time. Margaret had sold the restaurant shortly before this, but its new owner complained of a slip in business. Newspapers mourned its passing, with one remembering it as a “popular eating and meeting centre for students and artists for more than 15 years.” Both Nell McCafferty and Máirín de Burca published pieces reflecting on Gaj’s and what it meant to their movement in the weeks that followed its closure.
Margaret Gaj died in 2011, at the fine age of 92. She had devoted much of her life to the struggle for a better world. While she originally hailed from Edinburgh (and never quite lost the accent), she made important contributions to Dublin life in her time, and her restaurant became a part of the fabric of the city, at least as far as its radicals were concerned.