To celebrate International Women’s Day, which takes place on Monday 8 March, we are looking at how one woman fought alongside Irish parents to establish the first multi-denominational and co-educational school in Ireland.
Gemma Hussey (nee Moran) was born on 11 November 1938. She grew up in Bray, Co. Wicklow and was educated at the local Loreto school and by the Sacred Heart nuns in Mount Anville, Goatstown, Co. Dublin. She has maintained a lifelong commitment to equality and social justice. Her involvement with the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates her leadership in this area. She, along with Nuala Fennell, Audrey Conlon, Hilary Pratt and Phil Moore, was one of the founding members of the Women’s Political Association [WPA]. She was elected Chair of the WPA in 1973. The aim of the association was to influence public opinion on the importance of gender balance amongst public representatives, to pressurise political parties and to encourage women to run for public office.
From 1977 to 1982 Gemma Hussey served as a Senator elected by the National University of Ireland panel. She was elected to Dáil Éireann as a TD for the Wicklow constituency in February 1982 having narrowly missed out on a seat in the general election held in June 1981. She was appointed as the opposition spokesperson on Broadcasting, Arts and Culture. She held her seat at the next general election in November 1982 and was appointed in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government as Ireland’s first female Minister for Education from 1982 to 1986.
Throughout her public and political life Gemma Hussey was a liberal and a feminist. Gemma Hussey also lent her support to the very early protagonists who sought to establish multi-denominational, co-educational schools under a democratic management structure known as Dalkey School Project (DSP). DSP faced an uphill struggle in order to establish such a school. They received much needed support from the Fianna Fáil Government and the Minister for Education John Wilson, 1977–81, a notable supporter of the enterprise. DSP produced newsletters for its supporters to keep them up to date on the project’s progress, an example of which can be seen below.
But DSP also encountered opposition to their proposal, most notable from the Council of Social Concern, housed within the headquarters of the Knights of St Columbanus in Ireland. The Council produced a leaflet that was distributed around the Dalkey and Dun Laoghaire areas. In it they claim that there ‘is no need for such a school as this which can only be divisive’.
Gemma Hussey was not safe from criticism by the public and had to defend her position a number of times. Despite the many hurdles encountered by DSP they opened the first multi-denominational school in Ireland in 1978 with 90 pupils. The school was based in a number of temporary locations until Gemma Hussey opened the new dedicated school building for the DSP in 1983. Educate Together, an independent NGO that oversees the establishment and running of multi-denominational schools throughout Ireland, was founded in 1984.
Gemma Hussey was a strong supporter of legislating for divorce in Ireland and campaigned vigorously in favour of a yes vote in the 1986 referendum. She also supported the liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion ban. Her commitment to equality, diversity and social justice is demonstrated through her membership and support of many organisations and advocacy groups. She fought on many fronts for equality, especially for women both in Ireland and abroad.
To find out more about the pioneering work Gemma Hussey carried out, a consultation of her collection housed in UCD Archives is a must.
- This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.