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In order to appear in Emma O’Grady’s new four-part film series about Irish feminism, you must meet certain criteria: you have to be a woman over the age of 70 who an archbishop might be inclined to describe as mad, bad and dangerous.
Lelia Doolan is an Irish feminist and producer who meets this description. In fact, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid is alleged to have said she was “mad, bad and dangerous” back in the 1960s.
Doolan is one of the central figures of Mad, Bad and Dangerous: A Celebration of “Difficult” Women, which screens as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival this month, and features conversations between prominent Irish feminist figures from the last five decades or so. The first part is available now on YouTube.
Also included in the series is Bernadette McAliskey (formerly Devlin), a prominent feminist, civil-rights leader and politician in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, along with Margaretta D’Arcy, a playwright, actress, and activist who made headlines in recent years for her protests against the use of Shannon airport by the US military.
“They have brought us to where we are today, especially for younger feminists and younger activists,” says O’Grady.
“How many times have you heard someone say about an older lady, ‘Oh, that aul one is mad’?” she says. “Over time, with older women, it’s as if their volume gets turned down; we just don’t listen to them anymore.”
A Seat at the Table
“What does the phrase ‘difficult woman’ mean to you? Bernadette, that’s a great question for you,” says Doolan to McAliskey, as the pair sit at a wooden table surrounded by potted plants, in a snippet from the film series.
Doolan leans back in her chair and breaks out into laughter once she’s asked the question.
“I think there are women who do not believe that their position is secondary and dependent upon men,” McAliskey replies. “They are perceived by men and other women as difficult women.”
Doolan nods her head in agreement. Beyond her on the window sill sits a small glass replica of the “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” mural, from the Bogside neighbourhood.
The cosy, conversational manner in which the women engage with each other is no accident. Anyone who appears in Mad, Bad and Dangerous: A Celebration of “Difficult” Women was given free rein over what they wanted to talk about, and each conversation is set in the home of a participant.
Topics up for discussion are broad: everything from politics, to culture, to society.
“There’s not some young journalist there asking these women to explain themselves,” says O’Grady. “The women already know their life story – they have lived through it themselves so they can really get into the meaty social and political discussions.”
Acting Your Age
This isn’t the first time that O’Grady has captured the experiences of people older than herself.
She wrote and performed What Good Is Looking Well When You’re Rotten on the Inside?, a one-woman show about her grandfather’s life, which ran at the Galway Theatre Festival in 2018.
O’Grady’s grandfather asked for a tape recorder a month before he died, she says.
“He recorded 15 hours of himself on cassette tape telling all these stories that he never told,” she says.
As well as this, O’Grady’s family found plays that her grandad wrote in the 1980s that he kept to himself.
“So I wrote a play about his life, a writer that never was,” she says.
Miriam Haughton, a lecturer at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), saw O’Grady’s play live, and worked alongside her on this latest project, as a researcher.
“We were all gripped and she held the stage by herself,” she says, referring to the play’s audience, a mixture of the young and the old. “She captured an intergenerational link between today between her own coming of age and between the world that her own grandad inhibited.”
Likewise, the conversations that O’Grady’s grandmother had with her own friends were an inspiration for this new video project. “I was so aware of her friendships because of her age,” she says. “And because women live longer than men a lot of her friendships were female.”
But Mad, Bad and Dangerous: A Celebration of “Difficult” Women, isn’t just about decades past; we also learn about what the featured women are up to in the present day. McAliskey, for instance, currently runs the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, a not-for-profit community-development organisation that helps to develop charities in Northern Ireland.
Originally, O’Grady intended this project to be a live theatre conversation.
When the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the theatre shows were no longer possible, she turned her hand to filmmaking for the first time.
“I’m really enjoying the documentary side of it, which is rolling with the punches and schedules changing and people dropping out and surprise people coming in,” she says.
During the process of this project the film crew found gaps in the history of Irish feminism.
Despite the films’ subjects being really influential people in the sphere of Irish feminism and activism, Haughton found it difficult to find material on them.
The Irish Film Institute didn’t have a copy of Doolan’s documentary of McAliskey, Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, she says. “You can’t buy a copy of it on DVD or you can’t watch it on the RTÉ Player. You just can’t access it.”
It’s really difficult to access Doolan’s work online, as well, according to Haughton.
“And then I said, it will be different when I’m researching Bernadette McAliskey: she was the youngest woman MP of the 20th century in Westminster; she’s been shot; she changed the course of Northern Ireland,” she says. Yet the same problem arose.
Haughton couldn’t find McAliskey’s autobiography, The Price of My Soul, for general sale anywhere, so she had to go to the library in NUIG.
“I literally blew the dust off the covers. It had been that long since somebody took it out,” she says, noting that she can’t understand how there are women of such stature who are still alive yet whose achievements are not really accessible to the public.
It all comes back to a gender issue, she says: “Men are seen as representative of the nation; a lot of the time women aren’t.”