I had intended to write about International Women’s Day in this week’s column. Two Irish teachers at Our Lady of Mercy Secondary School gave me a great ‘gra’ for the worldwide initiative when I was a teenager (way to go Ms.s Doogan and Verling) and the 8th March has since held a special significance for me.
Born in the socialist movement, International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; this is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. But just as I had finished penning the column, I heard about the death of Anna Manahan, one such ordinary (and yet extraordinary) woman who will surely be recorded as a maker of both theatrical and indeed social history in this city. In an interview with the Sunday Independent about four years ago, Anna said she ‘became what she wanted to be’ – not something many of us can truly claim. The fact that she travelled the world doing this during years when many would have thought a woman should stay at home and rear children is testament to her mettle and dedication to her craft.
In the West, International Women’s Day was commemorated during the 1910s and 1920s when the Suffragette Movement was in its heyday and would still have been an important calendar date when Anna was born in 1924. The initiative was revived by the rise of feminism in the 1960s, shortly after she was involved in a national scandal during a production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo at the Pike Theatre in Dublin. In one scene, Anna mimed a disgusted kick at an unnamed, invisible object that had been shown to her by co-star Pat Nolan. The offending, nonexistent object was taken to be a condom, then illegal in Ireland and the production resulted in the arrest of Simpson.
Anna later recalled that she had her nightdress and toothbrush with her at the theatre every night, for fear she would be arrested and end up in Mountjoy. But the show still went on, with Anna boldly in it. The furore is now regarded as a blatant attempt at censorship on the part of the State. Though frightened at the time, Anna remained intensely proud of her involvement in the production throughout her career.
I had the distinct pleasure of watching Anna perform in many shows but first met her in person some years ago when she spoke to a group of young Little Red Kettle actors about their upcoming production (if memory serves me correct it was the cast of The Four Euclids of Squid and the Festival of imagination and Wild Fancy, a production that later travelled to Japan, though I stand corrected if Mary Boland tells me otherwise). I will never forget the twinkle in her eye as she urged those young budding actors to keep up the good work, so that ‘the Little Red Kettle continues to boil for so many years to come’. This diminutive figure could barely see over the microphone and yet she held the kids enthralled throughout her speech.
More recently, she used that same stately eloquence to launch passionate and scathing attacks on the Government’s attitude to the welfare of her generation when she took to the airwaves to express her disgust over the scrapping of the medical card for over 70s and joined the protest against the closure of St Brigid’s Ward in St Patrick’s.
The 84-year-old actress, who was still on the cast list of Fair City, passionately believed that older people should be allowed to continue working as long as they were physically and mentally capable. ‘When you stop people working — I’ve seen them sitting in institutions, staring out the window waiting for death. There is too much emphasis on age instead of emphasis on the person’, she said at the time.
Any misconceptions that the veteran actress was fading into retirement were quickly dispelled. Feisty to the last, the debacles brought to the fore Anna’s fighting spirit and tenacity when the odds were seemingly stacked against her. Just weeks before her death she said in an interview that she had no intention of retiring and hoped, like most good actors, to die with her boots on. Anyone who heard her attack the Government’s stance on healthcare on Joe Duffy’s Liveline show would surely agree that she was ready for battle til the last.
The very crux of International Women’s Day is to honour women’s advancement and promote the gaining and maintenance of their equality in all aspects of life. Rather than being reminder of the negatives facing women during her era and lifetime, the history of Anna Manahan is instead one hell of a celebration of the positives.