Obituary of Dr. Miriam Hederman O’Brien: Pioneer for Women

Dr. Miriam Hederman O’Brien
Birth: June 6, 1932
Died: March 14, 2022

Although she had an unusual upbringing – being mostly home-schooled until the age of 12, but taking piano lessons with Dr Kuypers at Newbridge College while her mother went about her business – Miriam Hederman has always been an extraordinary person.

With two brothers who were more than ten years older, she grew up in a family of adults and, with one a lawyer and the other a priest, her memories of the dinner table were discussions, debates and a position statement that is clear, concise and, of course, with corroborated evidence.

Sent to Mount Anville at the age of 13, she was part of a class of 10. When she finished high school in Ireland at the age of 16, she was sent to Rome for a year, taking French lessons while learning Italian. Her sheltered education hardly prepared her for Italian life, but her experience germinated her love of Europe and her awareness of the inequalities of society.

Although her original plan was to become a concert pianist, in Rome she decided she wasn’t good enough to be world class so she made her mark on another stage.

She decided to study law, but her father, worried that she needed something to fall back on, insisted that she also take a degree in modern languages. So in 1950 she returned home to attend University College Dublin and at the same time the King’s Inns. She loved UCD and entered student life with vigor, joining 11 student societies. She graduated with a BA in 1953 and was called to the Bar in 1956.

Since her student days, she had been an active member of Pax Romana and the European Youth Movement. In 1954, along with Garret Fitzgerald, Donal Barrington and David Thornley, she was a founding member of Tuairim, a society for people between the ages of 21 and 40 which provided a forum for informed and unbiased discussion of economics, politics, social sciences, education and the arts.

Rather than pursue a career in law, she became a journalist. She had started broadcasting in France as a student and in her early years of journalism she was a prolific writer. She wrote about global figures who sought to improve the lives of their people. She interviewed prominent Irish politicians, industry leaders and people of interest to her. She addressed topics such as education and the place of women in society. His work has appeared in the Irish Independent, the Irish Press, Interplay, an international current affairs magazine published in New York, Pioneer Magazine and Creation Fashion magazine, where his was the thought-provoking article. She worked freelance with Radio Éireann and RTÉ throughout the 1960s.

Life as a freelance journalist was hardly lucrative, and she also worked as a translator from French and Italian and as a book reviewer.

Not content with writing or discussing societal issues, she has actively campaigned for equality and social justice on many fronts.

She met her husband Bill (William S O’Brien) at university debates and they spent their married life with their five children in Malahide where they were immersed in the community, most notably at the Grove Lawn Tennis Club, a tennis club. four grass pitches with 400 junior members.

He was legal agent for the National Bank and when it merged with the Bank of Ireland practiced at Bell, Brannigan, O’Donnell and O’Brien. It is a great testament to him that while the marriage ban has prevented many Irish women from working and fulfilling their careers or intellectual potential, it has encouraged her to pursue whatever challenge interests her. Bill passed away in 2016.

Not content with writing or discussing societal issues, she has actively campaigned for equality and social justice on many fronts. Among her papers (which are in the UCD archives) is a letter from the professor of zoology at UCD written in 1967 in response to her request for support for the advancement of women’s careers. “I don’t see if I can contribute much to the task you are undertaking in regard to the employment of women in fairly high positions…when it comes to marrying off one of them, their success as college employees changes as their attention is split between home and college duties My opinion is that women should retire upon marriage as they do in public service. to say that the professor’s opinion did not sway her as she campaigned for women throughout her own career.

From her involvement with the Traveler Cara Park site in the 1970s to forming the Sr Stephen Fund for Mount Carmel School in the heart of Dublin 1 in the 2000s with her former Mount Anville class, she has always had a moving cause and worked energetically to bring practical benefits to those she supported.

Although she was never tempted to enter politics, she was actively involved in formulating policy recommendations through organizations such as the Foundation for Fiscal Studies, the NESC, the Irish Center for European Law and the Statistical & Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, and its influence has spanned many disciplines.

She was a member and then president of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. She also served on the Advertising Standards Authority. She was a member of the Top Level Appointments Committee for senior positions in the Irish Civil Service from 1992 to 1998.

From the 1950s, when she was involved in the European Youth Campaign throughout the following decades, she has always been active in European affairs. Since her student years, she has been an active member of the Irish Council of the European Movement.

Dr. Miriam Hederman O’Brien, Chair of the Commission on Taxation. Photography: Tom Lawlor

Over the next five years, the commission was to publish five reports covering the full range of taxation and administration in Ireland.

In 1979, while campaigning to encourage women to vote in the first elections for the European Parliament, public sentiment in Ireland was more focused on the unfairness of the Irish tax system and, after mass marches, the government established the Commission on Taxation with Miriam Hederman O’Brien as chair. Over the next five years, the commission was to publish five reports covering the full range of taxation and administration in Ireland.

Commissions and investigations

Her ability to get to the heart of the matter, to allow the airing of contested opinions and to bring a subject to a conclusive decision has earned her the call to chair a number of controversial and sensitive commissions and inquiries.

  • North Dublin Action Plan (1998)
  • Eastern Health Board Region Youth Homelessness Forum (2000)
  • Advisory Group on Elective Trauma and Orthopedic Services for the North Eastern Health Board (1998)
  • Independent review of Notre-Dame de Lourdes Hospital, commissioned by the then North Eastern Health Board, which reported in 1995
  • Expert Group Inquiry into Blood Transfusion Service Board 1995 (regarding blood contamination which led to the infection of women receiving blood transfusions with Hepatitis C)
  • Commission on the financing of health services 1989
  • Inspector at Letterkenny Regional College 1994
  • Renovation of Carlow Cathedral

In 1985 she accepted an appointment to the board of Allied Irish Banks (AIB), becoming the first woman to sit on the board of an Irish plc. Faithful to the principles of good governance, it was deeply disturbed by the revelations of the Dirt (tax withholding interest on deposits) in 1993.

She was appointed Chancellor of the University of Limerick in 1998, becoming the first woman to hold this position at a university in Ireland.

And all the while she has supported outside interests in music and culture. She was Director of the Dublin Grand Opera Society from 1982 to 1987. She was Director and then President of Music Network, from 1995 to 2007, whose mandate was to bring live classical performances to venues across the country. She was President of the International Executive of the European Cultural Foundation from 1996 to 2003 and, through this organization, encouraged studies to promote intercultural exchange.

She was also Trustee of the Louvain Development Trust for the Irish Institute of European Affairs in Belgium from 1982 to 1999. Her involvement in European organizations kept her in touch with peers across the continent.

She adopted a style of influencing that involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement. She was a crusader in her own unique way

The subject of her doctorate from Trinity College Dublin was The Road to Europe, Irish attitudes to European integration 1948-1961, published by the Institute for Public Affairs in 1983. She lectured regularly at the University of Limerick, Trinity College Dublin, University College Liège and elsewhere. With such knowledge of Ireland’s path to EU membership, it’s no surprise that she took a keen interest in other countries when applying for membership.

As part of the Killeen Fellowship at Trinity, she undertook post-doctoral studies on exchange training, education and vocational training between Ireland and Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. She was awarded the Silver Medal of the European Order of Merit in 1984 and the Order of Merit from the President of Poland in 1992.

Aware of the constraints of being a woman and coming from a small island quite far away, she adopted a style of influence that involved a lot of charm, listening and encouragement. She was a crusader in her own way.

Her last public service was as chairman of Dublin’s joint standing maternity committee from 1997. She stepped down in recent years, knowing that her declining health was hampering her abilities. Fiercely demanding of herself, her deteriorating health was devastating to her. Not being able to “do” was a difficult cross to bear for such a phenomenal woman.

She received honorary doctorates from the Pontifical University of Maynooth in 1995, the National University of Ireland in 2001, the University of Ulster in 2002 and the University of Limerick in 2008. She was elected at the Royal Irish Academy in 2005.

In 2013, she received an award for being a trailblazer for women by WXN.

In her keynote address to an extraordinary assembly of women at the presentation, she spoke passionately about the need for women to be active public servants, to aim for a better society by getting involved in the processes of change. After dinner, as she slipped away – she had snuck out of the hospital to attend – a very young woman caught up with her to tell her she was an inspiration. That evening, she told the room “I come back, again and again, to the importance of women’s contribution to society and to public service. In my experience, women have an innate ability to examine theory and relate it to the reality of life – and that’s actually how you solve societal problems. She may have spoken generally, but to those who knew and admired her, those words reflected her own purpose, contribution and legacy.

She is survived by her five children: Donat, Aoife, Eilis, Dervilla and Murrough and her 10 grandchildren.

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