Ground Breakers: Catherine McGuinness

Ground Breakers: Catherine McGuinness is an insight into the life and work of Former Supreme Court Catherine McGuinness.  

Ground Breakers: Catherine McGuinness,  Is a part of a series of three documentaries, each one charting the life and work of one extraordinary women who broke the ground or the next generation of women.  These older women did not just witness a changing Ireland they were the change makers. 

Catherine McGuinness, born 1934, was the first women to be appointed Judge of the Circuit Court, and then went on to become judge of the High Court and the Supreme Court.   She has a legacy of decades of public service , including being member of the Council of State.  President of the Law Reform Commission.  Catherine McGuinnes background embodies complex and different identities. She is a clergyman’s daughter married to a republican .  She was born in Belfast schooled in Dublin. This  unique perspective that she drew on in future years in her role as the chair of  the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, part of the foundation of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.   Catherine McGuinness is one of the most influential figures in children’s rights in Ireland. Chair of  Kilkenny Incest Investigation, her Kilkenny Incest report, was the first type of it is kind in Ireland, a damning report that made us acknowledge as a society that the family was not always the safest place for children and that our then legal and constitutional structures, created the hesitance of authorities to intervene to protect children.   

To listen to Catherine McGuinness’s story is to get an insight into the complexity of the law, how reform happened incrementally through the hard work of lawyers and activists.   

Catherine McGuinness  has lived and worked through the decades were women’s and children’s rights moved away from a church dominated ethos.  She lived through a time when woman could not keep their job in the public service or in a bank once they got married. Woman could not sit on a Jury.  Were women had not the same social welfare entitlements as men.  Women had no right to share the ownership in the family home, they had no right to inherit and their husband could sell their property without their consent.  All these changes on how women, inherit, work, marry, have children, all these changes ultimately happened through the law. 

There are a number of practitioners have litigated the rights of women, so they are now something we come to accept as part of Irish society.  The world Trailblazer is sometimes over used,  but this was unknown territory;  to go against the church for societal change.   Every leap forward for women’s rights emanated often from the courts , and the female practitioners, how few there were at the time, trying to influence change in the way that they could and non-more so than Catherine McGuinness. 

Grainne Larkin Barrister,  Jnr Council.

She Changed the Tide.  When Catherine McGuinness speaks on an issue everyone sits up everyone listens. She is involved in some of the most important children’s rights changes , and child protection changes in the country.  

Tanya Ward Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance 

I think it is important that we appreciate the lawyers who do bring about social change  the crusading Lawyers, who went out of their way to try and use the constitution and the courts, to drag us in particular directions. An often when you look back you will see inflection points, were our social history changes just that little bit, but very significant little bit, because of the work of Judges and Lawyers.  And I think for Lawyers in particular that work goes on in the background, they are not known about , they are not talked about. 

Dr David Kenny Associate Professor of Law Trinity College Dublin 

She is held in huge affection by other women, I know that , including me.  Affection for the stands that she has taken, the role she has played, she is someone who warrants a documentary of this kind. 

She was not someone who was a muddled thinker, she was very clear, and has this huge love of law, as a number of us do, which means we are never happy, we are always looking for even better and more reform, and that is what I think of Catherine, that she still wants to change the world a bit. 

Barrister, Former President of Ireland , former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights; Chair of The Elders Mary Robinson 

There is so much still left to  be done, for instances in the area of looking after children who go into care. I was looking at the newspaper today were there are accounts of various teenage children who were supposed to be looked after in various ways by our society but who have ended up either in committing suicide,  being murdered or dying of preventable deceases. There is still a lot to be done, I think .  There is still plenty of issues that you are sitting looking at,  even though you have got so old that you are not fighting any longer.  

Catherine McGuinness 

Ground Breakers is a Curious Broadcast production funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the Television Licence Fee.  Produced and narrated by Patricia Baker/ 

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