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The Passionate Psychologist. Interview by Eileen Battersby

RACING between her offices at the Law Reform Commission and Government Buildings while also lecturing at Trinity College, writing articles and appearing on television and radio psychologist Maureen Gaffney lives in a perpetual rush. She would have to considering the amount of professional commitments she has. Yet somehow her frenetic pace is matched by deliberation, intelligence, meticulous preparation and common sense. Above all she is disarmingly likeable - "my children know I'm deeply flawed but they seem to like me" - and extremely able without, being formidable. Her conversation is emphatic; fast, fluent and logical. Theories and ideas certainly fascinate her but ultimately reality is her central interest - particularly life and survival.

As chairwoman of the National Economic and Social Forum, Gaffney is more aware than most of the caution with which middle class, salaried society tends to approach emotive subjects such as poverty and long term unemployment. Forums on Northern Ireland are far more palatable. Politics, it seems, is more fashionable - or at least, more acceptable - than poverty.

She also knows the average citizen in the street has difficulty associating socialism with our current decidedly non socialist government.

"To put it bluntly, people tend only to be interested in issues such as unemployment if they happen to be unemployed themselves that's the way we are," she says. Gaffney has always seen, the forum as evidence of democracy in action.

The great leap of imagination for people who have power is to imagine what life is like for people who have none. Imagine what life is like for people who haven't worked and believe they never will."

Appointed by the government in 1993, the forum is an advisory body reporting directly to the Government and is probably the most representative of any currently in Ireland.

WHETHER speaking about her children, her work or a novel she read recently, Gaffney is always direct, honest, exact and does tend to speak in the precise language of psychology, although "tremendous" and "robust" are favourite words. She, also uses you and explains, I hate one it sounds so snooty." Is she emotional? Unusually for her, she pauses in mid flow. It is as if she is examining the word with a surgical instrument. "Emotional? Am I an emotional person? I passionate. I'm passionate about things.

Her small, expressive features are at variance with her severe hairstyle; her deep set brown eyes are both shrewd and sympathetic. She runs, "slowly", in the park near her home, and, also attends yoga classes. While her physical presence is a busy one - fast walking, energetic, slightly awkward - her hands are surprisingly elegant. Graceful, almost languid gestures accompany even her most animated comments and responses. "I'll be 50 next year, I can't believe it. I seem to have lost 10 years somewhere. I can remember being 40, but I don't really know what's happened to the last few years." Looking slightly bewildered, she glances about the office as if those missing years may be fastened to one of the walls.

It would have been fun to photograph Gaffney on the roof of Government Buildings and she certainly would have co operated, but officialdom intervenes and the photographer settles for a sedate shot by the fountain. Smiling bravely into the wind as it tugs at her clothes, Maureen Gaffney is uncomfortable about staring into a camera: "Speak to me," she pleads.

According to her, women readily embrace any form of self improvement. "Women want to know what they can do to improve themselves. Men are far more reluctant as to do so is seen as an admission of weakness. A woman will say `I don't know how to do that or I need help on this'. A man won't." She has always abided by a practical belief that the most effective way of operating is to make sure everyone makes the most efficient use of their expertise by working confidently with people who know more about some things.

"You don't have to do everything on your own. I spend a lot of time in the forum developing relationships with people in order for us all to make the most effective use of what we have to offer.

Referring to her work with the Law Reform Commission - which she believes may be the most important contribution she will make to Irish life - she says "It is about social change, so much of it is to do - with women's rights, with gender, children privacy, modern life - all hugely important. I'm the only non lawyer on that.

"I don't think like a lawyer. When you are an outsider, you are outside the particular professional language. But being an outsider is not a bad thing: you bring a different perspective. It's the same with the forum I'm not an economist."

Gaffney's famous common sense is easy to trace. She was born in Midleton, Co Cork in 1947. "My mother is from Midleton, my father was a Dubliner who spent his life threatening to move back to Dublin, he loved the city. His favourite word was `cosmopolitan', he had a tremendous intellectual hunger. He would have loved to have gone to university. Her father worked as a bus driver, but also endured long periods of unemployment.

When Maureen Gaffney returns home to Cork, she sleeps in the bed "I was conceived and born in". Her mother, Madge, lives five doors down from where she was born. "My mother is so centred in Midleton that even when we are away on holidays in France or Italy, she will talk about the town and the people there. She has a wonderful sense of continuity. I have it as well."

The Midleton of her childhood in the 1950s was, she says, a self contained place on the border of city and country living. "It is a thriving town now, but like most places it had its experience of economic depression as well. It was situated in a hinterland of wealthy farmers yet was still near enough to the city to know what was going on." It is 13 miles from Cork city - "near enough to be suspectible to fast social change. When I was young, going to town was a major event. We always felt that the only people who ever knew anything were from Cork city."

Above all, she says, Midleton was and remains a town completely preoccupied by itself in the sense that people are very centred on their own lives and concerns.

"It makes life interesting there," she says.

Midleton gave her a valuable understanding of how people live real lives. "I always think of people with real lives. It has helped me when I am speaking with people on the radio." (Gaffney as a practising psychologist contributes regularly to the Gay Byrne show and responds to phone in questions). "I am always so when people tell me they've listened to the show and heard me discussing various issues and they say `I thought you were talking to me.' I always think of the quality of information, also the immediacy of the audience."

She was the first person from her family to go to university and was soon followed by her brother John, four years her junior, now also a psychologist. "I was the first girl to go to university from my school." She went to St Mary's High School the Presentation Convent in Midleton. There she met the first of the intellectual mentors she has had access to throughout her life, Sister Philomena, the reverend mother, who taught English and history.

"She was amazing, like no one I had ever medieval universities and the idea of learning. She was fascinated by ideas and just inspired me. I remember when I discovered you had to have Latin to go to university. I went into school and announced, I want to learn Latin."

Sister Philomena tutored her. In a freezing, small annex next to the church, she received the Latin lessons which ensured her place at University College Cork, where she initially studied English, taking psychology only as a second subject.

"I soon became besotted with psychology because it explains all the things I am interested in people, ideas, why we are the way we are. I'm interested in why I think the way I do."

In 1974, she won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, enabling her to do a master's degree in social science. It was an explosive experience for her. "There was this tremendous atmosphere, an absolute commitment to the life of the mind, to ideas. It was so exciting, intoxicating. The library stayed open until 1 a.m. They had to push me out of the place.

"I love the American attitude, it is so positive, so enabling. Americans work at things; they work at keeping friendships. They work at life. When John (John Harris, her husband) and myself came back we just kept on talking about it all the time. It's only quite recently we were taking about our time in the States and someone pointed out to us that we're back 20 years."

Psychology does dominate her life and intellect. She reads it for pleasure as well as for information. "I also read fiction novels provide many insights into how we think and live." Richard Ford's Independence Day had a powerful impact on her. "I was so struck by the way he described the father/son relationship in that book. You know I did not really like The Sportswriter. But Independence Day caught the incredible powerlessness that men often feel in their relationships with their sons." Seven years on from The Sportswriter, Ford's fictional anti hero, Frank Bascombe has recovered from his divorce and seems to have become a man who knows himself and his wants. But he is also a cold man, a man women would be wary of, Gaffney laughs "And with good reason. It is as if the character has this relentless reality with which he views his son, there is no softness. He just sees him as he is." Referring to the father and son characters as being "locked into this silence with each other" she says this unspoken quality is characteristic of a lot of father/son relationships.

During 20 years service with the Eastern Health Board as a clinical psychologist, she amassed enormous experience: she enjoys working in one to one sessions as much as she likes lecturing and broadcasting. Raising two children, as a full time working mother also contributed to the kind of life information which can only be accurately described as "wisdom", however wary she is of that word. Unmistakably an academic, reference based thinker, she is also an instinctive commonsensical one.

At first when approached by The Irish Times to write a regular column, Life And Living, she was reluctant - "I knew I didn't have the time to make that kind of commitment. But she nonetheless accepted the offer, because she realised it provided the only realistic route towards assembling material for the kind of useful life help book she knew she should write.

She is aware that many of the radio programmes she has done with listeners saw case histories as well as social history slipping away because of the transitory nature of the medium; and she knows the importance of documentary. Childhood, relationships, conflict, communication and the changing face of Ireland and Irish life are all addressed in her new book, The Way We Live Now an attempt to provide the general reader with material more often found in text books.

Gaffney's style is conversational, yet no less carefully researched and argued than her academic work. One of the best essays in the book is a once off article, not a column. "When I was asked to write about emigration, I felt I don't know anything about it'. " But in fact her rural background suddenly helped open the subject for her.

"Emigration is at the centre of the Irish experience of being modern," she wrote. "We have made the transition from a traditional rural society to a modern industrial one by the simple expedient of offering a modern way of life to 75 per cent of the population and offering the remaining 25 per cent the choice of unemployment at home or migration abroad."

Writing the column for The Irish Times presented its own challenges - including the practical realities of having to meet short deadlines and writing to the requested length. "Sometimes you thought, I can't possibly do that in 1,000 words'."

"I came from an academic and a clinical base: writing for a general audience is a way of extending intellectual boundaries. You are asked to write something and at first you think, `This isn't really my area' but once you give the matter some thought, you can bring to bear an enormous amount of your own experience."

This is a fundamental problem women face, particularly once the children are reared. Women are now being asked to take, on more challenging roles - "`What have I done all these years?' is a personal and a political statement." The way she has always operated is by using accumulated experience. "I hesitate to use the word `wisdom' but I can't really think of any other. You begin to see a deeper structure."

Italy and France, not Ireland, are the places which draw her. "I think if you go on holiday, you have to go away and get away. We live in a modest house, we drive modest cars, but we have always gone on holidays, even when we had no money at all, we would borrow from the bank to go away.

TALKING about the way life has changed, she says of her mother that "she never used a cookbook, nor did her mother. They just cooked. Me, my house is falling down with cookery books, I collect them." Several times throughout the conversation, she refers to cooking, about the need to feed people or about not having the time to cook, to entertain as much as she'd like. As she appears so confident about it - in fact, preoccupied with cookery, it is obvious she must be a good cook. When this is put to her, she peers at me, for a moment, before announcing with the defiance of a maestro. "I'm a great cook", then laughs at herself and directs me to leave it out as it sounds pompous. It doesn't and I don't.

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 17 October 1996