Seven months on from her wife’s death, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone tells Fiachra Ó Cionnaith she is staying in politics to honour the person she lost and to ensure the social reforms Ann Louise fought for become embedded realities in modern Ireland
‘SHE would be very annoyed with me if I just lay down now. She’d look at me and just say, you know, ‘Get up and fight!’”
Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, as anyone who has challenged her either in her academic, social campaigning, or political career will know, is no shrinking violet. But a tough exterior can often mask a hidden vulnerability, even for those in the public eye.
On June 14, a full 87 days after an initial brain haemorrhage that had left her blind, Ms Zappone’s wife of 14 years and partner since 1981, Dr Ann Louise Gilligan, died at St James’s Hospital due to complications from her condition.
At her funeral four days later, attended by mourners led by President Michael D Higgins and outgoing taoiseach Enda Kenny, Ms Zappone gave a eulogy for the woman she loved and had, until then, dreamed of retiring and growing old within an Ireland they had helped to reform.
“I loved your fearlessness... The evening after her medical team told Ann Louise that she would not recover, she looked at me and said, ‘I am just thinking again about the conversation. Did Joe [Harbison, her doctor at St James’s] say that I was going to die?’
“And I responded, ‘Yes Ann Louise.’ And then I asked her, ‘Are you afraid?’ And she said, ‘No. I was not afraid before entering the world, and I am not afraid to leave it.’”
Over the past seven months Ms Zappone has put forward a public image of being equally fearless, rarely speaking about the trauma. She was made a minister again at a delayed ceremony in mid-June at Áras an Uachtaráin and is working on childcare services, seeking reforms of the corporate tax system, and being a calm, reasoned voice for repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
However, speaking to the Irish Examiner in an at times emotional interview in the same office where she told her closest officials Ann Louise was going to die, Ms Zappone for once opens up.
Repeatedly holding back tears and often pausing to compose herself, she readily admits the past seven months have been deeply traumatic for her, and something from which she is still struggling to recover.
Despite the private torment of what happened and her initial thoughts of leaving politics to spend more time with the woman she loved when she first became ill, Ms Zappone now says she plans to stay in office to honour her soul mate’s memory.
“I do know it’s better not to make really important decisions in the midst of profound grief, and I’m not over that yet.
“But I would say, when I was reflecting on my ministry and my work, when she was alive and, I thought, apparently well — although as you know she was blind and writing her book and all this kind of stuff — I was thinking deeply about when my term ended whether or not to continue.
“It was because she was at a certain point of life and so was I. Life is precious and we wanted more time together. But that’s not... that’s not in front of me anymore.”
The decision, says Ms Zappone, is in part due to the need to ensure the social reforms Ann Louise fought for become fully embedded realities in modern-day Ireland.
She says it is also the result of the significant help she has received since Ann Louise’s passing from friends, relatives, politicians, and professional counselling to cope with her grief.
While societal attitudes are changing, it is still relatively rare to hear someone in a position of power speak about seeking counselling help in their darkest moments.
In part because of her US upbringing, Ms Zappone is comfortable in explaining her need to receive the support alongside other help from colleagues, urging anyone facing similar personal trauma to ignore any alleged stigma and be willing to talk to qualified professionals who are there to listen.
“I feel I have coped well. But what does that mean? It means I have been supported and embraced by my colleagues, my political team, the officials here, in ways no one will ever see.
“This is a very privileged job and I know that keeps me very occupied, but I take my time to grieve when I’m in my home alone.
“I have also engaged in counselling, it was certainly a good experience for me, and other people if they’re suffering a lot of loss I’d say go for it. Why not, because it gives you that little sanctuary time, just that space to say right now I’m with the loss and feel it.”
Talking about her grief in a safe place, says Ms Zappone, is helping her to cope. And so too is the knowledge that many of the changes Ann Louise fought for during her life are now coming to fruition in society.
After marrying for the first time in Canada in 2003, Ann Louise and Ms Zappone took a High Court case against the Revenue Commissioners over the State’s refusal to recognise their marriage as it was not legal in Ireland, a high-profile campaign which helped pave the way for the 2015 marriage equality referendum.
Ann Louise’s push for gender equality and conviction to address long-standing educational disadvantage and early childhood education gaps in Ireland, issues that were once marginalised, are increasingly seen as mainstream views.
Her work at An Cosán community centre in west Tallaght has helped ensure people of all backgrounds have a better chance to
climb the education ladder which is so key to a brighter future.
Ms Zappone says the legacy of Ann Louise’s life well lived is an ongoing source of solace for her.
That is not to say, however, that the same memories — and the reality that no more will be made — do not bring pain too, particularly during Christmas time.
Two days before she spoke to the Irish Examiner, a week before Christmas, Ms Zappone found a book of notes from Ann Louise in her
While it brought that reality back to the fore once again, Ms Zappone explains she wanted to keep the book close to her over the holiday period to help fill the void left by Ann Louise as she travelled back to her Seattle family home.
“My sister is my best friend, after Ann Louise, so I will be with her and the rest of my family at Christmas, we’ll be together,” she says, her voice cracking as she fights back tears.
“Ann Louise was writing a book about having a haemorrhage and being blind and
offering hope to other people, and two days before the haemorrhage that put her into the hospital, she was doing a lot of writing.
“Two days ago, I found this on her desk at home, because I go in there to try and pick up stuff from her to read every so often when I’m low. And I hadn’t read this piece. This notebook.
“And there’s just this incredible array of reflections on where she was at and what she wanted to include in the book. She was a very brilliant mind. So it’s in my suitcase. I’m taking it with me to Seattle, she’ll be with me there.”
Gone, but never forgotten, Ms Zappone’s late wife Ann Louise Gilligan and her quiet campaigning to reform society will always be close to the children’s minister’s heart whether in personal memory, or nestled safely in a suitcase to help her through the difficult times. And to encourage her to continue through her darkest moments.
“Ann Louise just loved seeing me being a minister, doing this work. She knew I was finally in a position where I could use all my education and experience and contacts and networks across classes and across sectors to bring about good.
“She believed in that so much. I think about it each day, and that’s what helps me do it, to keep going. She would be very annoyed with me if I just lay down now. She’d look at me and just say, you know, get up and fight!”.