NOTHING annoys Gertie Shields more than the unwritten rule that some things should remain unspoken.
She remembers as a child, coming home from school with an instruction from the nuns to ask for a contribution “for the black babies”.
In exasperation, her widowed mother, struggling to raise five young children on her meagre dressmaker’s earnings, sighed an off-the-cuff reply: “Tell them I have enough white babies to look after.”
That’s exactly what Gertie did at school the next day, much to the consternation of the nun in charge of the class.
“I finished out the rest of the class on my knees,” Gertie recalls.
Her young mind failed to grasp the enormity of her faux pas. Her adult mind delights in the guilelessness of the child. Gertie was only speaking the truth.
“I was never embarrassed to speak about things as they are,” she says.
Yet it was some time before Gertie truly found her voice. She was sitting in a courtroom, observing in sickened disbelief as the drunk driver who killed her 19-year-old daughter, Paula, and five of Paula’s friends, was given a two-year suspended sentence and a 15-year driving ban. Moments before, some young men charged with stealing sheep had been sent to jail.
Gertie’s eldest son, David, read his mother’s mind.
“My son stood up and shouted up to the judge: ‘Are sheep more important than people?’ The gardaí ushered him out and the judge prepared to take the next case. Then I stood up and said: ‘That’s my child you’re talking about’.
“She was my child and she had been looking forward to her life. She was working in the Ulster Bank and she loved her job. She played in the folk group and she was a champion Irish dancer. She had her whole life in front of her and it was being dismissed.
“My father was a district court clerk in Drogheda and the way we were reared was that you certainly did not transgress in any way and if people did anything wrong to you, you could depend on the justice system to put it right. And here was the justice system dismissing my child as if she didn’t matter.”
The judge invited Gertie to take the witness box to say her piece.
Gertie demanded to know who would see that her child’s killer would stay off the road for 15 years and the judge declared that he would.
It was not long before Gertie would see the culprit behind the wheel again and discover that he had successfully applied for the return of his licence.
In the meantime, Gertie’s unusual intervention had attracted media attention. This was 1983, long before victim impact statements were introduced to allow people affected by crime have their say in court.
Newspapers and radio stations all wanted to talk to the unassuming mother-of-nine from Balbriggan, Co Dublin, who didn’t bow to authority and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Gertie began lobbying politicians, calling for stricter drink-driving laws, better enforcement and stiffer penalties. She also lent the weight of her newly acquired public profile to a community-based campaign against the scourge of joyriding in Dublin.
Before long she had become unofficial spokeswoman for a campaign with no name. That changed after a local man lost his brother to a drunk driver and then two more young people from Balbriggan died when they too were hit by a drunk driver.
This time the culprit was put off the road for a mere year and fined just £300 (€380). Gertie was livid. She was told about an organisation set up in the US by a mother just like her. Cindy Lightner from California had lost her 13-year-old daughter to a repeat drink driving offender and had reacted by setting up Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
In 1986 Gertie announced the establishment of the first MADD group outside of the US and she and a small band of mothers have kept the movement going ever since.
Their campaign was based on 10 key demands for reform of the law on drink driving, among them mandatory sentencing for drink drivers who killed, a reduction in the drink driving limit, compulsory alcohol testing for drivers involved in accidents and the automatic revocation of the driving licence pending a court hearing.
They also wanted photographs on driving licences, an onus on publicans not to serve underage customers and compulsory notification of insurance companies where a policy holder received a drink driving conviction.
They asked for the right of a deceased victim to have a legal representative who would be kept informed of court dates and the progress of prosecutions and be allowed make a public statement at trials on behalf of the bereaved family.
Looking back, the demands hardly seem revolutionary — and most have since been met — but every one of them represented an uphill battle.
“We were all in denial about drink driving in this country. People were dying in their droves on the roads [535 people died on the road the year Paula was killed] and nobody in high places would say drinking had any part to play,” Gertie says.
“People took a couple of drinks and thought nothing about it. They possibly were not aware about the dangers of one or two pints, but anyone who took 10 or 12 pints knew well they were doing wrong and still nobody spoke out.
“I remember leaving court after Paula’s case and going into the hotel for a cup of tea. The waitress was clearing the table and someone called over how did the case go — meaning our case because they didn’t know it was us. The girl said: ‘It went well. Michael [not his real name] got off’.
“That was the way it was seen. It was good that someone got off. That kind of mindset had to change.”
The Road Safety Act 1994, introduced by then Environment Minister Michael Smith, was the first piece of reforming legislation in years and Gertie welcomed its provisions for a reduced drink driving limit and mandatory disqualification periods for convicted drink drivers.
The reform was short-lived. Publicans marched on the Dáil and critics decried the new restrictions as draconian measures that would decimate Irish social traditions and the rural way of life.
The new rainbow coalition that took power that year relaxed some of the tougher measures.
Again Gertie was furious but by this time, she had other things on her mind. In 1992, she had lost her daughter, Deirdre, a 33-year-old mother of three young children, who died suddenly when a virus attacked her heart.
Deirdre was living in Germany at the time, where her husband’s job had taken the family. The children, the youngest of whom was just 18 months, came home to Gertie and her husband, Gerry, until permanent arrangements could be made for their care but although their father eventually managed to get a transfer to Ireland, the children remained with their grandparents where they were settled.
“It was a strange time, having a baby in the house again, but it worked out well. I always loved children and so did Gerry. We had nine but each one was different and precious to us. Having the grandchildren here has kept me young, especially after Gerry died [in 1998].”
Gertie says her age is top secret but she has already given the game away by recalling that she was just seven years old when her father died of pneumonia in 1937.
It was 1994 when Gertie entered the political arena, topping the poll as an independent candidate in the elections to Balbriggan Town Commission. The commission is now a town council and Gertie is still a member.
“Road safety was just one of the issues I ran on. I didn’t want it to be the only thing. You get public representatives who have pet subjects but you don’t give a full representation to the people if you only focus on one thing. I wanted to give people a voice in all issues affecting them locally.”
Her bid for a Dáil seat was not successful but she doesn’t regret giving it a go. “You don’t know until you try. People asked would I not be embarrassed if I didn’t get in but as I’ve said before I’m not easily embarrassed,” she says.
“It never frightened me to get up and talk to people or speak to government ministers. My mother used to say: just remember they were all little babies in nappies once.”
Gertie’s late mother, Kathleen Dempsey, was a key inspiration in her life. Fine Gael “to the bone”, she won a seat on Drogheda Corporation for the party at the age of 70.
“My mother was a very strong woman. If we had not had a mother like that, I would not have been able to face up to what I have faced. I also have my faith. I’m not ‘holy holy’ but I do believe in an afterlife. I think it must be very hard for people who don’t — to think they’ll never, ever see their loved ones again.
“I have the memory of Paula too. At the time all I thought was maybe I can make Paula’s death make a difference and that’s still what keeps me going.”
Gertie says there is still much work to be done and points out that while road deaths have reduced since the 1980s, the number of injuries has not, averaging more than 9,000 a year.
“I’d have hopes for the random breath testing [introduced this summer] but will they actually enforce it? I’d say don’t bring in legislation unless you are going to enforce it.”
Gertie is also involved with Justice for the Forgotten, the relatives group set up to campaign for an inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings that killed 34 people in 1974, among them her aunt Concepta Dempsey.
“We didn’t talk about Cepta in our family. She just ‘died in Dublin’ as it was put. It was the same for all the victims. Nobody apologised or investigated. The campaign for justice only started in 1996. It goes to show you, it’s a different world now.
“It took us 20 years to speak for Cepta. That’s why I was determined to speak up for Paula. I think people are more willing to speak out now and that’s a good thing.”
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