Obituary: Mary Raftery, 1957 – 2012

I once asked Mary Raftery for tips on being a good journalist, and she said always to always start your articles with a short sentence. So here it goes;

Mary Raftery has passed away.

Student politician turned journalist, last September she spoke in an interview of her time in UCD which she spent “doing a lot less engineering than I should have and getting a lot more involved with the students’ union and the student newspaper.” She worked as a sub-editor and writer for ‘In Dublin’ magazine, before moving on to work for the current affairs publication ‘Magill’ in 1984. Later she joined RTE, where she remained employed until leaving in 2002.

The word that has been mentioned again and again in tributes to her is “relentless”. This relentlessness led to her producing and directing ‘States of Fear’, a documentary series that revealed the physical and sexual abuse suffered by children in Irish industrial schools and residential institutions. Such was the immediate reaction to the programme that before the third part had even been broadcast the then-Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, publically apologised to victims of institutional abuse on behalf of the State. The Ryan Commission and the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which has to date compensated approximately 14,000 victims, were both set up as a result of her work.

Cardinal Secrets’, her 2002 expose with Mick Peelo, examined the cover-up of child sex abuse allegations, and led to the setting up of the Murphy Commission of Investigation into clerical abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. Raftery’s last documentary ‘Behind the Walls’, which she worked on while she was ill, was broadcast in September 2011, and examined the history of Ireland’s psychiatric hospitals. During her career she also exposed the plight of residents of Magdalene laundries, deaths in Garda custody, medical negligence and the activities of property developers.

At her funeral her husband David Waddell said he thought that using the time to concentrate on her flaws was important for balance. She “couldn’t cook for nuts”, and was “a dreadful gardener.” He also spoke more gravely of the opposition that she faced from institutions while working, “including RTE”, and told how the “little support” herself and her colleague Sheila Ahern received when preparing States of Fear had “direct adverse health consequences for both of them.” But yet they fought on.

Probably the most remarkable journalist of her generation, Raftery’s works instigated huge changes in Irish society. She shined a light on the darkest corners of this country, fearlessly fighting against both injustice and ignorance, whilst giving a voice to those who had been silenced. And despite all that she uncovered, she never lost faith in the goodness of humanity.

“The most refreshing thing about what I do is the fact of how good people are”, she said in September. “It’s amazing to see how they are fundamentally driven to help others, and that they will do so by revealing themselves and their adversities and their challenges. And it’s wonderful. You really do see the best of people… The most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced. And …what else would I be doing?”

Sally Hayden