Melanie Lynch, the founder of Irish activist group Herstory, honors her grandmother Lily with a touching personal essay.
So the story goes, a young Tommie Lynch laid eyes on a fair lady riding on the back of a horse and cart. Intrigued, he asked his friend who the stunner was:
“Forget about her. That’s Lily Coyne and she’s off to the convent.”
“We will see about that!” my grandfather Tommie declared.
In October 2021, Lily Lynch passed away at the mighty age of 97, adored by her seven children, eighteen grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and extended family.
On the day that my grandmother passed, my aunts witnessed an unforgettable moment as she lay in bed, her soul thresholding. Suddenly Lily exclaimed “Tommie”, visibly delighted at the presence of my grandfather. He died 16 years ago and returned from the other side to welcome her. Soon after her soul left her body and together they returned to the light.
A kind, introverted soul, my grandmother taught me the power of gentleness. That it’s ok to feel the world greatly. Sensitivity is a beautiful thing worth protecting and cultivating.
Lily was a nurturer, feeding her prized roses with the finest manure and her grandchildren with heavenly roast dinners and homemade soda bread smothered in butter and raspberry jam.
Looking back, I am awe-struck at how this gentle woman could command such respect and reverence. In a family of big extroverted characters, she was an anomaly and we worshipped her for it. In her own intuitive way, she brought out the best in us. And for that, I am forever grateful.
My grandmother grew up in a different Ireland. She was born on a farm in the fertile Meath countryside, at a time when few families could afford shoes for their children. Every morning, young Lily would gallop from her family’s farm across the fields, and upon arriving at the school, she would remove and hide her shoes, entering the classroom barefoot like her peers. She was always sensitive to the feelings of others.
Lily had a great sense of humor and would laugh until tears of joy streamed down her face. Her sneeze was legendary as was her sense of style. A lifelong learner, Lily read a book or two each week and the newspaper every day in her twilight years.
At times her vulnerability was palpable when suddenly her formidable spirit would be summoned by a disturbing news headline. She never lost her childhood sense of injustice and was quick to share her indignation and opinion on the matter, instilling her ever-growing brood of grandchildren with a sense of values and ethics. I know if she was alive today her prayers would be for the people of Ukraine.
My grandmother had a beautiful faith. I never heard her mention hell, sin, or other regressive Catholic dogma. Instead, she chose to focus on the light, love, and the best of Christianity. In her spirituality, she found great strength, wisdom, and peace. She believed in the power of prayer and the rosary beads appeared for every grandchild who was sitting their Leaving Cert exams.
A sharp intellect, she also boldly shared ideas of how the Church should reform and modernize. She was a strong advocate against mandatory celibacy and believed priests should be allowed to marry. In her final years as her health waned she often talked to me about death and how she was ready to go, expressed with remarkable lightness and acceptance. There wasn’t a quiver of fear in her voice. What a gift to enjoy such a deeply nourishing faith.
I was her first granddaughter and we enjoyed a special bond. Crowds easily overwhelmed her but she loved deep one-to-one conversations so I chose my time and visited solo.
From the early days of Herstory, I became fascinated with family history and was keen to conduct my own research. Before I got the chance an inquisitive cousin started digging and reconstructed our family tree, uncovering French Jewish ancestry: Levis who became Leavys when they emigrated to Ireland, changed their name to integrate with the local community. Perhaps this was the source of Lily’s beauty and her innate sensitivity.
Curious to discover more, I learned some techniques for conducting family research and interviewing relatives, especially shy folks who were not accustomed to being gently interrogated. However, I was perplexed at my grandmother’s reluctance to share her own story.
I had a burning sense of equality, that all women should be celebrated equally. Herstory is every woman’s story. After all, isn’t this what equality looks like? If we only focus on celebrities and the record-breakers this simply perpetuates the domination system and hierarchies of the patriarchy.
The breakthrough came when we illuminated women from all walks of life on castles and museums for the inaugural Herstory Light Festival in 2017. When my grandmother saw the Galway shawlies lit up on Lynch’s Castle, a penny dropped and suddenly every woman’s story mattered, her’s too. From that moment I didn’t have to ask. She willingly shared treasured childhood memories and insights from her generation.
For the Herstory on RTÉ project, we asked schoolchildren across Ireland ‘Who’s your heroine?’, sharing stories of the women who inspire them. The response was surprising and heartwarming, offering a glimpse into the values of our youth today.
In their eyes, carers are just as extraordinary and important as the trailblazers. Nurturing and compassionate traits were on a par with traditional definitions of success. The essential role of the carer is undervalued and taken for granted in Ireland but the next generation can see their value.
This gives me great hope for the future of Irish society. Many children shared stories of their grandmothers and one young lad proclaimed that ‘The Irish Granny’ was the ultimate heroine. Unanimously we agreed and produced ‘The Irish Granny’ animation in celebration of all grandmothers.
Today women in Ireland have opportunities my grandmother’s generation could only dream of. We can be and do whatever our minds can conceive. In the process of striving to smash the glass ceiling, increase profit margins, embellish CVs and break world records, we are at risk of losing what truly matters.
The world needs more Lilys.
If you are curious to research your family tree check out this Herstory photo essay.
Founded in 2016, Herstory tells the stories of modern, historic, and mythic women. Last year they successfully spearheaded the campaign to make Brigid’s Day Ireland’s a public holiday.
*Originally published in March 2022. Updated in March 2023.