Amazing women of the 20th century who made their mark

It’s been a week when the world has looked back in great detail at the lifetime achievements of some of the greatest and the most outstanding ladies in our society. I hold no ill will against Queen Elizabeth II who left this world amid a tumultuous series of tributes and colourful archival exhibitions on Thursday, but I have to be honest. I have had my own favourites.

Florence Nightingale would be up there near the top of the list, no doubt about it. Coming to Britain in 1856, she championed sanitary health in the community – and confirmed her status as a hero over the next 50 years of her life, establishing the career of nursing as a deeply respected profession for the first time. Florence with the lamp is still a childhood memory from my early reading days.

Marie Salomea Skłodowska-Curie, to give her her full and correct name, was a Polish and naturalised-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity and will be remembered for her groundbreaking discovery of radium and polonium, and for her huge contribution to finding treatments for cancer – undoubtedly saving the lives of millions of people – far ahead of her time. She’s well up the list too.

Malala’s charisma

I was fortunate enough to once meet Malala Yousafzai, a brave young Pakistani activist for female education and the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  The world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate, she campaigned passionately for human rights advocacy, especially the education of women and children in her native SwatKhyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Pakistani Taliban have at times banned girls from attending school and used violence to rule over that gender.

I met Malala at the presentation of the International Peace Awards in County Tipperary and her charismatic effect on her audience has stayed with me ever since. All of which brings me to the number one woman on my list, the Irish lady who holds that honour – not for her international achievements or her groundbreaking discoveries – but for her wonderful sense of duty and civic responsibility, and all revealed to the world only after she hit the ripe old age of 100!

Nancy at 107

Nancy Stewart was born on 16 October 1913 and had experienced both the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) and the coronavirus pandemic when I met her at her home on the Meath/Westmeath border a while back. It was the occasion of her 107th birthday. Nancy’s family had gathered in big numbers and in great spirits to celebrate her birthday and hear her positive message of hope, which she recorded with the assistance of her granddaughter, Louise.

“Imagine turning 107 in a world pandemic,” Nancy said to me that day, “this definitely is something very unusual, even for me and all I have been through. I live in Clonard in County Meath and have lived in my home for over 83 years. I write to you today to send you my love and to offer you my prayers. We are in a very difficult time at the moment in our country, in our lives and in our world. But I reach out to you in this letter to offer you hope, faith and belief that everything will be okay in the end”.

A year earlier I had been in the same house just off the old Kinnegad to Enfield road at Clonard. On that memorable day Nancy had been in equally buoyant mood in the midst of her family, as the then 106-year-old called on the Government of the day to get the finger out and provide proper homes for the homeless, as well as the poor and needy in society.


The great thing about meeting Nancy was that she was always so seriously conscientious with her message. At the 106th birthday celebration we chatted about so many things that had happened in Irish history down through all her days. Here she was in a frail but healthy state and still saving her pension money to try to support those suffering from poverty in Ireland and abroad.

I recorded an interview with her that day for RTE TV and radio and it got one of the largest responses I ever received over a career in broadcasting lasting well beyond 25 years. Looking into the camera, with a wicked sense of urgency in her voice, Nancy said the Minister for Housing needed to provide homes at an affordable rate for the many people around the country who have no home of their own and were staying in hotels and other such accommodation.

Hale and hearty at the age of 106, Nancy talked with great gusto about the true feeling of safety and security that only comes to any family with the peace and comfort of knowing there’s a roof over your head for you and your family at the end of every day – especially in the Irish winter. She sat there doing the interview in the house where she had lived for more than 80 years as if to emphasise this point and spoke with great determination and enthusiasm about her mission – making very little of the fact that day that she herself had just broken her hip the previous December. She had since made a full recovery at 106 years of age and was able to stand up and blow out the candles at the celebration.

Nancy always spoke candidly when we did our interviews. She once said to me that the secret to her long life and success had been her abstinence from alcohol and cigarettes, but principally her good humour.

“Not fighting with anybody is good for your health,” she told me, adding that she has little time for telephones and gadgets and walked and cycled most of her life. Nancy also spoke with great clarity about the arrival of the ‘black and tans’ at her home when she was a young child. She described to me how her mother had sent herself and her siblings well down into the garden at the back of the house for safety and shelter when the unwanted guests came into sight. They had all hidden there and watched with a sense of great fear and anxiety as the man from the unit came through the garden gate and asked for a drink in the home. A few moments later, he was given a jug of milk and bade her farewell but you could tell it had been an uneasy few minutes for the children, locked away down the garden, as they waited to see their own mother’s fate at the hands of these notoriously violent visitors.

Nancy had no great wealth or riches – no palace, no staff and certainly no grandeur about her – just like many of the other great ladies of the last 100 years. She said she suffered like everybody else from corporal punishment at school, but the parents of a fellow school pupil had put that to an end by threatening the teacher who was doing it. There was a sense of great pride and courage in her voice as she recalled how they dealt with that challenge from a bully – and survived the ordeal by reacting in the only way one ought to do when dealing with a bully – and that’s to confront that person head on.

Nancy lived with her husband and her family at their modest little home in Clonard for over 70 years. Up to a very short time before her death (a year ago this month) she still lived in the house with her niece Louise Coughlan, who always described her as the greatest granny in the world.

Louise adored her granny and, in fact, I often slagged her that she had become Nancy’s media agent – welcoming the TV and radio stations of the world into the house alongside the print and electronic media for endless interviews and chats. The best part of all that was the fact that Nancy clearly enjoyed every moment of it.

Right until the very end, Nancy held onto her great dignity and her pride. She was a wonderful lady – a great person and a tremendous mother and grandmother. She will be fondly missed.