Remarkable Mayo Women

By Terry Reilly (c)


Don’t know how the weather has been with you good people in America in recent times, but here in Ireland we have just recorded our wettest July in over fifty years!

Some areas of this green isle suffered three times the usual rainfall for the month, and our weather people say Atlantic depressions tracking over Ireland were to blame for the wet weather and frequent thunderstorms, repeating the pattern of the last two summers.

But despite the heavy rain, there was some consolation for sun seekers – sunshine levels were generally above normal, with many days having bright mornings and early afternoons before the showers developed.

The worst of the weather saw dramatic flooding at the beginning of July, when homes were evacuated and commuters left stranded after thunderstorms tore through eastern and western parts of the country.

In Newport, Co Mayo, 42mm of rain lashed down in a one-hour spell on Thursday, July 2nd – a once in 150-year event. On the same day, Dublin airport recorded 42mm of rain – its wettest on record for July.

The Valentia Observatory in Co Kerry had its wettest July since records began in the area in 1866, with 256mm of rain measured, while Johnstown Castle in Co Wexford had almost four times its normal July downpour.

However, let’s put the weather to one side, and talk about two outstanding Mayo-born women who have certainly made their mark…


When I do my historical guide walks of my native Ballina, in County Mayo, it always gives me immense pleasure to lead my companions to the house where Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland, was born. Mrs Robinson (nee Bourke) was born overlooking St Muredach’s Cathedral, and the famed River Moy, one of the finest salmon rivers in the world. She was, of course, president of our country from 1990 to 1997.

So you can imagine the deep pride felt in her native town a few weeks ago when President Barack Obama named her as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States.

Announcing the award, the White House praised Mrs Robinson’s role as Ireland’s first woman president, her career in the Seanad (Senate), her tenure as United Nations Human Rights Commissioner and her work on behalf of non-governmental organisations, including her role as honorary president of Oxfam.

Mrs. Robinson said she was “both humbled and honoured” by the award. “None of us achieves what we have done without the support of others, so I am aware that many other people share in this honour. It is wonderful to be recognised in such extraordinary company,” she added.

Of Mrs. Robinson, the White House said: “She continues to bring attention to international issues as honorary president of Oxfam International, and chairs the board of Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI Alliance). Since 2002, she has been president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, based in New York, which is an organisation she founded to make human rights the compass which charts a course for globalisation that is fair, just and benefits all.”

Other recipients of this year’s Medal of Freedom included Senator Edward Kennedy, South African human rights campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, physicist Stephen Hawking, former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, actor Sidney Poitier and tennis player Billie Jean King.

“These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way,” Mr Obama said. “Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive.”

Established by former US president Harry Truman in 1945, the Medal of Freedom is awarded annually to individuals “who make an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavours”. After her term as Irish President, Mrs Robinson was appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a position she held until 2002.


Within the past few weeks I have become aware of another great Mayo woman, Eileen Kato (nee Lynn) who became an extremely important person in Japan since she went to live there in 1958.

ndeed, she was described as ‘one of Ireland’s more remarkable exports, ending her life as one of the tiny handful of foreign advisers to Japan’s imperial family.

A renowned translator and authority on Japanese poetry and theatre, she never lost her love of Irish culture and spent many years exploring its common elements with the language and arts of her adopted country.

Born in Bangor Erris, between Ballina and Belmullet, in 1932 and educated in Sligo, she excelled at University College Galway where she graduated with first class honours in French and Spanish in 1953.

She won a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in France, and while there met her future husband, Yoshiya Kato. Her marriage, only the second between a Japanese diplomat and a foreigner since the second World War, required special permission from Japan’s conservative ministry.

She went to live in Japan in 1958, and during her husband’s posting to the United Nations in New York in the 1960s she completed a second MA at Columbia University.

Eileen Kato developed great expertise in the Noah theatre, and she established her name as a brilliant translator, mostly from Japanese into English. She also translated Japanese waka, a traditional Japanese poetic form that preceded haiku, into Irish and old and modern Irish poetry into English.

She accompanied her husband on all his postings abroad, In Beijing she studied Chinese and when her husband was ambassador to Egypt she learned hieroglyphics. After the sudden death of her husband in 1991, she was appointed as a special adviser to the Emperor of Japan. By then a Japanese citizen, she was the first person not born to a Japanese to be appointed to this special position in the emperor’s private staff. She held the role for 15 years until she retired in January 2007.

Possessing a deep knowledge of the waka art, she was an obvious candidate to translate into English the waka of the Imperial family, which was one of her duties.

Proud of her birth and upbringing in the wild and wonderful landscape of North Mayo, it was her destiny to move in high circles, yet her reticent nature made her shun the limelight. This is a fact I can personally attest to, for knowing the area of her birth pretty well and having been a newspaper man in the region for over 40 years, I was not aware of her illustrious career or of her closeness to the Imperial family in Japan. She was a private person, and although she knew both the emperor and empress as individuals, she never publicly discussed this unique association. In the history of Japan-Ireland relations, it has been stated in tributes that it is hard to think of a more important person.

Eileen Kato died a year ago, on August 31, 2008, aged 76.

*Article first published Irish American News Ohio ( 2009

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