In January 2012,
Ireland lost one of its greatest journalists and filmmakers when Mary Raftery passed away aged just 54.
Most renowned for her groundbreaking work which uncovered the abuse of children in religious-run industrial schools in Ireland in her documentary States of Fear, her closest friend and colleague Sheila Ahern pays tribute to her talent and dedication to the truth.
There has been so much said about Mary’s career and achievements in the papers and on radio and TV, that I would like talk a little bit about what she was like as a friend and also what it was like to work so closely with her.
I first met Mary in 1978 in UCD and we met over the years sharing a fondness for places like the the Palace Bar. I got a job in RTÉ in 1987 as a Production Assistant and Mary was already working there as a Producer so I was delighted to have someone who knew the ropes. Gradually, we began scheming to work together at all possible opportunities and that has continued up to the recent series Behind the Walls that went out last September. It is impossible to separate Mary into
the professional and the personal because her professionalism was so much part of her character. I suppose what people didn’t get to see from her work was the very soft side she shared with close friends and family.
There hadn’t been a whole lot of support for the series, there was a tiny budget, and when people talk about the ‘team’ that made States of Fear – there wasn’t any. It was being made through the features department and wasn’t seen as being as significant as current affairs and so it was decided to put it out late at night and not in the 9.30pm slot where programmes of ‘importance’ went. The RTÉ Guide billings were published and we were scheduled late. Mary arrived in our office and said to me, “We’re going”. I said, “Where?” and she said, “we are packing up, tapes and all and we are going home”. She was absolutely determined to leave taking the transmissions tapes and not come back. Luckily there were phone call negotiations and Part 1 went out at 9.30pm contrary to the billings. She knew the importance of the material in the series and she knew if she backed down, it would have jeopardised the impact that we all now know States of Fear had.
I saw that courage come to the fore on so many occasions as we sat across with authorities of all persuasions and watched as Mary respectfully refused to accept less than that which she felt was deserved. Recently, I listened to a young lawyer from the HSE telling her that we didn’t have a right to access information and that she had to sign all sorts of confidentiality agreements – I smiled to myself and thought: “Wow, he really has no idea who he is dealing with.” We did of course get access and no contracts were signed by her. She had no fear – she didn’t seek out position or favour, she earned everything and was never beholden to anyone nor sought approval from anyone.
Another remarkable thing about Mary was her wisdom and knowledge – she knew so much ‘stuff’. I was constantly amazed at the things she knew. We would be driving along somewhere and we would have to pull over to get out the binoculars and look at some rare breeds of bird that she knew every detail about. In work, she had really high standards and expected those same standards of others. It was often tough working with her – there were no shortcuts, everything would be checked and thoroughly examined till you were blue in the face. She set high standards and proved that they were possible to achieve.
I also really admired Mary’s sense of fairness. This underpinned everything she did; it didn’t matter whether you were a prince or a pauper, she listened to everyone’s point of view and considered what was the fairest. The people who contributed to the programmes she made gave her their trust and that trust was sacred. I remember a producer saying you should never show your programmes to contributors before transmission – we always did (for people who were telling personal stories), she believed that it was a mark of respect was to show them.
There are two particular highlights of her TV career that I really have to mention. She did an interview with George Clooney for The Movie Show and we were all fans of ER at the time. We
never heard the end of how she and George had made plans to go for a pint together the next time he was in Dublin. The other was when Nelson Mandela was in Ireland in June 1990. The
ANC were staying in a hotel in Ballsbridge and I went up to the floor where they were staying and when the lift opened I saw Mary walking towards me down a long corridor with Nelson Mandela holding her by the arm and the smile on her face was wonderful.
Mary was diagnosed with cancer a week before we began filming Behind the Walls in June 2010. She asked me to mention her gratitude to a few people who were so supportive to us during that extraordinarily difficult production – John Comiskey who directed, the wonderful editor Mary Crumlish, Mark Quinn and the team at High Wire where nothing was too much trouble, Niamh O’Connor and Steve Carson in RTÉ who were both great. I have lost my best friend but she’ll never be far from my heart.
Mary Raftery, RIP
21 December 1957 – 10 January 2012
Irish Tatler Media Woman of the Year 2011