LAST Friday evening Sinn Féin formally chose Donna McGettigan to fill the County Council seat left vacant following the death of Mike McKee.
She was the only person nominated, and the nomination came from Mike’s wife, Eileen.
On Monday Donna met with The Clare Champion and spoke about her own background and her views on her new role, as one of two Shannon based county councillors, and Sinn Féin’s only representative in Clare.
She left Belfast as a young child, with several of her male relatives interned in Long Kesh and her own granny on the run from the authorities in the North. “She was a strong woman. So that’s where I obviously picked that up from,” Donna laughs.
The Belfast they left in the 1970s was a very violent place, with frequent bombings and shootings. “When we weren’t down herethat long, my Mum’s Granny, our Great Granny, had died in her sleep. And me uncle came to pick us up from school and he says, I have sad news to tell you, Granny Ivy died last night. My brother said straight away ‘why, who shot her?’
“It was normal, you didn’t just die, you were shot or you were killed. That was in our mindset as kids, that’s what we were coming away from, so coming to the country was a dream! Green fields, there were cows, we’d never seen cows before! It was an absolute dream for us to come down as kids.”
They initially lived in Cronan, before moving to Finian Park, while Donna now lives in Purcell Park. She is a past pupil of St Conaire’s and St Patrick’s Comprehensive.
She had a part time job with a taxi company, which she is now stepping down from, while she will continue to work with LCM Signs in Smithstown, her uncle’s company. “They’re okay with me having to go to meetings, taking time off, taking phone calls, they’re absolutely fine.”
Donna’s daughter Saoirse is transgender, is now transitioning to being male and is now known as Jamie. “So after 21 years saying she and Saoirse, sometimes its hard for me to say Jamie and he, but that’s what he is.”
Donna is 100% beside her only child. “I support her 100%.It’s exciting for me, because I only have one child. I’ve got to see what it was like to have a daughter, now I’m seeing what it’s like to have a son. How exciting is that? How could anyone turn their back on that, you know? Unfortunately the surgery can’t be done in Ireland so you know that’s gonna mean a bit of travel.”
She says there in no way that anyone would go through the process of transitioning from one gender to another lightly.
“It’s not something that someone wakes up tomorrow and says I want to be a boy because there are psychology reports to go through, you’ve medication, there’s a thing for her called binding (of the breasts), which is extremely sore, you know? That’s very painful. So it’s not something you walk into and go, I want to do this. You have to want to do it.”
As a teenager Jamie had some hard times, coming to grips with the situation, but found out he had full support from his family.
“There was a lot of self harm, we didn’t know what was going on. Then she came out as gay firstly. We were saying sure that’s great, is that all that was wrong with you? There’s no big issue around that and my family completely accepted her straight away. So then I think she was gauging how the feelings were and we were 100% behind her so she was able then to say no, actually, I’m not gay, I’m transgender.”
Donna adds, “For the 21st birthday we had a banner, and it was ‘Saoirse 20, Jamie 1’. It’s incredible. It’s incredible that the country has accepted this. She doesn’t have to hide anywhere. There are comments made to her alright, but she’s strong. She’s like her mother and her granny.”
The LGBT community are very supportive when issues arise, Donna feels, and she believes wider society should learn from its open approach to mental health.
Donna didn’t do the Leaving Cert as a teenager, but went back as a mature student a couple of years ago, taking the exams in Maths and English. “I was having heart issues. I was in for the week and then I was panicking because it was a bank holiday and the first exams were on Tuesday morning.
“I have to give credit to the adult education, LCETB. They contacted me when I was in hospital and said don’t worry, we’ll get everything sorted for you. There’s an actual school in the hospital which I didn’t know about, that was closed down for me to do my exams. So I got to do my exams in my cookie monster pyjamas.”
Just last year she went to the base camp of Mount Everest, which she describes as “one of the toughest things I’ve ever done”, but something she also enjoyed. “It’s so worth it. When you’re up there, and you’re in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary. It’s just incredible. It is, but it’s very challenging. There were a lot of days we were out walking and you can’t talk because you’re breathing very low. You’re left with your thoughts there.”
As a councillor, she says that housing is one of her top priorities. “The houses that people are living in, not all of them, but some of them are disgraceful. I’ve gone into houses where people are completely squashed. There’s not enough four bedroom and five bedroom houses in Shannon.”
She says illegal dumping is a problem in the town, but feels it may be more multi-faceted than is sometimes acknowledged. “I know there’s an issue with rubbish and we need to find out why people are dumping their rubbish. I know some people are just lazy and dump it. But some of the household rubbish, is it someone who can’t afford their bins? Is there a way around that, can we help solve that issue because I wouldn’t like to be a single mother, with so many kids and decide I can’t afford to pay my bins and sneak out in the middle of the night to dump it somewhere. It’s not good.”
While she praises the work of local gardaí, she says crime is another major issue. “When you think of elderly women sitting at home and they are terrified to go outside the door to go to the shop, what kind of society is that? I’m sure if they saw a visible presence of the guards on the streets, they’d feel a lot safer.”
Mike McKee had actually asked her if she would take his place, but at that stage they didn’t think it would come about so soon. “The conversation was very sad, but we were still at the time thinking he was going to pull through this.”
He gave her a piece of advice that she says she intends to follow. “Mike’s words to me were just go in there, work with everybody for the betterment of the community and just don’t ever forget your Republican values.”
Many people were coming to her, even before she was chosen formally as the replacement and she praises Clare County Council staff for the assistance they have given. “Even when Mike was sick people were contacting me and I have been dealing with local issues. I have to say the staff in the council have been incredible with me.
“I was a normal Joe Soap they were answering every query, they were very helpful, put me in the right direction and, and actually did go out and do stuff that I had asked for.”