Ahern, Catherine Ita ('Kit') (1915–2007), president of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, senator and TD, was born 13 January 1915 in Athea, Co. Limerick, eldest of eight children of Patrick Liston , a wheelwright and carpenter, and his wife Mary Ann (née McAuliffe). The family was active in republican politics; her father was nicknamed 'the Painter', because he had painted banners for Parnellite rallies. Like most of their neighbourhood, the Listons backed the anti-treaty side in the civil war, and were strong supporters of Fianna Fáil. After national school in Athea, Kit attended secondary school in Mercy Convent, Newcastle West. She lived with her grandmother Kate (Barrett) McAuliffe (who had been involved in the Ladies' Land League), and saw guns being hidden in the house; her uncle Owen McAuliffe, a member of the west Limerick battalion of the IRA, was arrested and imprisoned in that period. Kit's first political activity, in the early 1930s, was to walk out of school with a classmate, to protest when others came in wearing the blue shirts associated with Fianna Fáil's bitterest opponents in Cumann na nGaedheal. She went to board in a school in Tuam, Co. Galway, to do her matriculation examination; in both her schools, her love of the Irish language and her nationalist fervour were stimulated by teachers and by the polarised political atmosphere of the time.
Liston trained as a teacher at the National College of Art in Dublin and, aged 21, got a job teaching in an all-Irish school in Cahir, Co. Tipperary. She then taught for twelve years in Coláiste Mhuire in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick. It was there that she first heard about the ICA (the Irish Countrywomen's Association) and, assuming it would be a political organisation for women, joined immediately. She was the founding secretary of the Abbeyfeale guild, and helped develop the movement in the area. After marrying Dan Ahern (d. 1974), a national school teacher, in July 1941, she moved with her husband to Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, where she took over running a pub that had been owned by her uncle. Kit Ahern's activities in the ICA continued after the move to Ballybunion; many aspects of its ethos chimed with her own views, and she relished the opportunities that arose as women increasingly got involved in personal development activities and in local and national campaigns on such topics as rural water supply.
She was elected president of the national organisation of the ICA in 1961, claiming later that she was 'the first pleb' to be president (Heverin, 219), though even the ICA's official history recognised that Ahern had consciously cultivated the image of herself as 'the peasant president'. During her three years as president, she encouraged the use of the Irish language at meetings and in activities, and the ICA successfully campaigned for the establishment of a pilot scheme to provide government-funded rural home economics advisors. The ICA's magazine, the Irish Countrywoman, was launched in January 1964, and during her presidency a new headquarters house in Ballsbridge, Dublin, was bought and remodelled. Ahern travelled 33,000 miles on a four-month-long world tour in 1961, representing Ireland at the triennial conference of Associated Countrywomen of the World (ACWW) in Melbourne, Australia, and at other events. For the next two years she was prominent in the unprecedented planning for the 1965 ACWW conference hosted in Ireland; an outstanding success, involving 3,000 delegates and visitors, it was said to have been the biggest conference held in the country up to that time.
By 1965, however, Kit Ahern had moved on; in November 1964, the taoiseach, Seán Lemass (qv), nominated her to replace Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha (qv) in the tenth seanad. With something less than false modesty, and equally characteristic political pragmatism, she explained that she accepted the nomination 'as a tribute to the women of Ireland, as a tribute to myself and to try to create a base for a new North Kerry Fianna Fáil TD' (Heverin, 219). An equally candid comment, also from the official ICA history, suggests that Ahern's pragmatism verged on cynicism; according to her own testimony (presumably referring to the ICA members in her power base), north Kerry was notable for 'cute and seasoned rural hoors' (Heverin, 220). It seems that the nomination to the seanad had caused a rift between Ahern and her ICA colleagues, since the ICA constitution did not permit officeholders to engage in political activity. Ahern argued that it would have been hypocritical of her to decline, given her efforts to encourage Irish women to get involved in politics.
She was assiduous in representing the interests of her Kerry base, and was nominated again by the taoiseach for the eleventh seanad in 1965. She was subsequently elected on the cultural and educational panel for the twelfth and thirteenth seanads, in 1969 and 1973, serving until 1977. Not even the ten-hour train journeys between Kerry and Dublin dampened Ahern's enthusiasm for involvement with Fianna Fáil powerbrokers and ambition for local influence in Kerry. Gradually building up her local base, she stood unsuccessfully in the 1969 general election in Kerry North, polling 5,217 first preferences, but was defeated for the last seat by the redoubtable Dan Spring (qv) for Labour. In 1973 she improved to 5,786 first preferences, but again failed to win a seat. In both elections, the poll-topper was her formidable Fianna Fáil party colleague Tom McEllistrim (1932–2000). In 1977, as part of a landslide nationwide victory for Fianna Fáil, she won the second seat in Kerry North at the expense of Fine Gael. The first female TD for the constituency, she was one of only three women TDs in the twenty-first dáil.
Kit Ahern was a member of Kerry County Council, first elected in 1967, and was the council's first woman cathaoirleach (1977–8). She was also a member of the consultative assembly of the Council of Europe (1970–73). Though she prided herself above all on being a pioneering woman politician, her outlook was far more conservative than that of other women trying at the time to break gender barriers. Indeed, many female activists at the time regarded Ahern as an anomaly or even a renegade, rather than as a potential role model. She opposed contraception, divorce and even annulment of marriage. A clue to understanding Ahern's viewpoint may lie in her statement that if she had had children, she would not have stayed in politics because there were no crèches. Rather than supporting the contemporary effort to provide crèches so that women with children could enter politics, she believed that mothers ought to remain in the home, leaving politics and other professions the preserve of men and childless women such as herself.
Ahern supported George Colley (qv) in the Fianna Fáil leadership struggle of 1979, and disliked the victorious Charles Haughey (qv). She paid the price when she lost her seat in the 1981 election to Denis Foley, a Haughey supporter, and was not even nominated again for the seanad. She was bitter about her abrupt departure, claiming she had created the dáil seat for her party through thirteen years of hard slog in the seanad, and in 1986, though officially retired from politics, publicly left Fianna Fáil for the new Progressive Democrats party.
Ahern was involved for many years with the Kerry Historical and Archaeological Society, was president in 1993, and received the society's Kerry Heritage Award in 1991. She also was for a term a director of Bord Fáilte, having worked to promote Kerry tourism ever since her time in the pub in Ballybunion. A member of Conradh na Gaeilge, she supported traditional Irish cultural activities and local GAA clubs; though she herself had played camogie in school, she decided afterwards that it was too strenuous for girls. Kerry County Council named a road in Ballybunion in her honour, in 2004. After more than thirty years of widowhood, Kit Ahern died in Tralee at the age of 92 on 27 December 2007.
Her youngest brother, Eugene (Owen) Liston, died 14 January 2014. A well-known Ballybunion pub owner, he worked hard to promote the town as a tourist destination and organised Ahern's election campaigns. He was an enthusiastic member of the GAA, and father of the Kerry footballer Eoin Liston.