Fennell, Nuala (1935–2009), feminist and politician, was born Fionnuala Campbell in north Co. Dublin on 25 November 1935, the third eldest child of Patrick Campbell, from the rural east Co. Galway area of Lisheennavannoge (Clancarty), an IRA volunteer and one of the earliest Garda recruits, and his wife Elizabeth (née Roberts), from Glasnevin, Dublin, formerly a secretary. Fennell had two sisters and three brothers. During her childhood, her family lived in quarters at Garda barracks in Kells and Portlaoise. In 1947 the family moved to Dundrum, Dublin, and she attended Dundrum national school before entering the Domincan College, Eccles Street, as a day student. On completion of her secondary education Fennell remained at the Dominicans Commercial College, completing examinations in English, typing and shorthand; she later worked as a general secretary at a tea import company on Bachelors Walk. She met her future husband, Brian Fennell, at Templeogue Tennis Club, and they emigrated in 1957 to Montreal, Canada, where they were both employed by the Sun Life Company. The couple returned to Dublin and were married on 29 October 1958. Fennell took up secretarial employment in a legal firm in Dublin, at a time when married women were frowned upon for working. The couple had three children and Fennell became a full-time housewife but was unfulfilled in this role.
In 1970 she began writing articles about marriage, careers and education for women. Her work was published in the women's pages of the Irish Press and the Evening Press and she wrote for RTÉ feature programmes. This work put her in contact with a group of feminist journalists, including Mary Kenny, Mary McCutchan, Mary Anderson, Nell McCafferty and June Levine (qv). When the group established the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) in 1970, Fennell was encouraged to join by Mary Kenny. The IWLM's manifesto, Chains or change?: the civil wrongs of Irish women (1971), highlighted the many ways in which women were discriminated against under the Irish constitution, and had a long-term influence on Fennell.
Due to numerous splits in the IWLM and the loss of Mary Kenny, who suddenly left Ireland for London, Fennell was discouraged. She began to view the IWLM as too left-wing and confrontational; she resigned from the organisation in October 1971. She was contacted by Dana Davis, editor of the popular Irish magazine Woman's Choice, and together the women organised a meeting with an eclectic mix of friends: Deirdre McDevitt (school friend), Bernadette Quinn (pharmacist), Máire Humphreys (nurse), Joan O'Brien (teacher) and Anne McAllister (neighbour). The group called themselves Action, Information and Motivation (AIM), a pressure group campaigning for women's equality in marriage. AIM was formally launched on 11 January 1972 at Brian Fennell's office at 38 Clarendon Street, Dublin. At a time when Irish women had little legal protection or financial independence within marriage, AIM campaigned for marriage law reform based on four key issues: enforceable maintenance in marriage, equal rights to the family home, attachment of earnings, and free legal aid.
The 1973 general election brought in a new coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour, who were keen to address some of AIM's concerns. The junior minister for social welfare, Frank Cluskey (qv), arranged payment of children's allowance to mothers rather than to fathers and reduced the waiting time for approval of the deserted wives' allowance. The minister for justice, Patrick Cooney, and the attorney general, Declan Costello, met AIM members and undertook the introduction of free legal aid and family maintenance reform. Fennell also established a support group for deserted wives, ADAPT, in 1973.
The following year, Fennell wrote a concise book entitled Irish marriage – how are you! (1974), the chapters including 'Wife-beating – a husband's prerogative?' Fennell based her accounts on letters from women during her time as a freelance writer and letters sent to AIM. Also in 1974, the BBC screened a documentary,Scream quietly or the neighbours will hear, describing Erin Pizzey's work setting up a women's aid centre in Chiswick, London. Fennell was moved by interviews with two Irish women who, in order to escape violent husbands, were forced to leave Ireland with their children to seek protection in the UK. She immediately began preparations to establish an Irish women's aid organisation, and published a letter in the Irish Times (1 March 1974) calling for support; two weeks later she arranged a meeting in Buswell's Hotel and a committee was formed. Along with two members of the committee, Mary Banotti and Susan Donnelly, Fennell met Pizzey at the centre in Chiswick. Fennell launched a public appeal for funds, and a businessman, Joe McMenamin, offered the group the loan of an old house near Harcourt Street in Dublin, located near the local Garda station. A group of volunteers renovated the house, and within weeks fifty women and children were seeking refuge there against serious domestic violence. This was the beginning of Irish Women's Aid, with Fennell becoming its first chair in 1975. Around this time, Fennell also became an executive member of the Council for the Status of Women (latterly, the National Women's Council of Ireland).
In 1977 Fennell stood as an independent dáil candidate for Dublin Co. South; she was not elected but proved popular with voters. Her activities brought her to the attention of Fine Gael, most especially Garret FitzGerald (qv). In 1979 a new system for European Parliament elections was introduced, with candidates to be elected by public vote rather than party nomination. Fennell stood as a Fine Gael candidate for Dublin in this first direct European Parliament election, but again was not elected. The following year, along with Deirdre McDevitt and Bernadette Quinn, she wrote a self-help guide for women, entitled Can you stay married? (1980). The publication arose from her work with AIM, providing advice on how to proceed with legal action against a husband and on the practicalities of life after a broken marriage.
Fennell was first elected to Dáil Éireann during a particularly turbulent political time in Ireland, winning a seat in Dublin South as a Fine Gael candidate at the general election on 11 June 1981. A Fine Gael–Labour coalition government was formed under Garret FitzGerald, but fell some months later, and another general election on 18 February 1982 resulted in the formation of a minority Fianna Fáil government under Charles Haughey (qv). This lasted until early November 1982, and another general election (24 November) returned a Fine Gael–Labour coalition to power. Fennell held her Dublin South seat in both 1982 elections, and in FitzGerald's new coalition government (1982–7) became minister of state for women's affairs and family law, a newly established ministry spread across the departments of Justice and the Taoiseach. AIM had been campaigning for the introduction of divorce in Ireland since their formation and Fennell played a significant role in orchestrating a referendum on the issue on 25 June 1986, which was ultimately defeated. During her political career, Fennell successfully drove a number of transformative pieces of equality legislation through parliament, most notably the abolition of the status of illegitimacy in 1987. After losing her seat in the 1987 general election, she was immediately nominated by Taoiseach FitzGerald to the outgoing seanad, and was then elected to the new seanad on the labour panel (1987–9), serving as a member of the oireachtas committee on women's rights. She was returned to the dáil for Dublin South in 1989, and retired from politics in 1992. After her death, Senator Frances Fitzgerald noted in the chamber's expressions of sympathy that Fennell 'was a trailblazer, and the trail she set out in politics will never be erased and can only be further developed and progressed' (Seanad deb., 13 July 2010, col. 412).
In 2004 Fennell was given a life expectancy of two years after diagnosis of a blood disorder, myelodysplasia. She underwent treatment at St Vincent's Private Hospital in Dublin, requiring regular blood transfusions. During this period of illness she wrote her memoirs, completing the manuscript on 23 July 2009. She was admitted to St Vincent's on 3 August 2009, and she died there on 11 August, surrounded by her family. Fennell was survived by her husband Brian; her children Jacqueline (Hall), Garrett and Amanda; and her brothers Michael, Patrick and Tony. Her funeral took place on 14 August at the church of the Assumption, Dalkey, and she was buried at Shanganagh cemetery, Co. Dublin. Her book, Political woman: a memoir, was published in October 2009. In an interview with the Herald newspaper prior to the book's release, Brian Fennell revealed that his wife's last words to him were: 'Didn't we have a wonderful life together?'