Gaj, Margaret (née Dunlop) (1919–2011), restaurateur, radical, and political activist, was born on 28 January 1919 in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of four children (two girls and two boys) of James Aloysius Dunlop and his wife Ellen (née O'Malley). Both parents were catholics of Irish descent and Margaret related strongly to her Irish heritage. Even as a teenager she held views that marked her as unconventional: she joined the Independent Labour Party, and was a pacifist during the second world war, prepared to refuse to swear allegiance to the British crown. She trained in domestic economy, and during the war worked as a nurse in a Red Cross hospital in Stirling, which was treating Poles who had joined the British forces. After criticising how patients were treated, Margaret was sacked for insubordination. She subsequently married a former patient, Boleslaw Gaj (pronounced 'Guy'), who had been born in 1912 near Kraków, and had worked in engineering research in the Polish air force until Poland was overrun. He escaped through Romania and Italy to France, where he joined the French air force, but had to flee again, to Britain, where he served as an electrician in the Royal Air Force until he fell ill.
Disillusioned by life in post-war Britain, the Gajs moved to Ireland in 1948; Margaret used a legacy from an uncle to buy a small farm at Eadestown Lodge, Stratford-on-Slaney, Co. Wicklow. The Gajs became Irish citizens in 1951, and had two sons (born in 1951 and 1953). Farming did not work out, and for a time from 1953 Margaret managed the Slaney Hotel in Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow. Margaret's forceful personality was in evidence even at this stage: in 1954 she took a Baltinglass farmer to court to obtain an apology for his 'filthy language' to her (Nationalist, 4 September 1954). In 1955 the couple sold the farm and set up a small café in Baltinglass, in which the food was influenced by Boleslaw's Polish culinary heritage. It was fairly popular, but probably fifty years ahead of its time in rural Ireland, and was not a financial success. Plans to employ a Polish butcher in sausage manufacture were likewise too ambitious and insufficiently researched. Margaret experienced the satisfaction of organising a group of activists when she was founding secretary of the Baltinglass branch of the Irish Countrywomen's Association in 1954, but for some years was busy with her children and her work, and had little time to devote to the wider community.
The family moved to Dublin, and set up a restaurant in Molesworth Street. When the lease expired after three years, Margaret, using money from an insurance claim after a fall in a shop, was able to acquire premises in Dublin's bohemian district, on the corner of Lower Baggot Street and Lower Pembroke Street, and set up a restaurant on the first floor. The menu was never elaborate and seldom changed, the food hearty and good value rather than elegant, and the décor pleasant but homely. However, by 1965 and through the 1970s, the restaurant was a Dublin institution, largely owing to Margaret Gaj's personality and her social interaction with customers. Its location was also crucial, being in 'the heart of Baggatonia' (as John Banville put it). Gaj's attracted a very diverse clientele in a not particularly integrated Ireland of the period: prostitutes, students, republican sympathisers, trade unionists, actors and artists mingled with politicians and businessmen. Garda special branch detectives often dropped in to check on who was there, and the restaurant occasionally advertised using the slogan: 'All the best spies eat at Gaj's' (Ir. Times, 2 July 2011). Gaj was happy to take on hard-up activists, ex-prisoners and youngsters as waiting staff or cooks, but, in keeping with her socialist beliefs, the appointments were ratified after a probationary period by a vote of other staff.
Gaj's political views coloured the atmosphere in her restaurant in other ways, and she enjoyed introducing newcomers to radical causes and potential collaborators. Her guiding belief was in the need to build an equal and sharing community, and regular wide-ranging discussions on the main issues of the day, sometimes heated, took place under her aegis. In later years, many who were or became well-known activists expressed their indebtedness to Mrs Gaj for her introductions and support. Several left-wing groups met informally in Gaj's and benefited materially and otherwise from Gaj's help; she frequently acted as treasurer for nascent and established societies. In particular, Margaret Gaj is associated with the foundation in 1970 of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM), the first group to challenge the legal and other restrictions on liberty and opportunity experienced by all women in the conservatively catholic and traditional society of mid-twentieth century Ireland. Gaj and four other women, including Mary Maher, a radical journalist, and Máirin de Burca, a Sinn Féin official, first came together in late 1970, and thereafter the group met regularly in a room above the restaurant to work out policies and plan campaigns, profiting from Gaj's greater experience of social activism. Gaj, who acted as treasurer, was twenty or more years older than the other founders, and was generally known in the movement as 'Mrs Gaj', or even as 'Mother'.
Her practical support for radical causes went beyond allowing disadvantaged people to have free meals in her restaurant: she organised fund-raising events, acted as character witness in court, and regularly provided bail money for arrested activists. Such engagement with those arrested and imprisoned led her to an increasing awareness of bad conditions in Ireland's prisons, and she was active for many years in the Prisoners' Rights Organisation, which she helped found in 1973. She also campaigned against corporal punishment in schools and prisons, and was a leading member of the Dublin Housing Action Committee. Her early involvement with the Irish Labour party ceased after disagreements with its leadership. Her politics were probably considerably to the left of most Labour members, and she was rather pleased to be described as an 'awful subversive' (Ir. Times, 20 November 1976). She was also briefly a member of the Socialist Labour Party, but fell out with its leader, her former ally Noel Browne (qv).
Her husband died in 1975. Margaret retired in April 1980, leaving a notice on the restaurant door thanking customers for their support and noting: 'It's not easy to be a socialist in a capitalist society' (Ir. Times, 2 July 2011). The restaurant was sold, and with its closure her position at the heart of radical activism in Dublin passed, but her practical and nurturing support was appropriately remembered by friends and colleagues: a history of the IWLM bears the title Mondays at Gaj's. Mary Maher described her as 'formidable, kind and absolutely fearless in taking on the establishment' (Sunday Independent, 3 July 2011). After thirty-six years as a widow and thirty-one years in retirement, Margaret Gaj died suddenly at home on 25 June 2011 in Rathmines, Dublin. After funeral mass at the church of Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines, she was buried at Cruagh Cemetery, Rockbrook, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin.