Hayes, Margaret (1954–2014), civil servant, was born on 25 April 1954 in Urlingford, Co. Kilkenny, one of three girls and a boy to James (Jimmy) Hayes and his wife Mary (née Brennan). The Hayes family was immersed in the local community – Mary was a full-time farmer before her marriage, and afterwards she and Jimmy jointly managed the farm, a butcher’s shop and a pub. From an early age Margaret attended hurling matches with her father and developed a lifelong love of the game as well as an encyclopaedic recall of names and statistics. She also demonstrated great academic ability at the local national school in Urlingford and the Ursuline Convent in Thurles. Aged fourteen, she won a scholarship to St Brigid’s College in Callan, Co. Kilkenny, where she was taken under the wing teacher Sr Assumpta, who encouraged her academic ambitions. After her leaving certificate, Hayes attended Maynooth College where she studied sociology and history for a BA, before undertaking a higher diploma in education there. She graduated in 1976 and joined the civil service.
She entered state employment at a time when women struggled to progress through the ranks. The Civil Service Regulation Act (1956), section ten, had provided for the retirement of women from the service upon marriage and it was only when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 that it was deemed to be in conflict with the Treaty of Rome and European equal opportunity legislation. Although the so-called ‘marriage bar’ was lifted in 1973, its long-term effects persisted with women largely confined to the lower ranks of the civil service and poorly represented in the upper grades. Since the foundation of the state only one woman, Thekla Beere (qv), had in 1959 attained the position of secretary general (then department secretary) and although Hayes went on to become the youngest ever secretary general, her promotion did not signal a sea-change in general attitudes to female progression. Between 1987 and 1992, although fifty-two per cent of executive officers were female, they accounted for only twelve per cent of principal officers and five per cent of assistant secretaries.
Hayes’ first civil service post in 1976 was with the Revenue Commissioners. She then moved to the Department of Health, where minister Charles Haughey (qv) (1977–9) was impressed by her ability. While there she helped draft the Health (Family Planning) Act of 1979 which introduced the state’s first piece of contraceptive legislation. She also led the departmental inquiry into support services for teen pregnancies, which peaked in 1980. Her progress through the ranks of the service was remarkably swift. Within ten years of joining, she had risen to become principal officer at the Department of Tourism, Forestry and Fishing, where she first had responsibility for the wildlife service and then took charge of tourism promotion. Prior to 1988 Irish government capital investment in tourism was approximately £1 million per annum, a sum that reflected a poor understanding of the sector’s capacity for growth. Hayes had taken the lead in negotiations for the tourism sector in the talks leading to the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement and she used that experience to negotiate structural funds for Irish tourism from Europe worth £150 million. Within a five-year period more than 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector were created and visitor numbers to Ireland rose from two million to six million in a decade. During this period the department also pushed for an end to the protectionism associated with air travel, opening the way for the success of low-cost airlines.
In 1990 Hayes was appointed assistant secretary at the department, and in 1993 was lead negotiator for Ireland at the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations (which led to the formation of the World Trade Organisation in 1995). In recognition of her ability and organisational skills, in July 1995 Hayes was appointed departmental secretary (secretary general from 1997) at the Department of Tourism and Trade under minister Enda Kenny, despite having served less than twenty years in the civil service. She was the youngest woman ever appointed to head a department and only the second in the history of the state. Although there was a great deal of focus on her gender in the national newspapers when she was appointed, Hayes herself stated that it had never been an issue for her. She stressed that she ‘had never followed a women’s agenda … I don’t see any evidence of a tendency to discriminate among my male colleagues’, and summed up her attitude to equality as ‘“well why not” a woman instead of “it should be” a woman’ (Evening Herald, 7 Sept. 1995). In 1997 she was listed as one of the sixty most influential women in Ireland (Sunday Tribune, 22 June 1997). Following on from her success promoting tourism, in July 1999 Hayes played a key role in drafting the Irish Sports Council Act which created the Irish Sports Council (now Sport Ireland), the statutory body responsible for the distribution of funds to sporting organisations throughout the country.
Her last civil service posting was as secretary general of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs under minister Éamon Ó Cuív in 2002. She retired shortly afterwards and retrained as a barrister, qualifying in 2007. Her service to the Irish government continued, however, and in 2009 Brian Lenihan (qv) appointed her a ‘public interest’ director of the distressed bank Irish Life and Permanent TSB (ILPTSB), a position she held until 2013. She also served as chair of the Health and Social Care Professional Council and chair of the health sector Verification group, and was a board member of Bord Bia, the Trade Board, Trinity House School and Cuan Mhuire (which provides addiction treatment services).
On 19 February 2014 Margaret Hayes died in St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Dublin, following a short illness with cancer. She was brought back to Urlingford for requiem mass in the Church of the Assumption, followed by burial at the nearby Johnstown cemetery. Several public representatives spoke at her funeral, including former minister and EU commissioner Ray MacSharry and Bord Fáilte former director general Matt McNulty, both stressing her service to the public, her commitment to ‘the lads at home’ when abroad and her dedication to spending public funds wisely. She retained throughout her career a love of her home county and the game of hurling. In December 2014 John Treacy, chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, launched her local history book Halfway between Dublin and Cork (2014) in Hayes’ pub in Urlingford. She had worked on the book until her cancer diagnosis in July 2013, after which her sister Dympna completed the writing and provided watercolour illustrations. The following year local club Emeralds GAA unveiled the Margaret Hayes memorial plaque in honour of past players who achieved All-Ireland status.