Mahon, Catherine (1869–1948), president of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, was born 15 May 1869 in Laccah, north Co. Tipperary, eldest among seven children of James Mahon, labourer, and Winifred Mahon (née O'Meara). She was educated locally and at the Convent of Mercy in Birr, where she was a good student and was appointed monitor in October 1884. This was the first step to teacher training (which she completed by correspondence from the Birr convent); in 1890 she sat the final examination. Except for a brief initial period teaching in Tulla Convent, Co. Clare, her entire teaching career was spent in her home county of Tipperary – first at Nenagh convent, then as principal of Glenculloo (September 1891–April 1892), a small rural school of thirty pupils, and finally as principal of Carrig national school, which she ran until her retirement.
Energetic and an excellent administrator, Mahon increased attendance at the school and was involved in local community activities; she was also ambitious, dynamic, reforming, and (since she never married) not confined by family duties. In 1906 she found a wider forum for her talents when she joined the Birr Teachers Association and began taking part in the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO). Her political and social views were advanced. A nationalist and supporter of the Gaelic League, she was an early member of various women's groups, including the militant Irish Women's Franchise League. Although she never joined the suffragettes in their more radical activities – such as breaking the glass of government buildings – she expressed qualified support for their methods in letters to the avant-garde newsletter Irish Citizen, and probably felt constrained from taking part more fully in the struggle for the franchise by the awareness that this might compromise her position as spokeswoman for teachers’ rights. Although strongly principled, she was pragmatic and willing to compromise.
A forceful speech on equal pay at the 1906 annual INTO congress brought her to public notice. She then tackled the lack of female representation on the INTO executive. Arguing the suffrage axiom ‘Taxation without representation is tyranny’, she put herself forward for the vice-presidency in March 1907. A staff writer in the teachers’ paper, Irish School Weekly, announced that ‘Mahon's extraordinary enthusiasm, and her almost superhuman energy’ (19 January 1907) made her an ideal candidate. In the event she was not elected but she polled so well and had made the issue so public that the INTO felt obliged to create two new places on the executive for women, one of which went to Mahon.
Among the achievements of her first four years was a successful recruitment drive for INTO, and preventing laundry and cookery from being made mandatory subjects for women teachers. In summer 1908 INTO had the satisfaction of seeing their proposals for the Birrell grant adopted – the grant was initially intended for teachers of large schools only, but following a concerted campaign, it was instead distributed across the board to all teachers. Mahon immediately made the point that since male and female teachers had benefited equally from the grant, the principal of equal pay had been accorded and a precedent set.
A forceful and inspiring public speaker, a clear, incisive writer, a born administrator, and a smart dresser – she was once described as ‘most becomingly dressed in a Saxe-blue satin robe, with chiffon and oriental embroideries, over which she wore a white Claddagh coat [and] hat also of Saxe-blue, trimmed with ostrich plumes’ (ISW, 29 March 1913) – Mahon was a highly prominent executive member and did not shirk from controversy, so was sometimes resented. In 1910 the resident commissioner for education, Dr W. J. M. Starkie (qv), refused to receive an INTO deputation including her, citing as his reason that she had breached confidence by talking about a previous meeting to the press. However, INTO elected her to the vice-presidency, unopposed, in April 1911. Her most concerted action that year was to protest (with some success) against the imposition of a maternity rule that required mothers to provide substitute teachers at their own expense for the three-month period of their accouchement.
Elected the first female president of INTO (1912), Mahon had to deal immediately with the crisis surrounding the dismissal of the vice-president, Edmond Mansfield, from his post as principal of Cullen boys’ school, for urging, in a speech, the removal of a senior schools’ inspector from the district. This brought to a head INTO's problems with the board of education, which it considered high-handed and tyrannical. A deputation, headed by Mahon, travelled to London (5 November 1912) and prevailed on the chief secretary, Augustine Birrell (qv), to hold a commission of inquiry into the Irish board of education. The Irish News reported that her statement of the case was ‘a masterpiece of simple and natural eloquence and clear reasoning. Her manner was calm and deliberate. Mr Birrell, who came to the meeting prejudiced in favour of the commissioners, was forced to admit the strength of her case’ (Chuinneagáin, 136–7). A commission of inquiry was set up. Exceptionally Mahon was reelected to serve a second term as president against the usual INTO rules because ‘the general who has in every encounter routed the enemy's cavalry, must be retained at the head of the forces’ (ISW, 14 December 1912). In September 1913 she gave evidence to the inquiry (the ‘Dill commission’), and her obituary later claimed this as her finest hour. Arriving before the commission on crutches, following an accident, she replied to expressions of sympathy: ‘My present condition is symptomatic of the condition of Irish education as administered by the national board’ (Chuinneagáin, 140). The findings of the commission (published 31 January 1914) vindicated the teachers’ criticisms by recommending wide-ranging changes, but did not advocate Mansfield's reinstatement. Mahon took this so seriously that the following year she tendered her resignation from the executive (where she was serving as ex-president) following INTO's agreement to a compromise solution for Mansfield. She agreed to stay on until Easter 1916, but then stepped down, giving as her main reason that she had served nine consecutive years and the organisation needed to be invigorated by fresh blood.
She could not, however, resist taking part in the key teachers’ issue of 1916, the war bonus, which the chancellor of the exchequer proposed allocating along civil servant lines – granting men double the pay of women. Through speeches and a letters to the press, Mahon kept up the pressure on INTO, and declared the successful outcome in November 1916 a victory for principle. This did little to endear her to the INTO executive, who found her interfering, while her vocal support of the Easter rising brought a sharp request for clarification from the education board.
Politics was also to the fore in Mahon's ultimate disagreement with INTO. In her public criticism of the education bill (1919) of the chief secretary, Ian MacPherson (qv), she called INTO's executive (which had broadly welcomed it) apologists for British rule in Ireland. Less diplomatic and pragmatic now that she was off the board, she went too far in her insinuations of jobbery against INTO's president and the general secretary, T. J. O'Connell (qv). This finally alienated her former colleagues; in March 1920 INTO issued libel proceedings against her. She ignored all correspondence, refused to appear in a British court, and neither withdrew nor substantiated her accusations. However, she had been effectively silenced, so INTO dropped the case. In his history of the organisation, O'Connell claimed that she was naive and had allowed herself to be used by others.
Mahon took no further part in national education matters, but continued her involvement in local affairs. She was honorary president of the Tipperary Cottage Tenants’ Association, and was an active member of Fianna Fáil from its formation. In July 1934 she retired from teaching and became the first woman to be elected to the North Tipperary county council. After serving three years she resigned when she moved with her two widowed sisters to live in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin, where she died on 27 February 1948, and was buried in Balbriggan cemetery. Two years previously she had addressed the INTO when Kathleen Clarke (qv) became the first woman elected president since her own term, and then expressed the hope that it would never be so long before another woman took the presidential chair. It was the fitting final remark of a woman who, although she had served the general interests of teachers in her time with INTO, was chiefly distinguished by her considerable efforts in the fight for equal rights.