Gladys Ryan Born: October 24th, 1921 Died: February 23rd, 2013
Gladys Ryan, who died last Saturday aged 91, was a household name in Ireland in the early 1960s when she took a High Court action against the State to prevent the addition of fluoride to the national water supply.
The case lasted 65 days and then went on appeal to the Supreme Court. She lost her action and fluoride remains in the public water.
The case is well-known to all law students as a key study in textbooks to this day. The Supreme Court, while rejecting Ryan’s appeal, defined certain constitutional rights in relation to bodily integrity which featured in later cases such as the Mary McGee contraception action.
Described as an environmentalist before the term was known, Gladys McConaghie was born in Dublin in 1921 and grew up on Leeson Street. Her father was from a farming background in Co Derry. Her education was interrupted by serious illness in her teens.
While studying to be a singer she worked in Switzer’s department store on Grafton Street. She met John Ryan, who was from Cobh, Co Cork, in the Dublin musical society in which they were both active. They married in 1948 and had five children. They lived in Terenure and later on Grace Park Road, Drumcondra. Although qualified as a barrister, John Ryan worked most of his life as company secretary to ACC Bank and, while fully supportive, was not a party to the action in the fluoride case.
Gladys Ryan did not work after her marriage and her decision to challenge the government was seen as incredible at a time when the State was considered all powerful.
The couple became involved in the nascent ecology movement and John Ryan co-founded the Irish branch of the British Soil Association. In 1960, the Fianna Fáil minister for health, Seán MacEntee, brought forward the Fluoridation of Water Supplies Act and, as the newspapers headlined at the time, a housewife challenged the validity of the Act as an “invasion of family rights”.
Ryan argued it was unconstitutional to interfere with the public water supply since people had no option but to drink it. Those who wanted fluoride could get it elsewhere in such products as toothpaste, she argued.
The government, by whom it was seen as a modernising move which would immensely improve the then poor state of children’s teeth, fought the case robustly. They were supported by the dental profession.
The attorney general, Andreas O’Keeffe, maintained the case was not about the merits or demerits of fluoridation but was about the right of the Oireachtas to enact legislation.
Ryan, who was represented in court by Seán MacBride SC, argued that fluoridation was an infringement of human rights because it removed choice. She presented numerous international experts who maintained it caused more damage than it was designed to cure.
The action was backed by a loose federation of people with environmental and health concerns and was funded on a shoestring. Ryan’s lawyers worked on a pro bono basis and witnesses’ expenses were paid by fundraising. When the case ended in 1965, after the Supreme Court upheld the High Court decision in the case, the legal costs were calculated at £230,000, an enormous sum when £2,500 would buy a good house. The State never sought costs.
There was huge disappointment at the result and a disillusionment with politics remained with the Ryans for the rest of their lives.
They retired into private life and ceased campaigning, despite strong views . Their family said the couple put themselves through an awful lot for what they believed in and their defeat had a negative impact on their lives. Former Fine Gael minister Richie Ryan (no relation), who acted as Ryan’s solicitor, said this week she was a very brave woman who raised a splendid family. “They were private people who took no pleasure in taking the case but believed it was important and they had an obligation to pursue it in the public interest.”
Gladys Ryan is survived by her children, Catherine, Michael, John, Louis and Mark, by eight grandchildren and one great grandchild. Her husband died in 1990.