Thursday 21 March 2019

Gay Byrne pays tribute to the life of road safety champion Gertie Shields (85)

Gertie Shields in 2009 at her home in Ballbriggan poses with a picture of her daughter
Gertie Shields in 2009 at her home in Ballbriggan poses with a picture of her daughter

BROADCASTER Gay Byrne has led tributes to a Dublin woman who spent her life campaigning for stricter laws against drink-driving.

Gertie Shields (85) died peacefully surrounded by family in the Mater Hospital last Thursday.

A native of Balbriggan, she became an active campaigner after her daughter was tragically killed by a man driving under the influence.

Her 19-year-old daughter Paula and her five friends lost their lives when the driver ploughed into the mini bus they were in on February of 1983.

Gertie spent the rest of her life campaigning on the issue and set up her own group; Mothers Against Drink Driving (MADD).

She was fondly remembered by Gay Byrne as "an ordinary woman who took on an extraordinary campaign".


Mr Byrne, who was also the chairperson of the Road Safety Authority (RSA), met Gertie many times over the years.

She met with the RSA and key politicians on the issue of drink-driving and was commended by Byrne as a contributor to the "change of attitude" on the issue within Irish society.

"Often I look back at the time when we met with such opposition and abuse from people and I see the difference now, there is not one single dissenting voice," he told the Herald.

"She has to be commended for her part in that. She came to our meetings and seminars and always made sure she got a word in."

Byrne also said that Gertie was a "jolly woman" who was "very approachable".

After Paula's tragic death in 1983, a man named John McCloskey was handed a two-year suspended sentence and a 15-year driving ban.

The family were outraged and tried to appeal the ruling, to no avail.

The incident inspired Gertie to set up MADD, while her sons and daughters also got involved in forming the group.

The tough campaigner never slowed down on her ambitions, despite also juggling the role of raising nine children.

Her son Derek Shields (59) told the Herald that Gertie was "the absolute best mother".

"She was a big influence on all of our lives and apart from all the work she has done she should be remembered as a wonderful mother and granny," he said.

When Gertie's daughter Deirdre died at a young age, she took on her three children and raised them at the age of 60. Derek championed his mother's strength and determination in fighting for justice after Mr McCloskey's sentence.

"That is the type of woman she was," he said.

"She had tremendous determination, she spoke up and said 'no, I'm going to do something about this'.

"She was very courageous, honest and the most amazing woman I have ever known."

In later life, Gertie served as a local councillor in Balbriggan from 1998 to 2009.

She was well known and respected within the community and she was given the freedom of the town hall.


She also became an ambassador for the RSA.

RSA chairperson Liz O'Donnell said Gertie was "one of those most ardent and tenacious campaigners for road safety since the 1980s".

"Gertie spoke out about drink-driving when it wasn't popular to do so," she said.

"Much of the legislation in place today to prevent drink-driving, and the sea change in public attitudes...was made possible in part due to Gertie's tireless work.

"She was a true champion of road safety."

In 2013 the RSA awarded Gertie with the Supreme Award at the 'Leading Lights in Road Safety' Awards.

She was fittingly handed the award by Gay Byrne.

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