WOMEN IN CIVIL RIGHTS

When the civil rights struggle came, a meeting was called for people interested in social justice, were against repression and for the good of the community and my husband Frank and I were invited along. I was proposed and seconded for the Executive Committee of the Civil Rights Association and willingly joined it. I was on the Executive Committee from the beginning to the very end of the civil rights campaign and I was in every single march including the first one from Coalisland to Dungannon, the Bloody Sunday one and the last one in Newry. Frank became an ordinary member, as someone had to look after the children and our oldest son was mentally handicapped. But Frank still managed to do a colossal amount of civil rights work as well.

They were a great crowd of people who joined the civil rights struggle, from all walks of life and all ages, classes and creeds. Many of them had never taken part in a public demonstration before and I know never have since, but it did attract the very best type. There were students, musicians, trades people, business people, professors, unemployed, solicitors, farmers, factory workers, authors, housewives and many others I could go on forever. The first chairman was John D. Stewart who was a humanist and author and journalist by profession.

Many people who took part in the struggle suffered in public life. Some had to close their businesses because bigoted and prejudiced people refused to buy from them or hire their services. Lots of people lost their livelihoods and homes because bigots could not see that the civil rights struggle was completely non-sectarian.

There were also many women and girls involved, and family groups would come along and take part. One was a large family from the Cliftonville that used to come in their own mini bus. They even had their own banner that they made themselves.

There were many young women and girls involved, mostly students from different universities, who suffered much. In the march to Burntollet they were ambushed, beaten all along the way and had to flee across fields and rivers etc. I am proud to say that one of these young women was my daughter Brid.

Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle. At the time of the Newry march all the houses in the town were open and the women made welcome all those who attended the march. The Newry women just handed their homes over and people came from all over Ireland for the rally. There were as many as twenty or thirty people in each house made welcome, fed and treated like royalty. It was the same in lots of towns and villages, the women were always to the fore with the food and shelter for all who needed it. They attended the rallies as well, and many a one both young and old was battened and stoned. It never deterred them and they always supported the rallies in their thousands, always brave and practical and always ready for any emergency.

One little old lady from Dublin, an authoress called Hilary Boyle, was on all the marches. She was very tiny and dressed in a very distinguished fashion and always wore a hat. The crown forces were preventing the people from crossing over a certain area on a particular march. But Hilary was not to be beaten, she hitched up her skirt and climbed over all the hedges in a row of houses and through a little field to the main road. There she stood and waved her umbrella at the RUC. The umbrella was bigger than she was! It was really funny and there was not one thing they could do about it. That was one battle certainly won in a non-violent manner.

There was also another family of girls who supported civil rights. They were from Armagh and included the mother and her five daughters. They always wore dark clothes, heavy shoes and carried haversacks full of sandwiches and flasks of tea because they said ‘you never know what sort of situation you could end up in’ and they were quite right because so many funny and surreal things did happen on the rallies. They were nearly all nurses and one was a schoolteacher. When people were sick, injured or felt faint, they were always to the fore with their first aid kits. They were very well known and always at hand to help.

Many of these great women have taken their places in society in the different professions and are doing brilliantly as doctors, dentists, solicitors etc. Some have emigrated and are doing well in different countries around the world. They were a really great crowd of people with the best hearts and intentions in the world. It was truly a better life for all campaign and those involved were the salt of the earth and I am proud to have played my part in it.

Rebecca McGlade June 1989