Caledon was about forcing British to address injustices in the north

PLATFORM – Austin Currie
Irish News 21/06/08

AT our meeting in the House of Commons in January 1968 Paul Rose MP, chairman of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, confirmed what I had believed for some time when he said to me, “No British government – including this Labour government – will intervene to remedy injustice in Northern Ireland unless you people there force it to do so”.

That was the thinking and the motive behind what I did in Caledon 40 years ago – on Thursday June 20 1968 – and my subsequent proposal to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to organise civil rights marches.

There was also the recognition that in concentrating on housing discrimination and other injustices we were attacking unionism in its Achilles heel.

The unionists asserted we were British so we were therefore entitled to the same rights as other citizens elsewhere in the UK.

Unionism had no answer to that demand.

So that house in Kinnard Park, Caledon, allocated to a 19-year-old single girl became the symbol of denial of basic civil rights and Britain’s failure to accept its sovereign responsibilities.

Dungannon and Derry had been focal points for housing protest for a number of years. In Dungannon the Homeless Citizens’ League, which was later broadened to become the Campaign For Social Justice (CSJ), had been formed by Conn and Patricia McCluskey.

The CSJ produced pamphlets and fact sheets detailing injustices perpetrated on the Catholic population, particularly in the allocation of council housing and vote
rigging.

The allocation of local authority housing was a central element in unionist control of a number of councils.

‘One man one vote’ did not exist for Stormont and council elections, unlike elections to Westminster.

For council elections the vote was confined to householders and their spouses. The granting of a council house was therefore effectively the provision of two votes.

In places like Derry, Dun-gannon, Co Fermanagh, Ar-magh and Omagh the allocation of council houses along with the gerrymandering of ward boundaries were the measures employed to translate a Catholic majority into a minority on the council.

I had been elected MP for East Tyrone in 1964 and from the beginning I had cooperated closely with the McClus-keys and two Dungannon councillors, Michael McLoug-hlin and John Donaghy.

I campaigned for a points system for the letting of houses without success.

The hope of the early days of Terence O’Neill’s premiership began quickly to erode and by 1967 was being re-placed by disillusionment, frustration and anger.

By late 1967, with Gerry Fitt MP, who was continually frustrated in his efforts to raise at Westminster matters de-volved to the Stormont government, I was publicly calling for a campaign of civil disobedience and supporting those who squatted in council houses as a protest against unfair allocation.

The allocation of No 9 Kinnard Park, Caledon, in May 1968 was for me the final straw.

A 19-year-old single girl, Emily Beattie, employed by a solicitor who was the prospective unionist candidate for West Belfast, was given the house in preference to 269 other applicants on the waiting list in Dungannon Rural District Council, including some in the Caledon area, living in dwellings designated unfit for human habitation.

Even by the standards of Dungannon council it was a blatant and provocative example of injustice.

To add injury to insult was the humiliation of the eviction in front of TV cameras and photographers from the house next door of a Catholic family, Mr and Mrs Goodfel-low and their three children, who had been involved in a squatting protest for the previous eight months.

I had supported the family and helped to publicise their case to the extent that the Unionist Party had passed a censure motion on me at Stormont.

Now this brave family were dragged from the house by bailiffs while next door a 19-year-old girl with no dependents was in legal possession of a three-bedroom house.

For me this was the ideal test case of the professed reform intentions of the O’Neill government.

I had used all the avenues open to an MP to expose injustice. Finally in the debate in Stormont, when John Taylor MP attempted to justify the Beattie allocation, I deliberately used the unparliamentary expression guaranteed to have me ordered from the House – “It is a damned lie.”

That night I called a meeting at my home, informed those present, including the Good-fellow family, of my intention to squat in the house allocated to Emily Beattie and requested as many as possible to accompany me.

The following morning my wife drove me to Caledon where I was joined by Phelim Gildernew, a brother of Mrs Goodfellow, and a local farmer, Joe Campbell.

At my suggestion, to signify our joint commitment, the three of us jointly used a poker to break a window, enter the house and barricade ourselves in. The media arrived within an hour.

To our relief after three-and-a-half hours Emily Beattie’s brother and others arrived armed with a sledge hammer. Having to stay in that house in that area during the hours of darkness was a disturbing prospect!

It was rumoured that the UVF intended to get involved.

The door was smashed in and we were ejected none too gently – into the lenses of the waiting media.

An MP breaking the law was good copy. That night the main BBC News from London for the first time carried a report on injustice in North-ern Ireland.

The process of forcing the British government to intervene to remedy civil rights abuses in Northern Ireland had begun.

Two weeks later Michael McLoughlin and I put a proposal to the executive of the Civil Rights Association for a civil rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon. We did indeed make history in Caledon 40 years ago.

- Austin Currie was MP for East Tyrone at Stormont and later TD for Dublin West. He is the only person elected to both parliaments on the island and served as a minister in both jurisdictions. His autobiography, All Hell will break Loose, is published by O’Brien Press.

Time for mixed housing estates

Irish News Editorial – 23/06/08

The debate over housing in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recog-nition since the injustices which forced Austin Currie and others into a dramatic intervention 40 years ago this week.

Back in 1968 many unionist-controlled district councils were able to routinely discriminate against Catholics during the allocation of public authority homes.

The turning point came when 14 out of 15 newly built houses in a development in the mixed village of Caledon, Co Tyrone, were handed over to Protestants.

In the most ludicrous single case a 19-year-old single Protestant woman was given a three-bedroomed home ahead of entire Catholic families on the official waiting list.

Mr Currie, who was then a Nationalist MP at Stormont, joined two other campaigners in an occupation of the house at Kinnegard Park and created international headlines when they were unceremoniously evicted.

The issue was at the heart of the civil rights movement of the era and eventually led to wide-ranging reforms which est-ablished the Housing Executive and ensured that new homes were allocated on a fair and accountable basis.

Tragically, and without any justification, wider tensions resulted in the appalling violence of the Troubles which lasted almost 30 years and claimed thousands of lives in all sections of the community.

However, after the enormous progress of recent years and establishment of a power-sharing executive, social development minister Margaret Ritchie was entitled at the weekend to highlight a different aspect of the housing debate.

Most Housing Executive estates are still divided along religious lines, with com-paratively few shared neighbourhoods.

If an increasing number of Catholics and Protestants can agree to live together we will have a mature, forward-looking society.

This is an objective which will provide us all with major challenges, particularly in urban areas, and will undoubtedly be a long-term project but it is one which we have a basic responsibility to pursue.

It is now up to the international community in general, and neighbouring South Africa in particular, to insist that the rule of law and the basic principles of democracy are maintained in Zimbabwe.

Gerry Fitt – Brave man of politics had hatred of injustice

Opinion by Austin Currie
Irish News 14/03/06
A tribute to Gerry Fitt, delivered by Austin Currie at a Memorial Service last Friday at Belfast City Hall
Gerry Fitts contribution to public life must, of course, be assessed in the context of the political conditions of his time.

When Gerry was first elected to Belfast Corporation in 1958 and then to Stormont in 1962 there had been one-party rule for 40 years in a state deliberately established to maintain permanent unionist rule and with the power to discriminate and gerrymander in order to consolidate it.

The unionist stranglehold on power seemed unbreakable.

But Gerry recognised at an early stage the Achilles heel of unionism. This weakness was not their opposition to a United Ireland but their professed loyalty and commitment to British standards while refusing those same standards to those they ruled over. Gerrys simple demand, backed by the Civil Rights Movement, which he supported from the beginning, for the same rights for his constituents in Belfast as were enjoyed by British citizens in Birmingham had unanswerable logic.

Gerrys major achievement at Westminster, to which he was elected in 1966, was to break the convention which had built up since partition that any matter under the control of the devolved Stormont parliament could not be brought up in the mother of parliaments.

With the assistance of MPs such as Paul Rose, Stan Orme and Kevin McNamara, in the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, he smashed that convention and made the Westminster Parliament accept its sovereign responsibilities.

Without that victory further progress would not have been possible.

His ability to seize every opportunity to embarrass unionists, his capacity to highlight the intransigence of the unionist government and a personality which enabled him to win friends and influence people in the Labour Party, were the crucial factors. It was an outstanding and crucial achievement which, on its own, was
history-making.

In 1970, along with five other Stormont MPs he founded the SDLP. As one of those MPs, committed to the formation of the new party, I had to contend with Gerry�s strong initial reservations. By nature he was an individualist. The idea of a party whip and party discipline did not appeal to him.

In 1970 as an MP at Westminster and Stormont and a Belfast city councillor he was at the top of the greasy pole which was the highest a non-unionist politician could aspire to in the one-party state. To his credit Gerry, despite his strong personal inclinations, took up the challenge and the responsibility of providing an alternative to one-party unionist rule.

Within four years of helping to form the SDLP he led the party from being on the periphery of politics with six MPs to the heart of government, with Gerry himself as deputy chief executive. It was an outstanding, almost unbelievable achievement. The Sunningdale experiment unfortunately lasted only five months but it established for the future the necessary architecture for a lasting agreement, the template which even those who had helped to bring down the power-sharing executive of 1974 had eventually to accept 25 years later. How much happier Northern Ireland would be today if the system of partnership government, which he had helped to establish, had survived and prospered, the tragedy of 2,000 additional deaths had been avoided and generations spared the blight of intensified sectarianism.

Gerry was a brave man, displaying his physical courage as a teenager on the convoys on the North Sea and later on an almost daily basis when he and his family came under threat from extreme republicans and loyalists. He displayed moral courage too. He predicted that he would lose his Westminster seat because of his strong denunciation of the violence of the IRA and the Provisional IRA hunger strike but this almost inevitable outcome did not deter him. The particularly savage murder of his close friend and confidant, Senator Paddy Wilson, by the UVF had a lasting effect on him. Nor did he play the sectarian card, so endemic in Belfast politics. When I approached him to approve the draft first constitution of the SDLP he insisted on changing non-sectarian to anti-sectarian.

Gerry was a personality politician who responded to his gut feelings. Policies came second. Not for him the carefully crafted words of a speech writer. If he had any notes they were on the back of an envelope. He was probably the best orator of his generation at a time when the ability to perform on the back of a lorry was an essential attribute.

Gerry has not been, up to now, given the credit he deserves, particularly for fighting injustice and intolerance.

A hatred of injustice was the fire in Gerrys belly. It was not flags or borders or seeking after power. He was a true disciple of James Connolly. Ireland without its people meant nothing to him. Gerrys concern throughout his life was the eradication of injustice whether based on religion or politics or on class. That Northern Ireland is today a fairer place with the potential for greater improvement is at least partly a testimony to the efforts and commitment of Gerry Fitt.

This is an abridged version of the tribute to Lord Fitt delivered by SDLP founding member Austin Currie at last Fridays City Hall memorial service.

Family’s bid for justice that changed the north forever

BY Barry McCaffrey – Irish News 11/06/08

Forty years ago a family’s decision to make a stand over housing set in motion a chain of events that would give rise to the civil rights movement and thrust Northern Ireland into the international spotlight. Barry McCaffrey reports from Caledon

As Mary Teresa Goodfellow walked through the front door of No 11 Kinnard Park in the sleepy village of Caledon in Co Tyrone in October 1967 she had no idea that her actions would lead to the birth of the civil rights movement and signal the beginning of the end for the Stormont government.

With two young children and a third on the way the 26-year-old and her husband Fran had until then been crammed in to her parents’ two-bedroom home along with her six brothers in the townland of Brantry near Dungannon.

When the area’s council built 15 houses in the nearby village of Caledon, a gentleman’s agreement was reached between unionist politician William Scott and local curate Fr Michael McGirr that the houses would be divided equally between Protestants and Catholics.

However, on October 13 1967 the unionist-dominated Dungannon council decided that all but one of the 15 houses was to be allocated to Protestants.

Today, for the first time in 40 years, Mrs Goodfellow has chosen to speak about the events many believe changed Northern Ireland forever.

“We were absolutely livid,” the 66-year-old re-called.

“There were 12 of us living in my parents’ two-bedroomed house and now we were being told we weren’t entitled to any of these houses simply because we were Catholic.”

Angry at the overt discrimination, a number of Catholic families vowed that they would squat in the Caledon houses until the council agreed to a fair allocation.

That night the Goodfellow and McKenna families moved into empty houses at numbers nine and 11 Kinnard Park in the predominantly Protestant village.

“Some other families were supposed to move into the other houses but in the end they were too afraid,’’ Mrs Goodfellow said.

“We didn’t blame them. It was one of those things.

“But we had no choice. We had to move into number 11 because we simply had nowhere else to go.”

Fran Goodfellow insists his family did not break into the house but simply walked through an open front door.

“This was nothing to do with politics. It was a matter of us being in desperate need of a house and deciding that we had to stand up and say that this discrimination was wrong.”

The father-of-three admits that he had mixed emotions when he found himself sitting on the living-room floor that night with his pregnant wife, four-year-old daughter Dawn and son Brian, aged two.

“I remember the RUC arriving the next morning and searching the house but leaving when they found that we hadn’t actually broken in.

“In one way we were delighted just to have somewhere to live but on the other hand we always knew they weren’t going to let us stay there without a fight.

“Over the next eight months we were visited by lots of media and I remember [BBC presenter] WD Flackes helping us to light the fire in the living room.”

The family soon discovered that Dungannon council was not going to give up easily.

“We were afraid to leave the house in case they just came in and changed the locks and threw us out on the street,” Mrs Goodfellow said.

“They tried turning off the water and then the electric but every time they turned something off we found a way of turning it back on.”

Within weeks the family found themselves standing in court charged with squatting.

“We were fined £1.50 but the judge said we could stay in the house for six months in the hope that the council would see sense and allocate us a house on the basis of our need.”

However, the protest had bigger implications than a simple dispute about a council house.

“People forget that unionist gerrymandering was still very much the order of the day,’’ Mrs Goodfellow said.

“If you didn’t have a home, you didn’t get a vote.

“If unionist councils had to give houses to homeless Catholics they would also have to give them the vote and that wasn’t going to happen.”

The ‘Battle of Caledon’ came to a head on the morning of June 19 1968 when bailiffs broke down number 11’s door.

“We’d been dreading this day coming for a long time but nothing prepared us for an RUC man coming through the front window and them breaking down the door with sledgehammers,” Mrs Goodfellow said.

“When they smashed their way into our front room I was sitting on the floor with Dawn and Brian and my 10-week-old baby Mairead.

“My mother Anne and sister-in-law Geraldine, who was three months pregnant, were also sitting on the floor with her one year-old son Emmet.”

Geraldine Gildernew – whose daughter Michelle is now MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – recalled how the three women sat huddled on the floor with their children.

“When I told them I was pregnant it put them off for a while but eventually they just dragged us out of the house by our feet,” she said.

“The media were all there and the images of heavily armed police dragging pregnant women out of a house was seen around the world.

“The injustice of it all was seen right around the world.”

Hours after the family had been evicted it emerged that the house next door had been allocated to a single Protestant woman who happened to work as a secretary in the office of a prominent local unionist politician.

In protest Mrs Goodfellow’s brother Patsy Gildernew, Nationalist MP Austin Currie and family friend Joe Campbell decided to squat in number 9. Within hours images of them also being dragged from the house by bailiffs were being beamed around the world.

However, while the Goodfellows found themselves homeless once again their decision to squat in Kinnard Park began a chain of events which would lead to the eruption of the civil rights movement, the establishment of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the eventual collapse of Stormont.

“Weeks after we were evicted the civil rights movement tried to march from Coalisland to Dungannon to protest against what had happened to us.

“That march was blocked from entering Dungannon.

“When the civil rights tried to march to Derry they were attacked at Burntollet bridge and the rest is history.”

However, the personal repercussions for the Goodfellows and Gildernews did not end with their eviction.

“During the eight months we were squatting in number 11 the UVF threatened to march on Caledon,” Mrs Goodfellow said.

“While the majority of people in Caledon supported us we did receive a number of loyalist death threats.

“In August 1969 there was a gun attack near the family home and the RUC told our extended family that we were going to be shot by loyalists.

“We were told to take the threat seriously and had to move to an Irish army camp in Gormanstown in Co Meath for four months.

“It was hard on the families but a lot of other people had been forced over the border in similar circumstances so we just had to get on with it as best we could.”

Looking back on those historic events 40 years on, Mary Teresa Goodfellow insists she has no regrets about her actions.

“It highlighted the injustice and the discrimination that was taking place at the time.

“I’d like to think that it signalled the beginning of the end for gerrymandering.

“I remember on the day we were being evicted a neighbour innocently asking my mother if we weren’t making hay that day and my mother saying that we were making history instead.

“We were just making a stand and saying that enough was enough.

“We never dreamt that it would lead to the civil rights [movement] and the beginning of the end for Stormont.

“The sad thing is that none of the last 40 years might have happened if people had been treated fairly in the first place on the basis of need and not religion.

“I often wonder how many lives could have been saved and how much untold misery could have been avoided if people had been allowed their civil rights in the first place.”

An exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the Caledon evictions will go on display at the Cornhill Heritage Centre in Coalisland from Friday until June 18.

On Saturday a special questions-and-answers discussion will take place with former loyalist spokesman Glenn Barr, former civil rights leader Ivan Cooper, Irish News columnist Roy Garland and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew at the Craic Theatre in Coalisland (8pm).

Protest at Caledon was a ‘catalyst for change’

By John Manley

Irish News 23/06/08

THE SDLP was always the “party of housing”, social development minister Margaret Ritchie told a conference to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Caledon protest.

Entitled ‘Housing Rights for All’, the event at Armagh City Hotel on Saturday was addressed by the key participant in the protest, Austin Currie.

Former Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP Lord Magennis and representatives of the South African Housing Corporation also spoke at the event.

Addressing delegates, Ms Ritchie described Caledon as a “catalyst for change”.

She said that while the challenges in the housing sector were different today, they still remained a priority.

“Happily we have come a long way from those times,” she said.

“We have equality of citizenship, a power-sharing government and the allocation of housing is no longer controversial.

“However, we do have some very significant challenges in housing.”

The minister said her department’s new housing agenda would be “addressing housing problems today and identifying solutions for tomorrow”.

The conference heard how the Ms Ritchie intends to address the legacy of 40 years of segregated housing by making ‘Shared Future Housing’ a central theme in all her endeavours.

“We must demonstrate what can be achieved when people choose to live together rather than apart,” she said.

“We must learn from the past if we are to enjoy the benefits of a shared equal future.”

The minister said there was still a minority of people who opposed the provision of housing for those who needed it.

“Inspired by the courage of Austin Currie back in 1968 we will confront those who would deny proper housing to others – we will build wherever there is need,” she said.

Ms Ritchie noted that her party had a strong record of campaigning on housing issues.

“Austin Currie showed the way with his courageous leadership in Caledon,” she said.

“Others like John Hume showed great vision, setting up the credit union movement, without which many thousands of ordinary people would never have got to enjoy the benefits of home ownership… the SDLP has always been, and remains, the party of housing.”

The conference was organised to mark Mr Currie’s 1968 protest against housing segregation.

The nationalist MP squatted in a house in the Co Tyrone village Caledon in protest at Dungannon council’s refusal to allocate homes to Catholics.

Housing Conference Report


Report From the Irish News:
Event to mark 40 years since Caledon protest
By Claire Simpson – 21/06/08

THE 40th anniversary of the one of the pivotal events in the fight for civil rights in the north is being marked at a conference in Armagh city today.

In 1968 Nationalist MP Austin Currie squatted in a house in the Co Tyrone village of Caledon in protest at Dungannon Council’s refusal to allocate homes to Catholics.

The council built 15 houses the village but later decided that all but one of them should be allocated to Protestants, one of whom was a single 19-year-old woman.

Angered by the council’s decision, Mary Teresa Goodfellow, her husband Fran and their two children began squatting in No 11 Kinnegard Park in October 1967.

Eight months later, the Goodfellow family was dragged from the house by bailiffs.

Mr Currie then decided to squat in No 9 Kinnegard Park, the house which had been allocated to Ms Beattie, along with Mrs Goodfellow’s brother, Phelim Gilder-new, and local farmer Joe Campbell.

Writing in The Irish News today, Mr Currie said their action had helped force to the “British Government to intervene to remedy civil rights abuses in Northern Ireland”.

“We did indeed make history in Caledon this day 40 years ago,” he said.

He was later fined £5 – the “best value for a fiver I ever had,” he said.

Mr Currie will lead today’s conference in the City Hotel, Armagh, along with former Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginness.

The conference will also look at the problems of social and affordable housing in recent years.

John McGuffin – A Tribute

By Eamonn McCann – Author “War & an Irish Town” et al.

The obituary cliche that “He didn’t suffer fools
gladly” was never more apt than for John McGuffin,
which occasionally presented him with problems of an
inter-personal nature, since McGuffin tended to regard
a remarkably wide section of the earth’s population as
fools. Anybody who voted in an election (“It’s wrong
to choose your masters!”). All who had ever darkened
the door of a church after reaching the age of reason.
People opposed to cannabis. And that was just for
starters.

One day in the late 1960s, when we thought we’d heard
the chimes of freedom flashing, I drove to Dublin with
McGuffin and the American anarchist Jerry Rubin. A
mile or so out of Newry, McGuffin explained to the
fabled member of the Chicago Seven that the town we
were approaching was in the grip of revolution. The
risen people had turned en masse to anarchism. We’d
better barrel on through. If we stopped for a moment
the fevered proletariat would surely engulf us…

Down were in the All-Ireland final that weekend. Every
house, lamppost and telegraph pole was festooned with
red-and-black flags. Rubin was agog, at risk of
levitation when we passed under banners strung across
the streets, reading, “Up Down!”

“These people really got the revolutionary ethic”,
enthused the ecstatic Rubin.

“As much as yourself, comrade”, allowed the gracious
McGuffin.

He turned up on the Burntollet march with an anarchist
banner but couldn’t persuade anybody to carry the
other pole. He marched all the way with the furled
standard sloped on his shoulder, managing to convey
that this was sure evidence of his singular
revolutionary rectitude, the easy-oozy reformism of
the rest of us.

McGuffin was interned in August 1971, as far as I know
the only Protestant lifted in the initial swoop. He
wrote a fine book on internment afterwards, “The
Guineapigs”. He was later to publish “In Praise of
Poteen”, “The Hairs of the Dog” and, recently, “Last
Orders, Please”. He was a gifted, utterly
undisciplined writer, eschewing the pedantries of
structure and all strictures of taste. Various
newspapers agreed to give him regular space, but it
never lasted. Editors physically winced at his
ferocious philippics. He said to me of this column a
few months back, “If it’s any good, why havn’t they
sacked you?”

For a time, An Phoblacht published his scabrously
brilliant “Brigadier” column. Frequently, the Provos
wouldn’t print it because they thought their readers
would find it offensive. They weren’t bad judges.

I first became aware of McGuffin within a week of
arriving at Queen’s as a wide-eyed innocent from the
Bogside. He erupted into a debate addressed by Sam
Thompson, the former shipyard worker whose play, “Over
The Bridge”, had convulsed the Unionist establishment
with rage. Thompson was the hero of the hour for
Northern liberals. But not for McGuffin. The only
achievement of “Over The Bridge”, he raged, had been
to enable a section of the useless middle class to
feel good about themselves for having a night out at
the theatre. “Meanwhile, Basil Brook is roaming the
streets…”

He took off for California in the early ’80s, where he
practiced as a lawyer for 15 years, advertising his
services under the slogan, “Sean McGuffin, Attorney at
Law, Irish-friendly—No crime too big, no crime too
small”. He only did defences and preferred getting
people off who he reckoned were guilty because that
way it was more fun.

He was my friend for 40 years. The announcement of his
end told that he died peacefully on the morning of
April 28th after a long illness, and that two days
before turning sideways to the sun had married his
long-term collaborator, comrade and partner
Christiane.

He was laid out in his coffin with a smile of final
satisfaction on a face sculpted like a chieftain of
old, in a black t-shirt with square red lettering,
“Unrepentant Fenian Bastard”.

Way to go, McGuffin.

An appreciation – Mary Ellen O’Doherty (1908-2007)

Originally Published – Derry Journal, Tuesday 31st July, 2007

Ninety-nine-year-old Mary Ellen O’Doherty [nee Hegarty] described by prominent civil rights leaders as the”mother” of the movement – was laid to rest recently in Derry.

Mrs. O’Doherty died peacefully at Altnagelvin Hospital, on June 16th, after a short illness, comforted by all her children, and son-in-law, Prof. Sinclair King. The widow of Harry O’Doherty (1899-1989), decorated for his role in ‘A Company’, of the Derry Brigade, Irish Volunteers, Mrs O’Doherty is believed to have been the last of a generation linking Derry to the War for Independence (1916-23).

In the 1960s she and family members worked closely with the Campaign for Social Justice in N. Ireland, established by Dr. Conn McCloskey and his wife Patricia of Dungannon. It was actively supported at Westminster by several MPs including Stanley Orme, Paul Rose and Gerry Fitt. This group was the forerunner of the Civil Rights Association. One of Mary’s younger sons, Fionnbarra, was a co-founder of NICRA when it was established in Belfast in early 1967.

Draped in the national flag, her coffin had been carried from her former home in Crawford Square to the doors of St. Eugene’s Cathedral by her nine surviving sons and daughters, extended family, neighbours, men and women from local community groups and former republican prisoners. Among four daughters carrying her remains was Mrs. Mary Kathleen O’Doherty- King, who for several years has been an independent senator in the Trinidad and Tobago parliament.

Mrs O’Doherty’s casket was carried into the Cathedral by her sons to the music of the Mountains of Pomeroy and during her last Mass a number of Gaelic laments were played and sung.

Requiem Mass

Her Requiem Mass was celebrated on Monday morning, June 18, by Fr. Gerard Mongan who said Mrs. O’Doherty had made an immense contribution to the evolution of society as well as rearing her nine surviving children:

“Mary Ellen instilled in her family a great love for education for she believed passionately that education was the key to progress. And, in celebrating her long life today, we are all conscious of her family’s deeply-felt loss. First and foremost Mary was a devoted wife to Harry, who died in 1989. Both she and her husband represented local working class views and their home became a focal point for a wider community.”

In the mid-1960s, Harry and Mary attended the annual TUC Conference, held on the Isle of Man to update Labour and TU leaders on the burgeoning civil rights struggle in the North. Harry, a master in his family’s trade, trained scores of apprentices, before deciding to retire from Doherty Meats, after 65 years, at the age of 79. He was a founding member of the Butchers and Allied Workers Union, which eventually merged into the T&GWU. For many years he served on the Northern Committee of the ICTU, alongside a former Mayor of Derry, the late Nationalist Party councillor, James Hegarty.  

Mary and her late husband remained in contact with many across Ireland and beyond. They particularly cherished close bonds with Tan War veterans and their families. Among their ever-welcome visitors where Dr. Nora O’Brien and her brother Roddy, the daughter and son of the 1916 leader and martyr, James Connolly. Their links to Irish American communities and the Left in Britain led to the opening of several influential doors which significantly assisted the civil rights cause, and,  in particular, its pivotal advocates.

“Like others of her generation she attended every one of the Civil Rights marches that took place between 1968 and ’72″, Fr. Mongan told the large attendance at her Requiem Mass.

She and family members were among marchers during the initial Coalisland to Dungannon demonstration, Duke Street on Oct. 5th, and later, ‘The Burntollet Ambush’.

Bloody Sunday

On Bloody Sunday, firstly on William Street, and later Rossville Street, they witnessed the massacre by the First Battalion of the Paras, which included the shooting of fondly-respected Bogside neighbours, such as Johnny Johnson. Harry and Mary assisted two of those shot. They were tended to at the nearby home of an old friend, Mrs. Bridget “Ma” Sheils. Bridget’s late husband, Paddy, was a legendary republican leader in the 1920s and beyond. Mr. Johnson, who had lived only a handful of doors away from the O’Doherty home at 134 Bogside, died a few months later.

Fr. Mongan said civil rights leaders had spoken publicly of Mary being a “mother to us all and everyone involved”. Several civil rights veterans, including John Hume and Ivan Cooper, spent time with the family whilst paying their last respects. A visit by Bishop Edward Daly was particularly appreciated because of his own heroic role during the civil rights’ march on Bloody Sunday in January 1972.

A lifelong gaelgoiri, Fr. Mongan said Mrs O’Doherty helped promote Irish culture in the city and enjoyed a profound love of Gaeilge literature, song and dance. He also noted her contribution to the welfare of political prisoners, social justice and the rights of women for which she received the transatlantic Celtic Cross Society Award earlier this year. Mary’s contributions on several fronts were only fittingly recognised in the last decade of her life.  Her characteristic humility was always quite evident. When initially told others wanted to salute her work, she said, “Only important people receive special awards”.

 All her family, friends and people in many walks of life give living testimony that she will always be an important person to all who were privileged to know or struggle alongside her. Appropriately, the Celtic Cross is awarded to “ordinary people of courage, faith and life of simplicity”. Among its previous recipients were Mr. Raymond Flynn, a former Mayor of Boston who was appointed US Ambassador to Vatican City, and Mrs. Sheila Kelly of Dublin, the widow of an Irish Army officer whom Mary, then aged 96, and other campaigners welcomed at her home and later to the City Hotel in 2004. This was part of an on-going crusade aimed at lobbying the Irish government to publicly exonerate her husband, Captain James J. Kelly*, who died the previous July.

In 1997, Mrs. O’Doherty, on the recommendation of several community groups  was awarded a Pensioner of the Year Award by Age Concern at a public ceremony in Derry’s Guildhall. Later, although never a member of the AOH, at another formal event, Mary was made an honorary member of the local Ladies Division in 2002. Interviewed on the occasion of her last birthday,  Mary spoke eloquently of the role of other women in spearheading community progress but lamented the fact that, unlike her, their contributions remained unrecognised during their own life-time. Mary was much appreciative of the fact that the then female Mayor of Derry, Councillor Helen Quigley, and the Junior Mayor, Emmet Doyle, bearing a floral tribute, paid an official courtesy call to her home to congratulate her on reaching her one hundredth year and on being awarded the prestigious Irish-American Celtic Cross Award

 

Inspiring Legacy

Fr. Mongan also described her as a “powerful presence” at every family gathering. “She has left us an inspiring legacy in her commitment to social justice and equality as well as her Irish identity, which she would never forget or deny. Mary rejoiced and was glad of all things Irish, including ceili dancing and music. Sitting on her Gaelic-speaking grandmother’s knee, in Balee, near Strabane, where she was reared, she’d listened to first hand accounts of starvation, evictions and mass emigration.”

For more than a decade she acted as a trustee, alongside the late Cllor. Tony Carlin, former Mayor of Derry, on the North West Great Hunger Memorials Committee, then based at the AOH Hall on Foyle Street.

Fr. Mongan led the congregation in the prayers beloved by Mrs. O’Doherty, Se do bheatha Mhuire and the Ár nAthair. Her funeral procession left the church to the strains of the Flower of Sweet Strabane, which is close to her birthplace, at Balee. Musical tributes were provided by Áodan Dorach O’Donnghaile, Riseard Mac Gabhann and Padraigh O’Mianáin who played a piece specially composed for Mrs O’Doherty’s Requiem Mass.

 

Masses offered

According to numerous messages sent to the civil rights veterans’ office, where Mrs. O’Doherty had for years worked voluntarily, Masses were offered in recent days in Trinidad, Spain, the US, Glasgow and London, and by Irish missionaries in fields across Africa, in her memory.  In a recent letter published in the ‘Journal’ the U.S-based International Executive of the O’Doherty Clan mourned Mary’s passing. They described her as the “Grand Hostess of Derry, Ireland” due to the fact that “with the loveliest of smiles she welcomed at her door thousands of Irish, Americans, Canadians and Australians over several decades.”

Mrs. O’Doherty is survived by her sons and daughters Anna, Pat Leo, Breege, Mary Kathleen, Pearse, Deirdre, Fionnbarra, Kevin and David and by her youngest sister Celine, who, with her family resides in Strabane.

Like the beauty and loveliness of passing seasons kind hearts always leave the world a better place for us.

In the eternal kingdom, may she rest in peace.

Compiled and submitted by the Oct. 5th Association – a network of 1968 civil rights veterans and supporters. E-mail: rights.civil@googlemail.com

The late ‘ Vinny ‘ Coyle – A Working-Class Hero

IT WAS with profound shock and sadness that the people of the Bogside district, and much further afield, learnt of the death of Mr. Vincent Coyle.

He was a self-professed socialist, who became one of the best known and extremely popular figures of the civil rights movement from the mid-1960s’, including and beyond the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. Following the unwarranted massacre of peaceful civil rights marchers, in January 1972, his home became an international newsroom and local information centre.

‘Vinny’, as he was popularly known, was born in January 1929. He was one of nine children born to John and Angela Coyle of Ann Street, off Rossville Street. He believed in Derry like he believed in God. He provided tools and assisted in building the first barricade outside his own home in Rossville Street, in 1968. Although to many people he was just an ordinary docker, as was his father before him, to many more he was a symbol of determination and hope for the city.

True Friend

Vinny will best be remembered as a highly effective civil rights’ steward at many historic marches and mass meetings. His six-foot muscular frame maintained more law and order during the trial of fellow civil rights leaders at the city’s Magistrates’ Court than three lorry loads of RUC. None of us could ever forget how, with outstretched hands and words of wisdom, he calmed that, and many more volatile situations, throughout many stormy years. Often, alongside him stood two of his brothers, the late Joe and Johnny Coyle. Joe tragically lost his life with two other adults and two children in an explosion in the early 1970s’ at the home of a republican comrade who resided in the Creggan district of the city.

From the days of the Housing Action Committee, and from being a rank and file member of the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, Vincent worked his way through the ranks of the civil rights movement to become one of its most well known figures and spokespersons. He was on first name terms with local journalists, but also leading media personalities across the globe.

Up to, and including the October 5th demonstration, where he was in the front line, he was just ‘one of the boys’. However, he was so impressed by the work and courage of the marshals on that fateful day, who were led by the late republican veteran Sean Gallagher, of Rosemount, that he joined the select body and soon became a deputy chief steward.

His strength and intelligence got him the job of bodyguard to Ivan Cooper and John Hume, at various venues and events, which were deemed to be unsafe. His two brothers, Johnny and Joe, were Hume’s election proposers, and Vinny was a seconder as well on the electoral documentation.

His undoubted competency got him the job of Chief Marshal by popular acclaim within the seven hundred strong stewards’ organization. He gave up many days of work ‘for the cause’, as he put it, to carry out such onerous duties.

Labour Leader

When the British Labour leader, Jim Callaghan, came to Derry in August 1969, anxious civil rights’ leaders assembled near Free Derry Corner, which was the most suitable meeting point. Vinny arrived at the scene, realized the problem, and with no instruction necessary, set off to find the elusive politician from London. He duly located his target, and soon reappeared, proud as punch, declaring to Callaghan, “These are my friends, Mr. John Hume and Mr. Ivan Copper”, and so on.

Callaghan later enquired, “Who is that marvellous man with the bushy moustache and large brimmed hat. He was like Moses himself, at the parting of the Red Sea. We were at the edge of the massive welcoming crowd, feeling somewhat lost and abandoned. He became our saviour. Everybody knew him. The multitude parted with a mere wave of his hand until we got to our promised location”.

Vinny told journalists once at the City Hotel, which was our busy headquarters on those dramatic days, “Through my example I hope to communicate to people my tolerance of everyone. If they see me taking it they will learn to be obedient at the demonstrations. My aims are for all the people of Derry to get what they are entitled to”.

To him Derry was the most wonderful place on God’s green earth. He was, like many others of his generation, forced to become a wanderer because of bad times in his youth. He worked at a multitude of jobs, including chef, ice cream salesman, lathe-turner, gas worker and builder’s labourer.

He summed up his involvement and socialist outlook as follows: “We are in this for our children and for everybody’s children, that they can obtain civil rights to grow up with all the doors of opportunity wide open for them”.

Vinny was alongside the homeless and unemployed long before October 5th 1968. He and his stewards came to our rescue immediately following the vicious attacks on Burntollet Bridge, and put his arm around many of the families of those who lost their lives, before and after Bloody Sunday. We have all lost an extraordinary man.

Like many who will mourn his passing, I and other civil rights’ leaders feel proud to have known Vinny Coyle, not only as a political ally, but as a sincere and true friend. This working-class hero deserves to be remembered. He did more than most to lead and unlock our people from many of the links that make up the chain of state-sponsored discrimination and second-class citizenship.

Vinny sadly has left us, but even from beyond the grave his undoubted courage and practical examples in struggle will continue to inspire us to move, forever, forward, be we Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter.

Tributes to Madge Davison

Originally Published – Unity, 9th February 1991

MADGE DAVISON, Communist, feminist, activist and ardent Civil Rights campaigner died on Sunday 27 January 1991 at the tragically early age of 41.

At her funeral the following Wednesday, the many people from all walks of life, who in her friend Anne Hope’s words came “to celebrate Madge’s life, and mourn her death,” indicated what broad areas of life Madge had touched and influenced.

Tributes were given by Michael O’Riordan, National Chairman of the Communist Party of Ireland, who spoke of the work Madge had carried out in the Communist Party and Connolly Youth Movement; by Anne Hope, Madge’s lifelong friend and comrade, who gave a very moving salute to her work in the civil rights and women’s movements; and by Barry Macdonald close friend and colleague who spoke of the caring, principled and conscientious manner in which Madge worked in the legal profession.

Ireland, and indeed the international workers’ movement have suffered a tremendous loss with the untimely death of Madge-as have the people who knew and loved her.

Unity offers sincere condolences to John, Jonathan and Niall and to the family circle in their time of grief and sadness.

We salute you Madge!

A Woman for All Seasons

At the outset of the proceedings on this sad occasion I want to thank Madge Davison for giving me the honour, albeit a melancholy one, to pronounce the words of a final farewell.

It may seem incongruous to have this duty performed, as at a young woman’s funeral by one who has seen seven decades and three years, but it is not odd, strange or illogical although Madge Davison was but 41 years of age, she was a woman for all seasons, for all situations, and not for her own generation alone, but also for the one that preceded her

When the news of her impending death reached her wide circle of friends there was truly an extraordinary reaction.

Those of the generation which preceded her were saddened at the cruel passing of a young woman whom they cherished with maternal and parental affection-Likewise, those of her own generation who loved her with a sisterly attitude and a fraternal respect and attachment.

Both generations shared a common grief at the passing of Madge in full bloom, being cut off in a life of which, at the same time she had not yet reached the prime.

She was the object of much love but at the same time she never courted, sought or cultivated popularity. She was her own woman. She spoke her own pieces at all times.

She was kind in her appreciation of honest efforts. She was sharp in her criticisms of dishonest motivations.

Madge played a leading role in many organisations – the Civil Rights Movement, the Communist Party of Ireland and its youth section, the Connolly Youth Movement.

Anne Hope will deal with the Civil Rights Movement and Barry McDonald will pay tribute from her legal professional colleagues.

Madge served on the National Executive Committee of the CPI, bringing to bear on all questions her practical knowledge; experience coupled with a principled attitude.

 

Outstanding Leader

She was an outstanding leader of the CYM. For example in August 1973 she led an Irish Youth delegation to the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students in Berlin-114 in all, from the Connolly Youth Movement, the Republican Movement, Union of Students in Ireland, Young Liberals, National Federation of Youth Clubs, Irish Union of School Students, St. Gabriel’s Youth Club, delegates from NICRA, the Northern Ireland Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Dublin-based Automobile General Engineering and Mechanical Operating Union.

A wide roll call of Irish Youth-North and South-Catholic and Protestant, united in the cause of Peace and Friendship and Social advance for Youth.

On that occasion she displayed her capacity for straddling the generations when she led the 114 delegates to pay tribute at the graveside of that leading Irish Anti-Fascist, Frank Ryan, Commander of the Connolly Column of the International Brigades who fought for the defence of the Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939.

Frank’s grave was in Dresden where he lay buried for 30 years before the rendering of the CYM Salute-seven years later we brought his remains home to Ireland.

Significant that today we have present a large number of Madge’s contemporaries of the CYM who have come from Dublin, Galway and Sligo, as well as Belfast itself to honour Madge’s passing.

The last time I heard Madge speak was in this very chapel when she was paying a tribute at the funeral of Dotsie Barr – she did it well.

In paying a well-deserved tribute, she, at the same time by the nature of her speech, revealed the warm and humane character of her own personality.

Friends!  Madge was particularly proud of her Presbyterian background, of the great contributions made by her forebears in the Society of the United Irishmen, whose foundation date took place 200 years ago, in October 1791.

Madge stood in the tradition and indeed in the image of such girl fighters as Betsy Gray who fell in battle for the cause of Irish democracy, for the independence of Ireland and for the unity of Protestant and Catholic sections of our people.

Inspired by Madge we should remember the retort of the American working class martyr, Joe Hill, who the night before his execution called out: “Don’t mourn-Organize!”

Let us think how best we can organise as a tribute to Madge Davison the 200th anniversary of the United Irishmen in October of this year.

Madge was deeply influenced in her character and political development through her association with another working-class heroine, Betty Sinclair, who was, 40 years older than Madge but life and conjunction of their activities as well as common membership of the CPI enabled Madge to know her in the closing years of her life.

Betty as a young woman was one of the leaders of the most celebrated struggles in Irish Labour History – the militant Outdoor Relief Workers’ strike in October 1932 united in struggle the Protestant and Catholic unemployed.

October this year presents us with the task of a combined tribute to the United Irishmen and the Unemployed Revolt of 1932 and the theme, common to both events, a theme close to the heart of Madge -the unity of the Protestant and Catholic sections of the working class.

 

Dear Friends, the fact was that Madge was motivated by a vision or dream of a society in which there would be no sectarianism, no exploitation, one in which poverty would be abolished, in short in an Ireland, free, united and socialist.

This was Madge’s dream, and recognition of that evokes the lines written by a poet of the 1930s, Langeton Hughes, the Black-American Communist, a leading figure in the struggle for Civil Rights for Black people, who wrote:

Hold on to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Madge, your bird has flown high into the sky.

Michael O’Riordan

“Everything a good lawyer should be….”

Among other things, in his tribute to Madge, Barry Macdonald, close friend and colleague said:

“Madge was a solicitor’s dream and a client’s dream. She was everything a good lawyer should be and epitomized all the best things the legal profession could offer the community if all of its members shared more of her values.

I wouldn’t insult Madge’s memory by saying that she was the equal of any man. I don’t know any man who was the equal of Madge.”