They and others risked their lives and worked tirelessly, demanding civil rights for all- but history has often overlooked them. They were the women of the civil rights movement in NI. Bernadette Devlin was a powerful exception but most other women appeared to be in the background.
On Saturday 31 May 2008, in South West College in Dungannon, the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee honoured the courageous role of women in civil rights. In a fascinating event, journalist Susan McKay chaired an open discussion on the theme of “Those Were the Days My Friend”.
Playwright Anne Devlin and member of People’s Democracy. Anne red a thought provoking and moving piece that she had specially written for the event. The forthright trade unionist and campaigner for women, Inez McCormack, told the audience how the infamous Burntollet ambush inspired her to campaign against injustice.
As Inez said recently in a newspaper article “At that time I was a young Protestant girl who didn’t understand that there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society. It wasn’t that Protestants didn’t suffer deprivation, but there was systematic discrimination against Catholics. That march changed my life.”
The most compelling part of the day was the wonderful testimonials told by women in the audience, they gave their personal stories, talked of the role of their friends or families in civil rights. Edwina Stewart spoke of the role of Betty Sinclair in NICRA, Margaret McCluskey highlighted the passionate role of her parents Con and Patricia McCluskey in producing the facts on discrimination in NI, through the Campaign for Social Justice, Dympna McGlade read out a piece written by her late mother Rebecca, which stressed that “Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle.”
The morning session ended in an emotional presentation to Sadie Campbell from the Springtown Camp in Derry. Over 50 years ago, Sadie took it upon herself to campaign for better housing facilities for her family and neighbours in Springtown Camp. Sadie recognised the injustice that existed and was not prepared to accept it. She stood up and opposed it and fought for justice, not just for herself but for the many families living in the area at that time.
The day was a unique opportunity to hear the voices of ordinary women who did extraordinary things in the civil rights movement. It was welcome that the whole day was recorded and will be available for a wider audience to hear.