Women were backbone of the civil rights movement

“I never thought I would have the courage to walk into the mayor’s parlour and ask a question,” Sadie Campbell said. “And when I did, the mayor said: ‘Get the police.’” Sadie was speaking on Saturday after she was presented with an award to celebrate her contribution to” the achievement of civil rights.

Sadie’s activism predated the setting up of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Nicra). Her encounter with the unionist mayor of Derry was in 1959, when she led a delegation of women from the huts at Springtown camp in Derry to the Guildhall, to protest about living conditions. There had been an outbreak of fire and children had been injured.

The camp consisted of 300 Nissen huts left behind in 1946 by the US navy. At first those who moved into them had been delighted as it meant escaping the grossly overcrowded tenements of the Bogside. However, by the

mid-1950s 400 Catholic families were living in the camp and some of the huts had nearly 20 people living in them, entire families lodging in one small partitioned room.

They paid rent to the corporation to live in this slum. The mayor’s rejection spurred Sadie and the others on and the protests continued. However, it was 1967 by the time the last of the residents were rehoused and Springtown camp closed. The huts were sold to farmers, who lodged pigs and cows in them.

The meeting, in Dungannon, was about women’s role in the civil rights movement. Writer Anne Devlin, a founding member of People’s Democracy, read a powerful and haunting account of a young woman’s feelings as she set off on the 1969 march from Belfast to Derry that would go down in history as the Burntollet march because of the ambush there.

“We were walking through time,” she said. She remembered fear too.

Former Ictu president Inez McCormack, who, as a trade union leader, has represented some of the lowest-paid women in northern society, spoke about the importance of continuing to struggle for human rights even after you’d achieved comfort for yourself.

This is something the DUP and Sinn Fein would do well to remember.

One of the most famous demands of the civil rights movement was “one man one vote”. Feminism hadn’t impinged deeply. Inez described going with her then boyfriend, now husband, Vinnie, to a People’s Democracy meeting after Burntollet.

“When we went into the house Vinnie was led in to the room where the meeting was to be held, while I was led to the kitchen with the other women,” she said.

“The only woman at the meeting was Bernadette.”

Bernadette Devlin was a blazing star, young, fiercely eloquent and fearlessly continuing to speak out on platforms across the morally conservative north while heavily pregnant and

unabashedly unmarried.

Anne spoke about how she had seen her father, trade unionist and SDLP founder Paddy Devlin, as the political figure in her household.

“I didn’t pay enough attention to the role my mother played,” she said.

Sometimes, though, women did take the lead in public while their husbands looked after the children. Rebecca and Frank McGlade were both activists, but it was Rebecca who was on the executive of Nicra. Their daughter, Dympna, read some of her mother’s memories, recorded before she died in 1989.

“Women were the backbone of the civil rights struggle,” she said. She described how women would open their homes to marchers, fed them, lodged them, and “treated them like royalty”.

She recalled Hilary Boyle, a “little old lady” and author from Dublin, who always wore a hat. When one march was blocked she climbed hedges to get to the forbidden route, where she waved her umbrella defiantly at the RUC.

Margaret McCluskey, whose parents Patricia and Con played a crucial role in establishing and publicising the facts about discrimination against Catholics, said the Catholic Church had discouraged protest.

“The attitude was, you stayed in the place God put you in,” she said.

Inez noted that many of the slum houses in Derry were owned by the Catholic Church.

Mary Rafferty talked about the inspiring woman who taught her geography at school in Dungannon and encouraged her to go out and fight for her rights. This woman had been accused of being a ‘red’ and had almost lost her job over it. Linda Edgerton, who was a red and proud of it, recalled rushing home from protests to make the tea. Edwina Stewart summed up the necessary qualities: “You had to be well able,” she said.

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