Tuesday, November 12, 2019



A phobal Dé agus a chairde go léir.
Tá muid bronach inniú. Tá ár gcara Des imithe ar shlí na Fírinne. It’s a fitting way to describe the death of our friend – a man whose whole life was committed to the Truth-speaking the truth and writing the truth.
The Indian poet, Rabin-dranath Tagore once wrote: “Death is not putting out the light/It is only extinguishing the lamp/Because the Day has come.”
For Des the Day has come -at last - the Day of Freedom from the limitations and pains of this life. And while we will miss him terribly, we thank God that the Day has come for Des so that he will have no more suffering.
The last few years have been difficult for him. He often said to us that he would like to go. In fact, he told us one time –about a year or so ago, that he went to the Novena in Clonard to pray that God would take him and when he came out of the monastery he fell and broke his hip. He remarked wryly; ‘Somebody up there has a weird sense of humour!’
Through all his trials and tribulations Des never lost his wonderful sense of humour - nor his humanity. I admired many things about Des –but I think it was his humanity and humility that I most admired! He was such an amazing human being -gentle and kind, firm and principled, joyful and humorous- compassionate and caring.

“Blessed are the poor in Spirit”

To mark his ninetieth birthday a few years ago - Des decided to publish a small book of reflections called “Ninety (Merrily) in the Shade.”  It is both humorous and serious.
He begins:
“We left Maynooth college in the sunny days of June 1949, more than eighty of us, newly ordained Catholic priests, some of us wisely hoping to change the world, others hoping unwisely to keep the world and the church the way they were. We moved happily out of our studious world with its answers we couldn’t question into another world of questions we could not answer.
(He loved that line! He said recently he was proud to have come up with it.)

In the Introduction, his dear friend Eilish Rooney, writes:

“Des has been one of our closest companions. The people who know and love him will be saddened when he leaves this world. His words will be both a comfort and a challenge. They are those of a radical thinker sitting merrily in the shade of ninety looking back and encouraging us all in the words of Jesus of Nazareth “Don’t be Afraid”.
He raises radical questions about the married priesthood , women in the church, justice in the market place, power and politics, workers rights fun in the Bible, and democracy in the Church. It’s a heady mix, writes ELISH. Let’s gather together to talk at the gate, he says. Bewildered believers, evangelicals, doubters, dissenters and ardent atheists alike are all welcome.

“He looks loss, fear and human suffering in the face and he finds reasons to be hopeful. We accompany each other in life’s adventure, he tells us. Des has been one of our greatest companions.”

Indeed. –
I wanted to share these inspiring words by Eilish about Des. They capture the essence of the man -the thinker, the contemplative, the activist, the challenger and the great companion.
I too valued his friendship for more than 40 years. Whenever I was in any bother which was not too often (joke), my first port of call was to Des either here in Springhill or in Falcarragh. All I needed was a good listener and Des was a great listener. I always came away feeling a lot better for having talked to him. 
The great spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, once described a prophet: ‘A prophet is one who cuts through great tangled knots of lies.’ Des fitted that description of a prophet and was in the same league or tradition as the prophets through the ages. He shared their passion for truth and justice. The rage of the prophet against injustice sometimes came through. Des was also a humble man –never seeking the limelight for himself but only to show solidarity with the oppressed and the downtrodden.
Des probably did not see himself as a prophet. He sometimes described himself as a ‘mischief maker’.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for Justice..”

Des was a man of courage. The Gospel he believed in is the Gospel of Freedom. His God was the Spirit of freedom that lived in his soul and in the soul of the community-the Spirit that lives on when the earthly body dies. The gifts of the Spirit were evident. The God he believed in was not a distant God in the sky –but the God of Power who took sides, who was present with the people in their struggle for justice, for freedom and for democracy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.”

Des Wilson was born in 1925- the youngest of five boys. The others were James, Gerard, Kevin and Liam. It was wonderful to see the close bond between himself and his older brother Gerard when he used to come over to visit him each week. His father was from Mullaghhoran in Co Cavan and his mother was a Turley from Saval in Co Down. They both came to Belfast in search of work in the early 1900s. His father worked in the pub trade and eventually owned his own pub. Des grew up on the Ormeau Road area. They were fairly comfortable.  Education was important in the home. Aunt Cissie lived with them. She expected high standards and good results. His parents were not very political but he always remembered something his Father said to him: “Son, You can never trust John Bull. Even if he was giving you the present of a pair of trousers, he would cut off the buttons before he gave them to you!” 
Recently, Des told us (Ciaran and myself) that in his early teens he wanted to be either a writer/journalist or a physicist. He even attended extra physics classes –such was his interest and enthusiasm for physics! But after the Belfast Blitz in 1941, when more than 700 people were killed, Des felt a strong call to be a priest –in order as he said in one of his books “to change the world.” 
After studying in St Malachy’s he went to Queens University to study literature and philosophy. He then went to Maynooth for four years to study theology and was ordained to the priesthood in 1949 along with 80 other young men –all ordained for the mission in Ireland.  How things have changed! 
So, in the summer of 1949, Des set out “to change the world” in the parish of Glenravel. He wrote a humorous account of that first appointment in his autobiography! He was then sent by Bishop Mageean to the Mater hospital as chaplain for a year. After that he was sent to St Malachy’s college to teach. Many students found him to be an inspiration –and many have fond memories of this great teacher.
In 1966, after teaching and acting as spiritual director in St Malachy’s for fifteen years, Des was sent by Bishop Philbin to St John’s parish. He was living in the Parochial House on the Falls Road with some other priests.
By this time Fr Des had begun to question the relationship of the official Church with wealth and property and the powerful in society.  He wrote about this. The Church authorities were not impressed. He was inspired by the Worker priests in France in the 1950s and by the thinking of the Second Vatican council in the early 1960’s. 
Like some other priests in different countries - who, even though they came from a comfortable background, left all that to become advocates for the poor—Des Wilson also left it all in 1971 to live among the people in Ballymurphy in west Belfast.
When he went there he got his eyes opened. He had never been in the West of the city before. He had never seen such deprivation and poverty.
In 1971, when he had been a priest for about 21 years -mostly living a sheltered life in St Malachy's College, Des made a decision to stand with the poor and powerless against the powerful and the privileged. It was a momentous decision.
The move out of the Priests’ house on the Falls Road to a council house in Ballymurphy in 1971 did not meet with the approval of the Church authorities at the time. It led to his resignation from the Diocese. However, he felt he was doing the right thing-even if it was a painful time in his life. I think time has proved him right.
Des said to Ciaran Cahill and myself recently that the two happiest days of his life were 1. the day he was born into a loving family and 2. the day he moved to Springhill in Ballymurphy.
In 1972, a year after he set up the Community House, a woman called Noelle Ryan arrived from Dublin and offered to help in the Community House in whatever way she could. She took on the management role and remained until her death in 2014. (Suaimhneas Siorraí uirthi). She, along with her friend Elsie Best, made a huge contribution to the Springhill Community.
At the beginning of his ministry in the parish in West Belfast the British army-the Parachute regiment- had set up a base in Ballymurphy in the Henry Taggart hall.
In a chapter in his book he writes: “They were Trained to Hate us”. These British soldiers abused the people verbally and physically. They beat the people on the street, including himself. This was another new experience for him.
 On 9 August 1971, the day of Internment, the Paras murdered ten innocent people on the streets - including his friend, Fr Hugh Mullan. That massacre has been very much in the news with the new Inquest that has been taking place. Today, it is only right to remember those who died in the Ballymurphy massacre in August 1971: Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Eddie Doherty, Joseph Corr, Frank Quinn, John McKerr, Joseph Murphy, John Laverty and Danny Teggart. Paddy McCarthy was shot in the hand, then beaten afterwards by the British soldiers. He suffered a massive heart attack and died.
The following year on 9th July 1972, another priest and close friend, Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, was shot dead by the British army in Whiterock Drive as he went to give the last Rites to a young girl of thirteen-Margaret Gargan. Des had preached at his first Mass some ten years earlier. Fr Noel was based here in Corpus Christi.
All of this tragedy and trauma inflicted on his friends and on the people he was sent to serve changed Des’ life forever and caused him to be even more determined to stand with the people against their oppressors.
Des saw that the official Church’s response to all this repression of the Catholic people was very weak. It was then he realised that the official Catholic Church in Ireland had become far too removed from the poor and too closely identified with the well off.  Many times he said how much more the Church leaders could have done with all their resources! They might have helped to avoid much of the suffering.
In 1971, Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta) arrived in West Belfast with some of her sisters. Des welcomed them and found them accommodation –and on 3 October 1971 Des celebrated Mass here in Corpus Christi to mark their arrival. Mother Teresa was in the congregation. A short time later they got their marching orders from some authority in the Diocese. 
The headline in the Andersonstown News the following week read “Canon fires Nun!”
Des had a deep love and respect for the people in the Ballymurphy/Springhill community in which he lived. He always had time for a conversation and a cuppa tea. The door was always open. There was always a céad mile failte. Conversations at lunch in Springhill were a lively and interesting experience.
Springhill Community House became ‘a house of hospitality’ somewhat like the Catholic Worker houses in America -  set up by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1940s and 1950s, and indeed somewhat like the Celtic monasteries in years gone by.
Des Wilson appreciated our rich Celtic culture and appreciated the beauty of the Irish language. He wanted everybody to discover the richness of our own native language.

There were two central tenets to Des Wilson’s faith:
- the conviction that Good will always triumph over evil
- and his belief in the Gospel saying of Jesus –“the Truth will set you free.”

These were like two mantras that he repeated very often.

I first got to know Des when I was a student in Maynooth about 1969/70 -50 years ago!- when he was invited to give the Retreat to all the students in Maynooth. It shows how orthodox he was at the time. He was regarded as a Vatican II priest -a breath of fresh air. There is no doubt that if he had played his cards right he would have become a bishop! But as Ciaran Cahill said to me recently “Thank God he did not play his cards right! Or we wouldn’t have got him!”
Fr Des was a man with a vision of how the Catholic Church should be - a church in which the leaders stand with the powerless, a Church that abhors any kind of authoritarianism and clericalism. He often said that the Church of the future should be a Church of small communities made up of people who want to keep the vision of Jesus alive.
All of his life in Ballymurphy, Des advocated for a peace based on justice and respect for human rights and human dignity. He detested sectarian politics, bigotry and the arrogance of those who thought they had a god-given right to lord it over others. He encouraged people and politicians to engage in dialogue. He set an example by reaching out to political opponents. In the late 1980s, he went to see the then Taoiseach to urge him to open lines of communication with parties in the north –a move which I believe contributed greatly to furthering to the peace process. He never sought any publicity for himself.

“Blessed are the peacemakers..”

Fr Des wrote many wonderful articles in the ‘Andytown News.’ They were always a source of encouragement and even entertainment. He used satire to good effect when describing the antics of some of the ruling class-especially the Royals. It was for him a most important task every week to write his articles. The early days of each week were devoted to writing. On those days he was not to be disturbed! He also wrote for other newspapers like the Northern Standard and the Irish People in the United States. He made numerous broadcasts on TV and radio which were always incisive.
Des was always concerned to build friendships with members of the other churches. Long before ecumenism was heard tell of His message was always; ‘We in the Catholic Community are your friends, the best friends you will ever have. Let us work together for the common good. Let us together build a new society of equals.’

Some, like Reverend Eric Gallagher were willing –but many were frozen. He told me recently that not all Catholic priests were enthusiastic about ecumenism. 
I believe Des is one of the great Catholic priests of this or of any century. He is one of the great sons of Belfast. He was proud of the radical tradition here in this city. He identified with the people of Sailortown who were left without a church building. He identified with anybody or any group who found themselves out on a limb. 
Des has devoted most of his life as a priest to serving the people of Ballymurphy, raising the morale during those dreadful years and defending the people then under attack from the British army and the RUC and the loyalist death squads. Des was busy finding ways to promote recreation and employment –only to have them taken over and destroyed by the British soldiers.
Through all these years, Des Wilson worked tirelessly for peace, justice and human rights. I doubt if anyone devoted more time and energy to this project - in order to create a more humane society, a better future for all the people. During the local disagreements he was there to help heal the splits and offer people another way of settling disputes.
His passion for justice led him to get involved in many justice and truth campaigns - the MacBride Principles and the Equality campaign along with Oliver Kearney and others, justice for the Ballymurphy victims and the victims of many British organised death squads –like the Cairns brothers and Patrick Shanaghan and so many others. He was always committed to finding the truth-urging us to set up our own inquiries and not wait for the government.
Des was awarded a number of International prizes for his work for peace and justice.  For example, the MacBride Peace Award and Pax Christi award. He received honorary degrees in Italy and elsewhere – but alas none in Ireland! What does the Gospel say about the prophet in his own land?
Des was most unselfish and generous with his time and talents. He travelled all over the world to inform people about the truth of what was happening here because he was aware of the propaganda. He was truly blessed by God for the life he was chosen to live - and in spite of the hurts and difficulties and disappointments down through the years, he cherished his life as a Catholic priest.
I am pleased to say that in recent years Bishop Noel and Des became good friends and a close bond had grown between them. Des was really happy about that.  
Des loved Falcarragh in Donegal. He loved the garden and going for walks along the sea-shore. He loved nature and the birds of the air. He loved the mountains and the trees and the expanse of the country. He loved to stand on the bridge over the Ray river beside the Community house there and talking to the neighbours and all who passed by.
Des has left a wonderful legacy which will be fully appreciated in the years to come –Springhill Community House, the Conway Mill, Feile an Phobail, his many writings and books but his greatest legacy is the example he has given of living his life in solidarity with the people of Ballymurphy in their hour of greatest need.
Since his death in the Nazareth Care Home on Tuesday afternoon, many fine tributes have been paid to Fr Des. That is only right and to be expected for he has been a major influence on so many people and such a positive influence for good in this country and in this community-and beyond. His loss is immense -but he has fought the good fight and he has left a great legacy. Today we give thanks for his life and his legacy.
Ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dheanadh le teaghlach Wilson. I offer my deepest sympathy to Des’ nieces and nephews and cousins and family circle, Des always spoke lovingly of his immediate family.
I offer my sympathy -and also to the Springhill Community -my deepest sympathy. You really cared for him when he needed you most. He loved you all -each and every one. I saw your love for him in action these last few years and especially these last few months and weeks. Thank you Ciaran, Pete, Louise, Margaret Pat and Janette-and all who have helped.
A word of thanks to those friends in America, especially Elizabeth Logue &family in Doors of Hope, who have supported Des all through the years.
If Des’s life has any lesson for the Catholic Church in Ireland and throughout the world – it is that it must, in conscience, take the side of the poor and powerless and stand firmly for social justice and against the tyranny of abusive power, of excessive wealth, of greed, of selfishness. It must no longer allow itself to be co-opted by any State, but should always keep its distance, so that it is free to evaluate the behaviour of governments and to stand foursquare against those who violate the rights and the dignity of citizens. Such a stance will be uncomfortable. But then Comfort is not consistent with the path least travelled, -the path of truth and of conscience.

In his autobiography, ‘The Way I See it’, Des concludes:
‘We have learned a lot of lessons through trial and success as well as through trial and error. Having learned enough lessons, now we have to create freedom for us all to experiment with our new ideas. That pleasant task could last to the end of time and I know only two reasons to make me glad to live for ever in this world. One is to enjoy the beautiful things of the world, like you see standing with friends on a bridge across the Ray River in Donegal looking towards Muckish; the other is that it would give me time to put all the lessons I learned into practice. And maybe we could change the world after all.’

Ar Dhéis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
All will be well!

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Planning for Ireland’s Future

I want to commend this week’s initiative by Ireland’s Future. It is an important contribution to the ongoing debate around Brexit, the issue of rights, the need to defend the Good Friday Agreement, and the imperative of planning for Irish unity. Planning for the future is the dominant theme in their letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar which was published in Monday’s Irish News and Irish Times.
“Discussion about the reunification of Ireland has moved centre stage. Many citizens are already involved in formal and informal discussions about this. We believe that a new conversation is now required about our shared future on the island of Ireland. The government needs to plan for this...
“It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the democratic wishes and rights of Irish citizens are respected and protected, regardless of where they live on the island ... Let’s have a discussion on how this can be achieved...
We would urge you to start this process, based on the vision of democratic change set out in the Good Friday [Belfast] agreement. Start planning now...”
This is the core message of the letter – signed by over a thousand citizens from civic society, including the relatives of the 1916 leaders, trade union leaders and activists, academics, people from the arts, business, the law, the media, community, education and the community. The signatories are calling for a ‘new conversation’ about the future constitutional arrangements for the island of Ireland. To this end they are proposing the establishment of a “Citizens Assembly reflecting the views of citizens North and South, or a Forum to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on a way forward.”

Ireland’s Future is an extension of the group which last January held a hugely successful conference - Beyond Brexit - at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. That initiative, which brought together 1500 people, was a response to the chaos around Brexit and the increasing demand from within civic nationalism in the North for the Irish government to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to plan for Irish unity.

A year earlier, in December 2017, over 200 individuals from within nationalist civic society in the north had put their names to a letter to Leo Varadkar. In it they outlined their deep concerns about Brexit and the denial of rights by political unionism. In his response An Taoiseach stated;
“To the nationalist people in Northern Ireland, I want to assure you that we have protected your interests throughout these negotiations.  Your birth right as Irish citizens, and therefore as EU citizens, will be protected. There will be no hard border on our island. You will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.”
The group subsequently met the Taoiseach in February 2018. Later in the year a further letter signed by 1000 citizens was sent to An Taoiseach.
Despite this ongoing dialogue the Irish government has consistently refused to take up the challenge of planning for unity. The current letter is a response to this and reflects the growing concerns about the negative impact of Brexit for the future of the Good Friday Agreement and for the peace process. The letter was signed by 1,088 Irish citizens from across civic society on the island of Ireland, with some also from the USA and Canada. For the first time the greater proportion of signatories are from the 26 counties.
Niall Murphy, the Belfast based Human Rights lawyer who is a spokesperson for the group has described Ireland’s Future as non-party political and non nationalist. It is a coalition of like-minded citizens who are concerned about the issue of rights and who believe there needs to be a conversation about changing the current constitutional arrangements on the island.
While opinion polls over many years have consistently highlighted the widespread desire on the island for reunification, it is an undeniable fact that Brexit has provided the accelerant for the current intense discussion around a referendum on Unity.
This discussion is also taking place internationally. Several weeks ago Professor Colin Harvey and Barrister-in-law Mark Bassett published the first ever report on what the European Union can do to help facilitate Irish Unity. It is available here: https://www.guengl.eu/issues/publications/the-eu-irish-unity/
The lengthy and detailed report was commissioned by the European United Left and the Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) Parliamentary Group. It identifies and explains the likely consequences and legal processes that will arise as a result of unity and outlines how the EU institutions can begin to support the process of planning and preparing for constitutional change in Ireland.
It points out that “reunification will be one way back to the EU once Brexit has taken place. This is increasingly being recognised and discussed as a solution to some of the problems created for the EU by Brexit”.
Of course, any discussion on altering the constitutional arrangements on this island will be challenging. Both states have existed for almost a century. There will be resistance to change from the political establishments North and South. But this is an opportunity to finally and democratically resolve the deep political fracture that has been at the heart of ongoing conflict and division on this island since partition. It will provide all of us with an opportunity to reshape society and construct a genuinely shared space for everyone.
The list of those endorsing this proposition is a reflection of that desire and of the breadth of support for it. Inevitably it will be a feature of the election in the North in the coming weeks. There will be those who will seek to present it in a negative light – those who will seek to heighten tensions by playing on sectarian divisions. This must be resisted.
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged that nationalists in the North “will never again be left behind by an Irish Government.” He needs to live up to that commitment.
As Niall Murphy said this week: “Top of Form
We need to plan for the future and the inevitabilities of demographic change and economic imperatives. We can’t replicate the ill prepared recklessness of the Brexit referendum. We need to consult, converse, plan, and prepare for Ireland’s future.” He’s right.

Friday, November 1, 2019

The Houses of Chaos and the road to Unity

As I write this column news is emerging that a British general election is likely to be held in December. If it is confirmed it will be an opportunity to send a clear message to whatever new government is elected to Westminster that the people of the North are opposed to Brexit and the austerity policies of the Tory/DUP government.
It will also be an opportunity to send a clear message to the DUP that only the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and a resolution of the issues which led to the collapse of the political institutions, will suffice to make progress. The election will also present an opportunity for Sinn Féin to put to the people our demand for a referendum on Irish Unity.
The DUP/Tory alliance has been bad for the people of the North. I warned against it when I led a party delegation to meet the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May and her secretary of state, James Brokenshire in Downing Street in June 2017.
I cautioned May and Brokenshire that doing a deal with the DUP, as a means of holding onto power, carried with it huge risks, not least for the Good Friday Agreement. It would clearly make it more difficult to restore the political institutions in the North. I also warned them that their deal would have long-term political consequences for the future of the Tory government and for all of those citizens worried by Brexit and the austerity policies it intended to pursue. I also warned the DUP that their deal with the Tories would end in tears.
However, I have to admit that I did not envisage the level of chaos and confusion that has since gripped the British Parliament, the DUP and the Conservative Party. Disarray bordering on anarchy has marked British politics for the last three years and especially since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. The British Parliament, the behaviour of many of its members, inside and outside of the chamber – the machinations – the repeated votes – the expulsions – the resignations – the vitriol – the insulting treatment by Tory MPs of Scottish and Welsh MPs, have all added to a very real sense of the disunited kingdom.
This was reinforced last week with the publication of the latest poll by independent pollster Lord Ashcroft. The poll surveyed the view of English voters on the Union and the impact of Brexit. The level of indifference about the future cohesion of the ‘United Kingdom’ is startling. Only 35% said the North should remain in the UK. 13% said it shouldn’t and 43% didn’t have a view. 28% of English voters felt Brexit made Irish unification more likely, with 27% saying it made no difference and 38% saying they didn't know.
A few days later the Sunday Times published LucidTalk’s ‘Tracker’ poll for October. It found that there was a significant increase in the number of voters – 72% - in the North who would vote to remain in the EU. Around 39% of unionists said that they thought Brexit could make Irish Unity more likely.
One result of all this was that last weekend’s DUP party conference had none of the triumphalism of 2018 when Boris Johnson told an enthusiastic audience that he would not create any new economic border in the Irish Sea. In a reference to the Titanic, which in recent weeks has taken on a completely different complexion, Johnson warned about letting Brussels determine the outcome of Brexit for the North. He said: “The Titanic springs to mind and now is the time to point out the iceberg ahead.”
As it has turned out the iceberg is Boris’s deal.
So, while the events in Westminster and the discomfiture of the DUP make for an interesting spectator sport our focus as Irish republicans must be on our own political objectives, especially our core objective of ending partition and achieving Irish Unity.
In this context I was very gratified during a visit to Washington a fortnight ago at the continuing priority which senior US political leaders continue for our peace process and the imperative of defending the Good Friday Agreement. In a short visit I met with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Congress member Richie Neal, Chair of the powerful Congressional Ways and Means Committee, Congress member Elliot Engel, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Friends of Ireland Committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on Brexit and the Irish American Unity Conference.
Richie Neal was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony in DC, not least for his work for Ireland. Well done.
So, those in the USA who have stayed the journey with us for the last three decades continue to be supportive. They want to help find solutions to the mess that is Brexit. Many of them also support Irish Unity. They understand that Brexit has acted as an accelerant to the debate about this. They want to be helpful in encouraging that debate and in persuading the Irish government and others that if Brexit proves anything it is that you need a plan.
David Cameron didn’t have a plan for Brexit and consequently British politics has spent almost four years staggering from one damaging and debilitating crisis to another with no clear end in sight.
So, winning a referendum on Irish Unity - needs a plan.
Agreeing the democratic options available to citizens on this island in the event of Unity - needs a plan.
Winning over those who for whatever reason are unsure of or even fearful of Unity - needs a plan.
Winning the referendum on Unity when it takes place - needs a plan.
The British general election in December can be an important part of all of this. So on whatever day the election takes place – if you want positive change and progress – Vótail Sinn Féin.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Máire Drumm; leader and visionary

©Gérard Harlay

This photo by French photographer Gérard Harlay was taken on 8 August 1976. It shows Bobby Sands on the left carrying the Harp flag and Máire Drumm to the right leading the march. The late Marie Moore is behind Máire carrying a loud hailer.

Tuesday, October 22nd was the centenary of the birth of Máire Drumm. Many readers will know of her. Máire was one of the most courageous and visionary leaders Irish Republicanism has ever had.

This week I published a book on Máire. It is the latest of a little series of books in the Leargas series which so far has included folklorist Michael J Murphy, Republican leader John Joe McGirl and human rights lawyer Pat Finucane. I intend to republish a book on Sheena Campbell by Ella O’Dwyer and others in the next short while.
Maire was born Máire McAteer on Kelly’s Road, Killean, in south Armagh on October 22nd 1919. She was the eldest of four children – Christina (Teenie), Tommy and Seán. Máire attended Killean Primary School and later Our Lady’s Grammar School in Newry. When partition was imposed the McAteer family, like many others, found themselves trapped on the northern side of a border they did not want and in a state which did not want them.
Commemoration on Tuesday night at Kelly's Road
The ditch at the end of the field at the back of her home was the border. For Máire it was an injustice she opposed all of her life. As a teenager Máire enjoyed Camogie and Irish dancing. After leaving school she worked for a time in John Quinn’s shop– The Milestone, which is reputed to have been the first supermarket in Newry. She left for Liverpool when she was 16 in search of work with her sister Teenie. There she joined the Gaelic League. She then moved to Dublin where she lived in Baggot Street. Máire joined Sinn Féin. In 1939 she moved to Belfast where she found work in a grocery shop in the Falls area of West Belfast. Over the next three decades she worked in a series of shops and supermarkets, including as deputy Manager. Máire worked in Quinn’s in Ardoyne, and for Stewarts Cash Stores.
Máire was very active as a camog in her local club Gael Uladh. She went on to become the Antrim Secretary and later the chairperson of the Ulster Council of the Camogie Association and All-Ireland Vice Chairperson. Máire was also involved in the McAleer School of Irish Dancing. Later she was prominently involved in planning and raising money for the opening of Casement Park in 1953.
Máire was always very supportive of the republican political prisoners. She was a member of the Green Cross raising money for prisoners and their families. It was common practice then for republicans in Belfast to visit Republican prisoners from outside Belfast, in Crumlin Road prison. It was there that she met Jimmy Drumm. They were engaged before Jimmy was released.
Máire and Jimmy were married in St. Paul’s Church on the Falls Road on 16 July 1946. In 1956 Máire and Jimmy got a house in Glassmullan Gardens, in Andersonstown. There they raised their five children – Seamus, Margaret, Seán, Catherine and Máire Óg.
December 1956 saw the commencement of Operation Harvest – the IRA Border Campaign. Jimmy Drumm was arrested and held for four years until his release in 1956.
In the 1960s a focus on the denial of civil rights saw the establishment of the Civil Rights Association. When the unionist state responded violently in the pogroms of 1969 both Máire and Jimmy were centrally involved in helping the thousands who were forced to flee when their homes were destroyed by marauding gangs of RUC and loyalists.
Like many other homes, the Drumm home became a sanctuary for refugees. Máire was instrumental in having La Salle secondary school opened to the refugees. And while Máire was busy helping deeply traumatised families Jimmy was trying with others to secure the weapons needed to defend Catholic areas. The subsequent split within Republicanism in 1969 and 1970 saw Máire and Jimmy support what, for a time, was called the Provisionals.
The years that followed were busy ones for Máire and Jimmy. It was a time for courage and leadership and both stepped forward.Despite harassment, death threats, imprisonment and a vicious and scurrilous campaign of hate by the British media Máire refused to be browbeaten or bullied. She led from the front. Sinn Féin was still a banned organisation but Máire simply saw that as a challenge to be overcome.
An example of her leadership and courage occurred in July 1970 when the British Army placed the Falls community under military curfew. The streets of small terraced houses off the Falls Road were smothered in clouds of CS gas. Families were trapped in their homes choking from the gas. Three thousand soldiers and armoured vehicles surrounded them. The British soldiers smashed down front doors and wrecked homes, assaulting residents and looting property. Four people died and many more were injured or arrested.
People ran out of food. Mothers ran out of baby food. Despite appeals from local clergy the British Army refused to allow anyone to go to the shops. Máire led a march of Belfast women into the Lower Falls, with food supplies for the besieged residents. There is a famous piece of black and white film footage which shows hundreds of women proudly and defiantly marching into the lower Falls and brushing armed British soldiers aside. The curfew was broken.
In the years that followed Máire became Leas Uachtarán of Sinn Fein. She was arrested many times and was imprisoned in Armagh Women’s Prison and Mountjoy Prison. She led the campaigns against internment and the ending of political status.
©Gérard Harlay  
Bobby Sands in the foreground carry the harp flag. Jimmy Roe in the middle and Kevin Carson on the far side. Máire can be seen on the left.
On 8th August 1976 Máire led the first big political status march in Belfast. Gérard Harley a French photographer sent Tom Hartley a large archive of photos from the 1970s. Richard McAuley scoured this archive and others for photos of Máire for the new book. To our great delight we discovered previously unrecognised photos of Bobby Sands, including one on the Andersonstown Road which clearly shows Bobby, Máire and Marie Moore with a loud hailer.
On October 28th 1976, just days after she had celebrated her 57 birthday loyalist gunman entered the Mater Hospital where she was being treated for an eye problem and shot and killed her.
On Tuesday evening at her homeplace in South Armagh we celebrated her life. We remembered the exceptional human being who in difficult and challenging times, and at great risk to herself, stepped forward to give leadership.The threats, the arrests, the periods of imprisonment never deterred Máire. Never broke her spirit or her determination to achieve an end to partition and a united Ireland. That was Máire Drumm.
The book: Máire Drumm A Visionary: A Rebel Heart is now available in the Sinn Féin bookshop and online at www.sinnFéinbookshop.com

Friday, October 18, 2019

Ulick O Connor – Patriot

Ulick, mise agus Paul 'ODwyer with Tom Hartley in the background

Ulick O Connor died last week in the nursing home where I last saw him in August. I intended to visit him last week when I got word of his death. I first met Ulick in the 1980s. I was scheduled to speak at a debate in Cork University on a motion along the lines of ‘This House accepts that armed struggle in the north is a legitimate response to military occupation.’ That may not be the exact words but it’s the gist of it. As the date of the debate came closer I was told that the university society involved was having difficulty getting anyone else to speak in support of the motion. Then Ulick stepped in. He was very well known by then because of his frequent appearances on the Late Late Show and his passionate republican defence of the nationalist position – a rare enough occurrence in those revisionist days.

After the debate – which we won – I got my first experience of Ulick’s legendary argumentiveness. Five or six of us were packed into a small car. Ulick was in the back with some Cork republicans. I overheard one of them saying he had no time for Tom Barry, the legendary IRA guerrilla leader.

‘Why?’ Ulick asked.

‘He took the Freestate pension’. Our unfortunate Corkonian replied.

‘He did much more than that!’ Ulick exploded before launching into a heated defence of Tom Barry and a fiery denunciation of Irish begrudgery and small mindedness.

I thought the argument was going to descend into fisticuffs. It was lucky for all involved that it didn’t. Ulick was a noted sportsman. Along with pole vaulting, soccer, rugby, cricket and running he was a British and Irish Universities Welter weight boxing champion. There are many stories of Ulick’s contrariness, his pernickety nature, his quick temper. I have to say I never had an argument with him. I also have to say that he was a great argumenter.

He was a barrister, a writer, an actor, and literary critic, a pundit, a newspaper columnist, playwright and a poet. He loved words. He was an authority on Oliver St John Gogarty, WB Yeats, Brendan Behan, James Joyce and the other greats of the Irish literary world. Celtic Dawn; A portrait of the Irish Literary Renaissance, published in 1984, took eight years for him to write and is the story of the literary revival told through the biographies of its leading lights. Ulick was on the board of the Abbey Theatre and a member of Aosdána. When he died just before his ninety first birthday, a library died with him.

He was an independent thinker.  He was proud of his great grand father, the Fenian and Parnellite MP Matt Harris. He wrote a book on Michael Collins. When the Dublin establishment, including many from the Arts, were silent on the North or tolerated censorship Ulick was outspoken.

He was a regular visitor to Belfast. On one of his first visits I took him to Springhill. By complete fluke some young boys were playing with what was probably the only rugby ball in West Belfast.  Ulick was delighted with this and often recounted that story. On another occasion he and some of his friends travelled over to hear Ian Paisley preach in East Belfast. Afterwards Ulick told Mr Paisley that he considered him to be one of the last of the great Irish orators. He was pleased that both these compliments were accepted cheerfully by the Free Presbyterian leader.

Ulick was a great supporter of Féile An Phobail. He and Tomás Mac Anna, Artistic Director of the Abbey Theatre, brought one of Ulick’s plays Executions to Féile. The cast of professional and locally recruited amateur actors excelled themselves in this drama about the Irish civil war and the summary executions of four republican prisoners by the new Freestate regime following the IRA  killing of a government TD.

In an introduction to the text Ulick wrote: ‘A decolonised people inherit many confused conditioned reflexes from centuries of being governed by an imperial power. The working of these reflexes out of the national mind is a painful process and, it would seem, a long one’.

Little surprise then that Ulick supported the Blanket men and the women in Armagh. Of Bobby Sands he wrote: ‘Any man that will suffer for his principles is a person the human race needs to succeed.’

In July 1981 he was one of those who handed a petition into the British Embassy in Dublin after a march in support of the hungerstrikers.  That demo was attacked by Garda riot squads. In his introduction to Bobby Sand’s, Skylark Sing Your Lonely Song, published by Mercier, Ulick wrote that the hungerstrike; ‘brought the truth of his (Bobby Sands) people’s predicament before the world. It was the Irish mind against the English one….’

Ulick was a regular visitor to Sinn Féin Ard Fheiseanna. He always arrived early for the Party Presidential Address. Once he seated himself in the section reserved for the Diplomatic corps. He then refused to move despite many entreaties from the party managers. He and I met regularly over the years for lunch, especially since I was elected to Leinster House and around Dublin more often. Then when he was less well we got together in his home or later again in the hospital and in the nursing home.  We discussed politics and books in equal measure. I always enjoyed his company, his curiosity, his knowledge of writing and writers, his wisdom and insights into the Irish character, his fiery commitment to Ireland and his contempt for what he considered the hypocrisy of the ruling elites.

I am glad I knew Ulick. My condolences to his family and friends, particularly Mary his niece and Anna Harrison. After his death I read that his wish was to be remembered; ‘as having written one good poem or one good book that would outlast me’.

There are many of these.  I offer this one because I think Ulick O Connor would like me to conclude my tribute to him in this way. I think he would think it a fitting end. I certainly do. Go raibh miath agat Ulick.

Message from H-Blocks - Ulick O’Connor
Thinking of Apollo who went down among the swineherds
And of One who elected to be born in a stable,
I thought of those in Belfast who traced excrement on their cell walls
To send the world a message along the spirit’s cable.
Then the final throw, the refusal of sap to the body,
The mind roaring along swerved avenues of agony,
Bishops shanghaied to tell them their soul was in danger
As the jailers discovered the value of Catholic theology.
That they should let you die rather than wear your own jacket
Defines the jackboot under that affable decorum.
Let it not be forgotten that this summer the Teagues in Belfast,
Out of the body’s agony, made the world their forum.
(May-August 1981)