In the years since her death Máire Drumm has become an iconic figure in Irish republicanism. She was an extraordinary, larger than life leader who was a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a political activist and visionary. I heard Máire speak many times. At internal party meetings but more often on the streets when taking a stand against injustice. She had an ability to speak from the heart and in language that resonated with people. She was a gifted leader and organiser, and an inspirational public speaker.
Máire is best remembered for her leadership in the years following the pogroms of August 1969 when nationalist areas of Belfast were attacked by unionist mobs, the RUC and B Specials. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands of men, women and children became refugees in their own city. And citizens died.
During those early years of the ‘troubles’ the Unionist regime at Stormont resisted the demand for civil rights which were very modest. In the sexist sloganizing of the time it was ‘one man one vote’; an end to the Special Powers Act; an end to structured political and religious discrimination in employment and housing and an end to the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries that provided for unionist domination of local councils even where there was an overwhelming nationalist majority.
Unionism was opposed to change. It applied the full military and paramilitary resources available to it. Including the resources of the British Army. No-go areas existed behind barricades of burned out cars and demolished buildings. Vicious hand to hand fighting and street rioting became the norm. British Army whippets and Saracens roamed the streets. Hundreds were arrested – in some instances for simply carrying hurley sticks and many were beaten. Máire’s response to this new law that banned the carrying of hurley sticks was to march to the court with scores of other women carrying hurley sticks.
It was a time of huge turmoil in the life of the state and of families. And it needed an exceptional leader to provide clarity and focus and to give voice to the demands of citizens.
Máire Drumm had been born in Kileen, in south Armagh on October 22nd 1919. Her family and especially her mother, was active during the Tan War and the Civil War. As a teenager growing up in a post partitioned Ireland, a few hundred metres from the newly imposed border, Máire understood the damaging effect of partition on Ireland and especially the border communities.
She moved to Belfast in 1942 where she began a lifelong association with Gaelic games, serving in senior positions in Ulster and nationally in the Camogie Association. She loved camogie. And was one of those who was instrumental in organising and fundraising for the construction of Casement Park.
Máire also worked in support of republican prisoners and was a regular visitor to republican prisoners in the 1940s. It was in this way that she met Jimmy Drumm, on a visit to Crumlin Road Jail. They were married following his release in 1946. The Drumm family home in Belfast became a centre of Gaelic culture, with Irish classes, dancing and music, as well as discussions on future of republican politics.
Following the August pogrom in 69 the Drumm home also became an open house for refugees. Máire was actively involved in helping to rehouse refugees. Her daughters cooked for those who stayed with her and she succeeded in getting food and clothes and blankets for many of those who had been left with nothing.
It was a time for courage and leadership and Máire Drumm stepped up to the plate. Despite harassment, death threats, imprisonment and a vicious and scurrilous campaign of hate by the British media, whipped up by the NIO, Máire refused to be bowed or broken and led from the front.
Two of her closest friends and comrades were Mary McGuigan from Ardoyne and Marie Moore from Clonard in west Belfast. They served on the Ard Chomhairle of Sinn Féin together. In 1991 Mary and Marie were interviewed by An Phoblacht about their recollections of Maire. Their memories provide an insight into the strength of character and indominatable spirit of Máire Drumm.
Mary McGuigan remembers Máire being arrested and going into Armagh women’s prison. She said: “In Armagh she was a great lift to the women. She was much older and to the younger owns she was an inspiration in standing up for their rights. She was also deeply involved in their education and would speak for hours about the conflict and her vision of the future. She was looked on as a sort of mother figure but primarily as a leader.”
Marie Moore recalled the curfew of the lower Falls in July 1970 when several thousand heavily armed British soldiers sealed off the area and systematically raided and wrecked scores of homes, assaulted residents and killed four men. Máire led the march that broke the curfew. “We had received word that there were beatings and atrocities happening and no one could get word in or out of the area. Máire along with a few others went around people she knew, knocking on doors and getting women to organise that first bread march into the lower Falls in an attempt to break the curfew.”
There is a famous piece of black and white film footage which shows hundreds of women marching into the lower Falls and brushing armed British soldiers aside.
During all of the traumatic events of that time Máire was there helping people in trouble, providing leadership, speaking up for people. Whether it was after internment or during marches in support of political prisoners, or when Long Kesh was burned to the ground.
Marie Moore believed Máire’s focus on demanding equality for women in the struggle and in society was hugely important. “I remember her saying. Look women were on their streets when their areas were attacked. Their children were on the streets being shot defending their areas. The women were there when the barricades went up. They know all about the political realities of what is happening. They are quite capable of organising themselves and their areas.”
On another occasion when she was being interviewed on TV Máire was asked about contraception which was then an emotive political issue. She said it was something she never had to worry about because the state sorted that out for her. Jimmy her husband was imprisoned in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s and the 70s.
Máire was a tireless activist. She was constantly harassed and was arrested many times for her speeches and protests, especially in her opposition to internment. Her leadership qualities and her enormous courage led to her being elected as Sinn Féin’s Vice President.
I met her many times including when I was on the run in Belfast. She was always genuinely concerned about how everyone was doing. When the politics was discussed it was like meeting your Mammy.
Well-known for her defiant speeches at rallies and in courtrooms, she told a judge on one occasion: “Interning or putting a middle-aged woman in jail will not quench the flame of the Irish people because nothing but the destruction of the Irish people will ever quench that flame. Long live the IRA! God save Ireland!”
Her home in Andersonstown was regularly raided and following Operation Motorman in July 1972, when the British Army entered the no-go areas in Belfast and Derry, the Brits built a huge British military base only a few yards from her home. But she was never cowed or intimidated.
In October 1976, just days before her 57th birthday she was in the Mater hospital for a eye operation. A Unionist gunman, clearly acting in collusion with British forces, entered Máire’s room and shot and killed her.
I was in Cage 11 in Long Kesh lying on my bunk writing a piece for Republican News when the radio reported her death. My first thoughts were of young Máire who was in Armagh women’s prison at the time and was almost certainly hearing the news at the same time as I was. And I thought of Jimmy and the clann. No one from the state ever called to the Drumm family home to tell them of what had occurred. And years later a new investigation by the Police Ombudsman has now begin into those events.
But for the Drumm family and for the Republican family Maire’s loss was incalculable.
Forty years later she remains an inspirational figure for today’s generation of activists. Her words continue to inspire us as we build Sinn Féin and advance the struggle for Irish unity and independence. In one of her most famous remarks Máire said: “We must take no steps backward, our steps must be onward, for if we don't, the martyrs that died for you, for me, for this country will haunt us forever."
These remarks are relevant today as they were when Máire said them. We thank her for her life of struggle and we thank all the Drumm family for sharing Máire with us.