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Mairead Corrigan Inspires Struggle, Hope for Irish Peace

by Kathy Worboys


The airport was crowded on the humid mid-August day and crammed tight with freckled, fair-skinned children, burnt and peeling from weeks in the sun. Wall-to-wall people left little room for movement, hardly enough for breathing. We had been in this same position exactly six weeks earlier, though that had been a happier time. It had been a day of anticipation and excitement, a day when a young girl stepped off an airplane and entered a brand new world. She had arrived to cheers and greetings from a family she had never seen, and was now preparing to depart, amidst tears and prayers and promises, from a family she had learned to call her own.

This young girl, Joan Rooney, spent a summer with us. She had spent six weeks away from her ravaged, shattered homeland of Belfast, Northern Ireland, a place where Molotov cocktails are part of a child's world, where lines separate Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones, lines enforced by barbed wire and high walls. It is a place which teaches people to fear, to despair, and to hate. Possibly worst of all, it teaches people to accept. These children have never dreamed of changes; they are content with what they have. Brought into a conflict begun years before their birth, they know no other life, and hope for nothing better.

The program that brought Joan to us is called Project Children. It is a program which gives people like Joan Rooney a chance to see the world as it should be, and which gives people like me the chance to see the world as it can be. We cried that day at the airport. We promised to write, and to include her in our prayers. We watched the plane taxi down the runway, and then we went home: home to our backyard pool and our white picket fence, home, where we could lock the doors, and retreat into safety.

Later that night, I turned on the news and came face-to-face with a close-up of Joan, crying, as she returned to her own family. I cried with her that day, for all of them. While we sat, safe and secure in front of our television, they were re-entering a world of dirt and grime and guns, and anything but safety. Yet through it all we were left with the hope that people like Joan would strive for a time when they could fulfill the prophecies of a card she left for us. It read, "You helped us experience the meaning of peace, true brotherly love, and life without fear. You helped us become the hope for a future peace in Northern Ireland."

And it was the work of one very important woman which allowed my family such an experience. In recent years, we have come to celebrate March as Women's History Month. It is a time to celebrate the women who have come before us, the women of today, and the women of tomorrow; it is a time to appreciate the changes in the world made by such women, the impacts they have brought upon their own society and that of others. It is a time of commemoration and appreciation, a time to believe in the past, and to hope for the future. . . and it falls barely four weeks after a landmark day of a very different type. On January 30, 1998, the world observed the 26th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers opened fire on an Irish Catholic Civil Rights demonstration, gunning down 14 unarmed people, nine of them under the age of 22, while marching peacefully in Derry, Northern Ireland.

The proximity of these dates, and the proclivity of our society to ignore what is truly an age-old war being fought in the North of Ireland, lead to the inherent need to recognize one woman and her campaign for peace between the British Protestant loyalists and Irish Catholic nationalists. During this month of honor for women throughout the world, there comes with it an intrinsic necessity to realize the impact of one woman in particular, upon her country and upon her entire world, and the life which led her to bring change to a society comparatively untouched throughout the past several centuries.

Mairead Corrigan, founder of The Peace People and former Nobel Laureate, was and is an Irish social activist and humanitarian. Born in 1943 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city often referred to as the heart of the Troubles, Corrigan watched as disorder and disturbance erupted daily in the streets in front of her childhood home. Raised in a world where violence was the answer to one's problems, where those refusing to fight and maim and kill were looked upon as cowardly, and those favoring vicious retaliation as banal and even just, Corrigan nonetheless resisted. She rejected the common tendency toward immunity to the gory sights she witnessed throughout her life, and at age 15, when her parents could no longer afford to pay her Catholic school tuition, Corrigan dropped out in order to join the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic organization which performed missionary work.

On August 10, 1976, the Irish Republican Army sent snipers to open fire upon a British army patrol. Missing their targets, they were seen escaping and were pursued by members of the same patrol. A British soldier fired into the car, killing the 19-year-old driver, Danny Lennon, instantly and sending his car skidding out of control. It crashed into three young children on the road for a bicycle ride with their mother. All three children died, the three nieces and nephews of Mairead Corrigan. In the aftermath of their deaths, Corrigan and colleagues Betty Williams and Ciaran McKeown began to organize some of the largest peace demonstrations in their region's history. The rallies throughout London, Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and Dublin spurred Corrigan and her compatriots to found an organization which they named "Women for Peace," but which continues to exist under the title, "The Peace People Organization."

Within only one month of its birth, Corrigan's organization had united over 30,000 women under a common cause, and by its third planned march, the demonstrators included both Protestants and Catholics, marching side by side. The Peace People and Mairead Corrigan, emphasize education, reeducation, and action as the key to solving the problems of a troubled and war-torn land. Confident that violence could be counteracted and Northern Ireland united only through the spread of knowledge, Corrigan states, "I think one of the things the peace movement has to do is to persuade the members of the different paramilitary organizations that there is a way other than pistols and rifles. Aware that violence could beget only additional violence, The Peace People seek the answer to this seemingly endless downward spiral. However, Corrigan also realized that the institutionalized system of education had become infested with the hatreds which permeate her home, an antipathy which the children of Northern Ireland are often taught never to question. She sought to reach out to all sides of the conflict through demonstration and education, with the aim of a wholly unified Northern Ireland. In response to the IRA's call for peace with justice, Corrigan wrote, "Where was the justice in the death of a child not three years old? All I could see was that young men and boys of my area were becoming violent, aggressive, almost murderers; and that they were rapidly becoming the heroes of the community. Was that justice?"

Mairead Corrigan was one of the first of a new breed of Irish social activists; she was a pioneer of the generation of educated Irish Catholics who came of age in the late 1960s in Northern Ireland, a group of people determined to fight for equal rights and for peace in their society. Inspired by the actions of the Civil Rights movement in the US and similar events incurred by students in France, these activists began to mobilize nonviolently, and to encourage alternative views on the situation long-unquestioned by its nation's residents. The situation today is certainly complex. British loyalist Protestants comprise 60% of the population, while Irish Republican Catholics constitute the remaining 40%, and though neither side admits to supporting paramilitary action against the other, each has given at least tacit acceptance of such tactics. Peace negotiations periodically result in standstills, withdrawals, and then resumations. Yet they continue, and the world is finally aware of and should acknowledge Mairead Corrigan and her many followers for inspiring and continuing the struggle for peaceful change.

Corrigan's work has led to the involvement of the world in what has historically been an inclusive problem. It has led to ventures such as Project Children, and exposed families such as mine to the troubles of Northern Ireland. We opened our home to those children from Northern Ireland for three more summers, and each good-bye remained as difficult as the first. Still, we became a stronger family for the love we gave. We learned, as did the children whose lives we touched, that it is the love of a family and the hope of a future that can make a difference in our lives. We learned that the interaction, the openness, and the education inspired by Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan can change the course of history. Each girl left, giving us a little more knowledge. A little more understanding, and with every child who retained some of our dreams, she brought with her a little more hope for the place to which she returned.

  Katherine Worboys is a history major at Duke University, From 1987-1990, she was part of a Project Children host family.  

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