A mother's loyalty
Mary Nelis and the Relatives Action Committees
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
Today, Mary Nelis represents the people of Derry City as a Sinn Féin member of the Assembly. In an interview with An Phoblacht's ROISIN DE ROSA, Mary recalls her initiation to the struggle against the criminalisation of republican prisoners with the shock of her son's arrest 25 years ago. She shares her thoughts and memories of the Relatives Action Committees, of which she was a founding member, a group comprised mainly of women - mothers, wives, and sisters - who campaigned tirelessly in support of the blanket prisoners and then the hunger strikers.
``I was shattered the day the British Army came to raid the house. `Where is your son?' `Playing a football match'. He'd gone off as usual with his boots and bag. `Oh no he's not. He's out trying to kill the RUC.'
He had been caught with a gun in his hands. It was sheer willpower to keep standing. I had no idea. I was active in community politics, a regular massgoer, but that was it.
We were catapulted into something that was full of human despair and was at the same time highly political. It is very difficult to marry the two, politics and human struggle. This is what the RACs did
I had always hated the British Army. The first time they came into Derry, I hated what they were doing. There was a checkpoint on the bridge I was always having to go over. They used to take everyone off the bus.
I was with my mother and two sisters. I said to them, `You do what you like, but I'm not getting off'. I wouldn't budge. `You have to'. `I don't have to do anything'. They brought up the inspector, the RUC, the Military Policewomen and so on. The bus was held for three hours on the bridge. My mother and sisters got another bus. The driver came over after and said how glad he was I had done that. They never stopped the bus again. Women were involved in all sorts of rebellion against the British Army.
My son was arrested in September 1976. Political status had gone in March. The Diplock courts had started. He was sentenced in November. From the start they were determined to break the protest of republicans through brutal treatment. There were no visits. `It would offend the decency of the prison' they said, and all the while they were beating the living daylights out of them.
Fr. Cahill came back from a visit to the prison. He told me that my son hadn't been seen for weeks. He went to the governor and my son was brought out totally naked. He'd been very badly treated.
There I was running about the town trying to get him the very best lawyers, and then he says he's not recognising the court. What could you say to him? As it turned out he defended himself. He was very good. Sure they told us the sentence he'd get even before the case came up. He got 16 years. He was only 18.
It was a very isolating experience. I had friends in the community, friends all over, in the Church. I lost them all. People began to walk the other side of the street. It makes you very bitter. If you are not with my son, then you are not with me. One fell swoop eliminated them all. But I didn't cry anymore. I just got locked in. No one will ever know, except us, how strong the maternal instinct is.
Deserted by the Church
Barney McFadden asked me to speak at a wee protest one Saturday down at Waterloo Place. I was scared. It's one thing protesting about other people's sons. It's another thing, a much worse thing, when it's your own.
It was a terrible time. I went down to five and a half stone. The Peace People, Mairead Corrigan and them, were all the flavour of the month at the time, singing hymns around the town. There was to be a big march in Derry. The Church was to ring out the bells for peace. I'd gone to mass every day of my life. The church was deserting us. I couldn't believe it.
Kathleen McCann's husband, just 18, got ten years. Teresa Deery, her brother was sentenced, both her parents were dead.
We said `We have to do something about this.' We said we'd strip naked, just wear an old army blanket. We made up some placards, we got a taxi and stood outside the Bishop's door, in the freezing cold.
Some old women came out of the church. They said we were desecrating holy ground. It was hard to take the abuse. Tears were running down my face. Then Andy McGarvey, who is dead now, he came over and stood with us. That's when I started to cry.
We sent a picture of us to Fr. Faul, and he got the Irish Times to print it. It was the first time anything was in the press. It was the beginning. Belfast followed. We founded a group to organise and campaign to make people aware. Relatives Action Committees grew everywhere.
Relatives take action
The following March, we went to Philadelphia for St Patrick's Day, my first time in a plane. People didn't believe it. The message the Brits put over was that they were all terrorists. We said that made George Washington a terrorist. They understood that.
Then the prison allowed the prisoners blankets and around April I got my first visit. He was ashen faced. You didn't know what to say on the visit. I kept on talking, telling him what I was doing, while I watched lice in his hair. He must have been right pissed off at me, telling him all about what I was doing.
We decided to go to Europe. I was picked, along with Bernie McMullan, Mary MacGrandles, Sadie Hogan, Sadie Carlin. Five of us. The trip was financed by the IRA and Fr. Faul. We made a mural to overcome expected language difficulties. We went to France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Belgium.
The first protest was in France, on the Champs Elyssee. The traffic all stopped. They thought it was the new spring fashion. But they were a great group we met. On the day of Bobby Sands' funeral, they organised the biggest demonstration outside of Ireland.
d all over Europe we met groups; we had great liaison with women, who helped us to understand the politics of women. We met women from East Timor, women from Palestine, relatives of the disappeared from Chile, women from Nicaragua and from El Salvador. They taught us so much.
We'd arranged to visit the Pope. But then he refused to see one of the mothers of the disappeared. `If he saw one, then he'd have to see them all,' it was said. We were bitterly disappointed. The following day he received the barmen from top grade hotels.
Then my father died and I had to come back to Ireland. Things were again worse. There had been H1 and H2. Now there were another three blocks, H3, H4 and H5. Another of my sons was arrested. He was only 17. The two never once met each other in the Blocks.
Threatened with excommunication
We so wanted Bishop Daly to say something publicly. He wouldn't. He just simply didn't understand. Then the Church tried to excommunicate us. We couldn't support our sons and belong to the Church. The priest read out a letter, which called us the sons and daughters of Satan and the disciples of the devil. We walked out. We challenged the priest about it. `I was just reading it out,' he said. We called him gutless. Some priests had refused to read it. Monsignor Allibrandi told us that the Bishop didn't have the power to excommunicate us. `You mothers,' he said, `are standing up for truth and justice.'
The Pope, when he came to Drogheda, didn't say anything either. He quoted Maggie Thatcher and then said: `On my knees I beg of you - Turn away from violence.' A lot of us families left the Church. We were on our own, us mothers; the Church, the state, the business community, all were against us. Nobody was there for us.
We went all over the country in the blankets. Josie Moore, Susie Coyle, Peggy McCool, Claire Bowe, Eileen Harkin. In Sligo, we were standing there in the rain and the bitter cold. A Travelling woman gave us 10p, the only critter that acknowledged us. She knew that we had trouble, just a woman who was also marginalised.
We were followed everywhere by the Special Branch. In Waterford, it was the worst strip search ever. We were bruised for days. Another time they stood us out in the rain for an hour - drowned we were.
Sinn Féin organised the tour. Of course it was always men. They'd have cattle lorries for us. `We'll hooch you up there, missus.'
Searching the smugglers
The no wash protest had started. They were white, maggots crawling up their hair. You'd get psyched up on the bus to a fixed smile. We took in everything - fruit, vitamin tablets, we looked for the best. The doctor thought they were for us. And we brought the notes out. One read `woke up, frozen to the mattress, frozen to the floor'. Another: `I'm watching a wee bird who seen the maggots and came into the cell. He's making a better job of eating than me.' My son's lips were all open and raw with mouth infections.
Cameras, biros, ciggy papers, radios, we took in everything, everything they asked for. I remember Turkish Delight for Christmas. `It's changed its shape, since I was outside,' he said. We heard there were knickers with open crotches. We went off to a sex shop in Donegall Street in Belfast. We all looked about 50 years old. `You'd think you crowd would be past that.' We were foundered at the price. We nearly passed out.
We got special searching on the visits, everything off. But we got used it to. It was them who were degraded. Then we went on the attack. We said we had been sexually abused, screws putting their hands all over our bodies. That scared the shit out of them. The Principal Officer turned white.
Later, there was a team of young people who did the visits. It was through all of us that all these hundreds of letters came out and the lists went in. The prisoners must have written to everyone, anyone who was in a position to help.
Then there were the families who didn't support their relatives on the blanket. ``Look,' they said,' at how you've degraded yourselves.' It was hard for them too, denying the reality they could not face.
We took in Ivor Browne, who just wanted to understand how the H Block men had remained unbroken. Everything the Brits had tried to do, just had not worked. How? After the visit he told me not to worry. `See', he said, `how clear their eyes are. Look at the prison officers' eyes. They are the people who are broken.'
We took over everything
The National H Block Armagh Committee was formed; we were trying to talk to the Dublin Government to do something. We met Michael O'Kennedy. He wouldn't be seen in public with us, so we met in a hotel bedroom.
Then we had the Mayor's Parade. We made up a beautiful float, a little thatched cottage, girls dancing, flowers, pretty dresses, and underneath, when we pulled off the thatched roof along the route, there was a cage and blanket man inside. The Mayor's Ball, we took that over too. We locked the staff in the kitchens and stood on the tables and read a statement, gave out leaflets. The guests didn't get their dinner.
We took over everything, the sports day. We went to the Russian Embassy. They said they would send over their TV cameras. They did, and they played their film every night for a week on Russian telly.
Then in 1980 came the horror of hunger strike. The mothers were distraught at the thought. They didn't want their sons to volunteer. The prisoners knew that would happen. My son gave me a letter to read out if the meeting got hard. The Government, the Church, the State would try to break the women before they could break the prisoners. They hadn't broken the prisoners. It was powerful. It brought the whole meeting back together. Everyone understood what they had to do.
We went onto the streets, morning noon and night. They beat us off the streets, shot us off the streets. We held a Day of Action. They battered us. We mothers always got special treatment on searches, and our sons too when they went back inside after the visits.
Confusion and death
That Christmas, we had a tree in Creggan with the name of every prisoner on it. It was like the leaning tower of Pisa beside the church gate. McKenna was dying. Then a phone call. The protest was over. Utter confusion. It was the most awful time of all. On the visit we heard that the protest was still going on. Then we were told that the Brits had agreed but didn't want to say anything publicly, for fear of admitting defeat.
We went up in the New Year. We took the clothes up. They wouldn't take the clothes in. How could the Brits face down world opinion? It was a stage, with all the players, the SDLP, the Dublin government, the Church and in the middle a prisoner, wheeled in and out.
I remember writing to my son, the very night before Bobby Sands' death ``We could have done more. What could we have done?'' I sat and cried, more than at the death, some years before, of one of my own sons.
My sons had dragged me, kicking and screaming, into politics. And at great cost. There were so many of us, Eileen Robson, Eilish Heaney, Josie Moore, Vivienne and Lily Doherty, Moya Duffy. It was a heavy price that we paid. Eileen Harkin, Peggy McCool, Anna Kelly, Kathleen McDermott, Mary Starrs, Kathleen Gallagher, Susie Coyle, Gretta Cassidy, all young women, they paid with their lives.
Marrying politics and humanity
Women, by their own integrity and ability, forced the issue right into the homes, into everyone's dinner table talk. Something that was never discussed before, now it was, it became commonplace, everyone's concern. That is what the involvement of women in the struggle did. The struggle came to be what it is, an issue of humanity.
The organisation I had known in `76 in Derry was male dominated, national and not international. It mightn't have been so painful had people understood the human tragedy unfolding, or understood the feelings of the women. We were catapulted into something that was full of human despair and was at the same time highly political. It is very difficult to marry the two, politics and human struggle. This is what the RACs did.
It was the most powerful protest ever - and we didn't even realise it.''