Women’s heroic work

By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)

In 1995 the group M People sang the song Search for the Hero. In the song there is a very wise sentence, Search for the hero inside yourself; wise advice because inside each of us there is a hero. It is not egotistical to recognise or search for the hero inside yourself.

Such a journey of self-discovery enables you to recognise not just the internal hero, your strengths and weaknesses; it helps you recognise other heroes you may not have noticed before.

Over the last two weeks I attended the funerals of two such heroes. Two women whose contribution to their families, communities and country set them apart.

Emma Groves passed away at 86 years of age. Annsie Wilkinson was 60. Many will have heard of Emma, few beyond Belfast’s Short Strand, Twinbrook and Poleglass will have heard of Annsie.

Although separated by a generation they shared similar life-shaping values; values for every occasion; the good times and the bad.

In Emma’s case she was born into a society steeped in these values. In Annsie’s case she learned them at her mother’s knee.

At Annsie’s funeral Mass the priest described her as a “born leader”. At Emma’s her lifelong friend, and leader among leaders herself, Clara Reilly described her as “a lady of great courage, dignity and compassion”.

Emma’s daughter Brenda, in a tribute at the funeral Mass summed up her mother’s life-enhancing belief system with a series of pertinent phrases Emma regularly used: “There’s always someone worse off than yourself”; “Nothing is ever as bad as it seems”, “God never closes a door but He opens a window”, “always look for the good in someone and you’ll find it”, “if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all”, “count your blessings”, “laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone”.

I have come across these sentiments many times, especially during the years of conflict. Invariably they were spoken by women.

It was these values that enabled Emma to forgive the British soldier who blinded her with a rubber bullet in 1971. She was then 50, a mother of 11 children.

It was these values that carried her through the awful and constant reality of not seeing the faces of her 42 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren.

And it was these values she drew on in her relentless and worldwide campaign to have rubber and plastic bullets banned.

Annsie Wilkinson arrived in Twinbrook with a young family in the early 70s in the first wave of Catholic refugees seeking sanctuary. She joined hundreds of other Catholics intimidated out of their homes by loyalists.

For these uprooted Catholics it was a time of great fear. Unsettled and unsure of their future Annsie and a small number of like-minded women stepped forward and organised.

Her home became the centre where squatters seeking tenants’ rights met; where people were helped if a relative was arrested; where people rallied to oppose house raids by the crown forces; a safe house for republicans.

These were the years before professionally organised communities; before Sinn Féin emerged as a party.

It was women like Emma and Annsie in many districts across the north who provided grass-roots leadership, who helped their besieged communities learn the skills they needed to survive.

These skills carried Annsie through tough times in her life. In her thirties she had cancer and a few years ago her son Seanna died by suicide.

At her funeral Mass a member of the Suicide Awareness and Support Group which Annsie joined said she “turned her grief into action, became an advocate to eradicate the stigma associated with suicide.”

Emma and Annsie were republicans. Like Maire Drumm, Kathleen Thompson, Mary McGuigan, Miriam Daly, Mairead Farrell, Siobhan O’Hanlon and many others they were role models, especially for women.

In a few weeks time a garden of reflection called Macalla na mBan, Echoes of Women, will be opened in the grounds of the Roddy McCorley Club in Belfast.

One of the organisers, Sinead Moore, said the garden would recognise women whether they were in the IRA, visited prisoners, made a cup of tea, marched or opened their homes to republicans.

Fitting recognition for past and living heroes.

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© 2007 Irish Republican News