By Anthony McIntyre (for the Pensive Quill)
Another old stalwart of the conflict to leave us this year was the veteran Sinn Fein activist Marie Moore who died in hospital after a long illness. I don’t really think she, like a lot of her colleagues, was ever comfortable in the company of a dissenting opinion but she was approachable. The last time I spoke with her was in Belfast City Hall back in 2003. An anti-war rally had been taking place and a couple of Sinn Fein members on it had been manhandled by the PSNI and arrested. I left the protest to enter City Hall and asked at the desk for somebody from Sinn Fein. Marie Moore emerged. I told her what had happened and she promised to get onto it immediately. That conversation with her were the last words ever spoken between us. Our paths were not to cross again.
She always struck me more as the grandmotherly type rather than the grassroots political activist. Often arm in arm with her friend Elsie she could be seen making her way to the cinema or some other social occasion. But that concealed a political energy that bubbled within. In terms of Provisional resistance to the British state Marie had been there from the start. She joined the Civil Rights Movement prior to her marriage in 1969, later going on to organise Sinn Fein in Belfast after British armed invasions on nationalist communities. At one point her 13 year old son was arrested for possession of a M1 carbine yet she carried on. She was of that generation of street battling women who confronted the British Army head to head. They formed the Women’s Action Committee who would take to the streets any time day or night to face British military wreck and raid parties and also to alert the local IRA of the imminent danger. The British in 1971, determined to teach the women a lesson, riddled the sisters Dorothy Maguire and Maura Meehan in a clinical and cold blooded killing in West Belfast. In a separate incident Marie was shot by the British Army, leaving her with a slight limp which she carried throughout her life. She limped into Armagh Prison on a treason charge in the late 1970s and limped out again but not once did she break her stride.
From the earliest days of the conflict Marie Moore featured in the public record. P Michael O’Sullivan’s 1972 Patriot Graves contains photographic and interview material detailing her contribution to republican resistance. Her own introduction to republicanism was traumatic, described by her as a ‘shocking experience’:
It was Easter 1942. I was four years of age and was with my Granny and Granda, Mary and Frank O’Brien. We were in the living room of their Cawnpore Street home in the Clonard area of Belfast when suddenly a group of men ran into the kitchen ...There was a lot of shouting and commotion. Then suddenly there were these loud bangs, more screams and shouting. Shots were being fired all around us and I was terrified. My Granda grabbed me in his arms. Then there was more shooting, more shouting. Men ran past us and ran up my granny’s stairs. They were carrying someone who had been shot. He was covered in blood. Another man was lying on the ground in my granny’s kitchen. He had also been shot ... Other men wearing black uniforms and carrying guns - RUC men - were all around us. The two men who were shot in my granny’s house were Tom Williams and an RUC Constable Patrick Murphy. Tom was badly injured but survived only to be hanged later for the killing of the RUC man.
In the minds of former blanket men, whatever their later political inclination, she remained a revered figure. A key player, known as the An Bean Uasal, she took charge of the H-Block Information Centre, becoming the human channel through which communication between the IRA leadership on the outside and the protesting prisoners was sustained for two years, a period which included both hungers strikes. Then the running of the ‘comms’ became the vital pivot of communication. Marie Moore was responsible for that. At the head of a tight group of women visiting the prison on a daily basis she ensured the communication network was serviced whatever else failed. Of her smuggling colleagues she said:
They were the best smugglers I ever came across. For almost two years they brought messages in and out on a daily basis. Sometimes several times a day. It was gruelling for them. They were rigorously searched before meeting the prisoner. They were under constant scrutiny from warders while on the visit and very often they were searched after the visit. On top of that they had to deal with the emotion of the actual visit itself. I don’t recall them losing one ‘comm’ ... We needed information out of the prison and the prisoners needed information from the leadership of the Republican Movement on the outside. It was all done through ‘comms’, tiny messages written usually on cigarette paper and water-proofed by being wrapped in clingfilm.
In the overall engine of the protest her position was as vital to its functioning as that of the IRA prison leaders themselves. We now know because of the efforts of Richard O’Rawe that the comms were not as revealing as they should have been, used as they were by leadership figures on the outside to manipulate perceptions and withhold rather than impart information. But that was no fault of Marie Moore. She was devoted to ending the misery of the prisoners and worked tirelessly to alleviate the deprivation they endured.
On the other side receiving many of the comms that came in was a Strabane IRA volunteer, Gary McNally. Marie was said to be heavy chested and Bobby Sands had humorously named her ‘Bainne Mor’ which translated into English as ‘Big Milk.’ When Gary first went out to meet her on the visit and receive the comms he greeted her as ‘Mrs Mor.’.Thinking he was addressing her as Mrs Moore she asked him to call her by her first name and he said ‘ok Bainne.’ Bobby’s reaction when told this by Gary on his return from the visit was the source of much mirth. In the midst of the horrors of the place it was not without its lighter moments.
By the time Marie Moore had become Deputy Mayor of Belfast in 1999 the leech of constitutionalism was well clamped to the neck of Sinn Fein and was sucking all republicanism out of the party’s project. Nevertheless, I heard few if any criticisms of Marie Moore as she applied herself to representing the nationalists of Belfast within the chambers of City Hall. In all she served four terms as a Sinn Fein councillor there.
When people like Marie Moore close their lives a part of living history is sealed off and put beyond reach. There is always something, often unintentionally, taken to the grave with them that would have been of value to a researcher and the public record, but which will now inevitably remain beyond the access of posterity. They were witnesses to events that many of us only learn of long after they happen; or, when they are happening, are marginalised from the centres of decision making by those with more power. In the case of Marie Moore it would have been illuminating to have spoken to her about the August 1969 burnings, the 1970 Falls curfew, the formative days of Provisional Sinn Fein in Belfast, a party described by her as the political wing of the IRA, internment of 1971 and the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. On all of these things she could have enhanced our understanding. Now it’s too late to ask.
A couple of years before she died she wrote an essay for a book of collected works on the hunger strikes edited by Danny Morrison. In it she said, ‘I am proud to have been close to the blanket men, the women in Armagh, the hunger strikers.’ We are proud to have been close to her.