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10 August 2000 Edition

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One woman's dream


I dreamt of Peggy Deery last night, odd because I had never met her and until yesterday had only been vaguely aware of her story. Yet in the dream, the recognition was so intense, I woke believing that I must have seen a photograph.
Peggy Deery and Michael McDaid were neighbours of Nell McCafferty's and she saw them leave for the march on Bloody Sunday. Peggy was the only woman shot that day. Michael died.

It wasn't true of course. Peggy Derry was born in Derry in 1934 and died there in 1988. And if it hadn't been for Nell McCafferty, her name and her story would never have been known outside the Bogside.

As part of the West Belfast festival, Nell McCafferty was speaking in Twinbrook this week and I was one of several hundred women packed into the Dairy Farm civic centre to hear a range of speakers describe ``Women at War''. Gonne Carmichael, a founding member of Green Cross, the prisoners' families welfare organisation, described the life and work of Mary Ann McCracken.

Lilly Fitzimmons, a former Sinn Féin councillor recalled women's contribution to the struggle around political status and the hunger strikes of 1981. Joanne McCullough, read a moving tribute she had written about her mother Kathleen, from Ballymurphy, who was ``quick off the mark to defend her community''.

Describing the initial impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the working class women of Derry, Nell McCaffery compared the cloistered domesticity of their past lives with the liberation of struggle. ``In 1968, my mother became a street walker,'' said Nell, to a roar of laughter from the audience.

And with Nell's mother out patrolling the streets of Derry with other women of her generation, her father ``never again saw his tea on the table at six.

``It was freedom ringing loud and clear,'' said Nell, and ``the women rose to it like trout to a fly''.

And when the RUC attacked the Bogside, she recalled, ``I saw my mother, a deeply, respectable woman of 58, strip a blanket from the bed , go down to Free Derry Corner, join a line of other 50-year-old women to run a petrol-bomb making factory.

``She did what she had to do.

``A woman who lived in the worst conditions was a woman called Peggy Deery,'' said Nell. ``She lived in a slum, an asbestos hut. Asbestos can kill you but in those days you were glad of anything, and her husband had cancer and was dying and before he died they made another baby, the 14th baby, born in 1969, and she named the baby Bernadette Devlin Deery.

``This was supposed to be a broken woman, poverty stricken, who had such aspirations for herself that in defiance of the state, and with such optimism for the future, such a desire to be a first class citizen, that she called the child after Bernadette.

``Those who knew Peggy in 1969 still recall with shock how poor she was''.

Shortly after Bernadette Devlin was elected Westminster MP for mid Ulster, Nell remembered the two of them visiting Peggy: ``We had brought a bag of coal. Peggy's electricity had been cut off and I had to go and get candles. There was a man lying sick in bed and the smell of his sickness filled the room. There were children everywhere.

``Me and my friend Marie washed and scrubbed and cleaned her house that night while she put 14 children to bed. Bernadette organised a collection to pay her electricity bill and people gave shillings out of their dole money.

``When Peggy died in 1988 at the age of 54, she was still in debt. Her electricity bill said she was in arrears to the tune of £972.89p; the outstanding rent on her home was £512.63p. It was perfectly normal for Derry people living on welfare to die in such debt and there is no shame in that.

``It was a small sign of victory, the extension of the war with the British state, the poor lacking any other means opened up a welfare front from behind which they parried the legislation that Britain had deployed to quell the revolt. Peggy's children boasted, as they buried their mother, that she had done the British state out of £1,400 quid. Peggy had the last laugh.

``On the day now known as Bloody Sunday, Peggy got up out of bed, fed and washed the children, put on the dinner, left her 15-year-old daughter in charge of the family, put on her best clothes and set off to march for her civil rights.'' Peggy Deery and Michael McDaid were neighbours of Nell McCafferty's and she saw them leave for the march.

``Peggy was the only woman shot that day. Michael died. And I often think of the two of them, people of no property, of little education, few prospects - but the majesty of those two people and the thousands who joined them, setting out that day saying `I am a first class citizen of the world and I will have my rights'.''

In the hall, over 200 women, young and old, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, shared the laughter and tears of recognition. Few, if any of us had ever met Peggy Deery; some of us had barely heard her name but her story was familiar.

Life, as for hundreds of other nationalist women in the north, had not dealt Peggy a winning hand of cards. She was a poor working class woman with a sick husband and a clutch of children to rear.

She was a Catholic born into a sectarian Orange state and an Irish nationalist living in a British-occupied zone. It doesn't get much tougher. But there was one ace up her sleeve. Peggy Deery had a dream and the courage to act upon it. Thank you Nell for reminding us.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1