Margaret Mullarkey; working class, Boltonian, IBRG activist

Margaret M 1



In archiving the history of IBRG it is noticeable how many women were active as national officers as well as playing a more hidden role as the backbone of the organisation at a branch level. Margaret was one of the latter – she was a working class woman from Bolton with a big smile and a beautiful local accent.  She never attended national meetings – except when they were in the northwest – and at one of the biggest in Manchester she was not there – she was organising the crèche.

But in her branch alongside Joe, her husband, she played a significant role in all their activities. She combined it with being a mother of four children.  Her life shows how being involved in politics can,  not just change society,  but change one’s own life. Together, and as part of IBRG locally and nationally, they took on anti-Irish racism, promoted Irish music and dance and took part in some of the most important campaigns including the arrest of IBRG President Maire O’Shea, the Birmingham Six Campaign and many other issues concerning the Irish in Britain.

Bolton, a town 10 miles outside Manchester, originally a mill town,  has a radical history and the Irish have always played an important role in its trade union, labour and socialist movement.

Bolton IBRG was set up in 1983, by Margaret’s husband Joe, he says “My motivation in convening the inaugural meeting of the Bolton branch of IBRG in 1983 was to give a voice to Irish people like myself whose views and concerns particularly in relating to events in Northern  Ireland were never heard as a community and  we were treated with derision, grossly stereotyped by the media as drunken, stupid, bigoted and sectarian.”

IBRG meeting

Margaret  at an IBRG event at the WCML


IBRG, unlike mainstream Irish organisations,  spoke up about the worsening conflict in the North of Ireland and its effect on the Irish community in Britain.

This meant that Bolton, like many IBRG branches, was barred by Irish clubs and pubs from holding meetings- public or private. Bolton was lucky to have Bolton Socialist Club which in its past had welcomed James Connolly to speak there and IBRG was part of that radical, socialist agenda.

In 1986 Margaret was nominated as the Bolton IBRG delegate to the annual International  Women’s Day  delegation (IWD) to the North of Ireland organised by the Women and Ireland Network which had branches across Britain. The aim of the delegation was to offer solidarity from women activists in Britain to the women in the North of Ireland. It highlighted the number of women political prisoners in Armagh Prison and the particular issues they faced included the use of strip searching.

The first IWD picket of Armagh Prison was in 1979 which was violently attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulery and 11 women were arrested. The next year 500 women from Ireland and Britain took part and it became an important event for women to show solidarity with the women prisoners, their relatives and the wider republican community.

Bolton IBRG Minute Books are available as part of the IBRG archive at the WCML  in Salford.

In this report Margaret wrote about her experiences on the IWD Delegation 1986.   We can hear the compassion in her voice.  She was a woman determined to not just, be an observer of a hidden war going on in supposedly part of the UK, but a woman determined to get other women to go on the same journey and become active in the campaign for justice and peace in Ireland.

Sadly Margaret died in December 2019

Here is Margaret’s report…………..


Report on Women’s Delegation to  Armagh Prison  7 to 10/3/86


Boarding the ferry at Liverpool we were subjected  to body and luggage searches. We were each asked several times to give names and addresses of where we were going to be staying. We had been advised by delegation stewards beforehand to say we did not know. Approximately 120 women boarded the ferry at Liverpool. On arrival at Belfast  we were taken to Divis Community Centre to be billeted  with different people. I, and two other women, were taken to stay with a family in Ballymurphy, a large republican council housing estate, in West Belfast.

Saturday 8/3/86  The day began with workshops at the Whiterock Community Centre. The workshops were on P.O.W. (Prisoners of War), P.T.A. (Prevention of Terrorism Act), strip searches, show trials, plastic bullets, Divis flats, women’s role, health cuts and the  advice centre.

Prisoners Of War.  Items  discussed were the transfer of British soldiers who have been found guilty of crimes in the North of Ireland who were automatically  transferred to a  prison near home. Republican prisoners are  forced to serve their sentence in Britain. A deliberate dispersal system seems to operate within the British penal system with Republican prisoners being frequently moved from prison to prison. The result is that often that prisoners have been moved, without  informing the relatives,  causing distress and unnecessary expense to the relatives. The family may have to return to Ireland without having a visit.

Strip Searches  Mrs McLoughlin  spoke about her daughter Bridget Ann who was detained for seven years in Armagh Prison and recalled how strip searching affected her daughter. She was completely strip searched before and after every visit. After seven years of continued strip searching Bridget Ann was on the verge of a breakdown and  she knew even on release it meant another strip search. When her Mum went to collect her from the prison on the way home Bridget Ann was very quiet and sullen. A welcome home party had been arranged but she did not want to face anybody because she felt so humiliated and ashamed  and she just ran upstairs and cried. Mrs. McLoughlin said it took her daughter a long time to adjust. Mary, a former prisoner, told of her experience of strip searching. When  you have got a visitor and you are on a period the screws make you remove everything including sanitary wear. Your clothes and fresh sanitary wear are returned to you and you can see your visitor for twenty minutes. After the visit you are strip searched as before the visit. Only one packet of sanitary towels are allowed each month and these are only given at certain times,  so if you start a period before they are given out – tough.

Prevention of Terrorism Act    The recent detention and trials of some of our own members under this Act has made us aware of how the Act is used against the Irish in Britain. The Act is equally used to harass people travelling to Britain. Some of you may recall hearing about this case last summer about two women in charge of a coachload of children  travelling from the North of Ireland to Glasgow for a holiday, the coach driver and the children were allowed through but the two women in charge of the party were held under the P.T.A. The children were frightened and confused. When the women were arrested they asked to see a solicitor, they were given one but he advised them not to answer any questions. The women were questioned at this point by one of us about the solicitors. They said “we did not know who the solicitor was for all we knew he could have been anybody but we had no other choice other than to trust him.” Their advice to anyone is:  if you are arrested do not answer any questions until you can contact someone you know and if you do travel to or from the North of Ireland take with you the phone number of someone you know,  preferably a solicitor.

Following the workshops we had lunch before boarding coaches for Armagh Prison. Approaching Armagh Prison a contingent of Saracen tanks and foot patrols were in evidence.  As we came close we were stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary .There were two to each coach and after being searched we were allowed to proceed to the prison where we were joined by two coaches from Derry with the Glasgow delegation. They had also held a vigil outside Crumlin  Road Jail  on Sunday night and occupied the Fine Gael office in Dublin on the  Monday. Following that on 12 March, Peter Barry Deputy Leader of Fine Gael, in Dail Eireann condemned the use of strip searching.

About 300 people took part in the picket outside Armagh Prison. Each prisoner’s name was read out followed by slogans “We support you” and “end strip searches”. I sent a message of solidarity from IBRG.  The prisoners responded by banging in the cells and shouting. After half an hour the noise from the prison stopped,  so we assumed the prisoners had been moved. The prison picket was cordoned by the R.U.C.  They tried to provoke us. I was unable to see any prisoners because the authorities need prior notice.

On Saturday evening a social had been arranged.  I was very pleased to find it was a ceili attended by all the delegation and members of the families who were providing accommodation.

SUNDAY 9/3/86   After a late night and hectic day on the Saturday we had a lie in on Sunday morning. We assembled at Beechmount Leisure Centre for an anti-strip search march along the Falls Road to Anderstown where Sean Downes was killed.  At the assembly point we were advised by loud hailers coming from Saracen tanks at the front and rear and  British Army foot patrols scattered about. The stewards told us to ignore the army and march, so  we proceeded peacefully and no incidents took place. The march ended at the Sinn Fein Office and Gerry Adams spoke at the rally and concluded by thanking the British delegation for taking the time and trouble to support them and he hoped we would continue to do so.

IMPRESSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS   I have never been to the Six Counties before and I must admit to having been a little bit nervous before going. The area I stayed in (Ballymurphy) is a no go area for the R.U.C. but is constantly patrolled by the British Army in Saracen tanks and foot patrols. At night time British Army helicopters fly overhead and shine spotlights into the houses. Despite living in that kind of environment the people endeavour to live as normal a life as possible,  but it seemed to have affected the children of the family I stayed with. I noticed the young lad did not go out on his own, neither did I see many children playing on the streets. The people I stayed with and met whilst I was there, after the initial wariness had worn off, were extremely friendly and very helpful. Before going on the delegation I did not understand the effect we would have had moral wise and  people really appreciated our concern and interest.

I think for the next year’s delegation we should try to increase the numbers going and to that end I would expect at least one woman from every IBRG branch and suggest a preliminary meeting early summer to organise and fundraise. Would the secretary of your branch immediately let me have the name and address of at least one woman member and I am prepared to organise a meeting.

My thanks to N.E.Lancs,Wigan, Bolton and Manchester IBRG branches for their contributions towards the cost of the delegate fees and expenses.

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 1 Comment

My review of “Betty Tebbs – a radical working class hero” by Mark Metcalf





Through my friendship with Eddie and Ruth Frow I have met many women like Betty who had been  activists in the CPGB and the trade union movement. We came from different generations – and had quite different views on feminism and politics  – but I was always impressed by these women because of the struggles they had taken part in, not just in being women who had come through the Second World War,   but all the battles they had to fight  to assert themselves as women, inside the home, inside the CPGB and in their campaigning lives.

I first met Betty in 1991 at the International Women’s Day event at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester. She was on the committee that ran the centre  when it still had some politics. The IWD event was about women in struggle and included a woman from the North of Ireland, a Palestinian woman and me.

I spoke on behalf of theIrish in Britain Representation Group,  an organisation set up in 1981 to represent Irish people of all generations who lived in Britain and to campaign for equality and against discrimination. After I spoke I remember Betty making a comment which showed that she really did not understand the position of the Irish and other ethnic communities in this country. It did not surprise me because it was a standard response from many left people at that time  who believed that class trumped ethnicity and sex inequality.

Betty had not only been an activist all her life but,  unlike a lot of women,  she had produced her own autobiography. In Mark Metcalf’s new book “Betty Tebbs  a radical working class hero” (shouldn’t that be heroine?)  he has been able to use this material, alongside stories and comments from her daughter and friends to produce an engaging story of her life which is illustrated by some lovely photos of Betty and her family.

She was born in 1918 and lived a long and activist life. Growing up at a time when trade unions were a dominating force in the industry where she got her first job at the age of 14 – the paper mills. She came from a working class family and her life began like most working class girls,   where they were treated as second class workers, like Betty, on less money than the young man sat next to her doing the same job. She joined  the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers and spent her lifetime campaigning for equality.

Injustice fuelled Betty’s life, and her involvement in the trade unions. She was married and had a child at an early age,  but was widowed at 21 when her husband Ernest was killed in action. Widowhood meant  her allowances were immediately cut which enraged her, while the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led her to vow to work for peace, a vow she maintained until her death.

After the war she married  Len  Tebbs and they both joined the Communist Party in 1952. But it was  Betty’s responsibility to work, do the childcare and attend union meetings. And throughout her autobiography there is no analysis of this double burden that many women who were parents and activists had to shoulder.

In 1952 she joined the National Assembly of Women, an organisation which was mainly made up of Communist Party women. By the 1980s Betty was the chair and she was able to travel to meetings,  mainly in the Soviet bloc.

Running through this book is Betty’s committment to trade unions and to improving the lives of women at work through pay equality.  Her trade union membership  enabled Betty to  improve her own education and  in 1963 she became a Labour councillor in Bury.

Her commitment to CND meant that at the age of 89, alongside her comrades, Neville, Alan and Jean,  she travelled to Scotland and blocked the road to the Faslane submarine base.

My only criticism of this publication  would be   (and this goes for Betty’s own autobiography)  there is too much information about her personal relationships  and not enough analysis of sexual politics. But maybe that reflects the era that Betty grew up in and the way in which women of her generation chose to live their lives.

Metcalf has produced a well-written and beautifully illustrated history of an inspiring  working class woman activist who in a different era would have been a trade union leader.

This pamphlet was produced by Unite the Union contact

Read Betty’s autobiography “A Time to Remember”  at the WCML.

Posted in Betty Tebbs, biography, book review, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, International Women's Day, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Sisters in Cells” by Aine and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig

sisters in cells


Aine and Eibhlin Nic Giolla Easpaig are unique in several ways. They were republican women political prisoners in the 70s – the first women of that era to be imprisoned in England, while their autobiography “Sisters in Cells” is one of the few jail journals that has  been written by women, telling their story of growing up in Manchester in the 60s and 70s and their experiences as innocent people in the prison system.

The sisters were born in Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. It was a republican area where people spoke Irish as their first language and were closely intertwined with the politics of a united Ireland. They grew up there until the 1960s when their parents, like many Irish at that time, decided to seek work in England.

Their new life  was a massive cultural change; they were now living in urban Manchester, part of a large Irish community whose lives centred around the church, community centres, and pubs and clubs designated as Irish.

The sisters were unusual in that they spoke Irish as their first language – most Irish children and some adults quickly lost their accent so they could assimilate into a hostile environment with its everyday anti-Irish racism.

The sisters got their first taste of  this  at school by a nun who made fun of their accents. The girls got up, put their coats on and left the school.  Their mother went back in to see the teacher,  the nun apologised and they returned to school.

The sisters were shocked by the attitude of the second generation Irish girls they went to school with. “Most of the girls received very little insight into their Irish heritage from their parents. They knew very little about Ireland or the Irish situation and very few of them came back to Ireland.”

As the sisters say, even in a school predominantly made up of Irish born and second generation there was no recognition of the Irish language,  in fact the opposite; “ A teacher wrote to our mother asking her not to speak Irish at home any more as it was retarding our progress!”.

The sisters left school and got  jobs, Eibhlin as a nurse in the local hospital, Aine as a model and then hairdresser.They took part in the usual activities of young women except that they were also  political activists as members of Sinn Fein.

Politics were rapidly changing for Irish people in Britain as events in the North of Ireland entered a new chapter.  The Civil Rights Movement in 1968 brought Catholics out on the streets demanding the vote and the rights of citizens. But the reaction of the British state led to Bloody Sunday and a deepening crisis within the statelet.

Over the water in England the state responded harshly to people who objected to Britain’s war in the north of Ireland.  Conspiracy charges were used in Irish cases against people who organised to support nationalists in the North. Victims of this included Father Fell of Coventry, who organised a local Northern Relief Committee,  and with others was arrested and charged with conspiracy to cause explosions and found guilty along with a number of other people.

Organisations such as the National Campaign for Civil Liberties spoke out about the police raiding the homes of Irish people who were activists to gather information. Journalist, Chris Mullins, in his book about the Birmingham 6, wrote about the first Manchester unit of the IRA which was set up in the summer of 1973.

This is where the sisters enter the story. On 27 February 1975 they were sentenced to fifteen years in prison for conspiring to cause explosions. Aine was twenty five years old while  Eibhlin was twenty two. They both denied the charges  and later on alongside the Birmingham 6 and so on the evidence used against them was discredited. Too late for them as they were released in 1983.

The sisters lived in a house they shared with their parents and their brother Eoini. When a gun was found there Aine was arrested and charged with illegal possession of the gun. The police  told her it was her brother they wanted to interview and  she  was released on bail. When her brother returned  she advised him to leave for Ireland which he did.

When the sisters went to retrieve their brother’s car in Withington on 26 April  1974 unbeknown to them two men were making explosive devices in the house.  A bomb went off setting the house on fire and a man was injured. The sisters then decided to return to Ireland but in their brother’s car. They were arrested in Holyhead and two days later were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions.

The sisters sum up their experience in court as an “Irish” trial at a time when the atmosphere was particularly bad and the on-going IRA campaign in Britain meant that maximum pressure was on the police to get results – any results.  Results which meant “show trials and irrationally long prison sentences for anybody who can be plausibly convicted.”

Their trial took place in November 1974 against the background of the Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA. It was followed by the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was designed to curtail political discussion and activity within the Irish community in Britain, including powers to stop and surveil thousands of Irish people as they travelled back and forth to Ireland and  hold people for seven days without a solicitor.

Their jail journal details how they survived eight years as “special category” prisoners held  in one of Britain’s oldest prisons; Durham. Their parents, now elderly and fragile physically, had returned to Donegal and visiting their daughters was not just difficult but expensive. Transfer back to a prison in the north of Ireland was denied them, as was any special category or recogniton that they were political prisoners.

“Sisters in Cells” is  a well written and insightful account of the lives of two republican women. They were caught up in a period of history in this country where being Irish in the wrong place, at the wrong time meant you could be locked away as a political prisoner for a long period- even if publicly the government did not want to recognise them as such.

What makes this book different from many other prison diaries is that it is from two women’s point of view. The sisters have a strength of character that was forged by their background, family and political views and one which was not going to be crushed in the British jail system. They were released in August 1983 and were given a heroines welcome in Ireland.


“Sisters in Cells” was originally published in Irish in 1986. An English edition came out in 1987.


The IBRG archive at the WCML records some of the Irish prisoners campaigns from 1981 onwards. Not, the Gillespie sisters, as they were released before the IBRG and other campaign groups really took up the issues.

Read Michael Herbert’s  history of the Irish in Manchester for further background information “The Wearing of the Green; a Political History of the Irish in Manchester”.




Posted in biography, book review, Catholicism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

My review of Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story by Celeste Bell and Zoe Howe


Poly Styrene  (3 July 1957 – 25 April 2011),  (real name Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) was one of the most unique performers who came out of the punk era. Watch this video here

In this affectionate and revealing biography written by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell and writer Zoe Howe , we get an insight into her life as told by those were  closest to her,  including her sister, ex-husband, friends and many others who  were part of her life.

Her mother was white, her father from Somalia. As her sister Hazel says life was difficult for her Mum Joan. “It was bad enough being a single mother. Being a single mother with half-black children, the whole community shunned her.” They grew  up in Brixton and big sister Poly (or Mari as she was known then) looked after her  younger sister and brother whilst their mother worked. Her sister tells some lovely stories about how they she would write poetry and Mari would write songs.

But life for Mari was not so straightforward as a young woman with what we now  know as  a bi-polar condition. However,   it did open  up her mind to a creative force which she poured into her songs and music, but,  although a bright young woman,  she could not cope in the school system.

Being mixed race in 1970s Brixton was not easy;  such  children were often called “half-caste”. Her friends were white and she used to pretend to be white. Even today if a person identifies more with the white part of their parentage it is seen as if they have a problem with their identity.

Life changed for Mari when at the age of 15 she met Falcon Stuart who was twice her age. He was a photographer and filmmaker and by  1976 they were living together. Through him she started writing and recording songs – and then punk happened in London with bands  like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and The Damned being formed.

Punk gave Mari, who saw herself as an outsider, somewhere to belong. Fellow black performers, Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar sum it up. “The attitude was you weren’t ever really black enough and you weren’t light-skinned enough –you know, you were obviously not white, but you weren’t black enough to be part of the black community.”

Mari set up a market stall and started selling the plastic jewellery and bags that were to become her identity as Poly Styrene. But the punk uniform of black clothes was not her style. She mixed and matched plastic and shiny materials, using colours such as lime green and orange.  She was the princess of plastic – giving an impression she was a sweet young thing but in reality  she was highly intelligent and a sharp character.

March 1976 was the first gig for X-Ray Spex  with  Poly  as the singer backed by  a talented band which included one other woman Lora Logic on the saxophone,  Jak Airport and Paul Dean on guitars.  Poly stood out as this charismatic, strong woman –  very different from the usual women performers on programmes such as Top of the Pops. Immediately she  gained lots of attention from the media.

xray spex

Punk was partly a reaction  against the growth of racism and in the mid 1970s the rise of the skinhead movement which took its hatred out to the streets of London, Birmingham and Manchester. The Rock Against Racism movement started by Red Saunders and others gave two fingers to the fascists,  uniting young and older people with a message of love and unity through music.

In the book Paul Dean of X-Ray Spex speaks  about his own experience. RAR was important to him because his dad was a Polish immigrant, a real minority at that time,  who had had a hard time settling in this country. Paul says, “Consequently I was quite political. I agreed with the aims of RAR, I agreed with the aims of the Anti-Nazi League.” X-Ray Spex took part in major  RAR events such as the Carnival against the Nazis in London on 30  April 1978.


Poly’s songs and the brilliance of the band in playing them gave a voice to many issues from identity and being young to ones that we all talk about today including genetic engineering and being part of a throwaway society.  Watch this Arena programme from 1979 where Poly talks about her songs here

But the pressures of media attention and live performances led to Poly having a mental breakdown. Few people   realised how ill she was: it was a time when the mental health services focussed on labelling black (and ethnic minority people) as schizophrenia rather than listening to their stories and experiences of racism.

After leaving the band Poly was able to concentrate on developing her music beyond punk,  but her personal life became more complicated. She married, had a child and then went to live in a commune of the Hari Krishna cult.  Relations with the band deteriorated as she took all the royalties from the songs while she tried to stop her husband from having access to Celeste.

Mother/daughter relations are fraught – as all women know – but Celeste has produced a beautiful biography revealing the complex life of her mother. The photographs in the book are a wonderful compliment to the text and the book itself is a history of an exciting era in this country.

Most importantly it reminds us of Poly and her relevance to C21st women. She fought being commodified and put in a box as a woman performer. She said “Beauty and glamour are still such a big thing. I think about the female artists who have had success in recent years..they all look beautiful, everything is so glamourised, it’s a huge pressure on women. And will anyone remember the music?”

You can buy this book here


Posted in biography, book review, drama, feminism, films, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My review of the Keith Haring exhibition at Tate Liverpool


Keith Haring Drawing Series Jan 1982 Joseph Szkodzinski

KEITH Haring (1958–1990) was an American artist and  political activist. In this wonderful retrospective we really get to see the way in which he wanted to make art as accessible as possible to the majority of people. He once said: “There is an audience that is being ignored. They are open to art when it is open to them.”

One of the joys of the exhibition is watching a film of Haring  as he uses  blank  boards in the New York subway to entertain the subway travellers. We watch as he quickly chalks  up portraits of everyday life and then walks away. Between 1980 and 1985 he would draw 40 drawings a day on the subway walls. His subway art made him famous  -but not to all.  We watch as the police move in to arrest him as he is  surrounded by his audience. As he became more popular  Haring  noticed that his paintings were being taken down and sold. This forced him into the galleries to promote his art although it was anathema to his politics.

Keith Haring in Subway Car, ca. 1984

Keith Haring in a subway car circa  1983. Photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi

Haring was from a conservative family in Pittsburgh. His father was a cartoonist and from an early age he  was using cartoons to  create stories.  By the age of 19 he had his first exhibition at the the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Centre.

But New York was the place to be in the late 1970s as Haring became a student at the School of Visual Arts. He now had the space to explore being a gay man and live in a multicultural urban community which allowed him to express his ideas about art and urban space.

Haring used distinctive unisex cartoon type abstract figures in his drawings which became his trademark; small figures that crawl across the paper. He proved that you can make art cheaply by his choice of materials – the exhibition includes several artworks made on tarpaulin or wood.  Living in Manhattan at a highly political time his work reflected  this in the   posters he  made for campaigns including  anti-apartheid in South Africa, the military-industrial complex, HIV/AIDS,  and LGBTQ rights. Words are absent as he used signs such as the dollar to translate his criticism of an unfair system and an unfair life for many of the citizens of the USA. His political art led to him being invited to create a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall.


Keith Haring Ignorance=Fear 1989

The HIV/Aids crisis in the 1980s dominates the  latter  part of the exhibition as alongside his friends  he raged against the disease and the indifference of the US Government. Haring’s art works are angry but they also epitomise the man and his ideals of humanity, of social justice, of equality for all people.  Openly gay he developed Aids in 1989 and used his art to benefit gay causes and promote a safe sex message. With eighty five of his works this exhibition captures not just Haring the artist and activist but also a vibrant period of American history.

Visit the exhibition at Tate Liverpool

Until 10 November 2019

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My review of “The Metal Mountain” by John Healy

the metal mountain

IT  is 30 years since John Healy wrote his classic “Grass Arena”  his autobiography of growing up Irish in London. Published at a time when the Irish in Britain were going through a time of renaissance from politics in groups such as IBRG to culture and  bookshops such as Green Ink Books.

John was part of a new group of writers who published books about issues that were not mainstream including; anti-Irish racism, identity and history. He joined authors such as Maude Casey who wrote another classic “Over the Water” and Moy McCrory’s “The Water’s Edge”. Books that spoke to the experience of the Irish over here and an Irish that was overwhelmingly working class.

over the water

“The Metal Mountain” is set in 1950s Britain and is about the lives of the Docherty family, Irish immigrants who have survived the Second World War, and are bringing up their children in a bombed out London. The mother, Mary Jane, takes the children to the local Queen’s Coronation party only to be excluded because of her Irishness – even though the children were born in England.  Retreating into Catholicism she represses her hurt and anger. Sean, the father, keeps his anger locked up as he takes the only jobs available for him as a navvy.

Nine year old, Michael,  tries to understand why his mother has been excluded from the party and then listens to her lying to his father about the reason why. He walks through his local area surrounded by  angry signs about him and his family: “Filthy Irish Pigs Go Home.” Maybe that is why he becomes his mother’s right hand,  even going down to the train station to meet his auntie Bridget.

Mary Jane’s sister, Bridget, arrives with a handful of school certificates  and  is not prepared to put up with this discrimination. Unlike Mary Jane she will not try to escape reality  through her Catholic faith, instead she  starts to agitate about the injustice experienced by her countryfolk. But when she is followed by Special Branch and interrogated at a police station she begins to understand the perimeters of her civil rights as an Irishwoman. Her experience reflects how some Irish people through organisations such as the Connolly Association did take up very unfashionable issues including the ongoing occupation of the North of Ireland as well as the rights of the Irish in this country.

connolly association

Irish Democrat newspaper of the C.A.


For me the novel really comes alive with Healy’s description of London. The scene in the local washhouse is mesmeric  and poetic –  a place  where the local women  of all colours and ethnicities  meet .Through Michael’s eyes we watch this weekly ritual and share  his fascination with the work and the women’s bodies.

The theme running through the novel is  emigration and the price that the Irish have paid to find work in this country. The Dochertys fled the Black and Tans in Ireland for work and a new life in Britain,  but their life changes little as they are choked by the ongoing racism and  everyday discrimination.

Healy captures the way in which some Irish people were walking down a long dark tunnel during this period of history. Missing  though is the way the Irish fought back through humour, poetry and song. “ The Metal Mountain” is an elegy to  the past history of the Irish in a world that has been forgotten.

Price £14.95. Published by Etruscan Books. Buy it here

Posted in book review, Catholicism, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Manchester activists are taking to the rooftops in Oldham to stop arms sales to Israel

oldham protest


For Ade Mormech the political is personal . He, alongside other Manchester Palestine  Action  activists, recently  occupied the roof of Elbit’s Ferranti factory in Waterhead Oldham  for three days. “We think that arms companies like Elbit Ferranti should stop operating when it is clear their weapons are being developed through the mass murder of Palestinians in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. The crimes must stop and so must UK-based companies that are profiting from them.”

Mormech  was a teacher in a school in  Gaza for two years.”I saw many children die in the hospitals from the kinds of weapons produced here during the ‘Pillar of Cloud’ attacks in 2012. One of my students was killed with her two young children in 2014 so I know a small part of the loss that  the Palestinians must be feeling. We’re trying to keep this factory shut so they can’t make things which kill innocent civilians.”

The activists began their  protest on 1st July at 5am at the time of the five-year anniversary of Israel’s 51-day bombing of Gaza in the summer of 2014. They dropped large banners off the front of the building stating “UK Stop Arming Israel” and others describing the killings in 2014 and the shooting of thousands of Palestinian protesters in the Great Return March this past year.

Campaigners are targeting the Elbit-owned factory because  Elbit is the largest Israeli weapons producer,  best known for their unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”) or drones, which include the military drones Hermes 900 and Hermes 450 which were employed extensively during the 51-day attack on Gaza in 2014. The company itself  describe their drones as the “backbone” of Israel’s drone fleet. The protesters accuse the weapons giant of developing weaponry through their use on the Palestinian population, selling them as “battle-tested.”

Elbit Systems has four subsidiaries in the UK; UAV Engines, Instro Precision, Ferranti Technologies and Elite KL. All have faced protests in recent years: the UAV Engines Factory in Shenstone was closed for nearly three days when it was similarly occupied in 2014.

Figures from the Campaign Against Arms Trade reveal that in 2017 the UK issued £221m worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel. This made Israel the UK’s eighth largest market for UK arms companies, a huge increase on the previous year’s figure of £86m, itself a substantial rise on the £20m worth of arms licensed in 2015. In total, over the past five years, Israel has bought more than £350m worth of UK military hardware.

Closing any factory in Oldham is controversial. Oldham is a low wage, low skill town.  Situated nine miles outside Manchester its heyday as the centre of the cotton trade is long gone. In 2016 the ONS named it as one of the most deprived towns in the UK.

Walking around the town centre it is obvious how the local Labour Council have spent millions on improving its buildings,  adding new ones like the cinema, hoping that  the advent of the tram may bring more people to the centre.

Outside the centre of Oldham, however,  there is a different story. New research by  End Child Poverty shows that more than 26,000 children in Oldham are living in poverty, making it the fifth worst town in the North West for child deprivation. The report  highlighted three areas of Oldham .Werneth where  66.2% of children live in poverty. St.Mary’s was one of the UK’s twenty wards with a rate of child poverty at 61.8% and Coldhurst not far behind at 60.9%.

MPA’s strategy of closing down a factory which offers 200 skilled engineering jobs doesn’t sound like a prospect that locals would support,  but Mormech challenges this. “At our street meetings we have met with support for our campaign.  And during the three  days of action at Elbit’s the local community came down to support us listening to speeches and bringing food.”

Their strategy is not just about a local factory but of closing down the arms trade between Britain and Israel. He points to the recent ruling by the Court of Appeal that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen are unlawful.

Mormech says that the protests in Oldham will continue “We’re trying to keep this factory shut so they can’t make things which kill innocent civilians. We demand a two-way arms Embargo between the UK and Israel so that no more deaths can be inflicted on the Palestinian people that the UK or Israeli government can profit from.”

Recently a statue to local working class suffragette Annie Kenney was unveiled in Oldham. Jim McMahon, Oldham West and Royton Labour  MP, and chair of the Annie Kenney Memorial Fund, called her a “working class hero”. He was quoted as saying,  “The message that they hopefully will take from today is that the battles for fairness, for equality, to tackle injustice when you see it is a responsibility of every generation. Annie stepped up in her day and it’s for everybody to step up today”. 

jim mcmahon and annie k

Jim McMahon and his call for action

However so far Jim McMahon has  failed to step up by  responding to my email asking for a comment about the Elbit Ferranti protest. Other Oldham MP’s and  the Leader of Oldham Council were also contacted for comments about the protests but failed to respond before publication.

Next protest: Public Meeting in Oldham: Meet the Rooftop Protesters, 6pm on Monday August 5, outside Elbit Ferranti Factory, Cairo House, Waterhead, Oldham OL4 3JA.

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