Strong women sometimes come as a pair, and sometimes they actually do get recognized for their achievements.
Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were the winners of the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in organizing a significant peace movement in Northern Ireland, called the Peace People. Other women have won the Nobel Peace Prize and other women have protested against the violence of war, but Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams’ accomplishment was a phenomenon because they brought women from both sides of the ‘war’ together, asking for the same peace to come to their land.
To fully understand ‘the Troubles’ as civil war years in Northern Ireland are often referred to, you need a quick overview of Irish political history. This is very short and in no way attempts to trivialize any part of Ireland’s heritage.
In a nutshell: Ireland was populated and ruled by various Celtic tribes until 1169 A.D. when Anglo-Normans took over the island and King Henry II of England declared himself Lord of Ireland. For the next 500 years, vigorous fighting continued against foreign rule, and Ireland eventually became divided into four provinces, comprised of 32 counties and ‘planted’ by the British government with Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. These Protestant settlers would gain a substantial amount of governmental power, especially in the northern areas, thereby relegating the native Catholic Irish to second class status. It would be another 252 years for the 1921 Anglo-Irish Peace Treaty to be signed, dividing Ireland in half. The southern 26 counties became independent and named the Irish Free State (later renamed the Republic of Ireland). However, as part of the treaty concessions, the 6 counties of the Ulster Province in the north remained under British rule and would henceforth be called Northern Ireland.
One land, one history, now two separated halves – not by choice, but by politics.
So Northern Ireland was, and still is, populated by native Irish Catholics, and by Irish Scot-Anglo Protestants whose families had lived in Ireland for hundreds of years. But because Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, it was ruled and policed by the British.
Enter two modern factions: the Republicans who were mostly Catholic and wanted to sever the tie to Great Britain; and the Union Party, solidly Protestant and wanting to retain the key governmental positions of power in Northern Ireland.
Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams met in 1976. There had been serious and violent fighting in Northern Ireland for the previous eight years between militant Catholics and Protestants, and the inhabitants of Belfast and Londonderry had become used to, but by no means inured of, the fighting and the presence of British soldiers.
On August 10, 1976 a Belfast mother was out on a Sunday afternoon taking a walk with her three young children. Suddenly a car came careening down the block and plowed into her group, killing all three of her children. The driver of the car (stolen earlier that day) had lost control of the vehicle after being shot by British soldiers.
Innocent children had been run down in their own neighborhood, through no fault of their own. The grief and anguish caused by this horrible event permeated every home in Northern Ireland and other locations as well. Whether the mother, Mrs. Maguire, had been Catholic or Protestant no longer mattered, because mothers everywhere were outraged. Mairead Corrigan, an aunt of the dead children, was interviewed on the news the following night. Sobbing into the camera she cried out that none of the women in Ireland wanted this kind of violence.
Another mother, Betty Williams, was also fed up with the violence. She, too, was a resident of Belfast. After watching Mairead Corrigan on the news, Betty began speaking to the women of her neighborhood asking them to band together to make their voices heard in protest against the senseless bloodshed.
Within 48 hours after the death of the Maguire children, Betty Williams went on the news and read a petition she had drafted for peace, signed by over 6,000 women in Belfast – both Catholics and Protestants together. The next day 1,000 Belfast women journeyed to the site of the accident and together recited the rosary for the dead children.
The children were buried on Friday, five days after the accident, in a funeral attended by people from all over Belfast. This is when Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams met face to face and discussed the petitions for peace. They decided to meet again the next day at what they believed would be a small peace demonstration to honor the deceased Maguire children. When they met up on the morrow, over 10,000 women came on foot or in cars, and Protestant women came on buses they had chartered. Side by side these 10,000 women linked themselves to each other in the united desire for peace. It was the first time ever in Northern Ireland that Catholic and Protestant women aligned themselves with one another. The massive group sang hymns and then began to walk back to the cemetery where the children had been buried.
And then the unthinkable happened. Militant Irish Republicans, mostly belonging to the terrorist group I.R.A. formed their own crowd and began to assault the walking women, calling them traitors. Many marchers were beaten while the women swarmed trying to protect each other. By the end of the walk numerous women had been battered and bruised, but not dispersed. They all reached the cemetery and began to sing Irish songs.
It was the first time in modern history that Irish women had collected together and said, “Enough!” From that day forward Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan worked together to make the world aware of the slaughter of innocents ravaging their beloved country and how the women of Northern Ireland were campaigning together for peace.
Their campaign was long and hard, and not always successful, but together with their Peace People Movement they did make the world painfully aware of what was occurring in Northern Ireland.
For those efforts, they received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
Yet when my husband and I visited Belfast and Londonderry in 2007, violence was not just a memory of the past. We were counseled by our hosts which pubs were Catholic and which ones were mostly Protestant, just in case we needed to know where to show our loyalties.
Thirty years after the herculean efforts of Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, Northern Ireland was still acutely aware of its wounds.
Strong women do not always achieve their ultimate goals, but they never give up either.
“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
Old African proverb taken from Pearls of Wisdom, compiled by Keith Adams
Thank you to my diligent proofreader, Dixie Ann Hallaj