And now for a modern day Irish woman. Mairead Maguire was born in Belfast, 71 years ago today. Her entry into the world of political protest did not come without a price. A family tragedy in 1976 fueled her desire to bring change to her war torn community. Her nephews and niece were hit by a car when the driver (a (P)IRA paramilitary) lost control of it after being shot by the authorities. Betty Williams, a witness to the accident, capitalized on the tragedy using it to gather women in the community to march in protest of the ongoing violence and paramilitary activity in their neighborhoods. Mairead joined her. It was a surprising success and “Women for Peace” was spontaneously born. The second march that went to the graves of the children took place only a few days later and it included over 10,000 women—both Catholic and Protestant—an unusual feat in such a polarized place and time. It was attacked by the paramilitaries which only brought the women more press and support for the next march and the movement continued to grow. Mairead and Betty changed the name of their group to the gender-neutral “Peace People” and they continued to parade for peace between Republican and Loyalist factions.
The organization claimed neutrality and advocated education over violence and sectarian divides. They published a newspaper called Peace by Peace and provided community services like busing family members to jails for visits. Despite the accusations of bias within their own organization and its minimal impact outside of their own community, in 1977 both women were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. This made Mairead Maguire the youngest recipient on record, a distinction she held until 2011. Although Betty Williams resigned her position a few years later, Mairead continued her activism and has been the honorary president of Peace People ever since.
The organization has gone global, advocating for prisoners and fighting injustices around the world. Mairead is an outspoken critic against countries and institutions that support war, including her own, the United States, Israel, Myanmar, and China just to name a few. She remains firmly against armed conflicts and has openly questioned some of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in the years since she received hers. She is a champion of whistle-blowers and a supporter of organizations like Wikileaks that release classified information. She is one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a coalition dedicated to improving some women’s rights around the world.
She’s a fiery woman, even in her seventies. She travels internationally as part of various delegations and committees and is currently highly involved in the Palestinian conflict. She’s been arrested or detained in at least five different countries, she’s been attacked in her own and she has struggled to remain non-violent at times. She is an unapologetic and controversial activist. She believes that violence is a disease that humans develop but are not born with and she has called for the end to all armies while favoring the establishment of a multi-national community of unarmed peacekeepers in their stead.
Some find her views unrealistic and ridiculous. Others find them to be a worthy and just goal that we should all work toward. Regardless of which side you fall on, it is pretty fair to say that Mairead Maguire has spent her entire life devoted to peaceful activism which is quite a feat, given the tragedies that occurred within her family and her community. I’m also almost positive that she’s wishing for world peace today when she blows out those birthday candles.