In the civil rights arena, America gets a lot of the press and always has. Many of the worst atrocities and biggest conflicts in the movement happened in the United States, and they continue to happen to this day. Hollywood has made plenty of movies chronicling the American fight for civil rights, including one about the fateful march from Selma in 1965 that raised awareness and inspired equality all over the world, especially in the north of Ireland where another civil rights movement was being born.
Once upon a time, the American government worked. Bipartisan agreements made sure laws and budgets were passed, the court system wasn’t overloaded and exhausted and Presidents were kept in check by legislators, rather than the other way round. I know it sounds like a faerie tale in today’s day and age but it is true. People in government once did their jobs. America even had a law on the books that refused support or arms to any country that was designated as a human rights abuser and it could actually take a stand against others in that arena without being a complete laughingstock. To be sure, these embargoes always depended on which lobby had the most influence on the American government at the time, but occasionally the U.S. actually lived up to its own hype. On this day in 1979, the U.S. even stood against one of its biggest allies when it refused to send arms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC) in the North of Ireland on the grounds that the British government was violating the human rights of the citizens who lived there. To say that the powers that be on both sides of the puddle were upset by this stance would be an understatement, but there was no easy way to get around it thanks to Ad Hoc Congressional Committee for Irish Affairs.
Operation Motorman was the code name given to a mission carried out by the British Army on July 31st, 1972. The goal was to forcibly reassert control over the Nationalist and Republican areas in the North of Ireland, with a particular focus in the cities of Derry and Belfast. In these cities, nearly impenetrable barricades had been erected in many neighborhoods barring any soldiers from entering or policing the communities. When the Provisional Irish Republican Army detonated more than twenty bombs in Belfast on July 21st of that year, the English government decided that the “No-go” areas in these towns would no longer be tolerated and Operation Motorman was born.
Charles Parnell and Katharine O’Shea had a love that was so strong it survived even when it destroyed both of their lives. It was able to withstand scandal, headlines, and pressure from the population, the politicians, and the church. Their affair was “the worst kept secret in London” and it torpedoed Ireland’s best chance for Home Rule. Nevertheless, they chose each other and were married on this day in 1891.
Patsy O’Hara was a survivor. He grew up in Derry during some of the city’s most violent years and he was hit by a soldier’s bullet at the tender age of fourteen. He lived through that ordeal and became a fighter devoted to freeing Ireland from English rule. Patsy had a keen sense of what he thought was right and a huge streak of Irish Republicanism. This combination led him straight into the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a militant Irish Republican group that was dedicated to forcing the English out of Ireland by any means necessary. It also eventually led him into the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison where he died on this day in 1981 while on hunger strike.
On the third day of Ireland’s Easter Rising, a woman got off her bicycle at St. Stephen’s Green and delivered the message she’d been hiding to the rebel leaders inside. Then she took off her skirts, put on a homemade uniform, picked up a rifle and headed to the roof of the building to take her turn as a deadly sniper. In between shots, Margaret Skinnider formed a plan for a bombing mission that would make the area safer for her comrades and fellow rebels.
Attempting to execute that plan nearly killed her when Ms. Skinnider was shot three times on this day in 1916. Her grave wounds earned her the distinction of being the only woman who was so seriously wounded in the rebellion and it cemented her place in Irish history. You cannot have a project that involves women in the Easter Rising without including Margaret’s near death experience so today belongs to her.
On the second day of the Easter Rising, Kathleen Clarke fretted and wandered around the house, wondering how her husband Tom was doing. He was one of the leaders of the insurrection and was in the General Post Office headquarters with the other commanders, miles away from his wife. Kathleen had been asked to stay out of the fight by her husband who was counting on her to keep their business going, their family healthy, and if necessary, to protect his legacy when the Rising was over. She couldn’t do any of that if she took part in the battle and was arrested or hurt – so as unbearable as it must have been for her, she stayed at home.
Miraculously, the Clarke home wasn’t raided or attacked in any way on the first night of the rebellion. Kathleen spent a restless night in her home and then headed out to the garden in the morning to distract herself from what was happening around her. Planting and tending the garden was one of her favorite hobbies. April 25th, 1916, was a warm day and the ground was parched so she took a can of water with her when she started planting. Kathleen had just put it on the ground when she heard a hissing sound and her instincts kicked in. She ducked and remained still for quite some time. When she finally got up, she looked around to see what had made the sound. The bucket she had been holding seconds before had two bullet holes in it and the water was seeping onto the ground.
The Clarke house was not in the thick of the fighting but there were a lot of bullets flying throughout Dublin that week. In theory one of them could have randomly gone through the backyard at precisely that moment…but many (including the lady herself) think that Kathleen Clarke was deliberately targeted because of her husband’s actions and her own support for a free Ireland. She never found out whether she had been purposely fired on or not – but her own brush with death over Easter week did not stop her from accomplishing all of the plans she and her husband had made before it began. She immediately started a fund for the dependents of Volunteers and she kept her own family afloat, even after the English executed her husband for his role in the Rising. Easter Week cost her a child, a husband, and nearly her own life but she refused to let these losses cripple her and she never wavered in her support and her own fight for a free and independent Ireland.