Behind bars with the Shannon One
Margaretta D’Arcy has been a peace activist for most of her life, and neither cancer nor prison appears to deter her. We visit her in Limerick Prison, where she is controversially serving a sentence for an anti-war protest at Shannon Airport
She is an unlikely inmate of a medium-security prison. The peace activist and writer Margaretta D’Arcy lights up Limerick Prison’s sparse visiting room in a blaze of conviviality. Leaning on a cane as she is escorted in, she half-chides the warden for not having carried an umbrella to shield them from the light rain that is spitting over Limerick. “I’ve never met you before, ma’am,” he says evenly. “I’m sure we can get you something for the way back.”
D’Arcy is 79. As well as being an activist, she is an actor, writer and member of Aosdána. On October 7th, 2012, she walked on to the runway at Shannon Airport with Niall Farrell, of the Galway Alliance Against War group, to protest against the airport’s use by the US military. She was subsequently found guilty of illegal incursion on a runway and given a suspended sentence of three months.
And there it might have ended. But D’Arcy refused to sign a bond committing her to uphold the law and to stay away from unauthorised zones at Shannon. This led, last month, to her early-morning arrest at her home, on St Mary’s Terrace in Galway city, and her transfer to jail.
As Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has observed, her signature on the bond would lead to her immediate release. “I do not believe the individual concerned should be presented in a heroic guise or that it is in the public interest that she be so depicted,” he says. “The rule of law must prevail even when it creates difficult circumstances.”
From a legal perspective this is inarguable. But her sentence has split public opinion. Some see it as an inevitable punishment for breaking a law and, arguably, endangering the public. Others believe that, in a country where moral and financial scandals have gone unchecked, it is shameful to imprison an elderly woman who has demonstrated unwavering moral courage in committing to a selfless cause. Some say she should be pardoned.
“But pardon me for what?” D’Arcy wonders when asked if she would accept such a gesture. “It seems that you can observe a war. You can comment on war. But you can’t stop war. I am a person who is trying to stop war. I would like the Minister to explain that. So it would depend on what the pardon was for.”
On the day of my visit, a week ago, D’Arcy wears white trainers, grey tracksuit bottoms, a matching hoodie and a raincoat, and her hair is tied back. A small wooden partition separates visitors from inmates. She peers at her guests – myself, and Zoe Lawlor and John Lannon of Shannonwatch – through round-rimmed spectacles. Other visitors have included Sabina Higgins, the wife of President Michael D Higgins.
Even in the casual clothes D’Arcy has something of the society hostess about her. She talks not as a helpless prisoner but as though she wants to make a personal project of improving the place, a classically bleak mausoleum on Mulgrave Road that has served as a lock-up for almost 200 years.
She stands rather than sits at the bench and trades information with her Shanonwatch colleagues. She answers questions about her wellbeing but is more animated when discussing the shortcomings of life in Limerick prison.
“It’s the sensory deprivation that is shocking. Not getting to see the moon, the stars. That is terrible for people in here. There is nothing to do. In Holloway Prison, for example” – she spent time there in the 1980s, during the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests in the UK – “the library was well stocked and the recreation room had things to do. Here, when you are out for exercise, it is just as you see in the films, with people walking around in circles.
“I was walking down a corridor the other day and looked through the window of a door and saw a picture of a dog, and I was overjoyed, because for a second I thought it was real. That sounds cracked, I’m sure, but that is what happens when you are deprived of . . . anything. It needs to change here.”
Surprisingly, she fully agrees with Shatter about one aspect of her case. In his terse response to the moral question of imprisoning a pensioner who is being treated for cancer, he said that age cannot be a consideration.
D’Arcy expresses a similar view. “A person’s age is not relevant when it comes to taking a stand,” she says in her rushed, sweeping way. “I may well have fewer commitments to family now than a younger person would, and this gives me the opportunity – as well as the duty – to act. It’s important to realise that people can be effective regardless of age. And, you know, you have to follow something through. It’s no good having a big march and 100,000 people turning out and nothing more is done about it. The principle is important.
“I am surprised that there haven’t been more complaints along the lines of, ‘Oh, she is just doing this for drama or publicity.’ I’m encouraged that people seem to be reacting to the principle of what we are doing and what I’m here for.”
D’Arcy and Farrell say they occupied the runway at a time when no flights were scheduled to land. The court heard that two delayed passenger flights had to go into a holding pattern because of the disruption.
D’Arcy had fully expected to be removed immediately from the tarmac by airport security. “But nobody noticed us,” she says. “We had to go back to the fence to tell the others in our group to ring security and alert them to the fact that we were on the runway. What was security doing? Even the judge was shocked when he heard that.”
D’Arcy’s absolutism and sense of certainty seem unusual at a time when pragmatism and ambivalence define so much of our politics. She is a daughter of the turbulence of the 20th century. Her father, Joseph, was a tenement child from Henrietta Street in Dublin and was active in the IRA during the War of Independence. He later met Miriam Billig, a Jewish Londoner whose parents had fled Odessa, when they were both finding their way in London.
Neither parent would ever elaborate on their exotic backgrounds. “They would be scornful and dismissive of my attempts to explain them: they’d say it was rubbish,” D’Arcy wrote in Loose Theatre, a baggy and slyly humorous memoir of her hectic life, which she published in 2005.
D’Arcy was born in 1934. As children she and her sisters learned to avoid using the word “nice” at the dinner table, as it was enough to set their father off. He was by nature reserved, but something about the word, she later understood, infuriated him. “It was a red rag to a bull; he associated it with the self-effacing Catholic gentility, which he abhorred,” she recalled in Loose Theatre.
In her adolescence D’Arcy moved between the “treacherous forest” of Ireland and England. She immersed herself in theatre and met the Barnsley playwright John Arden, author of Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance. The pair married in 1957 and responded instinctively to the social and political issues of their time.
She became a parent herself, and her four boys lived in London, in India and on an island in Lough Corrib before they were through their teens. They saw their mother imprisoned in Shillong Jail, in northeast India, and, later, in Armagh for refusing to pay a fine incurred during a republican rally. During the Greenham Common women’s peace camp, which existed from 1981 to 1990, she spent two days in solitary confinement at Holloway Prison for refusing to adhere to the strip-search policy.
D’Arcy’s son Finn Arden, who now lives in Galway, has observed his mother’s activism up close since early childhood. “She’s a very strong-minded person. She could have signed the bond, yes, but she would have seen that as an infringement on her right to protest against something she feels strongly about. For all of her life she has been against imperialist violence around the world.
“I was probably hauled along to more rallies and propaganda films than I can remember,” Arden says of his formative years. On the Lough Corrib island, their home had no electricity and no phone line. A neighbour would shout messages from the mainland, and they cycled into Oughterard for groceries. “I sometimes wished for the childhood my friends had – homes with a television,” says Arden.
“I suppose we were a bit embarrassed by their lifestyle when we were young kids. We would go about in bare feet and that kind of thing. Our friends just accepted it, and when we were a bit older, in our 20s, they would often talk with her about the activism she was involved in.”
Arden participated in the “occasional CND” march but says that none of the boys became involved in peace activism with the same passion as their parents. They worried about the violence, the emotional toll and the long absences, and spoke to her once or twice about easing off. “But it was pointless,” he says.
“Even now, asylum seekers come to the house, and she writes letters and helps in every way she can. She gets too involved in other people’s problems sometimes . . . You can’t help wish she would look after herself.”
He says D’Arcy managed to give up smoking only recently, and he is concerned that her time in Limerick Prison will cause her to take it up again.
It is Arden who now tries to orchestrate the number of people wishing to visit her in prison. He also passes on good wishes in the six-minute daily phone call she is permitted. D’Arcy’s many visitors must go through a rigorous security system: photographic ID, pat down, mouth check, sniffer dog and X-ray machine. No pens or phones are permitted, and visitors are not allowed to wear scarves. A member of the prison staff sits in on the conversation.
D’Arcy cheerfully says that some of the women she has befriended think she is bonkers for not signing the simple piece of paper that will get her out of there. But, a fortnight in, she has no intention of doing so. Instead she is organising. “Busy,” she says brightly when asked how her days pass.
She has asked Lelia Doolan, the film producer and a longstanding friend, to persuade the bookshops in Galway to donate books for the prison library. She laughs a lot and sometimes talks about her situation as if it is a bit of a lark. She says the food in Limerick Prison is wonderful, as is her cellmate, a Hungarian woman who sings opera. D’Arcy herself is using her prison time to improve her tin whistle-playing. A musical collaboration between the cellmates would seem inevitable.
“She’s indomitable, really,” Doolan says. “People sometimes think of Margaretta as a person without a sense of humour, but if you read her memoir you see the absolute hilarity with which she views life, while at the same time being very serious about it.”
Her on-off treatment for cancer appears not to have slowed her down. Even the death of her husband, in 2012, did not dissuade her from the vigils at Shannon. “She brought a lot of experience in activism and obstinacy too,” says Lannon of her role in the vigils that are held near the airport once a month. “A real determination. Some days we would have five people, some days 50, but Margaretta would normally be there.”
Her husband often accompanied her, sitting in a wheelchair in his latter years. “If he were here he would be giving out to me about all the things he has been left to do while I am in this place,” she says with a laugh. “But he would absolutely support me in this.”
She admits to being pleased by the attention her imprisonment has generated and by the fact that it has highlighted the quiet, stubborn presence of the Shannon activists. If that leaves her open to the accusation that this is all a publicity stunt, then so be it.
“She absolutely is doing it for publicity,” says Doolan. “And that publicity is about trying to stop warlike events happening on our land when we profess to be neutral. What she is doing from jail is a very classical thing: she is ensuring that the struggle for peaceful means goes on, and she is trying to engage as many people as possible.”