Call for Dunnes strikers to attend Mandela funeral

‘We were determined we were not going back to work if we had to handle South African goods’

  Cathryn O’Reilly, from Finglas, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers, presenting Nelson Mandela  with a  Robert Ballagh print calling  for the release of the Birmingham Six  in 1990.  Photograph: Frank Miller

Cathryn O’Reilly, from Finglas, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers, presenting Nelson Mandela with a Robert Ballagh print calling for the release of the Birmingham Six in 1990. Photograph: Frank Miller

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 07:31

The former Dunnes Stores worker whose refusal to handle South African grapefruit sparked a strike and the banning of South African goods in Ireland says she and her fellow strikers would “love” to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

“It would be a lovely way to say ‘goodbye’,” says Mary Manning amid calls for them to form part of Ireland’s official representation at next week’s funeral services in South Africa.

Manning, who was 21 at the time, says her stance and that of her 10 colleagues, was “at the end of the day about achieving what Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa were fighting for”.

Now an office worker in Lucan, Co Dublin, she remembers the Thursday morning, July 19th, 1984, when she and two colleagues, Karen Gearon (then 20 and the shop-steward) and Alma Russell (then 18), were on the checkouts at the Henry Street branch.

“There was a union instruction that we weren’t to handle South African goods. We actually had to go around the shop two days before to see what were South African goods.

“I remember the woman coming toward the tills with the grapefruit in her basket and we were all looking at each other wondering which till she’d pick. She came to me. I told her it was a union instruction and I couldn’t handle the grapefruit. She was happy to leave them back, but a manageress was watching and I was taken off the till and suspended.”

‘Walked out’

Russell remembers she and Gearon “turned off our registers and walked out with Mary to go up to the union”. On the way out, they met colleague Liz Deasy (then 16), coming into work.

“It was my first job,” says Deasy. “It was the ’80s and I was lucky to have a job, but my father was very strong on unions. In our house you knew if there was a picket you did not cross it. So when they told me there would be a picket on the shop I just said, ‘Well I’m coming with you’.”

None knew what they were getting into. “It was a gorgeous sunny day,” recalls Deasy. “I thought, ‘This is great. I hope it lasts to the end of the weekend’.”

The picket would be there, on the shop’s three entrances, manned by 11 young women from the inner city, for two years and nine months. They took pay cuts, from about £90 a week when they had been working, to a strike pay of £21 and later £23 a week.

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