‘Labour man’ and father of punk pop star


Jim Sharkey, who has died in his 100th year, was known in his home city of Derry as a “labour man”. He spent much of his life working for an economically just society.

He opposed sectarianism and cherished the vision of working-class people coming together .

In the 1960s he was a leading figure in the Derry Labour Party, one of the bodies which organised the city’s civil rights march on October 5th, 1968. Police viciously attacked the march, an attack that was broadcast on British television news on the same day. The publicity was to propel civil rights into a mass movement.

Sharkey was subsequently active in the Civil Rights Association. In his working life he was an electrician, an active member of the Electrical Trade Union (ETU), and for years an officer of its Derry branch.

Before the Derry Labour Party was re-established in the 1960s, he had been involved in several ephemeral groups that came together to stand independent labour candidates for the old Stormont parliament.

He was an old-style “labour man”, middle-aged by the ’60s and attending meetings in jacket, shirt and tie, a sartorial style that marked him out from the youthful radicals who flocked into Derry Labour in the late 60s.

Nevertheless, the younger members warmed to his sense of humour and strong principles.

James Joseph Sharkey was born in 1914 in Rossville Street, the main artery of Derry’s Catholic quarter, the youngest of six children to James Sharkey, a carter, and his wife Bridget (née Doherty), a seamstress. His father died when he was only a few months and his widowed mother opened a small shop in the house.

He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ Technical school, known as “The Brow of the Hill”. During the second World War, he served in the Irish Army.

Politics and trade unionism were only part of his life. He had a passion for music. His wife, Sibeal, shared that passion, and they passed it on, particularly to their son Fearghal, who became lead singer of seminal punk band The Undertones.

Sharkey had an adventurous spirit. In the late 60s, he took his family on camping trips to France and Spain, uncommon at the time.

Eventually he and his wife moved to Fuengirola, where he became unofficial sacristan of the local Catholic Church. After his wife’s death he stayed on, until the family persuaded him to return home.

He is survived by his daughters Ursula and Bridgín: sons Jimmy, Michael, Fearghal and Diarmuid: and by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, Sibeal, and daughter Patricia.