Unrelenting optimist who was committed to socialism


NORA HARKIN:NORA HARKIN, who has died in her 102nd year, was an avowed socialist, unshakable optimist and energetic social activist whose diverse interests ranged from the arts to politics, to campaigning against apartheid and for the right to family planning.

She was a close companion of the late novelist and republican Peadar O’Donnell and was born “of good mountainy stock” in his county of Donegal. Those who could not farm or fish or both were forced to emigrate and her father, Mick McGinley, had spent time in New Zealand as a young man. While en route by ship to the Pacific, he penned Glenswilly – a ballad which became very popular among emigrants and which was sung at Harkin’s funeral.

McGinley returned to a small farm in Breenagh, Glenswilly, but then sold up with his wife Bridget and leased a pub in Strabane. He was a Parnellite, and writer of short stories, but found it hard to accept a 26-county Republic, as did many. Harkin recalled receiving a slap from a “Free Stater” at the door of a meeting in Ballybofey – a blow so forceful it left finger marks on her face.

Her first direct experience of politics was as a teenager, when she helped to address campaign envelopes for the republican candidate in a 1924 byelection. In such a civil war atmosphere, “blows were exchanged, blood was let, feelings were very high,” she later recalled.

Harkin left Donegal aged 21 to take up a temporary post with the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes in Dublin and it was there she made lifelong friends, such as the late Bobby Edwards, and sculptor Oliver Sheppard. Other contemporaries included Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and Éamon de Valera’s goddaughter, Cora Hughes.

She was at a céilí in Dublin’s Mansion House when she met Charlie Harkin, a Tyrone man who had returned from the USA in 1932. He was involved in the IRA but left it in 1934 with his friend, Peadar O’Donnell, to establish the Republican Congress, supported by fellow activists Frank Ryan and George Gilmore.

Harkin spoke later of how Charlie was not a violent man and how, when his IRA commanding officer had given him a gun with an order to kill someone, he had buried the weapon under a bush in Mountjoy Square and spent the afternoon in the cinema.

When civil war broke out in Spain, Nora Harkin became active in the Spanish Aid committee and sang for Frank Ryan the night before he left Ireland. “I happened to look out into the dark,”she said of that occasion. “There he [Ryan] was, with a light shining on him and a tear on his cheek. I never saw him again.”

She also spoke later of witnessing young men leave, some never to return, and how one of the largest church-gate collections here since the time of the “Liberator”, Daniel O’Connell, was held in aid of Franco.

She and Charlie were married on the eve of the second World War. They had three children: Michael, Niall and Fiona, who died in infancy in 1943. Nora Harkin was active outside the home, acting in the Peacock theatre, singing on Raidió Éireann, working for the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and for the Irish Family Planning Association.

In 1966, she helped to form the Ireland-USSR Society with Frank and Bobby Edwards and trade unionist John Swift among others. She made a number of trips to the Soviet Union with Angela McQuillan, the society’s Russian-speaking honorary secretary. Her sons recall growing up under the gaze of portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and “Uncle Joe” Stalin.

On her 80th birthday, the USSR expressed its appreciation with a presentation to her by then ambassador to Ireland Gennadi Uranov. The grouping opted to retain its contacts with 15 newly independent republics, on the break-up of the USSR, when it transformed into the Irish International Friendship Society in 1992.

Charlie died in 1979. And in 1980 the couple’s good friend Peadar O’Donnell moved in to Nora Harkin’s gate lodge home in Monkstown for the last six years of his life. She had first met him when, at the age of 14, she cycled 13 miles with a letter for him from her father about an eviction.

Though almost blind and suffering from cancer, O’Donnell continued to write and to give interviews. Among the many visitors to the gate lodge were Seán MacBride, Seamus Heaney and Vietnam’s ambassador to London.

Harkin empathised with young people, and continued to make new friends, among them poet Theo Dorgan. An excerpt from a poem he wrote in her memory and recited at her funeral reads:

The child carrying despatches became the woman we knew

And loved, clear-eyed and sure that what matters is love –

Of family, friends and comrades, our common truth.

And yes of course she was remarkable, Nora Harkin,

Though she’d be surprised to hear us say so; her message

Was always herself, her life exemplary. Our loss is grievous . . .

She is survived by her sons Michael and Niall, grandsons Niall, Miki and Damien, seven great-grandchildren and one great, great grandchild.

Nora Harkin: born, September 15th, 1910; died, June 7th, 2012.