‘The North is as sectarian as ever’: Derry’s woman civil rights activists reflect

A project highlighting the role of the women in the movement is in line for Turner Prize

On display in a Kent gallery are 20 papier-mache effigies, the voices of Syrian former prisoners, and Derry women who marched for civil rights.

All are among this year's nominees for the Turner Prize, one of the world's most prestigious art awards, the winner of which will be announced on Tuesday.

"I got a phone call from my cousin who lives in England, " says Ann Donnelly, one of the Derry women. "He said he had gone into a gallery and saw this film set in Derry, 'and then suddenly your ugly mug came up'."

A lifelong trade unionist, Donnelly had been involved in protests over the lack of housing and jobs in Derry even before the watershed moment of the city’s first civil rights march in October 1968.


Now 72, she was one of a number of women interviewed by artist Helen Cammock as part of her film The Long Note, which uses archive footage and modern recollections to examine the involvement of women in the civil rights movement in Derry 50 years ago.

Commissioned by Derry's Void Gallery, the film was exhibited there and in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin, and is now in the Turner Contemporary in Margate alongside the other shortlisted works.

“People ask me what did we achieve” says Donnelly. “In my honest opinion, it’s better slums.”

The slums of the 1960s are much in evidence in Cammock’s film. In the Bogside, children play in the street outside rows of tiny terraces, the houses packed together in the shadow of the city’s walls; nearby, the newly built Rossville Flats tower into the sky.

The Harkin family knew them well. Margo Harkin’s grandmother lived in the flats. Margo’s mother Kathleen, now 93, went to as many civil rights marches as she could.

“It was just something that happened at the time, and we got interested in it,” says Kathleen. “There were a lot of things that were wrong. I hate saying it, but the Catholics didn’t get houses, didn’t have votes, didn’t have the same say.”

“Any march that came up, we wanted to be on it,” says Margo, “because there was this excitement about it as well as the fact that we were fighting for rights. It was just this uprising that you wanted to be part of.”

Bloody Sunday

Both were there on Bloody Sunday. That morning, Kathleen had phoned the Bogside from where the family then lived on the outskirts of Derry, to warn that she had seen “army trucks going in for hours, there seemed to be no end to them.

“I remember ringing . . . and saying the amount of [army] going in today, there’s something serious going to happen, just warn the people.”

When the shooting started, Kathleen took shelter in a house in Chamberlain Street in the Bogside; she watched as Fr Daly, waving his white handkerchief, tried to escort the dying Jackie Duddy to safety.

Margo was with a friend at the head of the march. “I remember the fear, it was the first time I had really felt fear in a crowd, because the stampede was so awful I could actually feel the air being pushed out of my lungs.”

She took shelter in a doorway. Later, they watched from the window of her grandmother’s flat as the soldiers fired below them. “I didn’t believe it. I could see there were people lying there, obviously dead, but it took me a few minutes to actually believe they were firing live rounds, ” she says. “It was shocking.”

Margo later became a film-maker, and made her own film about Bloody Sunday. “I knew that if local people could get a voice and say what happened to them then you might be able to erode the falsehoods that you were witnessing every day about what was going on here.”

Cammock’s brief was similar. As a film-maker, her aim is to magnify “voices that are often written out of histories”, she said last month. Although the film is about the events of 50 years ago, “I’d like the film to talk about today”.

“The civil rights movement was about trying to get fundamental rights and to remove the sectarian state and we’re still as sectarian as we ever were,” says Margo, citing continued segregation in housing and in education.

Yet she also garners confidence from recent changes, not least the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s women’s time, and we’ve a long way to go, there’s still a lot to fight for, but it definitely is women’s time.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times