Mairead Corrigan


by Keystone Press Agency Ltd, vintage print, 1970s

Mairead Corrigan (January 27, 1944 – ), also known as Mairead Corrigan-Maguire, was the co-founder, with Betty Williams, of the Community of Peace People, an organization which attempts to encourage a peaceful resolution of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Peace People consisted of women from both sides of the Northern Ireland religious divide who were unwilling to lose more children, husbands, or brothers in the continued violence. Corrigan and Williams believe that women’s “soul-force” has a special role to play in peace making around the world. Corrigan had no political experience when she and Williams started to organize their demonstrations and gather support for their non-violent peace initiative. Most of the women who joined the movement were mothers and home-makers.

After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Corrigan gained recognition as a promoter of peace and justice that has inspired other ordinary citizens to use civil society as a platform to say “enough is enough.” As well as campaigning for peace around the world since she received the Nobel Peace Prize, Corrigan committed herself to working for the ecological health of the planet. She was particularly motivated to work for peace because she saw that it was the men who turned to violence who were seen as heroes in her community. “I think,” she said, “one of the things the peace movement has to do is to persuade the members of the different paramilitary organizations that there is a way other than pistols and rifles. Aware that violence could beget only additional violence, The Peace People seek the answer to this seemingly endless downward spiral.”

Biography

Corrigan was born into a Roman Catholic family in Belfast, Ireland, the second child of seven. She attended Catholic schools until the age of 14, then found a job as a secretary. Almost every aspect of life was overshadowed by the violence in Ireland and by the divide between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Physical barricades had been constructed by the British forces to help prevent “trouble.” Since its establishment as a self-governing province within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had been dominated politically and economically by its Protestant majority. The electoral system was rigged to prevent Catholics from gaining many seats. Employment, social housing, and entry into the civil service and the police all favored Protestants. In the late 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, future Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume and others led a non-violent civil rights movement in the province. Others, however, turned to violence, supporting such organizations as the Irish Republican Army.

She had been beaten by police for speaking up, Corrigan recalled, “when she saw British soldiers searching young girls.” On another occasion, a republican funeral was interrupted when soldiers threw tear-gas through the Church window (Buscher and Ling: 35). Máiread, a devout Catholic, was a volunteer with the Legion of Mary. She helped Catholics whose homes were torched by Loyalists. She was convinced that Jesus was non-violent, and that as a good Christian she should love, not hate, her enemies. Friends criticized her for her pacifism, saying it was the easy way out.

Corrigan became active with the peace movement after three children of her sister, Anne Maguire, were run over and killed by a car driven by Danny Lennon, an IRA man who was fatally shot by British troops while trying to make a getaway. Anne Maguire later committed suicide.

Betty Williams, a baptized Roman Catholic, despite a Protestant father and a Protestant husband, had witnessed the event, and soon after, the two co-founded Women for Peace, which later became the Community for Peace People.

The peace movement

Within two days of the tragic event, she had obtained 6,000 signatures on a petition for peace and gained media attention. Together with Mairead Corrigan, Anne Maguire’s sister, she co-founded the Women for Peace which later, with co-founder Ciaran McKeown, became The Community for Peace People.

The two organized a peace march to the graves of the children, which was attended by 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women—the peaceful march was disrupted by members of the Irish Republican Army, who accused them of being “dupes of the British.” The following week, Williams and Corrigan again led a march—this time with 35,000 participants. By the end of the month, Williams and Corrigan brought 35,000 people to the streets of Belfast, petitioning for peace between the republican and loyalist factions. She believed the most effective way to end the violence was not through more violence, but re-education.

On August 13, the day of the Maguire children’s funeral, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan were to appear with journalist Ciaran McKeown, on a current affairs television program, and although they arrived too late, they met McKeown, who joined the two women in founding the Peace People. McKeown wrote the original Declaration and organized the rally supporting it.

The first demonstration, on August 14, 1976, attracted 10,000 people, mostly women. Protestant participants (each group carried the name of their neighborhood on placards) encountered jostles and angry shouts from some Irish Republican Army supporters in the crowd, shouting, “Brits Out! Provos Rule.” But when the Catholic and Protestant groups met, they embraced while other protesters successfully drove off the IRA activists. Catholics later escorted Protestants back to their buses, to ensure “there was no more trouble from the … IRA.” Other successful demonstrations followed, with Catholics and Protestants crossing boundaries into each other’s zones, something that people did not do lightly. At one rally, the Protestant leader of Women Together, Sadie Paterson, sang a hymn, churches rang their bells and “people wept tears of joy.” With more signatures, more rallies, including Trafalgar Square in London, and their Peace Declaration, the movement generated a ground swell of anti-violence sentiment.

Despite criticism that the Peace People concentrated entirely on republican violence and ignored loyalist and state violence by the British security forces, Williams and Corrigan and their women’s movement are credited with helping to create the climate that eventually resulted in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and in the subsequent peace process. The peace process in the province gained momentum as members of the para-military organizations themselves became disgusted with their own violence, and decided to support the political process instead (Collins and McGovern, 1997).

She received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Betty Williams, in 1977 (the prize for 1976), for their efforts. They were criticized for deciding to keep the prize money for themselves. They had intended to donate the money to their movement, but due to the strain in her personal live caused by her involvement in the peace campaign, Williams initially decided to keep the money. Corrigan then decided to do the same, since if she donated her half to the movement, this would “make Betty look bad.” Both women, however, ceased to draw a salary from the organization, but by 1980, they had both resigned. The Peace People continue to “coordinate summer camps in Ireland and Europe to bring Protestant and Catholic children together” and maintain a “lobbying effort through a petition for peace, their Citizen’s Campaign and Campaign for a Gun Free Northern Irleand.”

After the prize

In 1981, she married Jackie Maguire, who was the widower of her late sister, Anne. She has three stepchildren and two of her own, John and Luke.

In 1990, Corrigan was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for “Peace on Earth.”

She is a member of the Honorary board of the International Coalition for the Decade of the culture of Peace and Nonviolence.

In 2004, she went to Israel and welcomed Mordechai Vanunu upon his release from prison, where he had served an 18-year sentence for disclosing Israel’s nuclear secrets.

She is a member of the pro-life group, Consistent Life, which is against abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia.

In April 2007, while participating in a protest against the construction of the West Bank barrier outside the Palestinian village of Bil’in, Israeli, security forces intervened and Ms. Corrigan was hit by a rubber-coated steel bullet and inhaled tear gas. Although not lethal, she required medical attention.

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