An Phoblacht

Maggie Doherty


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It was the strangest hug that I could recall. Maggie's frail, yet firm, hands clasped my shoulders tightly. It was more like a hug you'd give greeting a long lost friend rather than a going away hug, I thought to myself.

But as it turned out, it was a going away hug like no other.

Maggie looked up at my face with eyes that had lost the magic of sight some years before. "This is my last year Jim," she said. "I'll probably not be here next Christmas."

"Yes you will, Maggie, You always say that," I rushed in. "You'll be here next year."

But she won't be. Maggie Doherty died in her 86th year a few weeks ago.

And with her passing we lost another republican from a fast dwindling generation who was born in a united Ireland under British occupation, experienced the awfulness of partition, and spent her entire life struggling for Irish independence.

Maggie was born on Belfast's Beersbridge Road, a staunchly loyalist part of East Belfast, in 1919. Her maiden name was Smith but her birth certificate showed Maggie Hamill-Smith a peculiarity from the time.

She got great mileage out of the double-barrelled name in her family, proof, she would say, of her status as a 'lady'.

But it isn't the double-barrelled name that made Maggie a 'lady' and she'll be raging at me for using this term seriously; it was everything about her that made those who came in contact with her feel that here was a special woman.

However, to understand what made Maggie 'Doc', as we called her, the woman she was, you have to see her alongside, or as part of the unit known as 'Johnny and Maggie' or 'Maggie and Johnny'.

Maggie arrived in the Short Strand a year after her birth, fleeing the 1920 pogrom against Belfast's Catholics. Her family were driven from their home and they sought refuge in the Strand.

Partition was slowly becoming a reality and its most violent form was being acted out on the streets of Belfast, where Catholics were being shot dead in their homes or at work or being burnt out of their homes by loyalists and the array of state forces, the RUC, 'B' and 'C' Specials.

The Short Strand, or to Maggie's generation Ballymacarret, took a fair share of the burden of state-sponsored violence which heralded the setting up of the Six-County state.

Unknown to her as an infant, the seeds of a conflict were sewn which would dominate the rest of her life as a single girl and a married woman.

'Safe houses', as any republican in the country will tell you, are the backbone of a secret army. They are indispensable; nothing can be done without them.

Maggie's family kept one as she was growing up and when it came time for Maggie to branch out on her own and raise her own family, Maggie also kept a 'safe house'.

In fact, she met her husband to be, Johnny, in her family's safe house before he was arrested and put into the Crumlin Road Jail in the '40s.

She visited Johnny while he was in jail and after his release they were married.

These were the pre and post Second World War years. The IRA was light on the ground and support for them was even lighter.

The unionist leaders of the Six-County state were at their most arrogant and certain in terms of their state's political and military future.

To the IRA and to republicans like Maggie and Johnny, the state must have looked unshakeable.

However it looked, it didn't stop them from actively pursuing Irish independence.

They knew exactly the threat to them and their family that opposition to the state and support for the IRA would bring to their door.

But they faced it. They risked going to prison, their home being raided and steady employment unlikely because of Johnny's prison record.

They did all of this while starting out life with a new family.

The Dohertys were part of a small group of Belfast families who kept the republican flame lit in the '30s, '40s and '50s, until our generation came along in the late '60s.

And by that stage, the Doherty's were moving into their middle years, hardly a time in life to be actively involved in rebellion.

But they were. And they paid a near fatal price in the early 1970s, when loyalists arrived at their door and shot Johnny.

He recovered and the Dohertys carried on as before.

Internment without trial saw dozens of republicans from the district imprisoned. The IRA were experiencing heavy losses, with local Volunteers being killed on active service and many others arrested and going to jail.

The Short Strand was an open armed camp, with the British Army running the district and regulating the population's lives according to their military needs.

But the burden Maggie and Johnny carried in the lean years of being one of the few safe houses in the district had changed.

There were safe houses all over the place and in great abundance.

However, other pressures entered their lives when their son John was interned. His early death from natural causes some years after he was released weighed heavily on Johnny and Maggie. And in the late '70s, another son ended up on the blanket protest in the H-Blocks.

Prison visits were now added to Maggie's long list of republican things to do.

And she didn't limit herself to visiting her family; she visited other prisoners, especially from the district.

In fact, Maggie took on another role of helping the prisoners and their families. She collected for Green Cross, made food parcels for those in need and made sure at Christmas time every prisoner from the area received a Christmas card.

It didn't matter where you were in jail, either in England, in the South or the many prisons in the North; if you were from the district, you were on Maggie's list.

Invariably, Maggie's card was the first to land in your cell at Christmas time and that's how it was from when the first prisoner went into jail until the last one got out, over 25 years.

Maggie knew the importance of a card for the prisoners. 'It was the thought that counted,' she would say. It was indeed, Maggie, and thank you for them.

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