IT is my great privilege to have met many fine women and men over the years. The Léargas series of books is a record of some of these I came to know or to know of along life’s journey. It is very personal to me.
This week I published the latest of these. The seventh book in the series is titled; ‘Kathleen Thompson – Up The Republic, She Raised The Battle Cry’. It is a tribute to my good friend Kathleen Thompson and it includes a limited edition of one of her most popular CDs – Legion of the Rearguard.
Kathleen is for many of my generation the voice we most associate with the republican songs of the 1970s. With the intensity of politics and conflict in the North there were many groups and solo artists singing rebel songs.
The Flying Column was among the most popular at that time. Kathleen was one of our foremost ballad singers. Along with her husband Eamonn Largey they were the voices of The Flying Column. The group’s first LP was released in 1970. It was entitled ‘Folk Music in Ireland’. It includes well known republican songs like Tom Williams, Henry Joy, James Connolly and Banna Strand. The group’s name was a tribute to the flying columns of the IRA during the Tan War between 1919 and 1921.
The Flying Column’s rendering of patriotic songs like Boolavogue, Four Green Fields and Legion of the Rearguard stirred audiences. These and the newer songs of struggle reflected the changing reality of life and conflict in those years and were hugely popular.
Kathleen was not just a fabulous singer. She was also a committed republican activist. She understood that her music could move audiences and remind them of the importance of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom. Kathleen was a member of Cumann na mBan, the Green Cross and the National Graves. She was a strong supporter of the political prisoners and their families.
I first met her in 1972. I was on the run and my good friend Dickie Glenholmes, who was himself on the run, gave me the address of a small kitchen house in John Street to stay in. Dickie told me the couple in the house were very sound and the house itself was very safe. He promised it contained a bed for me. He was right. When I knocked the door of 15 John Street Kathleen Largey greeted me with a big smile. Like many others I had known of her for years before that, not personally, but as a singer. She made me very welcome in her home. So did her husband Eamonn.
Life on the run in Belfast was a dangerous and lonely existence, not just for the person involved but especially for their families. Kathleen understood this instinctively. Almost the first question she asked me was, was I married? I was, I told her. “Well, get your wife to come and see you,” she told me.
“The two of you can stay here. No-one will bother you.”
Kathleen and Eamonn had one daughter, Áine, a chubby-cheeked, dark-haired, cheerful little toddler. Kathleen was pregnant. So was Colette. Gearóid our son arrived in his own time. So did Máire, Kathleen and Eamonn’s other daughter. She was called after Máire Drumm, a good friend of Kathleen and Eamonn’s. Gearóid’s second name is Eamonn, after Eamonn Largey. Kathleen was his Godmother.
Every night I stayed in 15 John Street Kate made sure I had a glass of orange and a bar of chocolate before going to bed. That became our routine for as long as we stayed with Kate. Eamonn made sure that Colette got the same when she was there. Their home became our home. Eamonn was tragically killed in a road accident in July 1973. We were all devastated. Despite this huge personal loss, Kathleen continued to make records and perform at events for Green Cross and the National Graves, as well as the Republican Prisoners’ Welfare.
Famously, after Long Kesh was burned down in October 1974 she and other women emptied the contents of a friend’s clothes shop – McNulty’s – on the corner of Castle Street and transported them up to the jail.
It was through this work on behalf of the political prisoners that Kathleen met Harry Thompson. Harry was a republican activist and proud son of Ballymacarrett in East Belfast. In 1973 he was among those who founded the Green Cross, a wonderful organisation which did sterling work for the dependents of republican prisoners. In 1974 Harry was interned and joined us in Long Kesh. Back out again, he continued to work for the prisoners. He and Kathleen became close.
In 1975 Kathleen released ‘The Price of Justice’. All of the proceeds raised by that very successful LP went to the wives, children and dependents of the political prisoners. Its front cover carried the stark image of two political prisoners who had been beaten mercilessly by British soldiers during the burning of Long Kesh the previous year. Three years later she released ‘Legion of the Rearguard’.
However by then she was very ill. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1975. In June 1976 Harry and Kathleen were married. By this stage she had already undergone surgery. Kathleen refused to acquiesce to her illness and continued with a hectic schedule of prisoner’s welfare work. On February 9 1979 Kathleen died.
Kathleen was one of the most giving people I know. She gave freely of her talents and her time for the Irish cause. She stood up for herself and for us all. All these years later I still miss her. Ireland and her family lost a bright shining star when she left us. Go ndeanfaidh Dia trocaire uirthi. Many thanks to everyone who shared their memories of Kathleen with us and special thanks to Richard McAuley for his input.
‘Kathleen Thompson – Up The Republic, She Raised The Battle Cry’ is dedicated to Kathleen’s daughters and grandchildren. It is available from sales@sinnfein and on FaceBook at An Fhuiseog/The Lark.
Scourge of period poverty
ABOUT two years ago while I was still a TD and working in Leinster House, several women comrades placed a large cardboard box in the hall outside the lifts on our floor.
It was an appeal for other comrades to make contributions toward a campaign to help provide sanitary products for women suffering from period poverty. It was not an issue I had been aware of, but in the two years since then increasing attention has been given to this important issue.
Essentially, period poverty and period shame occur when girls and women do not have the money needed to buy the sanitary products they require for their health care. A discussion paper was published several weeks ago in Dublin by the Period Poverty Sub-Committee of the National Strategy for Women and Girls Strategy Committee. The report estimated that up to 85,000 women in the South are at risk of period poverty and that this affects young people, girls and women who are disadvantaged, and those experiencing homelessness or addiction.
The report defines period poverty as “inadequate access to menstrual hygiene, including period products (e.g. sanitary towels and tampons), washing and waste management facilities and education. Adverse consequences include recurrent exclusion from activities of daily life during menstruation and health impacts resulting from exclusion and use of unsuitable period products.”
In February, New Zealand announced that it will distribute free sanitary products in schools. Its Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, said that research revealed that one in 12 young women skip school because of period poverty. The Prime Minister said: “Young people should not miss out on their education because of something that is a normal part of life for half the population.”
The Southern state is the only EU member state that applies a zero rating to tampons and sanitary towels and there have been some trials by local councils to provide free period products. In December the Executive took the decision to make period products freely available in schools in the North. This was an disadvantage. It has significant consequences for women in employment, and in their physical and mental health.
Making period products freely available in all public buildings across the island makes sense.
Mo Mowlam helped the Belfast Hills
A SMALL postscript to my column last week on the Belfast Hills and the effort to persuade the British government to hand over the land held by the British military for public use.
Apart from letters to NIO Minister Adam Ingram, I used to meet Mo Mowlam regularly at Hillsborough Castle.
We would walk, often on a Sunday, in the grounds there. She told me she hoped to open the gardens up to the public some day. Thankfully she succeeded. We also discussed ways of making the Belfast Hills a parkland. It was on one of our Sunday outings that she undertook to find a way to do this. Eventually she came back with a suggestion about the National Trust. Incidentally I also walked in the Hillsborough Gardens on many a Sunday with Peter Mandelson, another of our many British Secretaries of State. Others I declined to give up my Sundays for. On one of our danders I persuaded Peter Mandelson to get a dog. He actually got two. But that’s another story.
Anyway, Ms Mowlam was true to her promise. Our ramblings around Hillsborough paid off. After two years of intense lobbying it was announced in September 2003 that the National Trust had been successful in buying Divis Mountain with the support of the Heritage Lottery Commission and the Environmental Heritage Service.
The Trust outlined its plans to open up access on the mountain for the people of Belfast to enjoy. So well done to all who helped make this happen. We Belfast Hills walkers have a lot to be thankful to Terry Enright and all the other mountainy men and women for.