Joyce McCartan (1929 - 1996):
Joyce McCartan was a woman with a simple message: a genuine understanding by people of what divides them can be used to bring them closer together, especially in the context of Northern Ireland. To this end she encouraged contact between diverse groups and individuals, most usually in the informal atmosphere of chats over a cup of tea. To many she earned well the sobriquet, "tea-pot heroine". She also specifically emphasised the importance - actual and potential - of women in this and other spheres of community life.
McCartan, born Joyce Buchanan, came from Banbridge, in the middle of County Down, the only daughter of four children whose mother died when Joyce was just seven years old, presenting her with family responsibilities from a young age. She left school at 14 to work at a clothmaker's in the nearby village of Seaforde; at 16 she moved to Belfast to similar employment. She, a Protestant, married a Catholic and they set up home off the Ormeau Road, at the northern end of this north-south thoroughfare near the city centre. Though little emphasised at the time, if at all, this area came to be known as the "Lower Ormeau" (the Ormeau Road is bisected by the River Lagan) and was to witness much communal strife in later years including many killings and other violence.
McCartan became involved in community (as opposed to party) politics through her experiences in bringing up her own family (of eight children). Her issues were of local concern to local people, not the government and the Constitution; she took part in a street protest about school milk provision, and campaigned rigorously for lower bus fares for children; she helped organise advice centres and children's day care facilities run by women, concentrating on issues especially important for women, describing herself as a "family feminist". She was an early participant in the Women's Information Group but soon moved to set up a distinctly local group, which came to be named the Women's Information Drop-In Centre. The onset of the Troubles, with the linked problems of worsening socio-economic decline, at least propelled McCartan and her collaborators into spreading the scope of their community activities (which they to a large extent funded themselves through numerous fundraising activities) to include homework classes for local children, converting a derelict chip shop to become the Lamplighter Fish and Chip Restaurant, where people were encouraged to drop in and which provided employment to local people and a youth training operation, Mornington Enterprises, was created to provide local teenagers with the opportunity to learn various essential and useful skills; it still flourishes in the second decade of the 21st century.
The violence was continuous. McCartan lost 17 members of her wider family, including in May 1987, her youngest son, Gary, who at age seventeen was murdered in the family home by Loyalist paramilitaries. McCartan herself heard the shots. This deep personal tragedy did not deflect her from her numerous community activities, which were recognised by honours and distinctions such as being named Irish Pensioner of the Year in 1991; the award of the MBE in 1992; and an honorary doctorate from Queen's University, Belfast in 1995.
In November 1995, McCartan, the Drop-In Centre in its Lamplighter Cafe were in the world's spotlight. President Bill Clinton of the United States became the first serving President to visit Northern Ireland, and as he was following his historic and politically highly significant itinerary, Hillary Clinton, the First Lady, followed hers, followed of course by a large international press team, became the most widely-publicised, and perhaps highest ranking person, to drop in at the Lamplighter for tea, over which she chatted with a group of women of varying backgrounds. After their chat with tea, as Hillary Clinton later described, McCartan "gave me an old battered aluminium teapot - which kept the tea very warm, which is what I first noticed about it - that I took with me to the White House where I used it every single day in the second floor private kitchen."
Not long afterwards, Joyce McCartan fell ill; she died early in 1996. At her funeral, the officiating priest led tributes which were sent from all over the world, reminding the mourners that the murder of her son had only galvanised into her even wider action, especially with regard to Protestant-Catholic relations. Others recalled her rushing round the Lower Ormeau, busy with her selfless schedule of visiting the bereaved and encouraging women to use their influence on men of violence to stop their activities, always seeking to bring women together to talk and meet together and "become the friends she knew they could be".
Mrs Clinton brought the teapot back to Northern Ireland when in 1997 she delivered the inaugural Joyce McCartan Memorial Lecture at the University of Ulster. In an eloquent and heartfelt personal tribute, during which she displayed the very same teapot, a symbol of McCartan's basic grassroots method of approaching the considerable community problems she sought to tackle, Mrs Clinton praised McCartan's courage, compassion and commitment, her "brilliant" notion of the "family feminist" and lauded her as one of "those who take risks for peace".
|Born:||26 November 1929|
|Died:||8 January 1996|
© 2018 Ulster History Circle