Madge Davison was a prominent communist, active in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and other groups as a highly capable organiser, and latterly an admired barrister of promise.
She came from north Belfast, from Pittsburgh Street off the Shore Road, and brought up almost entirely by her mother, as her father spent a lot of time in England earning to support the family, who were of Presbyterian background and Labour-leaning; Davison once described herself as a “communist Presbyterian”. She attended Graymount school (now amalgamated into Castle High School) where she was deputy head girl. Already when sixteen, still at school, she joined the Communist Youth League. It was said of her that she was motivated less by theory – she knew little Irish history and probably had never read any Marx – than by the fact that she “knew the limitations in the life opportunities and choices of the working class.” She very much preferred action.
Madge Davison was an active member of the Communist Youth League, whether protesting or taking part in international communist meetings. On 18 May 1968, during the Lord Mayor’s Show in Belfast, as a contingent of the crew of the United States warship Keppler paraded by the City Hall, a number of demonstrators including Davison, in protest at the US rôle in the Vietnam War, attempted a kind of sit-down roadblock, though as can be seen from press photographs, the sailors simply stepped over them. Also in 1968 she was a participant in the 9th World Festival of Youth and Students is an international event, organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth, a left-wing youth organisation. These events were generally held in Communist countries – in 1968 in Sofia, Bulgaria – and drew thousands of participants from all over the world, on this occasion some 20,000 from nearly 140 countries, the motto of the Festival being "For Solidarity, Peace and Friendship". This solidarity did not extend to Davison’s sartorial taste; apparently less liberated Bulgarian women delegates scorned her Western miniskirts.
Davison left school at age seventeen and took a job in a flax mill in west Belfast, though also took courses in secretarial skills. In 1970, by which time the Northern Ireland Troubles had flared up, the Army placed a curfew on more or less the entire lower Falls Road area, to enable them to search the area thoroughly for arms. Many arms were recovered, but there were strong and violent local protests; several people were killed. Davison was involved in a march by a large group of women to protest at the curfew (officially deemed a “movement restriction”). Soon after, Davison joined the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which had been founded in 1967. She worked for this body for a number of years as a full-time organiser. In the words of the Communist Party of Ireland’s tribute to her, she “helped to drive the well-oiled machine of the NICRA, organising meetings, rallies, leafleting, paper sales, and street committees.”
Also in 1970, the Communist Youth League, a Northern Ireland based organisation (Davison was on its Executive Committee) joined forces with the southern Irish organisation, the Connolly Youth Movement, and became its first general secretary. In 1972 she was present in the city of Derry on 30th January, “Bloody Sunday”, when soldiers fired on a Civil Rights march, killing 13 people. She helped to organise subsequent protest marches.
In 1973, she was one of the organisers of an Irish group to attend the 10th World Festival of Youth and Students, held in (East) Berlin, German Democratic Republic. Her all-Ireland delegation numbered 114, drawn from a variety of organisations such as the Connolly Youth Movement, the Republican Movement, the Union of Students in Ireland, the Young Liberals, the National Federation of Youth Clubs, the Irish Union of School Students, St. Gabriel’s Youth Club, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, the Northern Ireland Transport and General Workers’ Union and the Dublin-based Automobile General Engineering and Mechanical Operating Union.
As a reflection of the inspiration the Northern Ireland Association drew from the Civil Rights campaigns in the United States, Davison lent her support to Angela Davis, the prominent American communist, campaigner and academic, who had been put on trial in California accused of complicity in the killing of a judge; Davison wrote personally to Ronald Reagan, then State Governor. She invited Davis to Ireland; sadly, it was not until after Davison’s death that Davis was able to make the trip. Angela Davis was also a woman’s rights campaigner, as was Davison. Davison taught law in the Falls Road Women’s Centre, was an adviser to the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast, and was a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement.
After the NICRA was wound up, Davison ensured that plenty of documentation about it was deposited in the extensive Political Collection of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. She then went to Queen’s University to read for a law degree which she obtained with first class honours in 1984, being subsequently called to the Bar. She was one of the first members of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, contributing contributed a chapter to an early CAJ Handbook on Civil Liberties on Family and Sexual Matters and also taught in the Queen’s University Law Faculty, sometimes deputising for one of its senior members, David Trimble, later Nobel Laureate for Peace. In 1990 she accepted a post with the Fair Employment Commission.
Davison was a keen gardener (though confined to her apartment balcony, she planned to buy a house with a garden), was an enthusiastic cook and once demurred from a boycott of a well-known supermarket chain on the grounds that their chicken tikka masala dish was second to none.
Madge Davison was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1991, leaving her husband, whom she had met at one of the annual Wolfe Tone commemorations at Bodenstown, County Kildare, and two sons. At Queen’s University, Belfast the Madge Davison Prize was founded in 1992 in her memory, as a former member of staff of the Faculty of Law. The funds were subscribed by some of her friends and colleagues. The Prize is awarded annually to the student registered in the University who has, in the opinion of the examiners, attained the highest mark in the assessment in Welfare Law.
It was said of her, soon after her death: “...although Madge Davison was but 41 years of age, she was a woman for all seasons, for all situations, and not for her own generation alone, but also for the one that preceded her.”
||13 June 1949
||27 January 1991