…but we had this in the ‘80s? / Conversation with Daisy Mules
The final instalment of It’s not for you we did it deals with the broader social and political context within which Derry cultural groups were operating in the 1980s. The following conversation with activist Daisy Mules, which took place on 23 January 2021, describes some of the issues, ideas, methods, and relationships that shaped this period. It touches on emerging ‘intersectional’ understandings, the excitement of the post-hunger strike activist scene, militancy, and the importance of grassroots discussion within the left as a tool for moving radical political agendas forward. It gives a strong sense of the ways in which the political understandings of the time connected the local and the international in a dynamic of circulating solidarities.
Sara Greavu: So I know you were saying that you weren’t directly involved with the cultural organisations around Westend Park in terms of working with them, but I know also that you had loads of social and political ties with people. I think there are probably some related bits of work that you did, like with Derry Youth and Community Workshop (DYCW), that might be part of the same genre of work, somehow. I wondered if maybe you could talk me through your relationship with the groups there and maybe try to get a flavour of that time period or what was happening in terms of your activism then?
Daisy Mules: So Margo (Harkin) lived on our street, Westend Park, so that was my first contact with the film collective. But it wasn’t actually with the collective; it was more with her as a neighbour, you know. And then Trisha Ziff coming to Derry would have been another tie-in to, say, Camerawork. Trisha lived in the (Rossville) flats, as did (activist) Martha (McClelland), and I did a lot of work with Martha on a whole lot of issues. And then I was in the Derry Youth and Community Workshop, as you know, for just over a year. A lot of those young people went on to Camerawork, so there were all those connections. Then, of course, I was a member of Sinn Féin as well. And a lot of those people were in Sinn Féin. Well, some of the young people joined, some didn’t, but it was that sort of republican network.
I was always a trade unionist from my Scotland years of teaching and activism. But when I came back, I did—immediately, obviously—join a union and then eventually got onto the Trades Council, so that then was another big network of people… there were just lots of different people and tie-ins.
Derry Youth and Community Workshop started in the early ‘80s with that generation of young people, and that work was amazing. Not my work, but the work we tried to do in life and social skills [with them].
We did lots of political stuff. We had them for six weeks at a time in groups of about sixty. I was a senior tutor there, and we did a whole range of things. In the morning, we did formal education stuff, such as literacy, numeracy, drama, music, and sign language; then, in the afternoon, we had these open sessions where we allowed the young people to determine what they wanted to discuss and thrash out. Three things interested the young people: it was always either politics, religion, or sex. Those were the three topics every time, you know. But then we invited political people in, so we invited Gregory Campbell in. We invited Martin McGuinness in, and this was in the era of a war happening as well. But just to raise [issues], you know, so there were lots of heated discussions amongst the young people.
But I think it was a brilliant time and then we also had Danny Boyle and Peter Cox1, who came and worked with us for six weeks; Danny stayed with me and Peter stayed with Margo. So there were all those interconnections right? We wanted them to be close to each other and they worked with young people for six weeks and then we sent six young people over with them to the Royal Court Theatre to work with them there.
SG: You told me a story about that before. Would you tell me that story again?
DM: So they had a brilliant time and they went with Derek Nichol, who was our Drama teacher and who’s gay. This was 1982–83 and that was quite challenging for the young people in DYCW to work with Derek because he was very camp and didn’t hide it, you know, and it was very out. So we’d lots of discussions around being gay and lesbian… those were really the only two issues at that time. Anyhow, six young people went to the Royal Court theatre, three young women and three young men. And when they came back the three guys contacted me and said, “Can we come and chat to you?” and I said, “Sure.” So they came up to the house and we sat down and I said “What’s the craic guys?” And they looked at me and they said “We’re gay.” and I said “So?” They said “Oh, aren’t you shocked?,” and I said “Why would I be shocked? That’s great that you found yourselves.” And of course, one of them was Terry McGuire, one was Willie Divine, and the other was Sean Moran2 (RIP).
So about ten days after they returned—and they were very open about their gayness and coming out and they were so excited, you know—I was requested to visit the office of Paddy Doherty, who was my boss; and Paddy sat me down and he was very stern and he was usually quite jovial and pleasant. And I said, “What’s the craic Paddy? What’s happening?” “I believe,” he says, “you have a problem.” And I said “Me? A problem?” and he says, “You sent those six over to London, and you’ve made three of them gay.” And I looked at him, and I said, “Pardon? I’ve made them gay?” I said, “Nonsense!” and he says “Well, look, the three lads that went over came back, and now they’re out, and they’re swanning around…”
I kept my cool, like. I said, “No, not true,” and I said, “They were born that way. That’s the way they are, you know. The fact is that they’ve now got the courage [to say it] because they spent six weeks in the Royal Court and saw a different world.” And these were young people that had never been out of Derry, at that stage, you know. So anyhow, it was grand; they didn’t fire me.
But yeah, I’ll tell you an interesting thing. That same thing was said to me by a republican in Derry around 1983–84. I had a very close friend in prison at the time, from the mid-1970s. Anytime I came back to Ireland—I was in Scotland in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s—I visited him. And I was hauled in by this top republican in about ‘83, maybe ‘84, and I was accused of trying to make the prisoners in the H-blocks gay as well.
SG: By what powers were you doing that?
DM: By encouraging them to talk about sexuality, and dealing with sex in prison and dealing with their urges. I mean the guy I was visiting, a close friend, he was very young when he went to prison, and he didn’t get out until many years later so that was his main sexual life, and I know it caused him a lot of problems. He wasn’t gay, but, you know, his so-called friend accused me of this. It was madness, but it showed a bit of thinking within the republican movement at the time.
So, yeah, all those things were interconnected. So there was stuff happening in 1 Westend Park3, but the stuff we were doing in DYCW, some of that fed into that in a sort of strange way.
SG: And you knew [Camerawork co-founder] Trisha Ziff well?
DM: Yes, so when Trisha came, the thing that I think attracted me to her was we shared a pro-choice position which at the time in Derry was very rare, you know.
I joined Sinn Féin just after the first election in ‘82. So myself and Martha McClelland decided we need to start discussing choice within the party, and we actually had a very successful level of discussions in Derry. I mean, at first, people were horrified that we would be even talking about choice or abortion or anything like that… I mean absolutely horrified.
So we got small groups of republicans and republican supporters together in people’s houses and in centres, and just had these teasing discussions.Trisha was part of that, which was great, with myself and Martha. The three of us did a lot of that work.
And it sort of set the groundwork. I mean, this was for women and men. I mean, you can imagine the sort of things they were calling us and saying about us. But we persevered and gradually through discussion and through trust and all of that… there was definitely a change in Derry in terms of choice politics within Sinn Féin. I’m only talking about within the party. And then within my Cumann4, which is the Padraig Pearse Cumann, which Martha was in as well… I think we started with them as a small group and then gradually extended it to the Comhairle Ceantair5, which is our local executive. And our Cumann became pro-choice, which was amazing, by maybe 1984–85. So a lot of the national motions around choice and abortion (but we tried to always talk about “choice”) came from Derry, from the Padraig Pearse Cumann. And I think it was because we did that early work.
SG: I feel like there was so much happening at that time and so many of the same people were involved in lots of different things.
DM: I’m redding6 stuff out of my house at the moment, and in the 1980s… it’s incredible the amount of things we were doing. For me, the big issues were Sinn Féin, republicanism, but also trade unionism, you know. There was a lot happening, there was stuff happening around the McBride (fair employment) Principles, and I was involved in that. Now, that was aimed at America, but obviously, it came from Ireland. There was a group called Trade Unionists for Irish Unity and Independence. You know, when I see now there is another group set up called Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland and I’m thinking… but we had this in the ‘80s? And I’m finding all these documents about this group, you know. It was based in Dublin, but it involved any trade unionists that were thinking on that level, and the arguments today are exactly the same.
So I was big involved in that and then there was all the anti-apartheid stuff that was going on in the trade unions in the mid-80s as well. And obviously, the Trades Council was involved in that, and we, along with Sinn Féin, persuaded Derry City Council to become an apartheid-free zone in 1985, I think. The anti-apartheid stuff was really important and we were really involved in that.
And I was part of a group that set up a Trade Union Department within Sinn Féin. The thing about Sinn Féin in the early ‘80s, it was really exciting because a lot of people, after the hunger strikes, joined Sinn Féin. And it was people coming from non-republican backgrounds, you know; people that may have been loosely involved or some family members were… but a lot of new people joined Sinn Féin at that time, and that made it quite exciting, and hopeful and broad. So there were a lot of broad-based campaigns that we were involved in: as I say, the anti-apartheid struggle or like Trade Unionists for Irish Unity and Independence; these were all broad-based campaigns. Because my disappointment at the moment is we don’t have broad-based campaigns anymore. There are political party campaigns now, in the left, in Derry… a group will do something, but the other group won’t join in because it’s that group that’s organised it. And I just feel really sad about that. It’s just missed opportunities… and okay, we mightn’t agree with each other’s individual grouping ideology, but surely we can agree on the campaign, you know. But that’s gone, unfortunately. Whereas in those days there was a lot of mixing.
I still go to [other groups’] things though. For me, it’s the issue, it’s not people. Although sometimes that can be difficult, particularly if somebody stands up and slags the party you belong to constantly. It makes me sad. I feel very regretful about all of that.
I immediately think of another campaign that I was involved in, the campaign to save Anderson House. Anderson House was a GP unit in the grounds of the hospital for people having children who didn’t want to go into hospital. So you were in a unit, but it was run by the GPs. And we had this big broad-based campaign to save it, and that was great, though sadly not won.
And then May Day was a big issue too. Republicans had big May Day marches in the early ‘80s, you know, seven or eight hundred people went on them, and the Trades Council had May Day marches which were very small. They were like 25 or 30 people. But, even then, we couldn’t marry the two.
SG: I wonder if I could get you to tell me the story again of the Nicaraguan musical group. There was a picture in the Camerawork archive of you sitting with a group…7
DM: So I was contacted by, interestingly, (well-known activist and writer) Margaretta D’Arcy. This would have been early 1985 and she said, “This folk group from Nicaragua are here, and they want to come to the north, to Derry and Belfast. They’re here on a cultural tour, and they’re a group called ‘Héroes y Mártires’ (Heroes and Martyrs).” And I said, “Great, of course, we’ll host them, no problem.”
So they arrived up here, seven of them or eight of them. They arrived up here, supposedly for three days. And the joy when they came to Derry!
They had an interpreter with them, but I also scouted out an interpreter in Derry and that’s how I met Tony Gillespie, who then became my partner in future years, for 20 years. Somebody said, “Oh, there’s this guy [who used to be] a priest, and he’s back in Derry, and he lived all his life through Spanish.” So Tony did translation… I just wanted somebody that I trusted from Derry because I didn’t know the young woman that was doing the interpretation, accompanying them everywhere. She was kind of apolitical, though she was active in the women’s movement.
So they came up to Derry, and we billeted them. One of them, Celso, was a sort of leader-spokesperson. None of them spoke English, so it was quite difficult. So I tried to get Spanish-speaking people to interact with them. Two of them stayed with me, and we billeted the rest around Derry; and we organised visits to the trade unions, community centres, we did concerts with them, we got them into churches to sing… I think they sang in the cathedral.
And Celso, their leader, was staying with me, and I got Tony to spend a lot of time with us so Celso and I could have political discussions. So in the discussions, we discovered that, actually, not all of them but, I think, four of them were active Sandinistas, including Celso. And I said, “Oh wow, great, let’s talk about this!” Because obviously, I was always interested in international politics, and Nicaragua was a big interest in those days, because there were a lot of changes happening. And so I started to organise other meetings that were more political, you know, so that they could talk freely, politically. Both within Sinn Féin but also, you know, again, broad-based groups. People really wanted to hear them. And they adored Derry; they thought this was amazing! And I said, “Why do you think Derry’s so wonderful?” And they said, “Well, nobody’s speaking politics anywhere else we go. It’s all about the music and the culture” because that was how they were organised to come over.
So they said, “We don’t want to go to Belfast, we’re going to stay in Derry.” So that caused a bit of chaos. Margaretta was raging with me, she thought it was my fault. And I said, “No, no, the guys have said they don’t want to leave, they want to stay.” and some of them were billeted with very political people and they eventually were beginning to open up quite a lot about their guerrilla activities. And it suddenly came to them that they were in a town where there was a lot of guerrilla activity, as there was in 1985. And they were very excited about this.
So eventually, it was agreed that they could stay longer, so they stayed for six days. But that six days included Easter Sunday. I had a chat with our leadership in Derry, and I said, “You know, it would be great if we had Celso speaking from the platform on Easter Sunday.” I don’t know if you know this, but within the republican movement, Easter Sunday is the big commemoration of the year, but also, it’s only republicans. It’s never anybody else speaking from platforms or anything. So there was a debate about it. But because it was in Derry that year (because it alternated in different places) they actually agreed.
It was amazing, and the guys were over the moon, right? So we were all on the march, and this was at a time where the IRA were active and armed, and some of them individually lined the route, all masked up but in gear and with rifles. And these Sandinistas were so excited to see guys on the streets with guns and people cheering them. There’s one classic photo of them passing Charlie English (rest in peace) who’s standing, obviously masked up but everybody knew who it was obviously, and the Nicaraguans passing him and there’s just that joy in their faces.
Anyhow, Celso spoke from the platform and it was really… it was a very exciting moment for me politically within Sinn Féin, and for them. Then, of course, there was a volley of shots over the graves and just that buzz and excitement.
Margaretta and her group heard about this of course, and were quite upset, to put it mildly. And their major concern, which I suppose was fair enough, was that they would have trouble getting back or getting out of Ireland; that it would be difficult for them, politically, travelling back to Nicaragua. So I went down to Shannon Airport with them, and actually there were no political problems or anything; they got back safely.
SG: It’s such recent history but it sometimes feels hard to remember just how intense the militarisation and surveillance were at that time.
DM: And obviously we were still in a war, though we were moving towards how to get out of it, how to move forward, you know. I remember it was the mid-‘80s that Mitchel, for the first time at an Ard Fheis8, talked about needing to talk to unionists… and him getting booed off the stage almost, and heckled and people not happy with his ideas at all. I mean, for me, Mitchel was the key strategist and political thinker within the party. I’ve always felt that. He probably would deny it but I think he was incredibly important to the direction that we went, and I know Martin, and Gerry, and others were seen publicly but it was Mitchel driving that from the mid-’80s, you know.
I’ll never forget that; I think it was ‘84, that speech, him being heckled and stuff… but what it did, then, it planted a seed in people’s heads, you know, and then it progressed obviously.
But, I think it’ll probably never be known how important he was, you know. I mean, yes, he has received acknowledgement—a couple of years ago there was a big event for him—but I don’t think it’s fully recognised what he has done, you know.
SG: I know you were deeply involved in local Sinn Féin structures at this time and you were also doing a lot of speaking tours in Britain and in the USA. I loved some of the stories you told me, like the fact that you were speaking to garment factory workers in Texas, as well as in universities in various places… drawing out the connections as those kinds of factories moved from Derry to the global south.
DM: Yes, all of that. And then I was also on the Ard Comhairle9 for a few years in the ‘80s as well. At that stage, Sinn Féin had different departments, and we’ve lost that now in some ways. Like we don’t have a Women’s Department anymore. I’m just suddenly realizing that as I go through my old stuff. We had a Women’s Department; we had a Trade Union department. And I thought they were important. I think the Women’s Department was particularly important because it allowed women to organise separately or to meet separately. Now, I know some men felt quite threatened by that, in fact very threatened by that. But I think it was really important for women to have that, and I’m just thinking we don’t have that anymore. We don’t have women-only meetings anymore. Maybe we think we’re more liberated, and we don’t need that anymore. I’m not so sure, you know.
SG: Just coming back to your internationalism, you’re still involved in international projects and politics? Like, you were in Cuba recently?
DM: Yes, Palestine and Cuba would be the two areas that I’d be particularly interested in. Internationalism is really important to me. I’ve been an active member of Trade Union Friends of Palestine (TUFP) for many years now, and we worked hard to get the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) to a position of strong support for Palestine… and we’ve built on that subsequently. It even hosted Omar Barghouti to speak in 2017.
I went to Palestine in 2016 with a small group from Derry. The group there planned a full week of visits for us, travelling around Palestine, meeting amazing people and activists. Then luckily for me, my union sponsored me to go in 2017 on a TUFP eight-day delegation, which was intense but wonderfully educative. So, yes, my solidarity work around Palestine and BDS continues.
And I’d always wanted to go to Cuba. I’d been active around the campaign to free the “Cuban Five” and had hosted the then Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, Noel Carillo, a few times and we became friends; and the mother of Fernando, one of the “Cuban Five,” visited Derry and also stayed with me. So I was able to visit in 2019 as part of a two-week Sinn Féin solidarity delegation. We travelled from Havana down through Cuba to Santiago de Cuba, visiting all the various important political sites, meeting amazingly resilient people, groups, communities, organisations, governmental and others; and we got to meet Fernando and Ramón, both “Cuban Five” members. So much…so special…my 70th birthday present to myself!
One of the things I know you were asking about… we did have lots of other international visitors during the ‘80s. NORAID10 was a huge visitor, and I was always involved with that as well, too, to organise meetings to discuss things, to take them around, etc. And I used to be horrified by some of them because their politics were so horrendous. But you always got ones whose politics were grand or who were quite naive. So then the whole thing was to educate them, but more about what was actually happening [in the world] and to encourage them to look at their own country.
SG: I think it’s so interesting. I feel like there’s something about that system of billeting. I mean, we would have billeted people for various political events, and it does create a really different type of interaction, doesn’t it? It’s like there’s an opportunity there to really get into the depths of your political differences and your political points of contact. But that’s something that’s been lost, hasn’t it, more or less?
DM: Yeah, I agree. I think the billeting was hugely important and it was partly because nobody had any money so we couldn’t put people up in fancy hotels. Now there is still a bit of billeting, because I’ve had quite a lot of Palestinians stay with me in the past ten years. But that’s partly because, Fatin11, in Dublin, wants visitors to meet people. And also because she stayed with me several times herself. She just likes my house, you know, and it’s comfortable enough. I mean, when I think back, some of the billeting in the ‘80s wasn’t very comfortable for those that we’re staying, you know, because of the poverty that was and still is, in many areas. Things were much simpler in that respect. But yeah, I agree with you. Even Sinn Féin’s got very bad at it. Visitors are coming in, and they’re put into a hotel. I think it’s terrible, you know. Maybe some of those visitors that are more ‘high-powered’ politically, maybe they expect more comfort. Or maybe, to be fair, if they’re doing an intensive visit, they get tired and to be in a house where you have to speak to people… maybe they just need space, a bit of a break.
Maybe that’s part of the reason why we don’t do it, but also those big groups don’t come to visit anymore either, the likes of NORAID groups.
So in the midst of all this other kind of political activity—when I’m doing this clearing out, I have so much stuff on choice and abortion. It always is a big issue, but then it was a sort of crisis time. And Anne Lovett died in the middle of that in ‘84. She died on New Year’s Eve and that actually helped shift thinking as well because people saw how horrendous that was. A 15-year-old girl dying alone in a churchyard… giving birth and then her baby dying as well. And even people that were very Church-oriented found that horrific. For me, it was quite a turning point. Later on, there were other turning points, the schoolgirl that wasn’t allowed to go to Britain for an abortion, who had been raped (the “X case”), but that was later on, you know. Anne Lovett was quite early on. I don’t think we should ever forget her, you know.
SG: Do you have any further thoughts on the legacy of that time, on how seeds were planted then that have grown into something now?
DM: Certainly, I think the choice stuff has evolved, although interestingly a few years ago, I remember being horrified at a republican discussion and how many young people were anti-choice, and that sort of concerned me, you know. It concerned me the fact that we’re not discussing this anymore. And even within my own Cumann, I know there would be people who would be very anti-abortion and I have no problems with that. My problem is with being anti-choice, and I think those things are very different, and I always make that point in discussions. I don’t know anybody that is pro-abortion. I always say you can’t have a political position about it until you’re in that [real-life] position yourself. And I have helped people in the past who were republicans who would have been totally anti-abortion and then when they got pregnant in a difficult situation, whatever the situation was, they had to have an abortion. I’m sure lots of people have witnessed that. So from that point of view, certainly within Sinn Féin, there’s been progress. But also in the public domain there’s been progress, you know, obviously there has to have been.
The other thing too, that for me was a big progression was, during the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, right up until ‘98, I also counselled sexual abuse survivors that came to the party but wouldn’t go to the police or social services, but obviously needed support.
SG: And they wouldn’t go to those people because of not wanting to interact with the British State and the RUC?
DM: Right. I mean, all I could do was provide, usually, crisis counselling and then try and encourage them to go somewhere else after. Because I was working full-time as a teacher and I also had young children as well. So, you know, I was pretty limited. So my responses were often at a very traumatised and immediate point. I very rarely worked with anybody after maybe three or four sessions, I just couldn’t do it. But I was usually able to push them on to somebody else. That was very traumatic, that work, as well. Because sometimes, I get called out at 2:00 in the morning or 5:00 in the morning because somebody had been attacked and they just needed to talk to somebody. But, for me, I felt very useful in supporting women… [that work is] not very widely known. I mean, people knew I did counselling, but they weren’t aware of the full ramifications.
You know, I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks, this redding out, and it’s only now striking me how much we’ve lost…
SG: What is it that you feel is lost?
DM: Discussion. I don’t think we’re discussing things in the way we did. But then I think maybe those discussions are happening but I’m just not involved? We’ve lost a personal interconnectedness. And I mean, I love the internet, don’t get me wrong. And I use it a lot as well because it keeps me in contact with my children, but I think it has separated us all quite a bit. Discussions on Zoom aren’t as connected as in a room of people. I’m not saying there aren’t discussions happening, but I think they’re in more selected groups than in the past… we’ve moved away from broad-based discussions and, consequently, broad-based activism. So maybe, going forward, we need to reflect on that.
1. Danny Boyle and Peter Cox were young theatre-makers at this time. Peter Cox’s Up to the Sun and Down to the Centre (1984) was directed by Danny Boyle and featured Adrian Dunbar, Brenda Fricker and Bríd Brennan. Boyle went on to direct films including Shallow Grave (1994), Trainspotting (1996), 28 Days Later (2002) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
2. Sean Moran went on to co-found “Foyle Friend” and later the “Rainbow Project” (key LGBTQ organisations in Derry) and was a leading campaigner for gay rights.
3. See “Number 1 Westend Park and interview with Mitchel McLaughlin”.
4. A cumann is the lowest local unit or branch of a number of Irish political parties.
5. The Comhairle Ceantair is a form of district unit covering a number of cumainn over a geographic area (e.g., a County Council constituency).
6. Organising, tidying and disposing of unwanted material.
7. See https://www.eva.ie/littledidtheyknow/camerawork-derry-and-interview-with-jim-hawks-collins/ for this image.
8. Irish political party annual party conference, in this case, Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis.
9. National Executive Committee.
10. Officially the Irish Northern Aid Committee, an Irish American support and fund-raising organisation founded after the start of the conflict in the north.
11. Fatin al Tamimi is the current Chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC).
It’s not for you we did it is prepared by curator Sara Greavu and artist Ciara Phillips. Supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland and British Council Ireland.