Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fionnbarra's mother: Mary Ellen O'Doherty

On my first visit to Derry around the start of this decade, my host was Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, a veteran from the earliest days in the second half of the 1960s. This author of "Ulster's White Negroes" (reviewed by me on Amazon) was both a NICRA Civil Rights spokesman and a militant republican activist. There's lots of his Ó Dochartaigh/ Ó Donnghaile clan around the Maiden City, near their ancestral origins; he has also written a book on the O'Dohertys and has been a prime mover in their Clan's center now in the heart of the walled city. That January afternoon, his sister and his mother kindly greeted me, fed me with delicious brown bread and tea, and later a warm meal before I had reluctantly had to dash off down the hill to the Foyle to catch the last bus back to Belfast that night. They made fun of me for asking where the "restroom" was and not the "toilet." Cute little brown dog rascally romped about my feet. I complimented Mrs. O'D on her culinary skills; she admitted the bread was not homemade. You'd've fooled this "green" Yank.

Derry News, Thursday, April 19th 2008. Report by Darinagh Boyle

US honour for rights veteran

Mary Ellen O’Doherty, the 99 year-old widow of an IRA volunteer who fought
in the campaign for independence has been selected for a prestigious
Irish-American award.

The Celtic Cross Award will take pride of place in the family’s Crawford
Square home alongside her late husband Harry’s decorations-the Tan War and
Truce Medals. The latter was struck on the 50th anniversary of the
declaration of the ‘Truce’ which sparked off the Civil War.

But Mrs O’Doherty will, this time, be honoured in her own right-for her
contribution to the Civil rights movement, social justice, women’s rights
and the welfare of prisoners.

Speaking to the Derry News days ahead of her 99th birthday, Mrs. O’Doherty
said she was “deeply honoured” by the award.

“Many, many people, especially women, worked tirelessly, often in very
difficult circumstances during the civil rights era and long before it for
the rights of others. And they did so without any recognition whatsoever.
I’m thrilled to receive this award in recognition of my role.”

During the Civil Rights era the O’Doherty’s family home became a melting pot
for local leaders and journalists from all over the world.

The Protestant former mill worker, Betty Sinclair who became secretary of
the Belfast Trades Council was a frequent visitor in Mary’s home. And on her
recommendations journalists from all over the world were directed to Mrs.

Mary Ellen’s son, Fionnbarra, recalled an occasion when a Pravda
correspondent refused to return to Moscow without his mother’s recipe for
scone-bread. It was during this time that she came to know the late Mary
Holland and retained a life long respect for her coverage of the northern

But her efforts were not limited to political activism. Mrs. O’Doherty
helped equip the city’s first Women’s Aid Centre with the late Kathy Harkin
who pioneered what was then a groundbreaking project.


Mrs. O’Doherty, whose husband was incarcerated in Derry Gaol in the 1930s,
was until recently actively involved in various prisoners’ campaigns. In
2003 she addressed a conference on prisoners’ rights in the city and a year
before was made an honorary member of the Ladies Division of the AOH.

At the age of 90, she was awarded Pensioner of the Year by Age Concern Derry
having been nominated by several local organisations.

More recently she made a presentation to Sheila Kelly, widow of the Late
Captain James J. Kelly at a press conference in Derry.

Born Mary Ellen Hegarty in 1908 in the Co. Tyrone village of Ballmagorry
outside Strabane, Mrs. O’Doherty spent her early adulthood working as a
nursery nurse in Dublin.

And it was this relatively brief interlude in her young life that was to
unfold an unusual twist. For the young Tyrone woman had been employed as a
nursemaid to William Martin Murphy. He was prime organiser of Dublin
employers against the trade unions, led by James ‘Big Jim’ Larkin and James
Connolly. The conflict of interests culminated in the famous 1913 Lock-Out.

Picture caption:

Right: Mrs. O’Doherty and her late husband Harry with Dr. Nora Connolly
O’Brien, daughter of the Rising Leader James Connolly. Also included is one
of Mrs. O’Doherty’s sons, Fionnbarra.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

What a wonderful post. I received word through the IFC that Mrs. O'Doherty had passed and that we could all send cards to the family through them. I began looking up things about her and came upon your blog. What an exceptional woman. How I wish I'd had the opportunity to know her! I am working on a writing project and am very interested in Irish history,particularly the civil rights campaign, Irish culture, etc. It would have been wonderful to sit and talk with this lady. Anyway, thanks for your blog. Anyone with stories or information about these topics is invited to email me at