Williams, Betty and Mairead Corrigan

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Williams, Betty and Mairead Corrigan

Co-founders of the Irish Peace People movement of the mid-1970s, the most successful of several early attempts to create a cross-community alliance against terrorism.

Williams, Betty (1943—) . Name variations: Betty Williams Perkins. Born Betty Smyth in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on May 22, 1943; daughter of a butcher and a housewife; attended St. Teresa's Primary School and St. Dominic's Grammar School; married Ralph Williams (an engineer in the merchant marine), on June 14, 1961; emigrated to the U.S. where she later remarried; children: (first marriage) Paul; Deborah.


honorary doctorate from Yale University; Norwegian People Peace Prize (1976); Nobel Peace Prize (1976).

Corrigan, Mairead (1944—) . Name variations: Máiread Corrigan; Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Born Mairead Corrigan in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on January 27, 1944; one of eight children of a window cleaning contractor and a housewife; married Jackie Maguire (her deceased sister's husband); children: Luke, Mark, Joanne, Marie Louise, and John.


honorary doctorate from Yale University; Norwegian People Peace Prize (1976); Nobel Peace Prize (1976).

Apart from a shared environment and a deep concern, shared also with many others, about the abysmal quality of life in troubled Northern Ireland, there was little to connect Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan with each other, or either of them with the movement's third co-founder, Ciaran McKeown (pronounced Key-rawn Ma-kiown). Born within a few years of each other in Belfast, both came from Roman Catholic backgrounds (though Williams was of mixed parentage) and were educated locally and conventionally. By the mid-1970s, Williams was married to a seaman who was absent for most of each year. She lived in the Republican stronghold of Andersonstown, a suburb of Belfast, and much of the strain of bringing up two children in the war-torn terrorist enclave was borne by her. She found it best to live independently of political and religious or even women's groupings. Corrigan at that time also lived in West Belfast. But she was single and living with her parents and so perhaps was freer to respond to the intrusive and often outrageous behavior of both paramilitaries and soldiers in the surrounding streets. At one point in 1973, Corrigan had contemplated joining one such paramilitary organization. They had both spent several years, along with some two million inhabitants of Ulster, as unwilling participants/ victims in the province's "troubles," and but for one event it is likely that they would have remained anonymous. Their public existence, like that of the essayist Charles Lamb, "dated from the day of horrors."

On August 10, 1976, Corrigan's sister Anne Maguire was taking her three young children for a walk on a suburban street when a car smashed into them, seriously injuring Maguire and killing all three children—Joanne (8), John (3), and Andrew (6 weeks old). In a macabre characterization of the entire Ulster nightmare, it was discovered that the terrorist driver of the stolen car was already dead, shot moments before the crash by British soldiers during a running gun-battle. Betty Williams who lived nearby was a witness to the tragedy. It was Williams who organized, in the immediate aftermath, the petition calling for the IRA (Irish Republican Army) to cease its campaign, a petition signed by many thousands of Belfast people. Mairead Corrigan, the Maguire family's most vocal representative, helped to organize the massive public demonstration which took place on the day after the children's funeral. It was a show of public outrage unusual in that the Catholic women of West Belfast were joined by Protestant women from elsewhere in the city. It was unusual also in the depth and ferocity of its opposition to the terrorists' activities. As early as 1970, the Women Together movement, again a cross-community initiative in the divided society that is Ulster, had tried with some limited success to intercede between the embattled factions in a traditional men's world and to mediate with the political and military authorities. But the movement which followed the deaths of the Maguire children differed from previous efforts. It differed not only in the depth of its determination to endure and succeed, but also in its unambiguous and single-minded opposition to paramilitaries in a society ruled largely by them and in which terrorism had become a predominant way of life. The ruthless courage of those who led and made up the Peace People movement, together with their avowed rejection of the primacy of the paramilitaries' political aim, represented the first real threat to the popular support on which the moral position of the terrorists depended.

Mairead Corrigan's upbringing was in many ways closer to that of previous generations of Catholic families in Ulster than to the time into which she had been born. The family was large—two boys and five girls—though not uncommonly so by Ulster Catholic standards. Her father washed windows and her mother was kept fully occupied within the home. Her childhood, by her own account, was happy and her rather brief experience of Northern Ireland's segregated school system seemed to have left few real scars. But despite the fact that she was a contemporary of the first generation of Catholics to attend university, poverty determined that she would leave school at the age of 14. A short period at a business college equipped her for employment in one of Belfast's textile mills, a job she later abandoned for a more secure position in the legendary Guinness brewery.

Membership in a religious benevolent association, the Legion of Mary, eventually brought her into immediate contact with the "troubles" in 1969. Corrigan, a team leader in the Legion, worked with the children of Andersonstown, then a bleak featureless Catholic ghetto devoid of facilities, to prevent them from being drawn ever deeper into the surrounding unrest. She was responsible in part for the area's first nursery school and for a recreation center for Anderson-stown's handicapped children. Her work with the Legion enabled her also to travel—to Russia, where she made a film on Catholic lifestyles, and as a delegate to the World Conference of Churches in Thailand. In the years before the events of 1976 made her into a household name, she was one of the Legionnaires who maintained close contact with the interned Catholics of Long Kesh prison camp, an old Ulster institution hastily brought back to life in 1971 to contain Catholics suspected of anti-establishment sentiments. Close friends were killed, and on more than one occasion, as she attempted to help those being harassed by soldiers, she was herself assaulted.

On these occasions, as on the evening when the British army teargassed a church in which she was holding a Legion meeting, Corrigan was presented with the choice open to all who endured in Ulster, of whether it might be better to meet violence with violence. Despite her Catholic upbringing, there was no history of overt Republicanism in Corrigan's family. As with many of her forebears it seemed to her simpler and less complicated to sublimate one's political urges, however strong, in religious passivism. Later her encounters with committed Republicans among the prisoners of Long Kesh convinced her of the aimlessness, futility, and eventual loss of direction of those who had resorted to violence. Her sense of personal identity cut across the divisions of life considered "normal" in Northern Ireland: Corrigan was uninterested in ending the partition arrangement whereby the island of Ireland had in 1921 been sundered into two political entities. Like many Ulster Catholics, she was very aware of cultural and attitudinal differences between herself and her co-religionists in the Irish Republic. Less like other Ulster Catholics however, she felt a keen bond with Northern Protestants. She regarded herself neither as British nor Irish: Northern Irishness was in itself a strong and self-contained identity.

Betty Williams' background was somewhat out of the ordinary for a woman who developed, with reservations, a largely conventional Catholic identity. Her mother was a Catholic from a large family, but one whose own father was Jewish. Betty's father, a butcher, was a Protestant. His marriage to Betty's mother led to his father being first assaulted and then shunned in the Belfast shipyard where he worked. Betty herself was born in 1943, attended a Catholic school and, like Mairead Corrigan, left to become a secretary. In 1961, she married Ralph Williams, who was English and Presbyterian, and who worked as an engineer in the merchant marine. The nature of his work meant long and frequent separation from his family. However, Betty appreciated the excellent salary (a rare thing in West Belfast) and being naturally fond of variety, she took evening jobs in addition to her regular daytime employment. Her two children, a boy and a girl, were five and twelve at the time of the Maguire family's ordeal in August 1976.

Unlike Mairead, who already had experience of cross-community work through her religious affiliations, Betty was uncertain as to whether any active role was open to her or what form that activity should take. She was, however, no less affected than Corrigan or anyone else in West Belfast by the surrounding conflict and the conditions created by it. In such an unstable environment, one acted and reacted according to the circumstances of each given situation: ideology and principles were luxuries. In the period before her involvement with the peace movement, Williams had successfully persuaded several local men to forsake Republicanism, transported a wounded paramilitary to safety in the Irish Republic, prayed with and comforted a dying British soldier, and gone through a period in which she ritually hurled abuse at even inoffensive soldiers on ground duty. Her sister's new home was burned by a Protestant mob during the summer disturbances of 1969, and she herself had been mistakenly arrested and detained as a terrorist (a not-uncommon experience in Northern Ireland). Two of her cousins had died in the "troubles"; one killed by Republicans, the other by loyalists.

Despite the never-ending pattern of terrorist atrocity followed by months of aggressive army activity in the locality, followed by a further atrocity and so forth, Williams gradually came to see the participants in the conflict—soldiers, paramilitaries, and their victims—simply as unfortunate human beings caught up in a tragedy that had largely been made before any of them had been born. Several years before the Maguire tragedy, Williams had become horrified at the gradual abandonment by her neighbors of any regard for the lives of fellow human beings. Paramilitaries, however personally unworthy and however questionable their motives, had become heroes; axiomatically all police and soldiers had become anonymous enemies to be destroyed on sight. Close to the localized heart of the struggle in Andersonstown, she was dismayed at the emptiness of the paramilitaries' tribal slogans and at the blind unthinking aggression of their tactics. Like Corrigan, Williams came of no strong Republican family tradition and so had the ability to see through the theoretical shibboleths of the gunmen and beyond their bland and facile justifications of even the most loathsome atrocities.

Unlike Corrigan, whose critical mind yet allowed her to work in close harmony with the Catholic Church, Betty Williams' deep faith in God was qualified by a slightly jaundiced view of the Church in the teachings of which she was reared. She was disturbed by the apparent failure of the Church to keep pace with modern human needs, and by its refusal to be more vocal in opposing the morally questionable behavior both of paramilitaries and the establishment. She was irritated by the prevalence of patriarchalism even in strife-ridden Belfast, by the ubiquitous

double standards, and by women's passive acceptance of this situation. The peace movement and its aims however, despite its mainly female leadership and predominantly female membership, transcended feminism. Survival made for a different kind of urgency.

No account of the roles of Corrigan and Williams would be complete (or even comprehensible) without considering that of Ciaran McKeown. Born in 1943 of the same generation as his two co-founders of the peace movement, McKeown shared with them also the ethos of a Catholic upbringing, but in Londonderry. One of the bright pupils produced by the educational efforts of the Christian Brothers, he was one of the first generation of Catholics to attend Queen's University where he read philosophy. McKeown became concerned at the level of sectarianism which prevailed not only in Northern Ireland generally but even within the apparently liberal precincts of the region's only university. He became deeply involved in student politics, agitating for unity at least within student representative elections, and became president of an all-Ireland student council in 1966.

Every two or three hours we resurrect the past, dust it off and throw it in someone's face. Myself, I prefer tomorrow to yesterday.

—Betty Williams

In the later 1960s, while the Ulster civil-rights movement was being established, McKeown married and settled into professional journalism. Feeling his Catholic identity as much a responsibility as simply an accident of birth, he strove to report and write as impartially as possible, and to present the realities of the Northern Irish situation in a way in which they could be understood even by total strangers to that region and that situation. McKeown had already developed a deep respect for human life and an aversion to those who would destroy it. He was one of the relative few who regarded Michael Farrell and Bernadette Devlin McAliskey , popular heroes of the civil-rights movement, as mere agitators who had subverted the movement's true purpose for political ends. As a journalist he preferred, when dealing with paramilitaries, to speak to rank-and-file members rather than to their commanders.

McKeown, sickened by the continuing daily diet of death and bloodshed which he was obliged to chronicle, had already decided to abandon news writing for some gentler or more scholarly form of journalism when he was detailed to cover the slaughter of the Maguire children in August 1976. His rapport with Corrigan and Williams was instantaneous and, between the three, the loosely structured Peace People movement emerged.

The movement began its work through a series of marches, designed partly to focus public attention on its objectives, but also with a view to gauging the level of popular response. A mere upsurge of emotion would not alone have carried it forward. Beginning with forays into each of the embattled areas of Belfast, the marches continued at Londonderry and throughout most of the principal towns of Northern Ireland during the latter half of 1976. The character of the gatherings was that of intense emotion, expressed through impassioned speeches, interdenominational religious services, and singing which was intended to sustain and boost morale. The movement's central demands for peace were embodied in the short but pithy "Declaration of Peace" drawn up by McKeown and read at each march and gathering. Support continued to come from a wide range of organizations and individuals, including the trade union movement both within Ireland and internationally. Opposition came from the Republican elements who alleged that the movement's organizers and their followers, by adopting an explicitly apolitical stance in such a substantively political situation, were unwittingly offering support to the British-maintained establishment in Northern Ireland; that the peace sought by Corrigan, Williams and McKeown would, in fact, be "peace at any price."

Unsurprisingly, the ugliest manifestations of Republican opposition occurred at the Ulster-based marches. The publicity afforded these, however, was more than offset by the personal appearances of Joan Baez and veterans of the American civil-rights campaign who gave the Irish movement their unqualified support. All the marches, even with the vagaries of the Irish weather, were successful. Despite enormous attention from the world press, Corrigan and Williams refused to be drawn into conventional political debates on Ulster or on the British presence there; they wished, they said, to create a new type of politics and a new type of political response in Northern Ireland. The early marches in Belfast, especially in the Protestant stronghold of Shankill, were particularly crucial in that they convinced many waverers that the peace movement was not simply Catholic in character. Once the marches began to succeed outside of Belfast, the potential of the movement as a populist venture was made obvious not only to dismissive or hostile Republicans but also to the Northern Irish and British establishments. Journalists as well as Republican opponents began to query the source of the movement's funding, and the suspicion was created deliberately that the movement was a creature of the British establishment, set up with a view to drawing away local support from the terrorists. These insinuations continued as a march organized in London succeeded resoundingly and the leaders Corrigan, Williams and McKeown were awarded prizes by various international bodies, one being the coveted Nobel Peace Prize.

But spontaneity was the hallmark of the movement and structures came slowly; perhaps too slowly. At an early stage, the movement acquired somewhat inadequate office premises which soon became a clearing-house for members' details, phone numbers, and advice. A weekly newsletter was established. However, difficulties were soon created by the three leaders' relative lack of experience of such a large unwieldy organization, by continuing public speculation as to funding, and not least by the personalities and preoccupations of the leaders themselves. Once the early emotion had died down, exception (not always voiced aloud) began to be taken to the apparently casual assumption that Williams, Corrigan, and McKeown, elected by nobody, were to continue in the leadership role. Questions of accountability were raised in connection with the numerous and not infrequently large sums of money which were poured into the movement by individuals and institutions. Occasional cash-flow problems arose when tax exigencies caused a gap between acts of donation and actual receipt of money. At least one of the leaders was heavily in debt by the time the wave of marches came to an end in December 1976.

In the maelstrom of marches, meetings, and speeches some prospective members inevitably were offended by things they had heard the leaders say, or merely by one or another aspect of the movement when viewed at close quarters. Despite their unity on essential issues, the leaders had not thought to place any restraints on the utterance of their private views. McKeown (not unlike Williams in some respects) was critical of the supposed failure of the Catholic Church to speak out against the violence in other than a platitudinal fashion or to provide the sort of leadership which he, Williams, and Corrigan were being forced to assume. This was seen by some of the movement's more conservative Catholic supporters as an unjustified attack on their community's central icon. The divisions in Northern Irish society, after all, were as much religious as political. McKeown's fruitless attempt to force his Church to take up a moral stance, as he had done, was interpreted as an abuse of his position as leader. This led to the most serious challenge to the unity of the movement. Belfastman Tom Conaty expressed resentment that the leaders had endorsed such a view without consulting the rank-and-file members on whose behalf they claimed to speak. In a relatively short but wide-ranging statement, Conaty called for the active involvement of the Catholic Church and other churches in the peace movement, and also for the disbursement of funds to be placed in the hands of trustees. Further discussions led to further disagreement, and Conaty found himself in a sense expelled from the movement, a decision he initially refused to accept. This drew attention to the Peace People's lack of proper representative structures—Conaty to all intents and purposes had been excluded by a set of non-elected leaders. An incalculable but possibly significant number of members left with him.

The movement recovered from the Conaty affair and tried to reorganize itself to prevent further similar rifts from occurring. In terms of media interest, however, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Corrigan and Williams in 1977 seems to have been the high watermark. Throughout Northern Ireland, the violence continued, escalating and decelerating by turns, but in response to sets of dynamics against which the Peace People movement clearly was working in vain. The early gibes that the movement was a "peace at any price" body stuck fast. Worse still, the disputes over funding continued to cause bitter wrangles within the movement. Betty Williams, exhausted and unable to find alternative employment in Northern Ireland, emigrated to the United States where she later remarried. Her once-stable relationship with Corrigan and McKeown foundered. Anne Maguire, whose tragedy had founded the movement, never recovered from that August day in 1976 and eventually committed suicide. A year later, Mairead married Anne's husband. She continued for many years to campaign internationally for the movement she had helped to establish, though Northern Irish audiences steadily diminished. McKeown eventually returned to journalism.

The development of peace studies and conflict management into a science of ever-increasing complexity will before too much longer place the Peace People of the 1970s and their founders in a historical context which at present can only dimly be ascertained. The probable end of the Northern Irish conflict will clarify also their role in that conflict and the position of Corrigan, Williams, and McKeown in Irish history and the role of women in the making of that history.


Deutsch, Richard. Mairead Corrigan; Betty Williams. Woodbury, NY: Barron's, 1977.

suggested reading:

Dunne, Seamus, ed. Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Gerard O'Brien , Senior Lecturer in History, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland

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