Eamonn McCann speaking last night at the Allingham Festival Picture: Matt Britton
It’s hard to picture it, but more than 50 years ago lifelong activist Eamonn McCann was working in London as a tree pruner. It seems a world away from the McCann we know, or think we know - the black leather jacket, white t-shirt, blue denims and trade mark black shoes, hands dancing as he makes his point.
Last night McCann turned up at the Abbey Arts Centre in Ballyshannon to deliver the keynote Allingham lecture to kickstart this year’s festival of the same name. His theme - ‘Power and the People’. I chaired the event for the festival committee, it was, I think as good a start for the festival as they had hoped for. Eamonn didn't disappoint.
He was to get the early bus from Derry, have dinner with committee members. But he arrived with friends by car and side-stepped the dinner for a cup of tea and a quick chat as he gathered his thoughts.
Sitting in the plush red seats of the centre’s magnificent Rory Gallagher Theatre, McCann’s pool-cue smooth head was the only hint that he might be anything near 76 years of age. He looks a lot younger than that, how young changes with his facial expressions and they change from half snarl to smile in an instant.
After a fascinating, unscripted 40-minute meander through the rooms of his life, bullet points jotted down in a copybook left unopened at the podium, he took questions from an audience of circa 180 people.
They heard him speak movingly about Bloody Sunday at first. He moved on swiftly through a stack of thoughts, events, names, countries, street corners, ideas, ideologies.
He brought us to Lebanon describing it as “a beautiful jigsaw about to explode”, then to Basra, stories of people of all religions on the streets marching for bread, demanding equal rights, “same as we all marched for, for civil rights, for human dignity,” he said as he opened a second bottle of water.
Earlier he paused and changed pace to tell us how the families of the children featured in the magnificent book ‘Children of the Troubles’ written by Freya McClements and Joe Duffy, thanked the authors for what they had done, putting their loved ones who had died so needlessly, tragically within the pages of that book.
He stayed on this theme. He spoke powerfully, hands gyrating, as he took refuge from the the theatre lights, the peak of his voice popping the hand-held microphone, then softer tones, dropping down to an almost hushed tone.
He told us about Strabane’s “Charles Love”, known to some as Cha, referred to in Derry Journal reports as “Charlie”.
We heard how Charlie died tragically on Sunday, January 28th, 1990, while attending the 18th Bloody Sunday commemoration in Derry's Bogside. He was fatally injured when debris from an explosion intended for the security forces struck him on the head. The IRA planted the bomb in the City Walls hoping to target British soldiers or RUC personnel using the location as a vantage point for the parade.
McCann asked why would the IRA knowingly plant a bomb at a Bloody Sunday commemoration parade. The outcome, he said, with so many people attending, was inevitable.
He said last night that the decision to plant the bomb was “the Provos” sending a message to the people: “March all you like, but we (the Provos) will give you freedom”.
As he approached 40 minutes crammed with thousands of words, he neatly threaded it all together, his own earlier quip about offering us some random thoughts finally unveiled as the imposter we suspected. Nothing random here, a brilliant presentation, whether you agreed or not with a word he said.
For him it was about people coming together to protest, to say no, to be as one. He recalled being welcomed on The Shankill Road on a protest march that saw people walk together from there to The Falls Road.
He repeated a point he made in an interview published in 2018 by The Irish Times where he said: “Look at the success of the civil rights movement, all the progress that has been made. That was achieved by people on the streets.”
For Eamonn ‘Power and the People’ is just that, people on the streets.
McCann in brief
Eamonn McCann has been campaigning for social justice in Derry for more than 40 years. A lifelong socialist and trades unionist, he is a member of the National Executive of the NUJ and of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU.
One of the original organisers of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), a radical campaign group focusing on access to social housing.
McCann was central to the setting up of the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign; the role of his investigative journalism and decades of campaigning for justice for the Bloody Sunday families was recognised in 2010 when several of the families proposed him for the Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism.
He met his own expenses to travel to London to cover the Saville Enquiry, covering it every day and staying with family to defray costs.
He has campaigned against militarism and war since the days of CND and the Vietnam protests, and was among those who successfully took non-violent direct action against the bomb-makers Raytheon.
He is chairman of the Bloody Sunday Trust and a member of Amnesty International and of the Rail lobby, Into the West. He was elected as an MLA for Foyle in May 2016 but lost his seat in January 2017 when the number of seats in the Foyle constituency was reduced from six to five. McCann and People before Profit attracted criticism from Sinn Féin and pro-EU activists for supporting Brexit in an area with the fourth-highest 'Remain' vote (out of approximately 400 counting areas) in the whole of the United Kingdom.
In May 2019 he was elected to Derry and Strabane District Council as a People Before Profit candidate in The Moor electoral area.
He is father of Kitty and Luke Holland and grandfather of Rosie and Alfie. He lives in Derry with his partner Goretti Horgan and their daughter Matty.
List of works
War and an Irish Town (1973)
War and Peace in Northern Ireland
Dear God – The Price of Religion in Ireland
He has also edited two books on Bloody Sunday:Bloody Sunday: What Really Happened (1992)
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry: The Families Speak Out (2005).