into the home strait for Christmas always sees those
hectic final days spent in town picking up the last
minute things that should have been got much earlier
but are invariably overlooked or put off. It was
while returning from one such trip the Monday before
Christmas that I met a former republican prisoner
and ex-blanket man in Castle Street. We bump into
each other frequently enough so long gone are the
expressions of cheery bonhomie and the firm handshakes
accompanied by the stock 'haven't seen you in a
while.' The first thing he said to me was that the
former republican prisoner Marie Wright had died
the night before. She had waged a long battle against
illness. During her life Marie had waged many battles,
all of which she managed to win. This one was different.
It has the measure of us all.
company with the former prisoner I made my way up
towards the Falls Road saddened at the news he had
left me to contemplate. It was 15 years earlier
that I had first met Marie while visiting at Maghaberry
prison. I was on Christmas parole and during the
visit to the jail was introduced to Marie who was
being visited by her loved ones. She had been arrested
in April of that year along with a close friend
of my own, Pat Sheehan, outside Grosvenor Road RUC
station. A booby trap bomb was found in their possession
or close by. The Saturday they appeared in court
was the day that many Liverpool fans were crushed
to death at Hillsborough Football ground in Sheffield.
Both Pat and Marie had spent time in prison before.
They knew the years of tedium that lay ahead if
they were to return yet remained undeterred. When
sentenced they both received twenty-four years.
Even by the going rate of the day, these sentences
were considered pretty severe.
the initial encounter I was to meet Marie many more
times. The circumstances were always the same: in
the confines of a jail visiting room. It never amounted
to much more than a hello or goodbye and some small
talk. Often the journey up on the bus would be spent
in the company of her parents or sister. They were
devoted in the way that only families can be. There
was rarely a day that I clambered on the bus at
Sevastopol Street to make the journey that they
did not do likewise. On occasion I travelled to
the family home straight after a visit to leave
something in that had been sent out by Marie. It
was a working class home which had been the site
of much suffering and anguish over the years due
to the conflict. From such homes in impoverished
Belfast estates came the brightest and the best
to pit their talents against a vastly technologically
superior foe, the most formidable the modern repressive
state apparatus can throw up.
in Belfast on 20th October 1960, Marie was arrested
in 1983 and later convicted of possessing explosives
and sentenced to 7 years. She was released in 1987.
She experienced only two short years on the streets
before once again hearing the distinctive bang of
a cell door. She was one of the first two republican
women to be freed under the terms of the Good Friday
Agreement. Shortly after her release, along with
Rosaleen McCorley, she was interviewed by An
Phoblacht/Republican News. Both women gave accounts
of life in prison. Marie commented, 'you get realistic,
it's a time when you do lots of growing up. You
can focus on yourself, on the things you never had
time for in the past.' For similar reasons prisoners
in English jails have referred to prison as the
'thinking factory'. Marie was giving to thinking
about things to the extent that the sheer excitement
of anticipating immediate release did not prevent
her from sitting an exam on the morning of her freedom
for her Open University degree. Speaking about the
reception both her and Rosaleen received when they
were released on the 21st of October, Marie said
she was, 'absolutely overwhelmed', but in typical
fashion shifted her thoughts to those left behind:
'we are so conscious of being home with our family
and friends that our thoughts are with the families
who won't have their loved ones home.' She went
on to talk of the joys of being free. 'It's the
simple things, being with family, privacy.' Privacy
and the joys of family were to be short-lived experiences.
Six years after her release, Marie succumbed to
the illness which had ravaged her for some time.
was given a full republican funeral. She remained
firmly loyal to the Provisional republican leadership.
By all accounts her final journey was attended by
many IRA volunteers of all ranks. There was nothing
self serving or opportunistic about her. Her life
was genuinely one of sacrifice and struggle. Most
human beings are like oysters; every now and then
one of them is prised open and a pearl reveals itself.
That is how many who knew her came to see Marie
of us who dissent from the politics behind the peace
process can nevertheless do little but respect the
integrity and genuine commitment of many of those
who support it. Few have been more deserving of
that respect than Volunteer Marie Wright.