Derry Peace Women

Mary Barr / Kathleen Doherty / Margaret Doherty / Harriet Hipsley / Eileen Semple

Derry Peace Women.jpg

Co-founders of ‘Derry peace women’ (no official title)

In January 1972 a Civil Rights protest march against internment through the Bogside in Derry was cut short when British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians, all of whom were Catholic. 13 people died outright, and another died a few months later due to his injuries. It became known as Bloody Sunday. On 21 May, a 19-year old Catholic British Army man named William Best, originally from the Creggan area in Derry, was picked up by the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) and shot dead.

These two events helped to inspire five women - Eileen Semple, Margaret Doherty, Mary Barr, Kathleen Doherty, and Hariett Hipsley - who all lived in the Bogside and Creggan areas - to found the Derry peace women (as they were known), after meeting at a protest held the day after Best’s death. M. Doherty, whose brother had been killed on Bloody Sunday, was determined to not have his death be used as the motive for further violence.

This protest reportedly led to a guarantee from the OIRA ‘that shooting would stop, except in defence.’ On the 23, the Derry peace women demanded a similar guarantee from the Provisional IRA and met with them, however no concrete guarantee could be secured. On 24 May, they met with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, in a meeting that lasted 40-minutes. They told him that ‘most of the 35,000 people living around [their] home were behind [them]’ and that ‘the very least [they] wanted was a ceasefire for a time.’ To prove their point, the women organised a petition for peace and managed to get upwards of 20,000 signatures. Whitelaw was impressed with the women and encouraged them to continue in their fight for peace. The Belfast Telegraph credited them with having ‘played an important part in the moves for an end to violence’ before the ceasefire of 29 May and stated that ‘without the women’s peace movement, Mr Whitelaw’s task of obtaining a ceasefire would have been impossible.’

In June, the women travelled to Dublin with the hope of meeting Sinn Fein President Rory Brady or chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA, Seán MacStíofáin. While in the Dáil, they met, at his request, with boxer Muhammad Ali, well known for his civil rights campaigns. Over the coming months they continued on their mission for peace by trying to encourage better community relations. They moved throughout Ireland, lobbying politicians from both the North and South, consulting military chiefs and ‘putting the cause of peace to militant republicans.’ They even met with Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in November 1972 to express their concerns to him.  Their determined activism for an end to all violence earned them the approbation of many but also the resentment of others.

‘Fear is the main problem we have to cope with in our community but all it takes is just one person to […] say, ‘I won’t stand for this.’’ – Semple

By September, all five peace women were receiving threats and intimidation. M. Doherty and her family were forced out of their home ‘after a nail bomb was planted outside their house.’ It was reported that ‘certain individuals and small groups’ had started ‘a propaganda campaign’ which ‘aimed at discrediting [the women]’. They fought back in a statement which read that ‘they do not take sides with the Army or the IRA’ and that ‘everyone who agrees with us should be able to express their views freely and should do so without fear.’ They urged their community and church leaders to ‘let their voices be heard strongly against all the wrongs in [their] society, wherever they spring from.’ John Hume, MP, also came to their defence by stating that ‘the objective that these ladies sought was an honourable one…’

Peace March

Peace March

‘The peace women have never taken any political stand and all our efforts over the past year have been directed solely against violence.’ – M. Doherty

The women also tried to help the young men from Derry who had fled over the border by making arrangements for some to be employed in the Republic.  The Derry Journal credits M. Doherty with meeting regularly with police and army officers to try and establish better community relations in the city. When young people were arrested, she was often able, when no one else could, to make arrangements for their parents to visit them. In August 1976 the peace women organised buses to join Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams in Belfast for their historic Peace People rally and on 4 September they organised a similar rally to be held on the Craigavon Bridge. Both Corrigan and Williams were in attendance and principal speakers. Records of the five Derry peace women specifically become even more scarce around this time – it is quite likely that they became amalgamated with the Peace People movement to a large extent, as M. Doherty particularly became very involved in setting up the Derry branch of the Peace People with a woman named Joyce Kelly.

‘… my family are behind me. The only thing that will stop me is a bullet.’ – M. Doherty

It was around this time that M. Doherty’s son was slashed with a knife as he walked home from work one evening. The letters IRA were cut into his leg and hand. M. Doherty, however, was not put off her fight for peace and stated that she had the support of her family behind her still. In 1977 she left the Peace People movement, believing that its leaders in Belfast had lost touch with the grassroots supporters, a common belief held by many. She continued her fight on a community level up until a few weeks before her death in 1981.

‘I will continue to speak out when I feel it is necessary to do so. Intimidation cannot change my views.’ – Semple

In 1978 Semple, helped to found the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association ‘to help with various community work in the areas.’ She continued to speak out against murders in her area and on the eve of 20 April 1982 her car was burned out in front of her terraced home in retaliation. The very next night, gangs of youths returned and set it alight again. Soon after, she received a phone call from a man warning her that ‘we got your car, now we are going to get your house.’ In the early hours of the 24 April, ‘a gang of three or four youths’ threw stones through the glass-panelled door of Semple’s house, waking her neighbours and leaving Semple shaken but undeterred. A similar attack happened less than a fortnight later on 3 May with a cement block being thrown through her door. In mid-June, following a statement by the Bogside and Creggan Christian Women’s Association condemning the murder of a policeman who died from an IRA booby-trap bomb, Semple’s car was once again burned out. It had been a new second-hand car, bought for her by her five daughters after her first had been destroyed. Despite this, Semple announced that:

‘I will continue to speak again and again and will go on condemning such murders in our city. I feel sorry for the people who set fire to my car. They feel they have to take revenge on me for speaking the truth. But I will go on airing my views and attacks like this won’t stop me.’

Semple died in July 2001. Unfortunately, little record could be found regarding the other three peace women.

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Belfast Telegraph, 24 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 25 May 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 28 June 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 19 Sept. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 17 Nov. 1972.

Belfast Telegraph, 31 Aug. 1976.

Derry Journal, July 1981.

Derry Journal, 7 June 2016.

Special thanks to Caoimhin O Dochartaigh and his family for providing newspaper clippings, photos and other records of their mother Margaret Doherty.