Big Eddie: a giant of Irish politics

1940s... McAteer addresses a rally in Derry's Bogside. On the platform with him are, from left, James Doherty, Hugh McAteer - his brother who was a former Chief of Staff of the IRA - Michael McTernan, James Hegarty, Tommy Mellon, Joe Canning, Sean Keenan and Paddy Maxwell MP. [30-11-12 SML 11]

1940s... McAteer addresses a rally in Derry's Bogside. On the platform with him are, from left, James Doherty, Hugh McAteer - his brother who was a former Chief of Staff of the IRA - Michael McTernan, James Hegarty, Tommy Mellon, Joe Canning, Sean Keenan and Paddy Maxwell MP. [30-11-12 SML 11]

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When he died in March 1986 after a short illness, Eddie McAteer - long time leader of nationalism in the North of Ireland - was remembered as a man who used his talents unselfishly to serve his people.

With a new biography of former Derry MP Eddie McAteer in the pipeline, the Derry Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN takes a look at the life and times of a man hailed as a “giant of Irish politics.”

When he died in March 1986 after a short illness, Eddie McAteer - long time leader of nationalism in the North of Ireland - was remembered as a man who used his talents unselfishly to serve his people.

According to his great friend and former editor of the ‘Derry Journal’, Frank Curran, McAteer had played a “vital part” in sustaining and inspiring the “will of the nationalist minority to ensure against discrimination” from the northern state.

Frank Curran spoke for many when he said of his old friend: “He met the challenges of the early 1960s with imagination and courage, and if the unionists had responded with the same generosity of mind and will to reconcile as he, the history of the North might have been very different and the problems ahead much less formidable.”

Eddie McAteer was born in Coatbridge, Scotland, on January 25, 1914 - Robbie Burns Day. His parents, Hugh (born in Fanad in 1884) and Bridget (born in the Illies, Buncrana, in 1879) had emigrated there from Derry in search of work. The family, however, moved back to Derry in 1915 - with the infant Eddie cradled in a cot on a rough sea journey back from Scotland - and set up home at 76 William Street.

In Derry in the 1920s, the young Eddie McAteer experienced the War of Independence. William Street did not escape the trouble. He later recalled: “I recall the sleepless nights when the soldiers paraded the streets warning, with suitable language, the ‘so and so’s’ to keep out of the way... I crept out on my tummy, out to the hall, and gazed to the street from under the door at the boots of the soldiers as they passed by.”

The McAteers - like many others in Derry at that time - lived in dire poverty with the only household income coming if their father found occasional employment at Derry docks or their mother got work as a seamstress in the local shirt factories.

Often, Eddie and his three brothers - Dan, Hugh and Sean - relied on stale bread from nearby Brewsters Bakery - “the smell was very captivating” - for something to eat.

Educated at the Christian Brothers School at the Brow of the Hill, in 1930, Eddie sat and passed the entrance exams to the British Civil Service.

Remarkably, despite being only 16 and amongst the youngest of 2,091 competitors, Eddie and a school friend achieved top five places in the exams.

The Derry man worked as a tax official in Enniskillen before moving to the offices at the Custom House in Derry.

In July 1936, the McAteer household was raided by police. A revolver, ammunition, gelignite and IRA documents were seized. Eddie, his father and his three brothers were all arrested and charged. Subsequently, all charges were dropped against all family members except Hugh who, when put on trial, refused to recognise the court. He was sentenced to seven years penal servitude in Crumlin Road jail in Belfast.

After his release in November 1941, Hugh became Chief of Staff of the IRA and went on the run until his capture in September 1942.

After receiving a further jail sentence, Hugh and three fellow republicans famously escaped from Crumlin Road Jail on January 15, 1943. He was subsequently re-captured and imprisoned.

As a young man, Eddie was a passionate sportsman. A keen amateur boxer in his youth, he considered turning professional only to be prevented by “a belt on the ear from my mother”.

He took up running, rowing, fencing and, unusually, tennis at the Alpha Tennis Club where he met his future wife, Rose Magee, whom he later married in 1941. The couple went on to have ten children.

Eddie played for several local Gaelic clubs and later became prominent in the GAA revival in the city. Boldly and against strong opposition from Bishop Neil Farren, he bought Celtic Park along with Jack Timmons for the sum of £1,000 in 1943. He held many key positions in the association over subsequent years.

Throughout his life, Eddie had a great love for the Irish language. In 1945, he wrote and published his own book for beginners entitled ‘100 hours of Irish Nationalism or Irish made too Easy’. Selling price, one penny!

In 1944, at the age of 28, Eddie resigned from the Civil Service to train as an accountant under the auspices of E F McCambridge and Co., before setting up his own accountancy practice in Derry.

In June 1945, he decided to enter politics and contested the seat for mid Derry on an Anti-partionist ticket. He was elected unopposed. He opened his maiden speech in Stormont in the Irish language but was interrupted by Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke who stated that no “foreign language” could be spoken in the House.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1951, Eddie took part in a parade in Derry to mark the national feast day. The march was banned by the Stormont Government and it led to the participants being attacked by the RUC. Some of the marchers including Councillors James Doherty and the late James Hegarty were arrested.

In the Stormont election of 1953, he decided to contest the Stormont election for the Foyle constituency as opposed to Mid Derry. He was successfully elected.

Throughout his twenty three year parliamentary life, Eddie was closely engaged with many of the problems affecting the everyday life of constituents. The acute housing problems in Belmont and Springtown camps, gerrymandering, religious discrimination in employment and the campaign to have a University built in Derry were all to the fore.

In 1964, he became leader of the Nationalist Party after the death of Joe Stewart.

With the spread of civil rights protests across the world, Eddie sensed that the prospect of violent civil strife was looming.

Fearing the ultimate cost that might be paid by some demonstrators, he favoured the side of moderation. To those appealing for further protests, he said: “I can get the people on the streets but who is going to get them off again?”

Reluctant to politicise the civil rights movement, he nevertheless took part in a march on October 5, 1968, at Duke Street in Derry which had been banned by the Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig. Eddie and other marchers were batoned by the RUC.

In the Stormont election of February 1969, Eddie was defeated by a young John Hume but, in 1970, returned to the electoral fray when he contested the Westminster election as a Nationalist unity candidate for the Derry seat.

He was, however, defeated by the sitting Unionist MP. He continued his involvement with other issues including the anti-internment protests and prisoner welfare.

Eddie McAteer died on March 25, 1986.