All the way from San Jose, Martha McClelland has never looked back and never stopped fighting for what she believes in. Ellen Barr finds out why...
“I know the way from San Jose,” laughs Martha McClelland. Referring to the Dionne Warwick classic, she charts her journey from thousands of miles away in California to the streets of Derry where, in 1972, she joined the many others campaigning for civil liberties here.
For almost 40 years, Martha has made Derry her home and fought for people here as if she’d been born and raised in the city itself.
Last week, her fight for better services for people with mental illness earned her a Woman of the Year award at the annual Derry City Council ceremony.
Looking back to her childhood and younger years, one of a family of three, Martha credits her mother Peggy with instilling a firm sense of social justice in her. Her mother, whose parents were Irish, was one of the few white members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1960’s America.
“My brother and I actually distributed election literature in the streets during the JFK election campaign,” says Martha.
Like many others, Martha spent the sixties opposing the war in Vietnam. In the early seventies, when she was at graduate school in Berkeley University, she and others watched on tv what had happened on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday.
“After a few days the story just disappeared off the air and that perplexed me,” says Martha.
“I knew something was wrong with that and when the British Ambassador Lord Carrington came to visit our school we asked him about Bloody Sunday. I remember his response was ‘What’s Bloody Sunday, I don’t remember that one.’”
Spurred on by her Irish heritage on her mother’s side and a determination to find out more about what was happening here, in the summer of 1972, Martha joined a peace group and travelled to Ireland, basing herself in Derry.
She was, she says, instantly drawn to the resolve and dignity of Derry people and she wasn’t put off by the violence on the city’s streets.
“The first thing I remember about arriving here was walking from Littlewoods Corner towards Tracey’s Bar. I saw this pipe sticking out of the ground so I moved to avoid it. It was only then when it moved slightly that I realised it was a rifle attached to a British soldier who was lying there!” says Martha.
“Even though the soldiers were on the streets here. The people were so brave and there was this amazing sense of community spirit. There were just some very very decent people here and that really struck me,” she adds.
After spending that first summer here as part of the project she had travelled with, Martha returned to America and taught but returned to Derry in the summer of 1973. Armed with just 100 dollars, she’d arrived on the understanding that there was a paid teaching job waiting for her but the funding didn’t materialise. Instead she made her living earning £5 a week as a secretary.
During the same time, Martha, watching what was happening to people around her, accepted an offer to join Sinn Fein and became very active locally and regionally.
She was subsequently involved in every level of political activity from acting as the local press officer to being a member of the party’s Ard Comhairle.
“I’d never seen so much of America until I travelled there on behalf of Sinn Fein,” she says.
“Obviously during the Troubles many of their members couldn’t travel to America so I visited 37 cities on their behalf.”
As well as this Martha was instrumental in forming the National H-Block/Armagh Committee to campaign for the rights of prisoners.
During all of this Martha was fighting her own personal demons. Although she had desperately tried to keep it a secret since her teenage years, the veteran civil rights campaigner had often suffered from bouts of depression.
“I had always experienced manic depression since I was about 16,” she says.
“There were points when I was suicidally depressed but I just kept living life because I thought the only thing I could do was just get on with it. In that sense, I did my best to keep up commitments.”
Following two stints in hospital, Martha was eventually diagnosed as being Bi-polar in 1991. Even the very thought of the condition horrified her, as she explains:
“I was putting all the negative stigma on myself. I felt like I had this flashing sign on my forehead saying that I was mentally ill. I thought I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
In 1995 Martha was asked to sit on a committee which would give the Western Trust vital feedback on mental health services. While she admits she was initially nervous about being identified she soon began to see the committee as an opportunity for empowerment and took a fresh look at her own issues.
“I realised that mental illness is a part of life and that we all have the power to recover,” she says,
With empowerment and advocacy as her top priorities Martha became the driving force behind Mind Yourself, an organisation she helped found in 1996.
The group is led and run entirely by people in recovery from mental health crises. Her nomination for the Woman of the Year award which she received states.
“Her work demonstrates people supporting one another through such disabling experiences can achieve recovery. Active also in mental health at a Northern Ireland level, she involves service users at every level to speak up for themselves, plan and monitor these services,”
Martha’s passion for the organisation stems from a deep understanding of the challenges of living with a mental illness.
She remains thoroughly committed to speaking up for people and more importantly, encouraging them to speak up for themselves.
She reiterates that the doors at Mind Yourself are open to anyone who feels they can avail of the service and that there is no waiting list.
Remaining humble, she credits the service users with doing most of the work and says she still couldn’t believe she’d been honoured with a Woman of the Year award.
“I just believe in fighting for your rights and making a difference where you stand,” she concludes.
People can walk in, telephone us on 02871 263461 or email INFO@MINDYOURSELF.NET