COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Magdalen Nelis-O’Hare is a woman who knows what fear is.
Widowed at 33, the mother of four not only reared her family alone - but survived 18 armed robberies at Creggan Post Office where she worked during the height of Derry’s Troubles.
In 1969 a photographer snapped a picture of Magdalen during a riot at the Battle of the Bogside. She’s a picture of innocence in a scene of devastation, dressed stylishly and holding a basket as she tried to get to the Waterside to visit her daughter in hospital.
It’s a picture Magdalen has kept and treasured. Within a few years the Strabane woman had lost the love of her life - her husband Frankie, and been held at gunpoint at Creggan Post office.
But the traumas she faced in her life, Magdalen says, made her fiesty.
Not only did she have the courage to challenge the British Army when they kicked her pet dog to death in 1970, Magdalen, one of Derry’s first ever marriage guidance counsellors often spoke back to the men that held guns to her head at the post office.
“I had to be strong,” she said. “I had to stand on my own two feet.
“Nothing can hurt you as much as the loss of your husband. But I had my wanes to keep me going. Frankie was so well known and loved. When he went, he left me with a good name that I felt I had to live up to. I was very lucky to have been loved by him.”
Now a grandmother and about to turn 76, Magdalen says she’s lost the nerves of steel that got her through some of the most difficult times in this city’s history.
She simply repeats the words she uttered when she was interviewed by the media after facing an 18th armed robbery. “Courage in face of a robbery is a different type of courage - that is shortlived, but the death of a partner, that is for the rest of you life.”
Born in Meeting House Street in Strabane, Magdalen (named after one of the nuns in the local convent,) was a girl of 16 when she met met Frankie at a football match in Lifford.
Young Frankie was smitten by the girl who played a trick on him that day tying his belt to the gate.
“That was that,” said Magdalen. “He asked if we were going to the ‘Hop’ that night in the hall. When I arrived he asked me to dance. We only saw each other on Sundays when he and his four friends would share a car and come to Strabane to visit.”
Magadalen was 19 when she became Mrs. Nelis and moved to Foster’s Terrace at the Gasyard in Derry where Frankie’s barber shop was based.
“It was a proper barber shop with cut throat razors and hot towels,” said Magdalen. “Frankie was well known on the quiz scene and people often came in to pass the time of day with him. (His quiz cup became the most coveted prize in Derry). We lived in the end house and the kids all played ball at the Gasyard wall just like they said in the song. “
However Magdalen’s world was to come crushing down when Frankie unexpectedly took ill and died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage one morning in 1970. They had been married just 14 years.
Magdalen (33) found herself alone and broken hearted with four young children to rear.
“I just couldn’t function,” recalled Magdalen. “My youngest Paul had just started school. After leaving him off in the morning I would go to Bernard’s wee shop and buy six cream fingers, then I would go in and sit in front of the fire and eat them.
“But I had to get myself together. My family in Strabane wanted me to come home and live there but I didn’t want to take the children away, they had lost their father and I didn’t want them to lose their friends as well.
“The area was being redeveloped for the new flyover. My neighbour Mrs. Friel, had moved to Creggan, so we did too. I had four children to feed so I took a job in the post office.”
By now, the Troubles in Derry were rife.
But Magdalen, like many other Derry people wanted to do her for bit for civil rights - and in 1969 had been part of the Civil Rights Plane that took a convoy of people from Derry to London to the House of Commons to protest about what had been going on in the city.
“I remember it well,” said Magdalen. “I wore my fur hat and coat. We were told to dress well because they wanted us to look proper. The man who sat beside me looked out the window and told me he could see snow.
“We laughed because he was pointing at the clouds. But it was the first time any of us had been on a plane.
“We had a police escort to the airport and a coach took us to Trafalgar Square.
“Lots of journalists wanted to talk to us. That night we had dinner in the Irish Club at Eaton Square. None of us had any money but I remember one of the men pawning his watch so he could buy a few drinks.”
The trip led to Magdalen going on a Thames television current affairs programme to talk about what life was like in Derry and about people being injured with rubber bullets. During one of the shows she met Eamon Andrews and still has a treasured autograph from him. She also appeared on Songs of Praise twice.
It took time for Magdalen to adjust to life in Creggan.
In the beginning her washing was stolen from the line and her child’s bike stolen, but she loved the sense of community and that she could go and visit Frankie’s grave whenever she she wanted.
One incident with the family’s dog was to remain with her forever.
“At dinner time my daughter Trisha would take our dog for a walk to Rathowen Park,” explained Magdalen. “When the soldiers came in to Creggan all the dogs would bark at them.
“One night the dog pulled away from her and ran for a soldier and the soldier kicked it. The wee dog died. The wanes were up all night crying about the dog. It had come from my sister to help them over death of father. The next day I marched down to Piggery Ridge and told the soldiers I wanted to make a complaint about one of their men kicking my dog into the road.
“I said I wanted to give a message to them that my wanes were up all night crying about the dog.
“Next day I went to my work and the Scotch Guards turned up. I told them my children had lost their father and now had lost their pet - they said they would get me a new dog. “We didn’t take it, we couldn’t have taken a dog from them.”
In 1972, Magdalen flatly refused to let her children go on the Bloody Sunday march - instead she walked with them as far as Foyle Hill before making them turn back.
“We went into the house. My friend’s husband came in later and told us someone had been shot.
“I had a phone in the house, in those days not everyone had a phone. There was a knock at the door and one of the Duddys was there asking if he could use the phone because he heard his brother had been shot. By then, the news was unfolding on the television, I tried to block his view so he wouldn’t see.”
The next day, Magdalen and the other staff at the post office didn’t know whether to open or close.
They weren’t to know what being an employee of the post office during the Troubles would mean for them.
“The post office was hard work,” explained Magdalen. “On Mondays and Tuesdays the lines queueing were like people looking for tickets to a U2 concert. We were always busy - that’s when the robberies started.
“The first time they came in and wanted money we were shocked. In later robberies they came in with masks on and talked like they did on TV saying ‘Freeze’.
“Then there were bad ones. I remember one time watching as they threw Mr Smith on the ground and sat on his back. The robberies got worse and we had to close down for six months.
“It was traumatic for me being up in Creggan with four wanes. They (the paramilitaries) knew I didn’t support them. They followed me to the house one time in the early days and told me I was putting the lives of their volunteers in danger because I wouldn’t do what they told me.
“I argued with them saying they were taking people’s money.
“I would have spoken back in those days, I had no sense, I wouldn’t do it now.
In 1982 Magdalen left Creggan - taking on the job of post mistress at Galliagh.
“I left Creggan after the hunger strikes, it was a wile time,” she said. “Paul was doing his exams and buses were burning outside in the streets. No allowances were made for the youngsters the next day going in and sitting their exams,”
But in Galliagh the robberies continued and Magdalen and her son Paul were confronted by masked men at their front door.
“I was on my lunchbreak,” explained Magdalen. “I answered the door and they were there with masks on ordering us up the stairs.”
But Magdalen was still defiant.
“I told him I had a toastie on,” she said, “but he told me to unplug it. He tied our hands and feet with tape and took the keys from my bag.”
Magdalen gave up the post office after the birth of her grandchild Sarah.
“I didn’t want a stranger minding my first grandchild and the wanes were always at me to leave,” she explained.
These days Magdalen is computer literate and enjoys amateur photography.
In 2003 she married Eugene O’Hare who sadly passed away four years ago.
Magdalen’s philosophical about life.
“My wanes kept me going,” she said. “I felt I had a lot to live up to with Frankie, he left me a good name and I was going to live up to it. I never forget his memoriam even after 42 years.
“I’m just so lucky to have been loved by Frankie and Eugene,” she said, “two of the most Christian men I have ever met.”
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