Tony O’Doherty - a champion of the people

The late Tony O'Doherty, pictured at a civil rights protest in the late 1960s. (1708MM10 )

The late Tony O'Doherty, pictured at a civil rights protest in the late 1960s. (1708MM10 )

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On July 7th Tony O’Doherty, a veteran civil rights campaigner from Lone Moor Road passed away, aged seventy. Shortly before, while terminally-ill at Altnagelvin Hospital, he married his partner Deirdre Doherty, originally from Bishop Street, whom he met in 1995.

His siblings recall Tony’s first priority being his immediate family, but are justly proud of his dedication to our wider community. When in good health, he directed his energy towards organising community games, such as handball and football tournaments, for local children over their summer holidays. Local parents do not forget that he paid for trophies and medals out of his own pocket. For him relaxation included gardening and watching plants grow, or putting on the overalls to tackle interior decorating jobs within their closely-knit family circle.

If memory serves one right Tony’s earliest involvement emerged when recruited to the Young Republican Association. Its membership was actively engaged within the Derry Housing Action Committee. With trail-blazers such as the late Mrs. Bridget and Johnny Bond, he carrying out city-wide ‘over-crowding surveys’ before filling the non-paid post of distribution manager of ‘Reality’, the D.H.A.C’s periodic illustrated newsletter. This was a vital role that demanded great energy as its circulation was the agitprop group’s main source of revenue. In those days a copy cost one shilling or five pence in today’s currency.

John Anthony, commonly known as ‘Tony’, was a committed socialist, a doer, not an arm-chair philosopher. Usually in the thick of things, without hesitation, he can be described as an unselfish and dedicated champion of the common people. One recalls the dramatic official opening of the lower deck of Craigavon Bridge to traffic. In the vanguard, adorned in fur-edged robes, golden chain and dangling medallion, the Unionist mayor’s cavalcade of dignitaries was abruptly blocked by ‘lesser mortals’, described in the media, as ‘homeless’.

The supposedly ever-vigilant RUC were taken by surprise. Five protestors seemed to appear out of nowhere and produced placards from under the back of their coats. They immediately sat down on the disused railway tracks, which spanned the river Foyle. Meanwhile others, at the Waterside end created an impromptu choir and began to sing the Afro-American civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. However, their baton-less self-appointed ‘conductor’ was rudely interrupted, promptly head-locked, arrested, transported and with others detained at Victorian Barracks.

In chapter three of the book Ulster’s White Negroes, entitled ‘The Homeless Revolt’, it’s recorded: “This defiant handful included J.J. O’Hara (whose older brother Patsy was to die on hunger-strike in Long Kesh in May 1981), Tony O’Doherty, Roddy Carlin, Neill O’Donnell and lastly Sean McGeehan, who was new to the campaigning life”.

Tony was also a close friend of Mickey Devine, who, at the age of twenty-seven, after sixty days, was the last of ten hunger-strikers to die on August 20th 1981. With others, both young men on the eve of Derry’s first-ever civil rights march on October 5th 1968 met at the home of the late Norman Walmsley to prepare placards for what they hoped would be just another ‘peaceful demo’. Mickey later married one of Norman’s daughters and it is a strange historical coincidence that this address on Long Tower Street had once been Tony’s family home.

As a child Tony attended the “wee nuns”, Long Tower Primary School. In 1979 he registered as a mature student to undertake the ‘Foundation Studies Course’ at Magee. That was a springboard towards successfully obtaining a BA (Hons) History Degree at the University of Ulster in 1984. While studying he was repeatedly elected to the position of Entertainment Officer by the Students’ Union, no doubt due a combination of his magnet-like personality and ‘know-how’, which attracted numerous high profile bands, such as The Water Boys and Hothouse Flowers, onto the campus.

To many, one of the least-known aspects of Tony’s life is that he was a prolific lyricist and poet, who, over the decades, wrote under a contract which produced chart-topping songs that continue to inspire people around the globe. One could also recall his photographic compilations such as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ in 1969, and the 1970 ‘Bogside Calendar’. Another ‘fund-raiser’ was his post-Saville Report commemorative CD, ‘Vindicated’, in which music to his lyrics was performed by ‘Steadfast’. It revisited the events in the Bogside on January 30, 1972, and all proceeds were donated to the Bloody Sunday Trust.

Tony is survived by his wife Deirdre and his ten year-old daughter Lucy; his brothers Andrew, George, Colum, Eamonn, Vincent, and Martin; and his sister Josephine. He is predeceased by his sister Celine and brothers Gerry and more recently Kevin, whose life and talents as a popular Irish traditional musician were commemorated and acknowledged this summer at the Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin centre.

Slan mó chara maith agus comrad cróga.

Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh,

Co-founder,

Civil Rights Association, 1967.