The Derry Civil Rights campaigner and humanitarian will turn 80 on Wednesday July 4. Despite this milestone he is preparing to return to the scene of much of the good work he has done in recent years, India.
Here, the ‘father’ of 26, recalls how his first trip to the Third World was the result of his father’s genorosity and how subsequent, strange and moving encounters in India encouraged him to return.
Having left school at the age of 13, Eamon began his working life “as a bicycle message boy delivering groceries to middle-class homes.” Moving to Scotland aged 16, he recalls: “Naughtily forging my age by two years to qualify for a man’s wage.”
After a stint on English building sites, Eamon returned home in 1956 where he married Mary, his child-hood sweetheart.
They raised eleven of their own children and fostered 15 others, all during the worst of the rampant violence of the troubles. Eamon recalls how: “During these troubled times I was involved in the struggle for civil rights and became a member of a radical socialist political party. These activities made it very difficult for me to find work and I consequently spent long periods on state benefits. My wife and I fostered, so the enlarged family consisted of twenty-six in total, fifteen daughters and eleven sons. This meant that my personal disposable finances were best described as finite. I was always skint so the sudden gift from my father of £1, 000 came as a shock. I now had the financial ability to fulfil two life-long ambitions, namely visit a Third World country and experience the desert.”
Eamon decided to visit Morocco, both because it has a desert and is the closest third world country to Ireland.
“I wanted to witness the effects of the politics of the destitute and how it affected those blighted by extreme poverty. I set off with my photographic gear and a keen sense of adventure. I knew next to nothing of Morocco but was soon fascinated with it’s scenery, mountains and cities. The towns have a very different atmosphere to anything in Europe.”
It proved a pivitol experience for Mr. Melaugh: “In Marrakech I had, what was to become a life changing experience, though at the time I certainly did not recognise it as such. It happened over lunch, I became aware that a ragged boy of about eight or nine was observing me. I realised he was interested in what I was eating, to see if I would leave food on the plate which he could have. I resolved to buy a hot meal for the boy but the waiter approached us and became visibly agitated and refused us service, shouting “No food, no food, beggar, beggar.”
Eamon who was one of the organisers of the 1968 Civil Rights march on Duke Street said: “The reaction shocked and angered me. I slowly got to my feet looked the waiter in the eye and informed him if the child was not to be served a meal, I would not pay for mine. Outraged, I advised him to send for the police as I had no intention of paying. At this point three German customers also threatened to leave. This act of international solidarity persuaded the proprietor to relent and serve the boy.”
Eamon then explains how he purchased new clothes for the boyww before he ran off: “I thought to myself ‘you ungrateful boy;’ Then I thought that he was, in all likelihood, apprehensive of my intentions. I then fed and clothed a destitute child every day during my stay in Morocco.”
The experience certainly stayed with Mr. Melaugh. On a subsequent trip to Mexico he asked his friends for sponsorship to spend on the destitute there.
“The reaction from my friends was generous. I was able to clothe and feed five children every day. I have also worked with destitute street children in Egypt, Nepal and since 2000 I have visited India on seven occasions and have, though by no means alone, been responsible for the construction of seventy-two houses in three leper colonies; twelve schools for untouchable homeless, street children, who, in the circumstances pertaining to the caste system in India would never see the inside of a school; I should point out that our students receive school meals, clothing. and have comprehensive medical and dental care.”
Things could have been much different considering after his first visit to India, Eamon swore he would never return.
“It was a terrible trip. I was so upset with what I saw. People spend tens of billions of dollars on the procurement of arms to kill and destroy. Yet a fraction of that would feed all the hungry in the world for a year. I never saw such abject poverty as I did in India. It is appalling that human beings are subjected to those living conditions.”
Only for two “strange” meetings, Eamon would never have returned. “I arrived in India in mid-May 2000. Nothing can prepare the first time visitor for the amazing variety of experiences that country has to offer. I was appalled at the scale of poverty amongst the ‘untouchables’ and the indifference to the plight of those improverished individuals.
“Had I the financial means to have left, I would have departed immediately.
“On my first morning in Rishikesh I learned of a holy-man in the mountain area. It was fifty-five minutes by motorbike. I was a pillion passenger on the rough trip up into the Garwal Himalayan Mountains. There were no roads, only goat tracks, with very steep and deep chasms to our left. I have during my travels made some dangerous journeys over mountain passes and across deserts in all sorts of vehicles, but this journey was the worst ever. I was sure my guide and I would end-up at the bottom of the mountain, dead. I remember cursing my stupidity for setting out on this hair-brained scheme and prayed that my journey would end without tragedy.”
Recalling how they: “Made their way to the cave of the old holy man. The door was opened and there stood a slim man who looked no older than seventy, but was, he said, one hundred and two years old. The old man took a long look at me then re-entered his cave. I thought I’ve made a hair-raising journey for this fleeting encounter. I was informed that the old man had gone to have a ceremonial bath and we were to return in one hour.”
Eamon then toured the village which had sprung up around the cave dwelling. “But bursting with curiosity I returned only for the holy man to walk past me without a glance. Several minutes passed before he re-appeared, his hands were behind his back and before I could get to my feet, to my utter astonishment, he placed a garland of flowers over my head and shoulders. I was stunned and surprised as he then held his left hand over my head and released flower petals that cascaded over me. Then, to my amazement he sat on the ground and kissed my feet. I tried to stop this, but my guide frantically indicated not to. In India the greatest show of affection is to touch the feet of a relative or friend; for a holy man to kiss the feet of a stranger is benediction.”
The host then informed his Irish visitor, that he had been sent to India “by God.”
Eamon’s guide informed him that the ceremonial bath, garland of flowers and the kissing of his feet, was the greatest honour the Holy Man had paid any visitor.”
This was to be the first of two “signs” Eamon believes he received on that first trip. After returning to Hardwar, the civil rights campaigner “tried to forget the previous day’s experience, but another encounter that same day would prove even stranger.”
Having returned to his hotel room, Eamon found sleep impossible. Despite the fact it was after dark in a strange city he walked among the tented city by the river banks. “I kept thinking to myself this is really foolish and potentially dangerous. I went several hundred meters into the camp then noticed a young girl of about twelve or thirteen approach me. She was carrying a baby of about one year old. The older girl surrendered the child to me. I thought, maybe I won’t find them again tomorrow so I reached into my left hand pocket and gave the older girl the contents, roughly £2. As I did a voice from behind asked; ‘May I speak with you?’ I almost jumped out of my skin. In spite of my constant vigilance, I’d been totally unaware of this individual. I swung around so fast I almost lost balance.”
The respected photographer admits he was; “Relieved to see that there was only one person in front of me. A small Indian man, about five foot six inches tall, aged about fifty six, bald on top and the hair on the sides of his head was well groomed. He was impeccably dressed in a medium brown stripped suit with a matching plain brown shirt and dark brown tie. I was astonished and blustered; ‘What would you like to say?’ I asked. His response was: ‘I have observed you for the past few days and I want you to know that you have a very beautiful soul.’
“Still holding the baby, I returned her with a kiss and immediately turned around to my complementary acquaintance only to discover he had disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived. I was unnerved, I could not rationalise or even comprehend what was happening. I was sure that I had a visitation of some sort and I had seen an apparition, which was not ghostly.”
Eamon left India, “determined never to return.” However “when I was uploading the photos of the trip I became overwhelmed. Tears flooded from my eyes. Mary asked why I was so upset. I replied; ‘I’ve bad news for both of us, I’m going back to India.’”
Since then Eamon has returned several times, formed a charity Action With Effect which has, among other projects overseen the building of seventy two homes for leper families, provided five leper colonies with toilets and showers, built twelve schools for destitute children, built a mixed gender orphanage for street children in Dehra Dun North India, a twenty four bed hospice for lepers, which is currently being used as an orphanage, and provided old ladies with sewing machines and training to make them financially self-sufficient.
Eamon concludes by adding that all of this was possible only because; “I reappraised my attitude to the old holy man who said that God had sent me to India. He hopes to return to India in October.