Kathleen Doherty: her compassion and empathy never ever dimmed

Kathleen Doherty, one of Derry’s ‘Peace Women’ of the early 1970s, passed away earlier this week. Eamonn Baker pays tribute to her.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 9:09 am
May 1972... Derrys Peace Women - Kathleen Doherty is pictured second from right - meet with Derry republican John White.

On behalf of the Peace IV funded Valued Voices project, I interviewed Kathleen Doherty and Harriet Hippsley last autumn in Harriet’s home in Jacqueline Way. I am so glad that I did.

Both shared from their life story with vigour, integrity and craic.

They explained how, along with Margaret Doherty, Eileen Semple and Mary Barr. they became known as the “Derry Peace Women.”

With Kathleen’s death last Sunday, Harriet is now the last woman standing. I felt sad as I chatted briefly with Harriet at Holy Family Church prior to Kathleen’s funeral on Wednesday.

I can recall the grief Kathleen expressed as she talked about the death of her sixteen year old son Gerard in much disputed circumstances on February 25, 1972, at the Central Drive headquarters of the Official IRA. She told me Gerard’s remains were brought into St Mary’s Church on the night of the month’s mind mass for the Bloody Sunday victims. Such pain and trauma in Creggan. Three months later, on May 21, the Official IRA killed young Creggan man William Best who was home from Germany on leave from the British Army. His death became the catalyst for these five powerfully courageous women to band together to challenge violence from whatever quarter.

Very quickly they were dubbed the “Derry Peace Women”. For Kathleen, it was a whirlwind time, a time of such intense busyness that it helped her, in some ways, deal with the bitter shock of her young son’s death.

Both ordinary and, yet, extraordinary, the Derry Peace Women were very quickly lionised by the media and, sometimes, manipulated. Everybody wanted to meet them: William Whitelaw, Edward Heath, the Dublin government. They were on the popular Eamonn Andrews show on ITV. They even met with Muhammad Ali. And, in their own community, sometimes they were vilified, their homes and families attacked.

The entirely voluntary commitment of the Derry Peace Women grew out of a vision that our society could resolve its deadly conflict in a peaceful manner. A few years later, they would work alongside Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, the Belfast Peace Women. Then, gradually, Kathleen, Harriet, Eileen, Margaret and Mary faded from the limelight, their heroic story almost lost as the heroic stories of so many women are lost.

For Kathleen, a Donegal woman, from up on Horn Head, just beyond Dunfanaghy, her husband, Jim, her children, her grandchildren and her great grand children, became the centre of her life. Family life was where she truly enjoyed the limelight for many years after those frenetic days of the 1970s. And faith and prayer were her constants. There is so much more to say about Kathleen but, perhaps, not at this moment.

It was my privilege last December to be invited, with Kathleen and Harriet, to the Mayor’s Parlour. John Boyle did the honours, greeting us all warmly. There we met up with Jennifer McNern who lost both her legs in the horrific Abercorn explosion of March 1972.

Kathleen’s empathy and compassion remained undimmed as she listened attentively to Jennifer share some of her story.

Go ndeana Dia trocaire ar a h-anam dilis agus croga.