Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Peacemaker Profiles #3: Mairead Corrigan Maguire & Betty Williams

Máiread Corrigan Maguire, Betty Williams, and the Community of Peace People

by Michael L. Westmoreland-White

Though they shared the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976 and have continued to be very active in peacemaking, Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams are far from household names, at least in the USA.  They deserve to be far better known, both for the roles they played in launching the peace movement in Northern Ireland and since.

First, a very brief bit of background. Before there was a “United Kingdom,” England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man were all independent, neighboring nations. The story of England’s successful wars for sovereignty over these other lands is too long to go into here. Suffice it to say that for a long period of time all of Ireland was ruled over by England, with all the usual oppressive moves, including outrageous rents by absentee landlords, denial of franchise, etc.

Eventually, the greater part of Ireland (the Southern part) won/was granted independence and is today the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. But that was/is greatly resented by much of the population. Religious differences were part of this strife as the vast majority of native Irish were Roman Catholic, but English colonizers and descendants were Protestant, usually members of the Church of England but also including Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and a scattering of other groups. Protestants in Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the U.K. and formed Loyalist parties, often armed. Most Catholics in Northern Ireland, who were not represented in governmental decisions and had numerous other inequalities, wanted to merge Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland and thus formed various political movements, many of them armed, called Republican because of their desire to have one, united, Catholic Irish Republic. Over the years, most of the Republican groups used guerilla warfare and terrorist tactics. The Loyalists responded in kind and British troops imposed harsh measures, including many violations of “the rules of war,” resulting in gross human rights abuses. (For more on all this see David McKittrick and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 2002.) That was the status quo for nearly a century. Northern Ireland became synonymous with violence, terrorism, and massive military retaliation and much of that spilled over into the rest of the U.K. as well.

The story: On 10 August 1976, Danny Lennon, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA — a guerilla army of Catholic “republicans”), was attempting to elude capture by the police. The latter shot and killed him. Lennon’s car swerved out of control and onto a sidewalk and into a fence. The car severely injured a young mother, Anne Maguire, out for a walk with three of her children, but the children, including a 6-week old baby, were killed instantly. The event could have been chalked up to just another act of violence and chaos in Northern Ireland, but it horrified the children’s aunt, Máiread Corrigan, and  Betty Williams, who witnessed the event. Corrigan and Williams began organizing the community, both Protestant and Catholic, to oppose the violence. A journalist, Ciaran McKeown, joined them, gave them publicity, and helped write their initial declarations. Thus, the Peace People, which had at one time 14, 000 members, was born.

Máiread Corrigan Maguire (b. 1944-). Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the daughter of a window cleaning contractor and a housewife, Máiread Corrigan had been neither an activist, nor a pacifist, nor even particularly politically involved until the tragedy of 10 August 1976 which took her sister and nephews and niece. A Catholic with mild republican leanings, Corrigan was a product of a rather typical working class Irish-Catholic family. She had attended Catholic schools and 1 year of business school (Miss Gordon’s Commercial College). Since age 16, she had worked in various clerical positions, especially as a shorthand typist. At the time when the movement started, she was confidential secretary to the Managing Director of Arthur Guiness & Co., a large Irish firm. She had done volunteer work for Catholic charitable organizations, especially helping to establish clubs for physically handicapped children. She also worked with young people and in prison visitation.

Once the Northern Ireland Peace Movement started, Máiread Corrigan became transformed. She helped to found Peace House, the headquarters of the Peace People, which also served as an intentional community for the leaders of the movement. She and Betty Williams led nonviolent demonstrations and strikes. They met with British officials and terrorists from the republican and loyalist groups and urged peace.

The three founders of the Peace People, Corrigan, Williams, and McKeown, were honored with the Carl Osseitsky Medal for Courage from the Berlin section of the International League for Human Rights in 1976. That brought them to the attention of peacemakers worldwide. They were awarded the Norwegian People’s Peace Prize (a populist alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize) in 1976 and the accompanying prize money gave Peace People some much-needed funding for their peace education projects. They were also nominated for the Nobel, but no Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for 1976. Instead, the 1976 prize, shared by Corrigan and Williams, was awarded in 1977 along with the 1977 award to Amnesty International.

In the years following the awarding of the Nobel, violence was renewed in Northern Ireland and the Peace People’s numbers and effectiveness dwindled. Only recently has peace appeared to have a real chance to take hold in that troubled land, especially after the signing of the Good Friday Accords. The Peace People themselves had dissensions over the direction that their projects should take. Of the three founders, only Máiread remains with the Peace People. Ciaran McKeown left to return to journalism. Betty Williams left in 1978 and in 1980 emigrated to the United States, but has continued her peace and justice activism in her new homeland.

Anne Maguire, mother of the slain children and Máiread’s sister, never recovered physically from her injuries or emotionally from the loss of her children. She died in 1980. In September Máiread married her sister’s widower and adopted the three remaining children, Mark, Joanne, and Marie Louise. In addition, Máiread and Jackie Maguire are also the parents of John and Luke from their own marriage.

Máiread’s work with Peace People gave her an extended contact with Protestants for the first time. Her peacemaking has included work for ecumenical harmony. She has received a Certificate in Ecumenical Studies from the Irish School for Ecumenics and has continued her work with ecumenical and interfaith organizations. She has become a leader in the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (the world’s oldest interfaith pacifist organization) and active in the U.K. chapter of the Catholic peace organization, Pax Christi International. She is a Patron of Edgehill College (the Irish Methodist Theological College) and Northern Ireland’s Council for Integrated Education. (In the U.S., “integrated education” refers to educating all races and ethnic groups in the public schools, together. Ireland is fairly monocultural in terms of ethnicity, but separated strongly by religion. There “integrated education” refers to educating Protestant and Catholic children in the same schools, with curricula which is fair to the contributions of each heritage. This was a movement started by Peace People.) She has received an honorary doctorates from Yale University, the University of South Korea, and the College of New Rochelle (NY), and special awards from Trinity College (Washington, DC), and St. Michael’s College (VT). In 1978, she was a special honoree of the United Nation’s “Women of Achievement” and the American Academy of Achievement. In October, 1990, U.S. Catholic Bishop Gerald O’Keefe of Iowa named her to receive that year’s Pacem im Terris, Peace and Freedom award. In June 1992, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, headquartered in California, awarded Máiread the “Distinguished Peace Leadership Award.”

Since helping to found Peace People, Máiread Corrigan Maguire has traveled widely in the U.S., New Zealand, Korea, India, Australia, Africa, Bangladesh, Japan, Israel/Palestine, and, recently, in Iraq. In all those places, she has been a voice for peace, nonviolence, justice, and human rights. She continued to urge the IRA to abandon guerilla warfare and terrorism for a political struggle for their goals and made similar calls on Protestant Loyalists. She has supported the ordination of women to the priesthood in her own Roman Catholic Church and called for reform of the church to a less heirarchical and more populist structure and urged it to stand for justice and peace within its structures as well as in the wider world. She has been a guest in Argentina of Aldofo Perez Esquivel, founder of SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia — “Service for Peace and Justice”) and Nobel Peace Laureate for 1980, whom Máiread first nominated for the Nobel. She has been part of the Nobel Peace Laureates’ Appeal for Global Nuclear Disarmament and Creating a Culture of Nonviolence, which began at The Hague, Netherlands, in 1997. Most recently, she has become one of the Councillers for the World Peace Council, based in Canada.

Betty Williams (b. 1943-). Born Betty Smyth, Betty Williams is the daughter of a Catholic mother and Protestant father. Like Máiread Corrigan Maguire, Betty Williams comes from Irish working class stock. Her father was a butcher and her mother a housewife. She was educated in Catholic schools, but married a Protestant (Ralph Williams) from Bermuda. They have two children, Paul and Deborah. (When the couple divorced in 1982 over Ms. Williams’ activism, she married James Perkins and moved to Florida.)  When the tragedy which led to the founding of Peace People ocurred, Betty Williams had no background in peacemaking or activism. She was an office receptionist and housewife whose interests were dressmaking, gardening, reading, and swimming. She had some sympathy with the republican cause, but not for either its methods or the hostilities between Protestants and Catholics. She is widely acknowledged to have been the original driving force behind Peace People. She enlisted Máiread Corrigan and Ciaran McKeown. She was the main drive in circulating petitions and organizing marches, tearing down barbed wire barricades, and initiating common events between Protestants and Catholics. It was Williams who gave the Nobel Lecture/Acceptance Speech for herself and Máiread in 1976 in Oslo on 11 December 1977. (It can be found at http://gos.sbc.edu/w/bwilliams.html)

Betty Williams has adopted the slogan that the Nobel Peace Prize is given “not so much for what one has done as for what one will do.” (One hopes that U.S. Pres. Obama takes up that slogan as a promise.)  Although she left the Peace People in 1978 and moved to the United States in 1980, she has continued to work and speak out for peace, human rights, and nonviolent struggle for justice. Her work since that time has especially focused on the plight of children as she has traveled the globe recording the testimonies of children plagued by war, hunger, disease, child prostitution, and other horrors beyond belief.

Betty Williams has continued to write op-ed pieces against the arms trade, the nuclear arms race, and for the U.S. ratification of major UN human rights treaties. In 1992, she met with the newly-elected U.S. President, Bill Clinton, and VP Al Gore, and recounted the horrors of Burma and East Timor in their presence, urging vigorous U.S. engagement to transform those situations. She wrote an article about that encounter that was widely published. That same year, Governor Ann Richards of Texas appointed Williams to the Texas Commission for Children and Youth. She has been awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws (Ll.D.) from Yale University, the Schweitzer Medallion for Courage, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for the promotion of human rights, and the Frank Foundation Child Assistance International Oliver Award. In 1992, she chaired the international committee celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Children’s Defense Fund and its founder, Marion Wright Edelman.

Betty Williams has written and spoken constantly around the world for peace and now is a special lecturer for Nova Southeastern University in Tampa, FL. In 1995, she was awarded the Rotary Club International’s “Paul Harris Fellowship” and the Together for Peace Foundation’s Peace Building Award. In 1995, her concern for children’s welfare led her to form World Centers of Compassion for Children International, an international network working to protect children’s rights and promote children’s welfare. Her advisory board consists mostly of other Nobel Peace Laureates, economists, futurists, child advocates. Her new organization has Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status at the United Nations where Betty Williams has striven to present children’s voices about their own problems to global leaders.

Additionally, Betty Williams serves on the Council of Honor for the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica, and is a Patron of the International Peace Foundation in Vienna, Austria. She is the Chair of the Institute for Asian Democracy in Washington, D.C., and an honorary member of the Club of Budapest. Like her friend Máiread Corrigan Maguire, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize did not crown Betty Williams’ peacemaking efforts, it propelled them across her lifetime and, apparently will continue to do so into the future. In January 2002, she gave a speech at the University of Miami admitting to students her profound anger over the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 — and her firm resolve that violent retaliation was the wrong response, continuing rather than breaking the cycle of violence. Students interviewed afterwords for the Miami Herald said that hearing a Nobel Peace Prize winner admit publicly that her first emotional reaction to the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania was “Nuke ’em!” made them more open to her later discussion of why such an emotional response should not guide our actions and to her analysis of how nonviolent peacework could do more against terrorism in the long run than a military response.

Máiread Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams show that sometimes tragic circumstances can yield to the healing brought by  active nonviolence. At first their actions were spontaneous. Neither woman had a history rooted in pacifism, in activism for social justice, or in training in the theory and practice of nonviolence. All this they picked up as they went along. Today, Máiread Corrigan Maguire has become a major voice for Christian nonviolence, in and out of her own Roman Catholic communion. Betty Williams’ relation to the church is more low-key, but she, like her friend Máiread, has become a complete pacifist deeply rooted in a spirituality of nonviolence. In Williams’ case that spirituality is nourished by many sources, including the works of the 14th Dalai Lama, but also Catholic and Protestant Christian pacifists, past and present. Their story also shows that a nonviolent movement may begin spontaneously, but then it has to form community and organization and connect to the longer nonviolent narrative in order to remain a vital force. These women, the movement they started, and the organizations with which they are connected today, are vibrant chapters in the ongoing history of nonviolence.

A few resources for further exploration:

David McKittrick and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 2002.

Sarah Boucher, Bettina Ling, and Charlotte Bunch. Máiread Corrigan and Betty Williams: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Feminist Press, 1994. For ages 9-12. Part of the “Women Changing the World” series for young readers put out by Feminist Press.

Susan Muaddi Darraj.  Máiread Corrigan and Betty Williams: Partners for Peace in Northern IrelandForeward by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.  Chelsea House Publications, 2006.  Young adult.  Darraj traces the roots of the conflict back to the 12th C. before focusing on the modern conflict.  Part of the Modern Peacemakers series.

Máiread Corrigan Maguire, The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland, ed. John Dear, S. J. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999. Major writings and speeches by Maguire, edited by Jesuit priest and nonviolent activist/theologian John Dear.

Colin Irwin. The People’s Peace Process in Northern Ireland. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.


August 29, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, ecumenism, heroes, History, Just Peacemaking, nonviolence, pacifism, peace

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