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“NOT QUITE PHILADELPHIA, IS IT?”: AN INTERVIEW WITH EAMONN McCANN MARGOT GAYLE BACKUS eamonn McCann was born in Derry, into the first generation of workingclass Catholics to benefit from the Education Act of 1947. McCann’s biography is in a sense paradigmatic of the experiences of this generation. Guaranteeing free secondary and third-level education throughout the UK and implemented in Northern Ireland over the objections of Unionist MPs, the Education Act of 1947 led to the emergence of a generation of cultural and political luminaries, including Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, and Bernadette Devlin (McAliskey), and brought about social conditions propitious to the emergence of the Northern Ireland civil-rights movement. While his career as an activist and writer now spans four decades, McCann is best known for his role in the Derry civil-rights movement. With Eamonn Melaugh, McCann was the primary organizer of Derry’s first civil-rights march, which took place on 5 October 1968. McCann describes the organizers of this march as “a loose group of radicals who had been trying for months, with some success, to create general political mayhem in the city.”1 Drawn from the James Connolly Republican Club and the local Labour party, the organizers of the march formed themselves into the Derry Housing Action Committee. They sought to draw attention to the lack of safe, decent housing in Derry and to direct growing outrage among the people of Derry toward the root causes of poor housing, unemployment, and lack of civil rights, which they took to be political and economic. Viewed from a geographical and temporal remove, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) has often been represented as the driving force behind the civil-rights movement . It is important to note, however, that McCann and his comrades differed with NICRA and with the nationalist establishment in every possible respect. Indeed, NICRA sought to call off the 5 October march in AN INTERVIEW WITH EAMONN McCANN 174 1 Eamonn McCann, War and an Irish Town (Pluto Press, 1993), 83. obedience to a ban imposed by William Craig, Minister for Home Affairs. The violence with which the 5 October march was met, while mild in comparison with later developments, was far beyond anything that the marchers or the people of Northern Ireland had anticipated. Approximately one hundred protesters and bystanders were hospitalized when the RUC used batons and water cannon to dispel the march, and fighting that broke out in the city center and around the Bogside lasted through much of the night. On the following day images of police brutality against the marchers (including the clubbing of two Nationalist MPs) circulated not only in Ireland and Britain but around the world, generating considerable shock and outrage. This march is therefore frequently cited as a watershed in the history of Northern Ireland because it so clearly delineated the polarized positions of the unarmed and idealistic civil-rights demonstrators and the authoritarian unionist state. Throughout this period McCann insisted, as he continues to do today, that organizing against the status quo in Northern Ireland is greatly impeded by the division of the working class along religious lines. His life work has thus been uncommonly consistent, and of a sort that the standard paradigm positing the Northern Ireland civil-rights movement and the subsequent “troubles” as a struggle between working-class Catholics and a hegemonic Protestant middle class has a strong tendency to obscure or render incoherent. Because his career and analysis have run counter to the most commonly available models for understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland , McCann has remained relatively little known outside Ireland, although he is well known and widely admired in Ireland, north and south. He is the author of numerous books, including War and an Irish Town (1993), a collection of his fortnightly columns for Hot Press entitled McCann: War and Peace in Northern Ireland (1998), and, most recently, Dear God: The Price of Religion in Ireland (1999). He is a member of the executive committee and a past chairperson of the Derry Trades Union Council and a member of the Bloody Sunday Campaign and the Socialist Workers’ party. This interview took place on 12 March 2000 at Caf...


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