“You’re not meant to be here! You’re meant to be at home with a cat on your knee, listening to the radio!”, so said inmates in Limerick Prison and Mountjoy upon seeing Margaretta D’Arcy join them behind bars.
For the veteran activist, writer, and film-maker, a term in gaol was nothing new. “I’ve been to prison before,” Margaretta tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “Once in India, twice in Holloway, twice in Armagh, and twice in the Republic!”
Last December, Margaretta and fellow Galway Alliance Against War member Niall Farrell were convicted at Ennis District Court of having blocked two flights from landing on Shannon Airport runway in October 2012. In January, she was gaoled after refusing to enter into a bond to refrain from protesting at the facility.
The fact that Margaretta was 79 and not in robust health sparked a national debate about the appropriateness of her incarceration, particularly following a visit she received from Sabina Higgins, wife of Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins.
Such was the outpouring of support Margaretta received during her time in prison (“The prison officers couldn’t get over the amounts of cards and letters that were coming in,” she says ) that she will mark her 80th birthday on Saturday with “tea and cake at my house as a way of thanking all those who supported me during my time in prison. They are all welcome”.
Turning 80, however, does not mean abandoning her convictions, her stance against the US military’s use of Shannon, or indeed the prospect of returning to gaol. “I was born a radical,” she declares.
Yesterday Margaretta was in Dublin, where, along with Dr Edward Horgan and Dr John Lannon, she presented a petition to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight, calling for an investigation into the US Military and CIA use of Shannon Airport and Irish airspace. Furthermore, she and Niall Farrell will be in Ennis District Court again next Tuesday, in relation to actions on the runway at Shannon Airport on September 1 2013.
“We went into the runway to start a conversation about Shannon,” she says. “Are the Government still going to deny what is going on? There are not as many US troops going through Shannon now as before, as the US army mostly use Germany as a stop-off point, but I don’t think that makes any difference, as I don’t know of any other airport in the world where civilian and military aircraft stand side by side and military and civilians in the same space. The military are always kept separate.
“Also why are the Irish Army at Shannon? To protect the American military from us? But the Army are there when the Shannon Watch protesters are not. So is there something in the aeroplanes they are guarding? Why do we still give up part of the airport to the US? It has nothing to do with economics, multinationals will locate themselves wherever they want. It’s all like a John le Carré novel!”
Margaretta spent the first three months of 2014 in Limerick Prison and the Dóchas Centre in Mountjoy. “Going to gaol was very similar to how the Government runs the country,” she says. “It’s all chaos, nothing works, and nobody knows what’s going on.”
When recalling the experience, she speaks about it with a mixture of humour, but also a deep concern for how women prisoners are treated, and the general conditions inmates are expected to endure.
“You meet all kinds of women in the gaol,” Margaretta says. “Irish, Vietnamese, Polish, Chinese, hostile grannies, judges, solicitors, accountants, the Travellers in the prison were always very kind to the elderly there. There was also remand prisoners, a revolving door with the same women going out one week and coming in the next. So many were drugged up to their eyeballs on prescription medication. The prison officers don’t like looking after women. In the men’s gaol, the men do what they are told. Women won’t accept that - women just shouldn’t be in gaol - and the officers can’t handle it if a woman cries. They are afraid of ‘hysteria’ breaking out so they give you a little pill!
“We’re all caged in, there are nets covering the place. Male prisoners can go outside, but female prisoners can’t - and I brought this up with the National Women’s Council - there are women in the gaols who have been there 12 years and have never once been outside. In Limerick you are locked up for 23 hours a day, locked away from the blue sky. You can’t look out the window, and the yard is Dickensian. It took me 30 seconds to walk from one end of it to the other. There are no trees, you see nothing but the nets.
“In the Dóchas Centre there are trees and flowers and two male dogs. I remember once a female dog got in, and the two male dogs, never having seen a female before, just went wild, barking loudly. The female dog completely ignored them! Many of the women in prison are mothers and have nothing to cuddle, imagine that? It’s a terrible deprivation, and when the children come to visit, there is no separate place for mothers and children.
“None of that would deter me from going back. I don’t see it as any different from how it is outside. What have I to be frightened of?”
Born a radical
Officially Margaretta’s long career as a peace activist began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with her involvement in London’s Royal Court Theatre, with its left-wing atmosphere, and Bertrand Russell’s Committee of 100 which protested against nuclear weapons. “If you are with radical people, you will be influenced by that,” she says. In reality though, Margaretta was a radical from early childhood.
“I became a communist at five,” she says. “I was in a sweet shop and wondered why all the prices on the sweets had to be different. I couldn’t really understand why there had to be different values. I had two older sisters and the third child is always awkward.”
She also attributes The Dominican Sisters with influencing her attitude to life and politics.
“They were a fearless lot,” she says. “They were quite autonomous. They had their own farm, they also had elections. The head nun one year could just be an ordinary teacher the next. That democratic process was unusual.”
The golfing enthusiast
Margaretta is a highly respected documentary and film-maker and there will be a retrospective of her work at the Féile Scannánaíochta, Áras Éanna, Inis Óirr, on August 22 and 23. She is also working on a new documentary - about golf!
Golf has a reputation for elitism and chauvinism, but Margaretta feels that at its best, it embodies values of equality, fairness, honour, and socialism - something she is determined to highlight in the new film.
“Golf is based on elements of Confucius and Kant,” she says. “It has a mystical/spiritual element to it. It began in Scotland among the ordinary people, but was banned by the king as he wanted concentration on hunting and shooting. When the upper classes took it over, they put into it their own code of ethics. That made it hierarchical, but in more recent times we have seen that, and the chauvinistic attitudes changing.
“Golf’s ethics and philosophy are what we want for society. Everyone can play it no matter what their age; the handicap system creates a more level playing field and means people of different abilities can play together; it allows people to meet, socialise, and network. It is non-contact. There is an honour code, it’s hard to cheat at golf, and if you do, you dishonour yourself. The revolution is in golf!”
Approaching her 80th year, what are Margaretta’s thoughts on reaching this milestone?
“I went swimming the other day off Inis Óirr,” she says. “I saw this dark shape beside me, it was a dolphin! As you get older, physically one is more careful of oneself, but I get jealous of my neighbour who is 82! People are living longer, so 80 is nothing! There was a woman of 93 who ran in a marathon recently.
“People who join parties might retire from things, but no party wanted me. I was thrown out of the Revolutionary Workers Party, I was thrown out of Official Sinn Féin. I have nothing to retire from! I don’t have to attend party meetings that burn people out. And if you respect yourself, how can you retire from yourself.
“Pacifists never give up! The older one gets, the freer one is to be radical. Our age group are not frightened to go to court, we don’t have to worry about a job or a reputation, we’ve no reputation left! We are independent people! It’s wonderful. Put me in gaol? So what!”