Lynette Fay: I have been living amongst civil rights history-makers

Turning the key in the door of your first home is a monumental day. Mummy had more or less made me buy a house the minute I started earning a wage – before I would miss the mortgage payment from my salary

August 24 marks the 50th anniversary of the north's first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon
Lynette Fay

MY 20-something self did not appreciate her efforts. How would I be able to afford to buy a new top that I didn't need most weekends for going out?

Today, I completely understand her motivation. As we hear and read day and daily, houses are as precious commodity today as ever they were.

For years, I thought that the Irish obsession with owning property was a hang up from penal times. This might be the case, but more recent history could also explain this.

Friday August 24 marks the 50th anniversary of the north's first civil rights march. Marchers congregated in the Square in Coalisland and marched into Dungannon town, as far what was then called ‘Hospital Corner'.

The housing crisis of the mid 60s was one of the main reasons why so many people, from all walks of life were willing to get behind the march and address social injustice in this way for the first time.

I'm from Dungannon and had a fair idea that people from the town were involved in the early days of the civil rights movement. I was aware of the march, I knew that Dungannon had an important role to play in the incubation and birth of the civil rights movement and I had heard of the McCluskeys and the Campaign for Social Justice

When I realised that the 50th anniversary of the first civil rights march was imminent, I decided that I wanted to know exactly what happened, why it happened and how.

After asking some more questions, I realised that some people who had played a role in making that first march happen were still around.

It's incredible to think that 50 years on, the instigators and pioneers of a seismic event that changed everything still walk amongst us, but what they did and achieved is lost on many.

My late next door neighbour Pat John Rafferty wrote an MA thesis ‘Civil Agitation in Dungannon 1963-68' and in his introduction he states that things "started with the housing protest of 1963, simmered for five years and finally boiled over in 1968".

I had no idea how bad the housing crisis of the early 1960s was, and it wasn't confined to Dungannon. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, condemned houses and slum conditions were prevalent. Waiting lists for better housing were long.

This 'housing agitation' in 1963 prompted some local women to take action. A group calling themselves The Homeless Citizens League, decided to organise themselves in protest against the local Urban Council in an effort to address the situation.

These women in their early 20s took to the streets in their Sunday best with their prams and their children in protest at their living conditions.

I spent a morning with Angela McCrystal, Susie Dinsmore and Ann Dunlop from the Homeless Citizens League recently and found it a humbling experience.

These women fought for their rights, for their own families and others. All three are now in their 80s – well, Susie's big birthday is imminent – and I was hugely impressed with their can-do attitude, and how as young women with nothing to lose, they took on the system.

Would that happen nowadays?

The Homeless Citizens League started things off, then came the Campaign for Social Justice and, ultimately, the first civil rights March. Dungannon was at the centre every time, but its place in history is often forgotten.

I stood outside the old Dungannon RUC Station with Michael McLoughlin and in my hand I held a copy of the request for the first civil rights March which he lodged there 50 years ago. I can't explain how that felt.

That idea, that piece of paper, that march changed all our lives immeasurably.

I have been living amongst these history makers and didn't know it. Ordinary people who did something extraordinary which should never be forgotten.

I'll think of them every time I turn the key in my front door.

:: You can hear Lynette's documentary In The Footsteps at 12.30pm on Sunday on BBC Radio Ulster.

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