Lives Remembered

Eugene O'Callaghan: No ordinary busman

Eugene O'Callaghan fought throughout his working life for the rights of bus drivers

EUGENE O'Callaghan had four great passions: his family, the trade union movement, Crossmaglen Rangers and his dogs.

The public face of Northern Ireland's bus drivers for many years, all his life he was involved in fighting for justice for working men and women.

During the high watermark of the Troubles his unlikely alliance with Ulsterbus and Citybus chief Werner Heubeck ensured that sectarianism was kept out of the buses and they remained on the road throughout the most testing times.

They were a most unlikely team – a former soldier in Germany's Afrika Corps and a Catholic trade unionist from the ‘bandit country' of south Armagh.

The tragic events on Eugene's first day as a union official when Harry Bradshaw, a bus driver, had just been shot dead on the Crumlin Road threw them together to face a common foe.

Eugene worked tirelessly to improve the wages and working conditions of his members.

He was responsible for gaining equal pay for drivers in Citybus and Ulsterbus, preventing privatisation of the bus service, negotiating a pension scheme for workers and introducing educational programmes for union members.

On his retirement due to ill health a former shop steward said: "It should never be forgotten that it was Eugene O'Callaghan who got us up of our knees and gave us respect and credibility when it mattered most."

Even in later years he continued to work on behalf of the retired Transport and General Workers Union members and was the man who shamed the NIO into finally granting free travel for pensioners.

Eugene was the youngest son of nine children born in 1929 to Patrick and Bridget O'Callaghan in Crossmaglen.

Christened Owen Joseph, to some he was known as Eugene, to others Gene or Callaghan, but to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren he was simply 'the Da'.

In 1955 he married Patsy Hughes from Bellard on Slieve Gullion and they went on to have 10 children. Always one for equality, there were five girls and five boys.

The couple moved to Belfast in search of work and Eugene secured a job on the trolley buses, beginning his long association with the public transport industry.

On July 21 1972, which would become known as Bloody Friday, he was a driver and shop steward in Oxford Street bus depot when a car bomb exploded. He lost many friends and colleagues and had the unenviable job of helping to clear up body parts and speaking to bereaved relatives.

He arranged for a hardship grant to be immediately paid from the union to spouses and, in an action ahead of its time, paid out to a common law wife and her children.

In 1977 Eugene became a full-time official with the Amalgamated Transport and General Worker Union.

His many successes both for individual workers and collectively were recognised by the union presenting him with its Gold Star in 1993.

On his retirement he built a home in Camlough where he spent some of his happiest times.

At heart he was a country man and he always maintained his links with south Armagh, including membership of Crossmaglen Rangers Gaelic Football Club.

He was very proud that some of his grandsons were playing for the junior Crossmaglen teams and would have been honoured to know that a minute's silence was held before their games in the week after his death.

Eugene also loved his dogs, breeding many champion Irish and Kerry Blue Terriers - one of which featured on an Irish stamp.

He was a man of integrity and someone who had a strong sense of and deep belief in the principles of fairness and justice. He had a razor sharp analytical mind and was passionate about helping others.

Eugene O'Callaghan died on April 16 after a long illness and his funeral was held in Sacred Heart Church, Lislea, where he had been married more than 62 years earlier.

The last letter he wrote, the day before he died, was on behalf of a former busman who he and others deemed had not received fair treatment with their work pensions.

A book on his life and legacy will be published shortly by the Ulster Historical Society.

The world is a poorer place for Eugene's family and friends but they can safely say in his journey through life he made a difference.

His month's mind Mass will be in Holy Family Church, Belfast at 10am on May 13, with Mass also celebrated in Lislea at 10am on May 20.

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