Lives Remembered

Patsy Gildernew: Civil rights pioneer, successful businessman but first and foremost a family man

Patsy Gildernew died aged 72 on December 30 2018

“A man of strong principles, courage and integrity.”

Just one of the many tributes paid to Patsy Gildernew following his death aged 72.

As a young man Patsy earned a place in history for his involvement in the Caledon 'sit-in' at the birth of the civil rights movement.

He later earned respect in the world of business as both a successful mushroom farmer and manufacturer of concrete.

But he was first and foremost a family man who loved nothing more than spending time with his children and grandchildren and all who knew and loved him will sorely miss him.

Born in 1946 in the townland of Crievelough, Brantry, near Dungannon, Patsy was the fourth child in a family of eight to parents James and Annie Gildernew (née Burke).

Having been educated at Roan PS, Eglish and St Patrick’s Secondary School in Dungannon, like so many of his generation he left school at 15 to start a life of employment.

Opportunities at home were scarce and at the age of 17 he went to work in Coventry where his mother had family connections.

Working several jobs, he always sent his wages home to his beloved parents, just keeping enough to live on.

Patsy was very homesick in England and in later years remarked that he would ensure none of his children would ever be in a position where they would have to leave their homeland to find work.

For this reason he highly valued education and worked hard all his life, in various roles, to ensure that his own children were educated and able to avail of opportunities at home.

Patsy returned to Ireland at a time of simmering social unrest.

His role aged 21 in the Caledon squatting and evictions would prove pivotal.

He was arrested in both the home that his sister Mary Teresa Goodfellow and her family were squatting in and also the house occupied by himself, neighbour Joe Campbell and Nationalist MP Austin Currie.

Patsy Gildernew with Austin Currie and Joe Campbell at the Caledon 'sit-in' in June 1968

The property had been allocated by unionists to an unmarried 19-year-old Protestant woman despite greater need by many Catholic families and Patsy's mother, whom he idolised, knew the protest would attract the attention of the media.

A modest man, he never sought recognition for his involvement in the sit-in, which would be followed weeks later by the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon.

After his death an Irish News front page article reported that Patsy “wrote himself into Irish history half a century ago”.

It had been a source of dismay to him and his family that some literature that has emerged particularly in recent years has written him out of that period.

But the events of Caledon were not the most important to happen to Patsy in June 1968.

That same month, he met Veronica Doherty from Tullymore, in the neighbouring parish of Tullysaran.

They married in 1970 and set up home in the Gildernew homestead in Brantry, where they reared seven children.

They fondly remember their father as someone who was generous with his love, time and advice.

A hard worker and entrepreneur, Patsy always had an eye for innovation and opportunity and, in partnership with Veronica, developed a very successful mushroom farm.

Such was his expertise that he was head-hunted as an advisor in the industry and worked in that role for over a decade, being fondly referred to as “the mushroom man”.

Foreseeing a decline in mushroom growing, Patsy then took the opportunity to diversify the family business and along with his sons established SMP Concrete Products, where he continued to work up until three months before his death, such was his drive, ambition and love for his work.

But Patsy’s first love was his family. He and Veronica were true soul mates and loved being in each other’s company.

He also took great pride in the achievements of his children and grandchildren and loved doing the school runs and enjoying morning coffee time with them.

Patsy and Veronica Gildernew with their eight grandchildren

He was a very sociable person, with a genuine interest in people, and had close friends of all ages from all walks of life.

A lifelong GAA fan, Patsy played football in his youth for both Aghaloo and Benburb.

He followed Tyrone the length and breadth of Ireland and in later years loved spending Sunday afternoons watching football and hurling matches at all levels.

Patsy was also man of great faith. He had a great devotion to Our Lady and faithfully wore his miraculous medal. This faith gave him great peace and comfort in the latter stages of his illness.

The mementos of life presented at his funeral Mass – his wedding ring, his miraculous medal and family photographs - were reflections of the things he held most dear.

During Patsy’s wake and funeral his family took great comfort from the kind words and recollections from friends and neighbours.

One close friend said: “Patsy would have given you all about the place, but the best thing he ever gave was his advice."

Patsy Gildernew died on December 30 2018. He was a loving husband to Veronica, father to Tracy, Seán, Kerry, Danielle, Louise, Gemma and Michael, and grandfather to Taryn, Dara, Conor, Erin, Joe, Jack, James and Tom.

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