Lives Remembered

Mary McMullan: Pioneering community activist and champion of social justice

MARY McMullan was a remarkable woman.

A sister of the late former Stormont MP Paddy Devlin, she forged her own path as a community activist long before anyone put a name to that role, championed social justice and stood up for the underdog.

Among her many achievements, she set up the first Andersonstown Job Centre in the mid-1970s and was a founding member of the Falls Community Council and Greater West Belfast Community Association.

Mary died on July 20 aged 94 and her life is worth celebrating.

She was born in Beechmount in west Belfast in 1927 to Annie and Tommy (Topper) Devlin, a sister to Paddy, Rose, Anna, Tommy, Margaret and Bobby.

They moved to Conway Street, which remained the family home until the mid-1960s, but Mary went to live with her two maiden aunts, Maggie and Minnie Devlin, at 46 Lady Street in 1948.

Mary as a young Irish dancer

In her youth, she was an active member of the YCW (Young Christian Workers) and an All-Ireland champion team Irish dancer with Tír Na nÓg dancing school. Dancing and singing played a big part in the Devlin family life and continued in her married life.

Mary married Jerry McMullan in March 1951 and they were blessed with six children: Gerry, John, Mary, Karen, Patricia and Mairead.

Still living in Lady Street with her Aunt Maggie, with two rooms upstairs and two down, it was becoming a little crowded.

Mary McMullan with her husband Jerry and five of her children. A sixth was born later.

Like most of the Victorian terraced houses in the lower Falls, there was no inside toilet or hot water, and the bathroom hung from a nail on the whitewashed wall in the ‘yard’, just above the coal. However, home life was both loving and nurturing.

Mary made ‘the best soda farls in the world’ on an old metal griddle, using gas from the mantle above the fireplace connected by a rubber tube (not health and safety compliant but they were some farls).

She also developed a skill making candy apples to treat her children, which made her the most popular mother in Lady Street. Children would call at the door with a penny clutched in their hand. No money was ever taken and no child went away disappointed - an early sign of Mary’s sense of social justice and the power of collective action.

Lady Street was a close community where everyone knew everyone across generations. Life was Mass on Sundays, street parties on summer feast days, school in Slate Street, Confraternity in St Peter’s and wonderful street games encouraged by Mary: skipping, Over the Moon and Under the Stars; German jumps, whip and peerie, Queeny ‘O’ and so many more

Always active in parish life, in the mid-1960s Mary won the top prize in St Peter’s Silver Circle Draw – a large suite of bedroom furniture. Of little utility in a two up, two down, fortunately the Prudential Insurance man had just bought a new house and, after an acceptable offer, the McMullans were able to enjoy an even better annual holiday in Butlins that year.

Redevelopment of poor housing offered a move to the Glen Road estate, later the greater Lenadoon estate, to a home with an inside toilet, a real bathroom, solid fuel central heating, hot and cold running water and front and back gardens - but not a single social amenity. Just a van shop to cater for all the young families.

Mary’s sense of social justice shone brightly. She and her husband, ‘Big Jerry’, became founder members of the Glen Road Tenants Association, which met weekly in her new home.

Along with other activists, she worked diligently to advocate for basic service provision for this new community and from this grew the Hannahstown Credit Union, Oliver Plunkett Youth Club, Play Group, Barack House and Glen Community Centre - most of which have stood the test of time.

When Jerry died from cancer in 1975, Mary became a lone parent but was undaunted at being left to raise six children of school age or at university. She found employment to support the family and their education.

Community activism and social justice remained personal drivers. She set up the first Andersonstown community job centre, helping local people to find employment, complete application forms and prepare for interviews.

Mary was a member of the Eastern Health & Social Services Board and the Housing Benefits Tribunal. She was also a board member of St Oliver Plunkett Environmental Committee (predecessor of the Colin Glen Trust), providing employment and training for local people through the ACE (Action for Community Employment) scheme.

A community worker of the highest calibre, she was awarded an MBE in the 1991 New Year's Honours.

John McMullan

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