Lives Remembered

Joe Graham: Historian and activist with passion for words

AS a child, Joe Graham's father would take him on bike rides and excursions the length and breadth of Co Antrim to instil in him a clear knowledge of its rich history.

A particular focus was the 1798 rebellion, in which the Graham family played a prominent role: Watty Graham, an ancestor, was executed by the British that year.

On one trip, when Joe was 12 years old, they visited a graveyard in Mallusk, near Templepatrick.

At the back of the cemetery is a tall monument in memory of the famed United Irishman James Hope. Right beside his grave is that of his son, Luke, and inscribed on it is a word that caught Joe's eye: "Rushlight".

Luke Hope first published his paper Rushlight, named after a type of candle, in December 1825 from Clark & Hope's General Printing Office in High Street, Belfast. It lasted 41 editions and Hope died a young man.

 Joe Graham at the grave of Luke Hope, who first published a paper called Rushlight in 1825

Almost 150 years later, Joe Graham would publish Rushlight - The Belfast Magazine for the first time.

Over the next five decades he would use it to share the stories his father had told him as a boy, as well as his own historical research and study. The magazine included articles of local interest, folklore and tales of old Belfast.

Copies have delighted readers with connections to the city in every corner of the globe and are now held for posterity in Queen's University and the Linen Hall Library - a fitting legacy for a man with a passion for words.

Anthony Joseph Graham was born to Kitty and Jim in January 1944, the eighth of 12 children who would be raised in the newly-built Ballymurphy estate in west Belfast.

He attended St John's Public Elementary School and St Thomas' Secondary Intermediate, where one of his teachers was the acclaimed writer Michael McLaverty.

McLaverty encouraged Graham to express himself in the written word, prompting him to write several short plays which were staged and performed locally.

His interest in both politics and writing deepened and in 1967, at the age of 23, Joe became editor of the republican news sheet The Pike, which offered an opportunity to publish his views on issues such as the Special Powers Act.

He attended the civil rights march that was baton-charged by RUC officers on Duke Street, Derry on October 5 1968, as well as the People's Democracy march ambushed by loyalists at Burntollet in January 1969.

Later that year, Joe became a founding member of the Belfast and District Civil Rights Group, the Ardoyne Citizens' Action Committee and the Belfast Housing Action Committee, established to address dire housing need in Catholic areas.

He later established news sheets aimed at republican activists in the Ardoyne, Ballymurphy and Clonard areas of Belfast.

Rushlight was first published in 1972 and 40 years later Joe was awarded the 'Irish Hand' for his "continued and appreciated contribution of Rushlight Magazine to the Irish communities in Belfast, Brompton, Canada, and around the world".

He was also the author of Show Me The Man - The Official Biography of Martin Meehan (2008), Belfast, Born, Bred and Buttered (2003), Ghostly Tales of Old Belfast (1995), Where The Lagan Flows (1984), The Belfast Quiz Book (1981) and Old Belfast (1981).

Joe Graham passed away peacefully at home on December 9 at the age of 77, surrounded by his family.

He is survived by his loving wife Ann, his children Deborah, Joseph and Sean, and his grandchildren.

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Lives Remembered