Clara Reilly was born and raised in the St. James district of West Belfast, the eldest daughter of 12 children born into the proud Irish family of James and Bridget Burns. She is the wife of Joe Reilly, the mother of 6 children, 18 grandchildren, and 1 great-grand child. But to us, her children, she is our teacher, our advisor, our cook, our coach, our babysitter, our role model, our inspiration, our rock; the glue that holds our family together.
When we reminisce about the good old days and not-so-good old days we find ourselves in awe of our mother’s stamina, courage, sacrifice, and dedication as she balanced a house full of demanding kids, two jobs outside the home, and an arduous battle for human rights and justice in the British-occupied North of Ireland.
Our Mother’s crusade began in the early 1970’s, when she grew increasingly alarmed over the injustices perpetrated by the British Army and RUC, who brutalized working-class Catholics daily in the North of Ireland. She believed strongly that discrimination should be confronted and eradicated, especially discrimination committed by forces disguised as “law and order.” Soon she became actively involved in the Association for Legal Justice (ALJ), where she documented, from her kitchen table, cases of torture and unlawful imprisonment of innocent people. As word spread in the area about Clara’s volunteer work with the ALJ, our home quickly became the first port of call for distressed families whose loved ones had been savagely beaten and then hauled off to undisclosed locations. Our mother would offer a cup of tea and comforting words to the families, before taking their statements and commencing her barrage of telephone calls to all the British barracks in an attempt to locate the missing person. She was relentless in her pursuit – and the Brits quickly learned she would not cease until she had obtained accurate information on the victims.
The RUC soon took note of our mother’s human rights work, as they did with anyone who challenged their tactics, and they certainly did not appreciate her persistence and her knowledge of British law. Her goal was to obtain information on detainees as well as to send a clear message that the community would not tolerate the violation of their human rights and the perversion of law. Our Mother phoned the barracks so often the RUC started to recognize her voice before she even introduced herself. On a few occasions she shamelessly had her daughter make the call anonymously, in her best attempt at a proper English accent…..Hey, desperate times called for desperate measures.
In 1972 we lived in Turf Lodge, West Belfast. There had been a lot of tension in the area and more so on one particular day when the British Paratroopers, clad in full combat uniform, were patrolling the area with their tanks and guns, harassing and arresting residents. When our mother heard screams from one of our neighbors as the soldiers set upon their 14-year-old son, punching him and kicking him with their steel-toed boots, she ran to the scene in an attempt to defuse the situation. She quickly realized these Paratroopers were ruthless, dangerous thugs who showed no respect to human beings, least of all to Catholics. The soldiers spouted vulgarity towards the women. Witnessing their depravity, the ladies retorted with slogans of resistance. Suddenly, and without provocation, a soldier aimed his weapon toward the women and fired a rubber bullet. (The British army murdered 3 Catholics with rubber bullets before they upgraded to their “safer” plastic bullet which has claimed the lives of 17 people, 9 of them children.) One neighbor quickly assessed the situation and reported that no one was hit. As soon as the Brits fled the street Mom collapsed to the ground. She had in fact been struck by the bullet! Thankfully she did not sustain any permanent physical injuries. When questioned afterward as to why she did not react immediately to being wounded, Clara answered, “I wouldn’t give those British bastards the pleasure of knowing they had shot another Irish person.”
By 1973, four of Clara’s brothers were interned in Long Kesh and served years behind bars without benefit of a court trial, a basic legal right. One brother, Kevin, who had not yet been scooped, fled to the Free State for fear he would be the next victim of British tyranny in the Nationalist community. It was years before Kevin could return to the North to be with his family. This was a difficult time for Clara and her family.
In 1974 Clara’s husband Joe intervened when he saw a young lad being brutally assaulted by the British Army. Joe was subsequently beaten and arrested. He was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment for this incident. Six of those months were served in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment for an act of bravery. Our mother’s journey became more challenging as she struggled to maintain some semblance of normalcy in a war zone.
In 1976, on a quiet residential street in Turf Lodge, our mother witnessed the murder of 13-year-old Brian Stewart. Brian was killed by a plastic bullet. To this day, the British soldier who fired the shot has never been prosecuted for ending this innocent boy’s life. It was after Brian’s death that Clara became a founding member of the United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets. Then and now, she has always believed, with every fiber of her being, that we must seek truth and justice, and has actively pursued both.
Early one morning in 1977, the Reilly family awoke to thunderous banging on their door. It was the British army’s “friendly” wake up call. The six children, whose ages ranged from 8 to 16, staggered sleepily out of bed. Our mother, who was well-versed in her legal rights, had passed some of her knowledge onto her children, including the fact that legally we were only required to provide the soldiers with three pieces of information: our full name, where we were coming from, and where we were going to. One son answered: Joseph Reilly, bed, and hopefully back to bed.
Apparently, the soldiers had orders to arrest Kieran Reilly, who had recently turned 16 years old. (In the 1970’s it was common, albeit illegal, to arrest anyone over the age of 16 for a 4-hour screening process, during which the person would be questioned, interrogated, and in many cases beaten.) The soldiers, who could not pronounce the name Kieran and who thought it was a girl’s name, decided to arrest the only female child in the house, 13-year-old Coleen. (Hmmm…..Coleen, Kieran – close enough! Arrest her!) A scuffle ensued when the family envisioned the horrific possibilities of allowing a 13-year-old girl to be released into the hands of brutal thugs. Even the baker delivering his bread that morning joined in the protest. He loaded his arms with his best ammunition and proceeded to fire freshly baked Baps (Irish bread) at the soldiers. In hindsight it was pretty funny……We believe we were fed that same bread for breakfast later that morning — Mother was also very resourceful! Finally, the soldiers abandoned their mission, without an arrest. They realized they had botched up the assignment and vowed they’d be back.
In 1981 we received another wake-up call, this time to arrest our Mother. The family braced themselves for another bread-tossing battle. But, our mother did not resist. For years she had taken statements from victims describing their brutality at the hands of the British government and now she too would experience the infamous 4-hour screening process. So, with a rifle pointed at her back, she was taken to Springfield barracks where the Brits attempted their routine interrogation techniques on her……Fools! Didn’t they know Clara had documented these techniques for years? She could predict their every move. Needless to say, the exasperated RUC soon released her. Clara, with the help of attorney Pat Finucane, subsequently took the British government to court for wrongful arrest. Both Pat and Clara sat side by side in High Court to hear the ruling: “The process of interrogation the RUC called “screening” was ILLEGAL.” Clara and Pat were elated; they both punched the air in delight. Finally, a small victory for justice.
By this stage our mother had become a thorn in the sides of both the RUC and British Army. When she wasn’t tending to her family and work, she was campaigning vigorously for justice and basic human rights and equality for all. We feared for her life back then and even more so after the murders of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.
During the early 1980’s, the unemployment rate was very high in Catholic West Belfast, so it was with great delight that Clara’s son Terry informed his family that he had been offered a job with the state-run Northern Ireland electricity service and that he would soon receive a confirmation letter. One Saturday morning Clara entered Terry’s bedroom with the letter in hand. Terry excitedly sat up in bed and ripped it open. His joy quickly turned to dismay when he discovered he had been rejected. He was devastated. He couldn’t grasp what had happened since he had been verbally notified he had been accepted. Clara sadly explained to her son the harsh reality of discrimination and injustice. Clara fought the discrimination through legal channels. However, she was blocked by the British establishment. The Secretary of State had signed an order claiming Terry was a threat to national security. He was 16 years old and had never been in trouble with the law in his life. He was not alone. John Hume (MP) had later raised the fair employment issue in the House of Commons that outlined the discrimination toward applicants who were denied employment based on their religion or their family’s views on British oppression. At this point the best our mother could do to console Terry was to encourage him to never accept second best. She inspired Terry and all her children to look at these discriminations merely as setbacks in life’s many challenges. Moreover, she taught us to never accept the unacceptable, to never allow injustices to go unchallenged and to never give up hope.
Over the years our home had become an open door for many people from all over the world who were interested in learning the truth. Regrettably, we did not keep guest books of the hundreds of journalists, organizations, and concerned individuals who were welcomed to our humble pad, who received a warm bed, a traditional Irish breakfast, and an ordinary chat with an extraordinary woman.
There are many more stories we could share about our mother, but not enough ink and paper to do them justice here. Perhaps one day they will all be revealed in a book. But, for now, we hope the few memories we have imparted will give you some insight into this remarkable Mother’s personal life. An average working-class woman with a not-so-average resilience, perseverance and courage, who managed to pursue her passion for truth and equality without comprising her family. They don’t make too many woman of this caliber anymore.
In the words of our Mother’s favorite singer, Tina Turner, she is “Simply the Best.”
We are very proud and grateful to be the children of the 2011 AOH McBride award recipient, Clara Reilly, ar mathair.
Go raibh maith agaibh.
The Reilly Clan