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Mother Who Lost Kin in Ulster Strife Sets Up Women's Group

November 27, 1987|ED LION | United Press International

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Joyce McCartan, a 59-year-old mother, knows the anguish of Northern Ireland more than most people.

Six of her relatives have been killed in the violence, most recently her 17-year-old son, who was shot to death in her own home this year.

But the Protestant mother, married to a Roman Catholic and rearing her children in her husband's faith, has not allowed bitterness and hatred to overwhelm her as it has many of the residents of British-ruled Northern Ireland.

"The night it happened to my own son, Gary, I got down on my knees and prayed for strength," she said recently, at times wiping away tears.

"I felt nothing. My son and other relatives all had been killed in random assassinations. There was no rhyme or reason.

"Then I looked at my seven other children and realized hate only destroys. We have to look to the future to create a better world for our children and grandchildren."

Since the late 1970s, McCartan has been toiling for just that. She has been working to establish a province-wide network of women's groups to bridge the gap between Northern Ireland's 900,000 Protestants and its 600,000 Catholics.

"I think women are the ones who will have to end the bloodshed," she said. "A mother's tears are all the same--whether she's a Catholic, a Protestant or the mother of a British soldier. Everyone killed is someone's son."

'Things Will Change'

She condemned as "horrifying" the Irish Republican Army bombing Nov. 8 in Enniskillen which killed 11 and wounded 63, but said she can see some good coming out of it.

"It has horrified most everyone," she said. "It will isolate the IRA and a lot of people who have supported it in the past will think twice in the future. Things will change."

With some public funding and voluntary contributions, McCartan is organizing a network of women's groups that includes her own "women's drop-in center" set above a "chip shop"--the United Kingdom's ubiquitous eateries--in a mixed neighborhood. She lives there in the same home where her son, who was planning to marry, was killed in May.

The young man was at home when two Protestant paramilitaries, pledged to retaining Protestant domination of the province, burst inside with guns and cut him down.

"I was in the center when I heard one of my daughters screaming," she said. "My heart froze. Every mother knows the sound of her own children's screams. I discovered it was Gary. He was engaged and due to be married.

"Months later they issued a statement claiming they killed him because he was on the fringes of a republican (Irish nationalist) group," McCartan said. "But that wasn't so. He kept out of all politics. He didn't join anything."

She shook her head.

"The only thing he ever joined was his two hands in prayer. We think they just became aware of him because he always travelled across the city to visit his girlfriend. They picked him as an easy target. His girlfriend is Protestant."

Police, who confirmed her son had no paramilitary or political connections, have classified the hit as just another random sectarian slaying.

McCartan has lost five other relatives to the violence through the 1970s--a nephew, two cousins by marriage and two brothers-in-law.

All but one of them was slain by Protestant paramilitary gunmen. One was killed by the outlawed IRA, which is fighting to end British rule so Northern Ireland can be united with the Catholic Irish Republic.

When, in the early 1970s, her 19-year-old nephew was found hanging upside down from the rafters of a warehouse, his body ravaged by torture, his hands punctured by nails pounded through by Protestant paramilitaries, even battle-hardened Belfast was shocked.

Brought Up Not to Hate

But McCartan said, "My family is all mixed with both Catholics and Protestants and I brought my family up not to hate.

"The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are sick and tired of this bloodshed. They just want peace. Our women's groups are building bridges between the communities."

Asked why she does not leave Northern Ireland, given all her personal loss, she shook her head incredulously.

"Where should I go?" she asked. "This is my home. This is where I raised my children. We should stay and work for a better world."

McCartan, who runs her women's center with friend Mena Loughran, 56, says she has helped establish a network of 45 women's groups "on both sides, and our goal is to have a center in every town in the province.

"You see, women in the home have the power in their hands to influence the future generations of the world," she said, repeating a slogan she has written and placed on the wall of her center. "And they are more secure in that power than any politician or statesman."

Her group is also concerned with fighting poverty in unemployment-ravaged Northern Ireland. Only a month after her son's death, she led a group of Protestant and Catholic women to plead publicly for more aid to the poor.

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