Cathy Harkin (1942- 22nd July 1985)
Feminist, trade unionist and civil rights campaigner, Cathy Harkin, was born in Derry in 1942. Leaving school at 14 years of age to become a stitcher in a Derry Shirt factory, she followed the path of many young Derry women, whose options were dictated by the meagre earnings on offer, essential to the family upkeep. She married young and had two children, a son, Terence, and a daughter, Molly, who died as an infant. Terence was raised by Cathy, as a lone parent, living with her mother and his granny, after his father became severely incapacitated through serious illness. These were the years of the early Civil Rights Movement that Cathy threw herself into as an activist and an organizer. Terence recalled – “We lived with my granny. My mother sold the United Irishman newspaper. Before 5th October 1968, I remember my mother having to sit on the street waiting for it to arrive because granny wouldn’t let it into the house. After 5th October, my granny changed. All sorts of rebels and radicals were allowed to come and go from our house around the clock. Civil Rights posters were made in our living room. The house was always full of the smell of ink and paint”.
Cathy was active in the Derry Labour Party and Derry Housing Action Committee. She stirred up certain local envy when visiting New York to speak about civil rights she had dinner with Robert Redford. She was engaging, energetic and organized. NUPE (later Unison) also offered her an opportunity for activism, and she was a representative on the Derry Trades Council, ending up as the first ever female President. She never lost her sense of indignation about how working class people – men and women – were exploited and put down. But, more than that, whenever possible she did something about it.
Returning to formal education in the mid-1970’s, Cathy graduated with a degree in History from the University of Ulster. She secured a Housing Executive house for herself and her son in Lower Bennett Street, which became a centre for planning and advice. As often as not her informal local office was the back room in Maureen’s bar in Bishop Street. Press statements were written and phoned into the ‘Derry Journal’. Cathy was often to be seen representing local people at Supplementary Benefit Tribunals and appeals. Her socialism and feminism came from local experience; from what she felt was unjust and unfair.
In 1976, Cathy felt that enough was enough and that something had to be done for women who were victims of domestic violence. When Social Services and the Housing Executive refused to acknowledge the issue as a problem in Derry, she decided on direct action. She and a couple of other women occupied an empty social services building in Pump Street, and Derry Women’s Aid (albeit illegal) opened its doors. Within the first year, it sheltered some 90 women and 300 women. When it later received funding, Cathy became the first Refuge Worker. She used to say that she had arthritis in her shoulder from all the tears that were shed, but she never turned anyone away. Cathy was later a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation and an early activist in GingerBread (NI) – the organization supporting lone parent families.
There was a feyness about Cathy’s sense of humour as she twisted her feminism with early Irish myths and goddesses. She was as up for getting her fortune told as she was for a good gossip or a ready argument. She was warm, open and had a ready wit, honed by a vodka and coke. Cathy died of cancer on 22nd July 1985. Her legacy lives on in Foyle Women’s Aid and in her irreverent sense of the possible. [AK]