Deirdre McCartin: An Appreciation
by D.R.O'Connor Lysaght.
1 February 2009
A small dark woman in her early thirties, dressed in a black three-quarter length coat: this was how Deirdre McCartin appeared first to the writer thirty years ago. That he noticed her was not because she was outstanding in physical appearance or dress, nor because she made any intervention in the meeting they were attending. However, though she was anonymous, still and silent, her immense vitality could be sensed very clearly.
Vitality was what Deirdre displayed throughout her career as painter, feminist, film-maker, revolutionary socialist, university lecturer, community activist, social worker and, at the last, carer, as well as good friend. In whatever she did she applied herself 100 percent. Her approach could embarrass and enrage but usually it got things done.
The writer learnt from Deirdre's own account of her life before he met her. Born in Glasgow, of Irish-born parents, she had attended art school where she met a fellow student whom she married. They emigrated to New Zealand where her husband's inability to take her own career seriously led to their divorce. Without his encumbrance, she directed several feminist videos, which stood her in good stead when she decided to try to move to the land of her Irish ancestors and got a director's post in the features department of Radio Telefis Eireann.
In New Zealand, she had acted as a feminist independently of political affiliations. She had made contact with that country's section of the Fourth International, but had been unwilling to commit herself to it. Now, in the enclosed environment of Telefis Eireann, she found herself plunged in the middle of an internecine political struggle between the bourgeois establishmentarians and the economistic 'socialism' of Official ('Sticky') Sinn Fein.
Wisely she rejected both. As a socialist, she opposed the conventional politics of the bourgeoisie, as well as the simplistic, essentially pro-imperialist and cultist approach of the Stickies (an approach that would lead many of their members in Telefis Eireann into the bourgeois politics they had denounced). The militarism of Provisional Sinn Fein did not attract her either. She found herself attracted to the politics of the Irish section of the Fourth International, People's Democracy, which she joined in 1979.
In this organisation, she took a characteristically active role, concentrated particularly on the women's struggle. Immediately, her work centred on Women Against H Block, a fight which climaxed with the hunger strikes of 1980-1. Subsequently, she helped organise a major conference of feminist activists and campaigned against the insertion of the anti-abortion clause into the Irish Constitution. The writer remembers how she drove to distribute leaflets on an unusually cold, wet, windy day in the wintry summer of 1983, clad only in a light summer dress, until his wife, Aine, insisted that she covered it with a coat of her own.
For all this activity, her membership of People's Democracy coincided with a period of setbacks for the workers' side of the anti-imperialist movement. The hunger strikes ended, though the prisoners' demands were met clandestinely, with most of the prestige from them going to Sinn Fein. The Anti-Abortion Amendment was carried. Economic crisis provoked the Government to operate deflationary policies leading to increased unemployment.
This created problems within People's Democracy. There were bitter internal disputes as to its way forward. Deirdre participated in these, but her enthusiasm handicapped her in putting her case. She edited one particular document in terms more suitable to tabloid journalism than debate between a few dozen activists. This made her a particular butt for some among her opponents. It is worth stating that, by now some of the most hostile of these have been out of the revolutionary movement for years. She might have stayed to fight them, but she had developed a relationship with a comrade of the International's Portuguese section and decided her future was in his country, where she moved in 1984.
Within a year, the relationship had collapsed in a bitter row in which her partner's politically and socially unprincipled behaviour was condoned by the national leadership. She returned to Ireland to lecture on Media Studies in Dublin City University. She resumed membership of the Irish section, but its problems climaxed with a stampede of its less developed comrades into Sinn Fein. Eventually increasing pressure of work caused by university cutbacks forced her to break finally with People's Democracy in 1989.
She left Dublin for west Co. Cork where she played a leading role in the local community organisation. There, too, she met her ultimate life's partner, and eventual husband, Charlie Rees. In the mid-nineties, they moved to Scotland. Eventually, she got a teaching job there. They became active members of the Scottish Socialist Party.
The writer had lost contact with Deirdre when she left Dublin. Then, in 1996, she wrote him from Ayr enclosing a contribution that she could ill afford towards a memorial to a dead comrade. A correspondence began and continued until her death. In 1997, when Aine was getting a university degree, Deirdre appeared unexpectedly and dishevelled to present her with an enormous bouquet and a painting which she had executed to represent Aine's soul.
In her usual fashion, she gave unstintingly to the Scottish Socialist Party but there were problems with accommodation and employment. In 2001, they forced Charlie and her to move out of Scotland to Scarborough, where they founded an active independent Socialist Group, selling literature and organising anti-war agitation.
New pressures of unemployment, Charlie's illness and Deirdre's sister's death curtailed all this. In her last year, Deirdre had to concentrate on her work as domestic carer before the cancer that had killed her sister claimed her as well. In her communications, she put a brave face on her fate, organising her death and funeral and Charlie's future without her. She died having begun a set of twelve new paintings.
After Christmas, 2008, the writer and his
wife received from Deirdre a last picture postcard that she had prepared
herself, containing a report of her current situation. It ended with the
words 'Pure Joy'. In sending his heartfelt condolences to Charlie, the
writer and his wife hope that the spirit of the last words that they received
from her remained with the fighter for Socialism in her very last days.