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Saturday 16 December 2017

Northern light goes out after decades of service

Lady McCorkell, dead at 89, had to tread carefully in her Red Cross role during the height of the Troubles

She was a woman who for years had to tread a fine and dangerous line between the two warring communities in Northern Ireland and risked her life on many occasions to bring aid and comfort to beleaguered people on both sides of the religious divide.

Lady McCorkell was the pragmatic head of the Derry Red Cross during the Troubles, and she once entertained the IRA to tea to facilitate talks with representatives of the British government. She died in Dublin on Christmas Day aged 89.

It was in June 1972, following an explosion of violence in which hundreds had been killed, that Aileen McCorkell agreed to host at her family home clandestine peace talks between the British government and the Provisional IRA, whose delegation included a young Gerry Adams.

Brought up in the South before the Second World War, she had never imbibed the political and religious intolerance of the North, realising instead that, by its principles of humanity and impartiality, the Red Cross could play a vital role in Northern Ireland. Accordingly she steered the Derry branch down a middle way of absolute neutrality between two warring communities.

Her first work with the Derry Red Cross in the early Sixties had centred on establishing welfare services across the city of a kind now taken for granted but then notably absent -- particularly in areas of considerable poverty and dilapidation such as the Catholic Bogside. The physically handicapped in particular were confined to homes wholly ill-suited to their needs and Aileen McCorkell began a "Thursday Club" to bring together the disabled from across the city.

These early beginnings were to result, after victory in battles financial and political, in the building of the Glenbrook Day Centre. It was established on land accessible to all parts of the city, but originally denied them because it had been designated for Protestant housing.

The Red Cross also established services, such as Meals on Wheels, which brought McCorkell into contact with other voluntary organisations working in Derry, notably the Order of Malta, a connection which was to be vital when serious trouble began to engulf the city from October 1968 onwards.

It was to the Order of Malta First Aid Post, in Westland Street near the Bogside Inn, that she and her deputy made their way amid the ferocious fighting that followed the Apprentice Boys' parade of August 12, 1969.

There, without much training, she quickly learned to help treat seriously injured casualties who were unwilling to go to hospital.

She did not share the temporary euphoria that greeted the arrival of the British Army to protect the Catholic communities, and her foreboding was soon vindicated. As the Bogside and Creggan areas became no-go areas to the security forces she developed a lifelong admiration for the strength of character and unfailing good humour of the Derry people in the face of continual adversity.

She would not take sides and was as prepared to take an army commander to task as she was to telephone the Bogside Committee to demand an end to the looting of the Red Cross aid store (a cheerful ruffian with a club was sent to stand guard).

By the end of 1970, bombings took violence in Derry in a sinister new direction, and McCorkell found herself dealing with everything from finding accommodation for those made homeless by bombs to finding a wig for a girl shaved, tarred and feathered for going to the pub with soldiers.

She was in the Bogside on Bloody Sunday and never forgot ferrying a distraught young priest back through the dark, fearful streets to the Creggan. She would never be drawn on that terrible day, not being prepared to see beyond the stark tragedy of so many young people losing their lives.

It was her clear-sighted impartiality and pragmatism that led Aileen McCorkell to agree to host, at the family home near the Derry/Donegal border, the secret peace talks -- though beyond greeting the parties, and providing a chocolate cake, the McCorkells left the negotiators alone to get on with it.

The truce which followed was short-lived and within a month members of the North Derry Pony Club, who were having their annual camp at the McCorkell farm, woke to find soldiers had arrived secretly in the night and were shaving out of their horses' feed buckets. This was the build-up to Operation Motorman and the "re-occupation" of the no-go areas.

Thus Aileen McCorkell re-entered tortuous negotiations, with soldiers this time, about the free movement of Meals on Wheels and the return of the temporarily impounded Order of Malta ambulance. Long years of violence and bitterness were to follow, during which the Derry City Red Cross, led by its indefatigable president, gave unstinting and impartial service. McCorkell was fond of saying that the Red Cross is neutral "even in Northern Ireland".

Aileen Allen McCorkell was born on September 18, 1921, in the Indian hill station of Ootacamund, the second daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel EB Booth DSO, RAMC, who was serving in India after the First World War (during which he had met and married Aileen's mother, a nurse). Aileen had no memories of India, but a lifelong fear of snakes was reliably attributed to an incident in her infancy when a cobra came up through the bath's plughole, only to be quickly dispatched by a capable ayah with a meat cleaver.

When she was two the family returned to Ireland to live at Darver Castle in Co Louth. She was educated at Dundalk Grammar School and Westonbirt and was at a finishing school in Paris in 1939 when war broke out.

In an Anglo-Irish society in which those "who did not go" to the war were long remembered, it never occurred to her that she should not do her bit, but ironically her early attempts to join the Wrens in Belfast were rebuffed precisely because she came from southern Ireland.

She was eventually accepted for the Women's Auxiliary Air Service (the WAAF) in 1941, hiding her privileged upbringing from the other girls in the ranks.

She trained as a radar filter plotter at Leighton Buzzard and was eventually stationed near Nottingham, and then in Belfast. She was commissioned after four years in the ranks -- an experience which left her with a lifelong distrust of women in authority -- and posted to north of England Coastal Command. She stayed in service until the end of 1946.

After a brief spell as a school matron at Cheltenham she returned to Ireland. There she met, and in 1950 married, Michael McCorkell, from a Derry family which had run a well-known sailing fleet in the 19th century. In 1975 he became Lord Lieutenant of Londonderry and in 1994 was appointed KCVO.

She turned to voluntary work in 1961, having broken her back in a riding accident. She founded the Derry City Red Cross group in 1962, which became a fully-fledged branch in 1965, with her as its first president. She also became a member of the Northern Ireland Council of the British Red Cross.

For her work during the Troubles she was awarded, in 1972, the Red Cross Badge of Honour for Distinguished Service. In 1975 she was appointed OBE.

Her experiences with the Red Cross during the Northern Ireland Troubles were recorded in a short memoir, A Red Cross in My Pocket, published in 1992.

Sunday Independent

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