Owen Curran: well-respected Donegal community activist speaks out

Names his choices for local elections in the Glenties

Watching as stone cottages in England were leveled to make way for a nuclear power plant and seeing protestors trying to stop it being mistreated by police was the beginning of Owen Curran’s political awakening.

I was nineteen, living in England, but that planted a seed in me,” the 51-year-old explains simply during a recent two-hour interview at Lough Altan Hotel in Gortahork.

Owen, first from the left, looking at camera, displays his solidarity with protestors seeking greater equality and social justice.

In the intervening thirty-two years, that seed has grown into a sturdy tree, its branches used in the protection of basic civil and community rights and furtherance of a more equitable society. That’s why Curran, who was born in Glasgow but who grew up in Ray, west Donegal, and has lived the last 12 years in nearby Derryconnor, came to be one of the canvassers for a then aspiring Dublin political leader named Joe Higgins in the 1990s. That’s how he also ended up in the vanguard of the Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against the household and water taxes; among 15,000 people protesting outside the Fine Gael Ard Fheis two years ago in Dublin; and one of a small group of people behind the emergence of ‘May Day’ celebrations earlier this month in Falcarragh.

I suppose you could say I’ve always been involved in fighting for peoples’ rights and social fairness,” says the well-read, quiet-spoken Donegal county council employee. “These rights were hard-fought to get and keeping them is even more difficult, especially in times of economic crisis.

With the local elections but a few weeks away, Owen, who like many Irishmen before him has travelled to many places seeking work, including Neasden, Edinburgh, Bermondsey, Dunbar, Haddington and Port Seton, is eyeing the candidates with that view very much in mind. “I’m looking for people with genuine beliefs about social justice, the kind who get involved and don’t waver when things get tough, people like Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, the best politician we’ve ever had in Donegal,” he says, before adding philosophically, “democracy is a living, breathing, thing and should be borne out to its fullest. We’ve been told there is an economic upturn, but we don’t see it. Most of our working people have emigrated or are simply unemployed. How can we talk about rural Ireland if we don’t put people back to work? We need to get back to basics, back to looking at agriculture, tourism, the environment. We need open public forums where people can have the right to their say in how the community in which they live should move forward. We’re not going to come out of this crisis automatically. That requires serious, long-term spending.

So why hasn’t that happened already? Why has there been so little protest from Irish people who have undergone such dire difficulties over the last five years?

There are many reasons,” he explains. “With our colonial past, including landlordism, there has been a ‘do-what-you-have-to’ attitude to survive. Also, the Catholic Church, while it has done much good, has left us over-deferential to authority. Further, emigration has always been Ireland’s safety valve. It lets pressure off. Those who would traditionally stand up are gone away.

Owen also believes history went amiss for the people of Ireland. “After the so-called revolution here, the wrong people grasped power, not the people who did most of the fighting, but larger farmers and those who were better off. Some people like to make a devil out of Éamon de Valera but he wasn’t alone. Some of what he and others beside him did was progressive but there has been an absence of social change. Ireland is a Republic in name only and even though the phrase annoys me, we are a ‘class conscious’ nation. In a country in which we felt we were in it together, resisting the might of the British Empire, we found we were no better, no worse, than them. The green flag is still waiting to be raised. There are still things to do.

That includes, according to Owen, “all people being given choices.” “People are not given their rightful place. Minorities should be able to voice their opinion. That is vitally important. Cutting them off is dangerous and we have to be ever vigilant that does not happen. We also need to relearn a lot of stuff, things we knew in the past, like solidarity and standing up for each other. Irish people like to say they didn’t like Margaret Thatcher yet we’ve taken many of her policies and applied them, thus the Celtic Tiger and the Charlie McCreevy’s of this world. Unions ‘in partnership’ with government? What does that mean? We cannot sit on both sides of the fence. It’s as if we are delighted to be allowed to ‘join the club,’ join the ruling classes. We have become so deferential to authority we let off those clearly guilty of white-collar crime. It has just become too easy for them.

Locally, Owen is passionate about the unfortunate situation at Largo Foods in Gaoth Dobhair. “This is a case where skills were honed over forty years, yet now, it’s all gone. Crocodile tears were shed by many politicians, but it took eleven days for Udaras na Gaeltachta to host a first meeting on the factory’s closure. It should have organized a special task force back in the 1980s when manufacturing was going down. I mean, has there ever been an audit of skills in the Gaeltacht community, not to mention a series of public meetings to find job-creation ideas or special training seminars on how to apply properly for funding? Udaras has spent hundreds of millions of euro of public money over the years and much of it has been wasted. It is long past time for greater transparency and much more public scrutiny of the way this organisation operates.

To whom does Owen owe such thoughtful and mature political thinking? “In Ireland, the lives and writings of people like James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and, of course, Joe Higgins, which is why I canvassed for him all those years ago, but others outside Ireland who were very influential during their time,” he says. Among these, Owen adds, are James Cannon in the United States, whom he sees as “an early stalwart of American socialism in the 1930s and who wrote ‘Socialism on Trial,’ which Owen considers “a masterful explanation of the ‘red scare,’ and even the writer, Jack London, who wrote ‘The Iron Heel,’ about the strength of the individual and the collective. Owen also greatly admires Barack Obama, who, he says, “has made a tremendous difference.”

With local elections up ahead, how does the local activist – with two brothers and two sisters and now married to Sheila – feel about the future?

I remain optimistic. I believe in people, in the human spirit. But we need to build peoples’ confidence, to encourage them to get involved in making their communities better. They will find they are well able but it’s a long process. However, it can work. There is not simply dark and light. There’s rarely an outright victory. The ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, for example, made a number of people active. We all learned how to debate issues. In many ways, it was a model for local democracy within a group. I saw people who were too shy to speak, get up and chair a public meeting.

Regarding the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, Curran gives great credit to a number of people who he says “have been pioneers in the struggle for greater equality as well as anti-austerity stalwarts, including Theresa and Caroline Woods, founders of the group; Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods;  Gerard Gallagher; and Martin McEhlinny.”

He continues, “Back to the issue of deference – some people on the left wasted an opportunity this economic crisis presented. They disengaged over spurious reasons. The landscape changed but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity it presented. Forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together would have made way for a stronger Left alliance….. but maybe it’s not too late.

Owen’s choices in the upcoming local elections for the Glenties area are –

  1. Michael McClafferty – “a decent, hardworking person who got involved in this election because he believes change can only come about if people go into politics and fight for it.”
  2. Cllr. Marie Therese Gallagher and John Sheamais O’Fearraigh of Sinn Fein “because that party has shown consistent loyalty to its principles, as well as strong discipline, especially at last year’s council budget meeting.”
  3. Seamus Rogers – “a genuine community activist, and a decent man.”
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