Mary Holland

Campaigning Anglo-Irish journalist

Mary Holland was for more than three decades a towering figure in Anglo-Irish journalism, and marked out by a passion and commitment that went well beyond the journalistic norm.

Mary Holland, journalist: born Dover, Kent 19 June 1935; married Ronald Higgins (marriage dissolved), (one son, one daughter by Eamonn McCann); died Dublin 7 June 2004.

Mary Holland was for more than three decades a towering figure in Anglo-Irish journalism, and marked out by a passion and commitment that went well beyond the journalistic norm.

Although she was outstanding both in broadcasting and in print, what set her apart was her personal integrity and deep-seated liberalism. These values never wavered through the many controversies that marked her career.

She was one of the first British-based journalists to highlight the Northern Ireland civil-rights movement of the late 1960s. She was also one of the few to stick with the story after the descent into violence caused many to recoil from it. Later, as a Dublin-based feminist, she was at the forefront of the bitterly fought battles over abortion and divorce that caused convulsions in the Irish Republic.

Over the decades she produced an extraordinary volume of work for the Irish Times, Observer, New Statesman and British television. Many will regret however that she never wrote her memoirs.

Her awards included the Prix Italia award for her television documentary on the Creggan in Derry ( Creggan, 1980), and, in 1989, the Ewart-Biggs memorial prize for the promotion of peace and understanding in Ireland. Last year she received a Special Judges' Award at the ESB Media Awards, cited for leaving

an indelible mark on the historical record of events in Northern Ireland, in an astonishing range of newspapers, magazines, radio and television programmes on this island and further afield.

Born in Dover to Irish parents in 1936, she was educated at a Dublin convent school, as well as schools in England and London University. She had a sort of false start in journalism, as a feature writer for Vogue and then as The Observer's fashion editor. It was a visit to Derry in 1968, at a time when Northern Ireland did not figure in the British media, which changed her life. She reported to the Observer Editor, David Astor, that she had found "desperate poverty, discrimination, the hopeless feeling that nothing would ever change". Astor, she recalled, interrupted her: "Go away and write it - write as much as you need."

This exercise of the Holland-Astor liberal conscience was to set the course of the rest of her career. She spent her life mostly in Dublin, Derry, London and Belfast - a circuit which gave her an invaluable sense of perspective.

With a failed marriage to a British diplomat behind her, she also found in Derry a new partner in the shape of Eamonn McCann, then as now the city's most prominent left-wing activist. Their relationship produced two children, but never deflected the Holland line from the liberal to the revolutionary.

Her writing and television programmes continued to reflect her commitment to justice and concern for the underdog, while her conversation often conveyed a fine indignation against those she considered were doing something wrong.

She later left The Observer after clashing with its Editor-in-Chief Conor Cruise O'Brien, who considered her pro-nationalist. Rightly or wrongly, most Ulster Unionists also regarded her in this light. In truth however she was a liberal rather than a nationalist, much more interested in human rights than nationalist issues.

This helps explain why some of her most heated battles came with Catholic elements in the south: they fought to keep southern Ireland Catholic, while she urged a more modern, more secular society. In the north, meanwhile, she played a major part with a groundbreaking television documentary in halting the violent treatment of suspects at the hands of police. Just as she was one of the few who foresaw the onset of the troubles, so too did she discern the early stirrings of what would become the peace process. While strongly opposed to IRA terrorism she insistently made the case for weaning republicans away from violence and bringing them into the political system.

As with all her causes this was controversial and unpopular with some sections of opinion. But all her causes - ending Unionist discrimination, curbing security force excesses, modernising southern society, bringing violence to an end - made huge strides in her lifetime.

One of the most traumatic episodes of her life came in 1988 when she watched as the IRA dragged away a British soldier to shoot him dead. She wrote:

He didn't cry out, just looked at us with terrified eyes as though we were all enemies in a foreign country who wouldn't have understood what language he was speaking if he called out for help.

Mary Holland's career spanned the entire conflict. Her epitaph may be that she did far more than most - before, during and after the troubles - to encourage these islands to seek a common language, to develop mutual compassion, and to live together in peace.

David McKittrick

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