Sunday, 11 September 2011

In Honour of Helen Harris a radical, a feminist and anarchist

On 13th May of this year, Derry had lost one of its finest daughters, following a lengthy battle with cystic fibrosis.  Helen Harris was without a doubt an inspiration to many who knew her, a friend and comrade who had the privilege and opportunity to travel alongside of her during the 39 short but eventful years of her life. Helen was a radical, a feminist and anarchist.

To Helen’s close friends and comrades, Koldo, Sara and Georgina, to the women of ‘Women Activists for Social Justice’ and to her family in Cobh, we raise a glass or two to salute you as we gather to remember Helen on the occasion of your 40th birthday.

For those available to attend tomorrow afternoon’s mural in memory of Helen Harris, unveiling will take place at Free Derry Corner, Monday September 12th at 2pm. Below is a short statement issued earlier by the local feminist group ‘Women Activists for Social Justice’ as they prepare for this week’s events in celebration of Helen Harris’s life.

The ancient spirit of feminism presides over Free Derry :


Those passing Free Derry corner this week will catch a glimpse of the Celtic Hag.   The symbol of Sheela Na Gig has survived since pre Christian times and continues to serve as a symbol of women’s defiance and power; despite centuries of being rooted out of the conscious memory.   Carved images of Sheela are still to be found in many out of the way places throughout Ireland, Scotland, England and France; although passers-by may not be expecting to see her presiding over Free Derry corner.    .

Helen Harris was born in Cork on the banks of the Lee in 1971 and passed on from this life on the banks of the Foyle on May 13th this year.    She had lived in Derry for almost twenty years and this September she would have been forty years old.     On Monday, September 12th, a group of her friends and fellow activists will gather ‘in sisterhood and solidarity’ at Free Derry corner for the unveiling of a mural in celebration of her life.  There will be a press launch at 2pm.    According to Women Activists for Social Justice :

‘Helen was a guardian of the Sheela symbol, which was visible in both her home and her life.    It is fitting that her feminism, her determination and her strength are celebrated with a Sheela mural’.    

Helen believed that fundamental change was necessary to build a more just and equal world and this commitment was evident in her work with the Pat Finucane Centre, Foyle Ethical Investment Committee and her activism on the issues of women political prisoners and the arms trade. Through her research, her publications and her interviews on the role of women in the prisoners' struggle, Helen made an important contribution and her research material remains invaluable, as many of the women whose stories were included are now dead.   Her personal commitment to global justice was reflected in her support for Practical Action, a global anti poverty charity.  Most recently she was instrumental in the formation of Women Activists for Social Justice.  

Women Activists for Social Justice (WASJ) is a network of women in Derry and Donegal concerned about social justice and the future of feminism in Ireland. The network is not funded by any statutory organisation and is non party political.   Over the past year WASJ has attracted over one hundred women to its events and actions.   Helen was committed to the grass roots and to creating positive resistance in a society where activism has been undermined by consumerism, the demands of funding and the institutionalisation of women’s activism.    She was one of a group of women who met over the past few years; sometimes in her sitting room and sometimes around the kitchen tables and fireplaces in the homes of other women, to discuss and to plan for a resurgence in feminist activity in Derry and Donegal.   One of her last contributions to the group was in the organization of ‘Feminism Rising’, a discussion event which took place in March as part of a week-long celebration of the centenary of International Women’s Day. 

Throughout historical, archaeological and feminist texts Sheela Ne Gigs have been imbued with multiple and contested meanings.   The Sheela figure has often sparked controversy in a culture keen to wipe reverence for the female from religious and historical records and has emerged as an important symbol of feminism and feminist counter culture.

The Divine Hag of the Celts is, in fact, the third in a series of feminist murals from Women Activists for Social Justice.  The first, a satirical Valentine's Day mural in 2010 with the legend ‘Beware the Valentine Zombies’.    The Second; a celebration of a Century of International Women’s Day in March 2011 echoing the demands of the early women’s movement and quizzically asking how far we have come.    And today; a bold and defiant Sheela; reflecting the spirit of Helen Harris.

Mural Unveiling will take place on Monday 12th September at Free Derry Corner 2pm