Belfast Telegraph

'One of a kind' peace activist Ciaran McKeown passes away after a short illness

Ciaran McKeown died aged 76
Ciaran McKeown died aged 76
Ciaran linking arms with singer Joan Baez at a peace rally at the Boyne Bridge in Drogheda in 1976
A Peace People conference in 1977
At work in the group’s office
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The family of Ciaran McKeown, one of the founders of Northern Ireland's Peace People, who died peacefully at home, aged 76, after a short illness, has hailed him as "one of a kind".

The writer and journalist set up the organisation alongside Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams after Ms Corrigan's sister Anne Maguire lost three children in a horror smash.

Tragedy struck on August 10, 1976, when IRA man Danny Lennon - who had been fatally wounded by an Army patrol that was chasing him - crashed his out-of-control car into the Maguires on Finaghy Road North in Belfast.

Baby Andrew Maguire, who just was six weeks old and in his pram, died instantly; so too did his eight-year-old sister Joanne, who had been riding her bicycle at the time.

Their brother, John, aged two-and-a-half, died the following day in hospital.

Some years later, Anne Maguire, who was also injured in the crash, took her own life.

Her seven-year-old son Mark survived.

After their deaths, Anne's devastated sister Mairead Corrigan made a television appeal for peace. In the days that followed, prayer vigils were held and people protested calling for an end to violence in Northern Ireland.

At that time, Mr McKeown was working as the Northern Ireland correspondent for the Dublin-based Irish Press group and as editor of Fortnight Magazine.

But after meeting Ms Corrigan and Mrs Williams during a television appearance, the trio founded the Peace People with Mr McKeown coming up with the group's name, declaration and rally programme.

Thousands of people took part in pro-peace marches organised by the group throughout Northern Ireland, and the organisation also held a high-profile rally in London's Trafalgar Square.

Ms Corrigan and Mrs Williams were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1976.

Later, in the 1980s, Mr McKeown and Mrs Williams left the group after internal disputes.

A statement announcing his death on Sunday was released by his family yesterday.

"The McKeown family announces, with great sadness, the death of Ciaran McKeown, who passed away peacefully at his home in Belfast following a period of illness," it said. Mr McKeown was born in Londonderry in 1943, the son of a teacher, and raised in Belfast, where he spent most of his life.

He considered joining the priesthood, and served as a Dominican novice for a short period, but went on to Queen's University in Belfast, where he studied philosophy.

In 1966, he became the first person from a Catholic background to be elected president of Queen's University student representative council, after securing cross-community support among the student body.

Two years later, he became deputy president of the Union of Students of Ireland, then its president in 1969.

His family said Mr McKeown "married his student love, Marianne McVeigh, in 1968 and they became parents for the first time the following year while they lived in Dublin".

The statement added: "In January 1970, he started work as a journalist with the Irish Press Group, moving back to Belfast, and becoming its Northern correspondent and commentator.

"In this role he covered Northern Ireland's rapid descent into political chaos and was a first-hand witness to the deadliest period of bloody events of the region's violent conflict."

The statement said that "in 1976, following the Maguire children tragedy, Ciaran founded the Peace People alongside the children's aunt, Mairead Corrigan and her neighbour, Betty Williams."

It added: "He became its chief strategist and sketched out a plan of rallies and marches for peace which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in Northern Ireland, Dublin, London and elsewhere to call for an end to violence."

It was Mr McKeown who named the movement, wrote its declaration - which was subsequently signed by 100,000 people - and set out its rally programme.

"Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, he stepped down from his role as a journalist to devote himself full-time to peace activism, editing the movement's newspaper, writing the Declaration of the Peace People, the movement's constitution, and numerous pamphlets setting out a strategy of non-violence, with the view to achieving peace and justice in Northern Ireland and globally," it added. "The period saw a steep fall in the level of violence in Northern Ireland." Mr McKeown's family said he continued in a leadership role for several years and, in 1978, became the first person from Northern Ireland to address the General Assembly of the United Nations when he delivered a speech on behalf of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

They added that following this period, the former journalist retrained as a self-employed typesetter and wrote a book, The Passion of Peace, chronicling his years as an activist.

In the later years of his career, he worked at various times for the Irish News, News Letter and Daily Mirror. Describing him as "a keen pipe-smoker", his family hailed him as "one of a kind" who "leaves behind him a profound legacy, both for his family and friends, and for the wider community".

He was predeceased by his wife, Marianne, and leaves behind seven children, Marianne, Rachel, Susan, Simon, Ruth, Leah and Hannah, and 17 grandchildren. His funeral will be held at the Good Shepherd Church on Ormeau Road on Thursday at 10am followed by cremation at Roselawn.

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