Akron Irish: Dunne’s Store Girls
by Lisa O’Rourke
Our collective “annus horribilis” has now just passed, and from this position, it would be hard for this new shiny year to surpass it in the horrible. It is certainly a year that future generations will wonder about; what did we do and how did we get on with life?
We hoarded and cooked and baked and read and watched television. We absorbed so much media that reruns became a thing again. Ideally, a rerun offers the opportunity for another, better look.
I encountered one of those better look stories on an NPR program, “The Moth.” It is a program in which amateur storytellers tell a personal story in front of a live audience. This particular episode was a repeat of a show that was recorded in Dublin a few years back. I was hooked right there.
The story began with a young girl who was working in a Dunne’s Stores on Henry Street in Dublin. The year was 1984. Unions were under threat around the globe and were staunchly defended in spite of that.
This young girl, like the other trade union employees in that store and all-around Ireland, had received a statement from their leadership that they were not to handle goods originating from South Africa. The goods consisted mainly of fruit.
Apartheid was at one of its ugliest junctions, clawing to hang on to an indefensible position. Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robben Island.
Mary Manning, the Dunne’s Stores clerk, is still not really sure why she did it. She had heard things about South Africa on the news, but wasn’t a political person. She and the other girls were told not to handle produce from South Africa and they generally tried to follow union directives.
On this particular day, a woman stood in her checkout line with some South African grapefruit. Mary refused to handle the fruit at her register. She was warned by management, but she chose not to change her position and the strike was born in that moment. Ten of her Dublin co-workers followed suit, nine other young ladies and one young gentleman.
One of them was twenty-four years old, one of them was only seventeen, and the others were twenty years old. They were inner city story employees.
Most of them still lived with their parents. They did not see themselves as changing the world. Nor did they realize how long, lonely and difficult the strike would be at times.
At first pass, it seems very confusing, how could a place be further in terms of geography and culture than Ireland and South Africa? How could Irish shop clerks understand enough to be motivated to take such a hard line? The Irish have certainly suffered due to prejudice and a system that seemed to be rigged against them.
One anecdote that they shared was that they were educated about apartheid when they met a South African man who had been living in exile in Dublin for years. He came to the picket line one day early in the protest, to support the girls and they admitted to him that they did not know much about apartheid.
He explained the segregation and prejudice by comparing it to a pint of Guinness; the little bit of white on top was over all the dark at the bottom. Then, a few months into the strike, they were asked by Bishop Desmond Tutu to meet with him in London.
They went of course, and their resolve was hardened for good; they were not budging on the strike. At the time, they were living on a quarter of the wages that they had previously earned, and were getting little support.
When Fear Makes People Unkind
It was far from support in some cases. The girls described times where they encountered strong criticism and name calling in Dublin. They described it as fear making people unkind.
Watching some old newsreel footage, the girls’ youth and innocence are heartbreaking. There is something so uncomplicated in their passion; they were not politicians, but young hearts that could see simple truth.
They were asked by the anti-apartheid movement to come to South Africa to see for themselves what life was like there. They had no money, but raised the funds in one night canvassing the pubs in Dublin.
The trip was harrowing at the end of it. After being detained and intimidated, they were returned home without leaving the South African airport. They had attracted media attention now though and before returning home, they were asked to participate in a press conference in London.
The Turning Point
This was the turning point. Ten young Irish girls and one young man were a threat to the government of South Africa. Momentum began to build against the apartheid government globally. Ireland was the first Western country to ban South African goods.
Eventually, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he went to Ireland and wanted to meet the Dunne’s Stores girls. He gave them his medal of freedom and told them how much it meant that people from the outside world cared about injustices going on in his country. The strikers eventually got to visit South Africa as guests at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
One of the big takeaways from this year is that we have watched how our actions and decisions affect each other in real time. It is the “butterfly effect” on speed.
2020 was a year about racism and disease, but also about how we chose to react to those problems. The purity of vision that the young can bring to the world is still evident in the voices of girls like Malala and Greta Thunberg. Like the Dunne’s Stores girls, they have a passion that is born from an internal moral compass. This is a time to listen to that moral compass and consider how we are going to respond to that voice from our hearts.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
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