Londonderry peace activist fights for justice amid broken government, aging victims

Words by Taylor Telford; Pictures/Picture Story by Sara Miller

LONDONDERRY — He has few pictures of that time, when he was known not by name but number. In the one he returns to most, he is a stout boy on the steps of the Londonderry Guildhall, surrounded by other round-faced, smiling kids from a Catholic children’s home.

They were singing, he thinks. Or maybe they were shaking hands with the mayor, a symbolic gesture so the city could show how deeply it cared for its orphans.

His brothers are in the picture, too, just a few feet away, but they were strangers to each other then.  

A young Jon McCourt poses with the other boys from St. Joseph’s, Termonbacca. Just before this photo was taken, McCourt had spent three weeks in the hospital with a fractured skull and a subdural hematoma after being beaten by a nun with a wooden towel rail. Beatings, long hours of forced labor and other forms of mental, physical and sexual abuse were common occurrences at St. Joseph’s for decades. Photo courtesy of Jon McCourt

When he looks at the photo, Jon McCourt, 66, thinks of the horrors hovering just beyond the frame. The hours of public humiliation. The voices insisting he was worthless. The stale scent of urine and sight of fresh blood. The beatings at the hands of people who claimed to dedicate their lives to the Lord.

These are the things McCourt has carried in the lifetime since the photograph was taken. They’re what hardened him, forced him into a life of fighting.

“By the time I got myself a voice, it wasn’t a voice that was prepared to stay quiet,” McCourt said.

First he fought for equality when it was denied to people like him. Then for peace, when it was the most radical option. And for the last decade, he’s been fighting to get what is owed to those who suffered as he did before there is no one left to collect it.
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There had always been whispers and cries, but for the longest time, they were ignored. Many victims kept their stories to themselves. Some shared their stories with those closest to them, or with those who lived through the same nightmares.

Then, in 2009, the Ryan Report shed light the “endemic” physical, sexual and verbal abuse Irish children suffered in institutional homes overseen by the Catholic Church between 1936 and 1996.

The culmination of a nine-year investigation, the Ryan Report drew from more than 2,000 witnesses who spent time in these homes, which were supposed to give shelter to children from “dysfunctional families.” Most of the time, this meant children with unmarried mothers.

In homes that should have been havens for the vulnerable, children lived in “a climate of fear,” the report states. Rape and sexual abuse were “endemic.” Children were often publicly beaten or humiliated. As a penalty for trying to run away, some children had their heads shaved.

But while the Republic of Ireland was stunned by the atrocities in the report, McCourt was overwhelmed by the familiarity of its findings. These accounts could have come from the hell he’d grown up in, he thought. So as the Irish public began to wrestle with the dark deeds of the Church, and the stream of denials and apologies it offered in response, McCourt was sowing seeds so the same reckoning would happen in Northern Ireland.

The brutality of his upbringing in the boy’s homemade McCourt a fighter. When he left at 14, he was lost and hardened.

“There was a point where I didn’t care whether I lived or died,” McCourt said.

When Derry became a battleground in the 1960s, McCourt was enraged and inspired. He joined the Irish Republican Army at 17. That’s when he earned the name Big Jon and became a man even strangers could pick out of a crowd.

On the iPad he carries to show visitors the photos of the moments that defined his life, McCourt labeled this photo “Murder unfolds in Glenfada Park on Bloody Sunday.” Violence erupted on January 20, 1972 after tension between a group of young Irish Republican Army members, including McCourt, and the British Army came to a head during what was supposed to be a peaceful march to protest the British internment of more than 300 suspected IRA members. The British army shot and killed 28 unarmed people, making Bloody Sunday the deadliest incident throughout ethno-nationalist conflict known as “The Troubles.” Photo courtesy of Jon McCourt

He saw his friends bleed out on the cobblestones when the bullets rained down on Bloody Sunday. He hurled stones and petrol bombs and stood tall at the barricade in the Battle for the Bogside. He saw men dragged from their homes on the morning of internment in Derry.

But after years of carrying the coffins of his friends, McCourt realized that the losses were dwarfing their progress and started striving for solutions. He helped sew his city back together, driving a van between the Catholic and Protestant sides, arranging football leagues and darts in pubs. He learned how to bend and blend.

He became the man in Derry everyone knew, then the man the government wanted to hear from as Northern Ireland tried to conceive a some sort of peace.

This is what he drew on for the two years after the Ryan Report, when his life was again a blur of handshakes and phone calls and pleas made over cigarettes and pints of Smithwick’s Red Ale. He rallied the men he’d kept in touch with after he’d left the boy’s home and the politicians he’d befriended in the Northern Ireland Assembly, building a case for an investigation.

“I learned many, many years ago that emotion doesn’t shift politicians. You have to shift them with information and policy,” McCourt said. “You have to show them where they’re wrong and where they have a responsibility to make changes. Just going and wailing isn’t going to do anything.”

By May 2012, McCourt saw his work come to fruition, when the government agreed to mount the largest public inquiry into child abuse in the history of the United Kingdom.

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He wasn’t an orphan until the state made him one.

He had parents and a menagerie of sisters and brothers and aunts and cousins. But a damning streak of family misfortune when he was almost 4 — his father, struck by a car while serving in the Royal Air Force, his mother thrust into early labor in his absence, then wracked with depression — left McCourt and his two brothers parentless in a big house.

The three boys were hustled into a car by strangers and driven to the outskirts of the city, to a boy’s home called St. Joseph’s at Termonbacca. In Irish, Termonbacca means a sanctuary for the lame, crippled and poor.

Fifty-one years later, he can still hear the rain smacking against the hood of the car and the gravel crunching on the driveway.
The nuns separated him from his brothers in the shadow of the sprawling Georgian mansion. They traded his name for a number — 10 — and brought him to the tin sheds behind the mansion that became his home. He was just a toddler, but they treated him as though he’d come from a dangerous disease camp. They scrubbed his skin with Jeyes Fluid, a disinfectant used to clean animal stalls and patios.

The brutality of his first day signaled the ways he’d suffer for the next decade.

“There’s nothing you can imagine that I would say didn’t happen at one point or another to me,” McCourt said.

He was beaten by a nun for being left-handed and by bullies while supervisors watched, unflinching. Chains of children, arm in arm, scrubbed floors with rags beneath both feet.

In the face of each new torment, the same thoughts cycled through his mind. “What is going on?” “Why is this happening to me?” “Where are my brothers?”

McCourt shared his horror stories alongside hundreds of other victims who testified at Banbridge courthouse during the inquiry. Each person had the right to testify anonymously, but McCourt waived his and addressed the investigators directly.

“We not only expect a full apology for what was done to us, but also an acknowledgement that government has a responsibility to right those wrongs.”

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McCourt helped shaped the agreement that brought his country and his city — of which he knew every broken stone and sign — out of decades of darkness. He’d become a husband and a father and criss-crossed the planet to help the disparate and war-torn move toward peace.

But the proudest moment of his life was when he first held the bound copy of the Historical Abuse Inquiry report in his hands on a morning last January. Finally, after five decades of being haunted and hardened by the hell he’d grown up in, McCourt had helped to expose the truth.

Jon McCourt discusses HIA legislation at Stormont in 2012. Years later, McCourt is still fighting for legislative action in response to the HIA findings. Photo courtesy of Jon McCourt

The small blue book was the culmination of 6 years of work based on testimony from nearly 500 witnesses and public hearings on individual institutions with the highest volume of complaints. Decades of secrets and suffering had been distilled through the investigation into a means of retribution and vindication.

Sir Anthony Hart, a former high court judge who oversaw the investigation, gave a summary of the report’s findings to a rapt crowd in Banbridge and called for financial compensation and memorials for victims and apologies from abusive institutions.

But the path toward Hart’s recommendations — which McCourt and other victims had shaped — was already in jeopardy on that very day. Earlier that month, the Northern Ireland Executive had collapsed after a series of scandals and resignations. The region was suddenly without a government to take the steps the report demanded.

The truth was a gift of its own, but McCourt knew most of the victims who had reopened old wounds through the investigation had been driven by hope for healing and reconciliation.

“Don’t let us down now,” McCourt implored the politicians at Banbridge.

That was more than a year ago.
The Executive is still in shambles. No progress has been made on the inquiry’s recommendations.

And still, McCourt is fighting.

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Rolling hills and sheep pastures line the bus route from Londonderry to Belfast. Photo by Sara Miller

The bus ride from Derry to Belfast threads through farm country, over sprawling green hills that look golden in the sunlight.
It’s a trip McCourt has come to loathe. It’s taxing on his aching, aging body and it takes him far from his wife and home. But he’s made it more times than can count in the past year, as he’s continued searching for a way forward, despite the gridlock in Stormont.

He’s been working with civil servants and politicians to draw up legislation that will bring justice for every victim of church abuse, putting the lessons he learned through years of negotiation in peace processes and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

“I think there are 27 clauses in the legislation and I was directly involved of the wording of 22 of them,” McCourt said. “My thumbprint is all over that document. I won’t let anyone be left out.”

Politicians who applauded the inquiry and promised to see it through have spent months shrugging when asked about its future, McCourt said. So far, no one has been willing to take responsibility, even those who promised to see it through. But as the months drag by, the need for reconciliation grows.

Since the inquiry ended, 22 victims who testified have died. Their losses haunt McCourt, who worries they reopened old wounds to share their stories and died without the healing or justice he wanted to bring them.

Still, although the legislation is stuck in limbo, there is hope. McCourt has seen how other victims have begun to heal through the community the inquiry helped build. They’ve made weekend trips to museums and art galleries and old castles. They’ve gone to public records offices to retrace their lives and understand their histories. They watch over each other.

“If one of us doesn’t hear from someone for 10 days, one of us will go knocking on the door,” McCourt said.

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McCourt and fellow survivors from St. Joseph’s visit one of the places they’d been together as children four decades earlier, top picture. For McCourt, the trip was about challenging the power of history and trauma. Photos courtesy of Jon McCourt

McCourt’s cane thunked as he limped up the steps of the Guildhall on a brisk March afternoon. He tucked his chin into his chest to escape the wind and grunted as he hefted the door open.

When people come to visit now, to hear his stories and learn from him, McCourt always brings them here. He loves to lead them through the exhibit on the first floor that details the city’s past lives, its history of conquest and rebellion and reconstruction.

He knows the story behind every glass-encased artifact and plaque. When he passes through the halls, the ladies at the front desk wave hello and grin. The janitor comes to shake his hand, as though he is the building’s keeper. In some ways, he feels like it is his. Their stories are intertwined, starting with the photo on the steps, when he was just a boy without a name.

Like him, the building was scarred by violence and bloodshed. And like him, it has been reborn and renewed by reckoning with its own history.

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