On Good Friday friends called to say Brigid Makowski had been taken to hospital, her family had been summoned and were told to prepare for the worst. On Easter Saturday, she lost her battle for life. For Brigid, Easter, and the Rising of 1916, was a time of great symbolism in her own life, perhaps it was fitting that her passing would come on that weekend.
First and foremost, Brigid Makowski would want to be remembered as a Republican Socialist. Over a life spanning 80 years, her values and ideals were inspired by the works of James Connolly. Driving home that evening Woody Guthrie’s song This Land is Your Land was on the radio, one verse in particular reminded me of this woman I had known who was a larger than life character.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
Brigid Shiels was born into a staunchly republican family, during the War of Independence her father Paddy had been officer in command of the Derry Brigade IRA. At a time of loyalist pogroms in the city, Paddy Shiels was one of a small number of volunteers who organised the defence of the Bogside. Later he would work tirelessly in the Revision Courts as he attempted to win votes for members of the nationalist majority of his city. In 1936 Paddy had a daughter, Brigid, we know now that the apple certainly didn’t fall too far from the tree.
Few career routes were open to young Derry women in those times, although women were the main breadwinners as most of the available work was in shirt factories notorious for their sweatshop conditions. There was however an escape route from the grinding poverty for those fortunate enough to find romance with visiting American and British sailors.
After World War II, Derry had become a strategically important port. ‘Base One Europe’, was the secretive US communications site not far from Britain’s HMS Sea Eagle, owned by the Allied powers and populated by thousands of navy personnel.
In 1954, the USS Johnson docked in the city, on board was a handsome young sailor, Leo Makowski. The pair began a relationship. Later when Leo proposed Brigid accepted and set sail for Philadelphia where they married in 1955.
Sixty years after Brigid’s father had campaigned for universal suffrage, the right to vote remained one of the main issues for the emerging Civil Rights movement. Brigid followed events with great interest and was drawn to politics joining Clann na Gael in Philadelphia to help raise funds for back home.
When the civil rights marchers were batoned by police and attacked by loyalists militias, Brigid was concerned that news of the oppression was being suppressed. In 1970, with her five young children in tow, she set out for the British Consulate in Philly where they camped out for a week protesting for an end to the media silence.
Soon after the family came to live in Ireland, making their home in the new town of Shannon. Brigid had ties to the Official Republican Movement but followed Seamus Costello into the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). By 1977, Costello was dead, a victim of a feud, Brigid resigned from the party.
Taking her lead from the father of republicanism, Wolfe Tone, Brigid owed her allegiance to “that great and respectable class, the men of no property”, standing shoulder to shoulder with society’s less fortunate. The people took her to their hearts and in 1981 she was elected to represent them on Shannon Town Commissioners. Ten years later, they voted her onto Clare County Council.
From her three-bedroomed home in Tradaree Court, Brigid worked tirelessly on behalf of those who voted for her, and many who didn’t. Her kitchen was stuffed with filing cabinets reflecting her constituency business. When it came to representing her people, Brigid tackled anyone and everything and was the bane of social welfare officers working from the clinic beside St Tola’s School. Over time she won their respect, as she often insisted on accompanying people making claims for assistance and hardship payments.
Nobody in need was ever turned away from Makowski’s door and Brigid championed many progressive causes, including a dire shortage of accommodation for separated men. In the early 1980s, Brigid was associated with Dominic and Mary McGlinchey. Targeted for assassination and the subject of a British extradition order, McGlinchey had gone on the run. During this very tumultuous time, Brigid Makowski opened her home and became like a mother to McGlinchey’s young sons, Dominic and Declan, then aged 7 and 5.
For those who knew them, Brigid and Leo were like chalk and cheese. Leo kindly, always quiet and reflective, with a good sense of humour while Brigid was outgoing and talkative with a twinkle in her eye. For a short while Brigid and a friend co-owned a children’s clothes shop in Drumgeely.
After Leo retired from working with Molex in Shannon, Brigid decided to step back from her role as a political representative. The couple left Shannon to begin a new chapter of their lives in a beautiful new home, ‘Saoirse’ (Freedom), near Fahan in Co. Donegal on the shores of Lough Swilly, where they enjoyed wonderful views of the beautiful Lake of Shadows.
Tragically Brigid was pre-deceased by her much-loved daughter Stella. On Saturday April 15th she died peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital leaving behind her beloved husband Leo, daughters Margaret and Briege; sons Leo and Brian and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. May the Daughter of Derry rest in peace.