Bernard Conlon talks to John Gray about his work as a social historian, an activist in the civil rights movement, and librarian of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
John’s parents left England to live in Northern Ireland in 1946, where his father worked as a lecture in Queens University. John was born just one year later.
He went to school at Brackenber House on the Malone Road, then on to Campbell College. Throughout this period in his life he found it difficult to fit in with the English accent that his parents insisted that he talked with.
“I was pulled up for speaking with a Ulster accent when I returned from nursery school sort of saying ‘how’s about yous?’…hence my accent.”
It was in school that John first identified with The Ulster Liberal Party, going against the views of most of his fellow classmates, and soon became a member.
“The Party did not hold public events…people were very careful about revealing where they lived, even in the mid-Sixties”.
He went to Oxford University where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics
“One description of that course is ‘a little bit of everything and not very much of anything’. During his time there he became president of the Oxford University Liberal Club and worked as a trainee journalist for a local newspaper called The City Press. The produced a ‘duplicated newspaper’ called The Northern Informer with his friend Egan Dudgeon.
He planned to stay in England but at the start of the Troubles decided to move back. It was around this time that he got involved with The People’s Democracy, a political organisation that supported the campaign for civil rights. It was originally based around Queens University but planned to expand.
“By 1969 the attempt was being made to move it out of the university to the community at large…the common thread was that people wanted to change the society utterly.”
During a meeting in central Portadown of The People’s Democracy, John became disillusioned with the movement, and with Northern Ireland as a whole.
“…a baying mob of Loyalists hurled rivets, bolts, rocks, in our general direction…we were threatened by a guy with a gun…the police refused to assist us…ultimately you were left with the feeling it had been a pointless exercise.”
John and his future wife Mary left for London once more where he worked as a bill poster and a van driver, and pushed his activism activities to the side. It was the introduction of Interment that re-awakened John into action, especially when he heard the news that some of his fellow People’s Democracy associates had been taken to prison.
“Within a very short space of time, we formed the Anti-Interment League, which was the umbrella organisation in Britain opposed to Interment…it was capable of turning out 50,000 people.”
One of the largest demonstrations by the organisation was in response to Bloody Sunday.
“We sought to deliver mock coffins to Downing Street…we (the organisers) were all arrested and charged with…conspiracy to riot and riotous assembly.”
John resigned from the People’s Democracy because he was not in favour of calls for the organisation to support the slogan ‘Victory to the IRA’. He then returned to Northern Ireland and lived in a flat in North Belfast.
He planned to take part in a teaching training course in Stranmillis College but was refused entry due to his police record. He was also a short-term member of the Henry-Joy McCracken Republican Club but the leadership revoked his membership in a letter because his “Trotskyist and anarchist past was very well-known”.
John then started his librarian career when the Public Library Service gave him a job as a library assistant. He moved on to become branch librarian in Ballymacarrett, and then went on to run the local studies collection in the Central Library. It was also at this time that John became active in the trade union movement, which caused issues between himself and his bosses. He was chair of the Belfast Education and Library Board branch of NIPSA.
In the beginning of 1982, John started his work at the Linen Hall Library.
During his time there he kept busy in other areas of his life also. He wrote a number of books including City In Revolt, which was about James Larkin and the Belfast dock strike of 1907. He was an active supporter of integrated education as Chair of the Board of Governors at Hazelwood College, Chair of his local community association in the Glandore Avenue area of North Belfast, Chair of the Cavehill Conservation Campaign, and Chair of the United Irishmen Commemoration Society. He produced many pamphlets and essays over this period of time also.