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'Still to this day I always say I would do it again': How a 21-year-old Dunnes Stores worker stood up against apartheid

Mary Manning kickstarted a two year campaign when she refused to process the sale of two South African grapefruits.

p30 On the picket line (Speirs) (From L to R) Mary Manning, Michelle Gavin, Sandra Griffin and Alma Russell: only a couple of days into the strike. Source: Derek Speirs

WHEN MARY MANNING first refused to handle two South African grapefruits while working on tills in Dunnes Stores Henry Street in 1984, she had no idea what it would spark.

Mary (who was 21 at the time) was complying with a directive from her union - IDATU – not to handle any South African goods in protest against apartheid in the country.

At the time, the African nation had a system of racial segregation in place, which was used in many ways to deny the rights of many black people in the country.

Various human rights violations were committed by the South African government. The apartheid system received widespread international condemnation, and a series of boycotts and embargoes were imposed on the country.

Mary Manning stepped unknowingly into history on the morning of 19 July 1984 when she refused to register the sale of the two Outspan grapefruits.

Management had issued a final warning to staff over refusing to handle South African goods. Mary had now defied that warning. She was brought up to the manager’s office and promptly suspended.

Mary left the store, and was followed out by nine of her colleagues (eight women, one man). None of them would return to work for nearly two years.

“In the beginning, the first few days we thought we would just be out for a few days and that would be it,” she told TheJournal.ie.

“But then we started to learn what was going on in South Africa and it became something much more than a union policy.

It became something that we all totally believed in and there was no way any of us could go back and handle South African goods.

p56 Outside Dunnes (Speirs) Mary with her fellow strikers out on the picket line. Source: Derek Speirs

On the picket line 

Mary will publish a book later this month on her experience of the Dunnes Stores strike, as well as her family life and her life after.

Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Anti-Apartheid Striker is written with writer Sinead O’Brien and tells Mary’s story from her own perspective.

The head of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement Kader Asmal publicly praised the strikers soon after their action began.

But initially, Mary and her fellow strikers found little support from other circles. Other unions did not strike in support with them, and Mary said they received abuse from members of the public and their co-workers in Dunnes.

Soon after their strike began, however, the Dunnes workers were joined on the picket line by exiled South African freedom fighter Nimrod Sejake.

The Dublin of 1984 was a different place, and Sejake was the first black person Mary and her colleagues had ever seen in real life. She said that his presence on the picket line was a turning point for her and her colleagues.

In her book, Mary describes Sejake as a quiet and unassuming man in his mid-60s. She recalls his response to a question about what his homeland was really like.

“He held up his right hand as though there were a glass in it and said:

‘You have to imagine South Africa as a pint of Guinness – the vast majority of it is black and a tiny minority is white – and just like a freshly poured pint, the white sits firmly on top of the black.’

Mary said that this painted a clearer picture of the situation in South Africa in her mind than at any point since the strike started.

p55 Nimrod Sejake (Speirs) Nimrod Sejake on the picket line outside Dunnes Stores on Henry Street in July 1985. Source: Derek Speirs

As the months progressed, Mary and her colleagues got a few knocks, even as support for them and their profile grew.

She said that Dunnes management refused to negotiate or meet with them on any basis. As well as this, in October she said the head of the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement Kader Asmal withdrew his support for the strike.

She said they all were harassed regularly by the gardaí on the picket line at this time.

“We got an awful lot of knocks back. People who we thought would have supported us: the Church, the government – who were all members of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement at the time,” she said.

“And one by one they either tried to distance themselves from us, or the government just didn’t support us at all.

We didn’t want the law to change but that’s what happened in the end – what we wanted was the right not to have to handle South African goods.

International support 

The Dunnes strikers were given their greatest endorsement when the South African Bishop Desmond Tutu – at the time a vocal and renowned critic of apartheid – asked to meet them as he travelled to collect his Nobel Peace Prize in the December after the strike started.

Mary and Karen Gearon travelled to London Heathrow where they were interviewed by the international press, and their profile grew considerably.

Over the course of the remainder of the strike action, Mary and her colleagues would have a series of highs and lows.

They travelled to South Africa at the invitation of Desmond Tutu, only to be held under armed guard for 12 hours at a Johannesburg airport, before being sent on a plane back to Ireland.

p164 In Dublin Airport (Speirs) Michelle Gavin, Sandra Griffin and Mary at Dublin Airport in July 1985 where the international press had gathered to interview us about being held in South Africa. Source: Derek Speirs

They travelled to other countries for speaking arrangements, some occupied Dunnes Stores, they marched through Dublin with thousands of supporters and they received support and criticism from many high-profile names.

In the end, the Irish government passed laws banning the importation and sale of South African goods, and once all of the Dunnes Stores produce had been sold and the ban implemented, they returned to work.

However, Mary didn’t stay too long. Feeling she was blacklisted by employers in Ireland, she emigrated to Australia in October 1988 for five years.

She returned to Ireland in 1993 and has lived here since.

When questioned over the strike, if it changed her life and if she would do it again, Mary has no second thoughts.

“I’m very proud of what we did. It was something that we achieved. We feel like we achieved it,” she said.

“Whether the government ever admit it or not. There are probably things we would have done differently but we never would have changed it.

Still to this day I always say I’d do it again.

The story of a family

Mary’s book is about more than her experience of the Dunnes strike – a story she believes belongs to all of the strikers and one that has been told before.

Striking Back is also the story of her life after the strike, and the story of her family’s life before.

Mary’s father supported her throughout the strike action, but her mother was much more conflicted and worried for her daughter as her name began to appear in the newspapers more and more.

Mary’s mother Josephine was born out of wedlock and spent most of her childhood in the Goldenbridge industrial school run by the Sisters of Mercy.

“Her own mother had put her up to fostering and had just called to the door when I was about eight,” said Mary.

Josephine’s mother had gotten married and had had no other children. Known as “Aunt Mollie” in the family, she died when Mary was in her late teens.

“My mother went down to the funeral but was told to go home because she was making a show of herself,” said Mary.

“No one knew who she was. She was never recognised by her own mother, publicly – even though she’d had a relationship with her for 10 years.

So when she died her mother’s sister didn’t want her mother’s secret to come out.

While Mary didn’t really acknowledge it at the time, her mother’s own experience with the establishment had instilled in her a drive to kick back against the authority which had made life so difficult for her mother

“All these things have an effect on you,” she said.

“She was so afraid of standing up to the establishment – that had an effect when she was so afraid for me when I was on the strike because she knew we were going up against the government and going up against the Catholic Church.

She had never had the chance to do it. It made me stronger, I suppose, because she couldn’t stand up. But I could.
Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Anti-Apartheid Striker is published by the Collins Press and will be launched on Friday 24 November

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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