As we celebrate both St Patrick's Day and the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, I think of my visits with Sean MacBride, the organizational founder of Amnesty. Along with Peter Benenson, Sean was the idea man behind the whole idea of Amnesty. I think it is appropriate to dwell on this Irishman who did so much for human rights in the world as well as serving as Chair of the movement for 13 years.
Though Sean was an Irishman, he grew up in France. His first language was French, which he spoke most of his early years. His mother, Maud Gonne, a Protestant-to-Catholic convert from Great Britain, was the muse for W. B. Yeats' poetry. His father, Major John MacBride, rode with the Boers against the British in the Boer War. While in South Africa, MacBride Sr. fathered Sean's step-brother who later sat on death row with his son Robert because he belonged to the military wing of the African National Congress (they were later freed by the request of Nelson Mandela). When MacBride Sr. returned to Ireland, the war of independence was raging and he joined the rebellion; but was caught and hung by the British during the Easter Rising of 1916. Maud made it habit to visit the Irish political prisoners in this conflict. Worthy parents and worthy son. Parents were the omen of things to come.
At fourteen years old, Maud returned her son to Ireland to learn the language and the culture. Her husband's death did not deter her or Sean from politics. Maud was an outspoken supporter of Irish independence and a champion of the poor and oppressed everywhere -- she was even known to take guns into Russia to give to the anti-czar forces. Maud knew the importance of literature in revolution. Frequent visitors to the MacBride's home included Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw. Lady Gregory was Maud's pal and close companion. Sean saw his mother support Ireland in this golden age of literature and freedom. When Ireland finally freed herself from the firm grasp of England, Sean and his mother were in the middle of all it.
Sean came to non-violence slowly. At 17, he joined Michael Collins as his bodyguard during trips to London for the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Sean did not agree with Collins when the deal was cut to leave the north of Ireland under British rule. He continued to fight against the Irish Free State while studying law at university. Sean was latter appointed chief of the IRA, but resigned when he was called to the bar in 1937. He quit the violent side of Irish politics and became a respected barrister, quickly building a reputation of integrity and legal ability. Sean continued to advance in Irish politics eventually becoming the foreign minister of Ireland, and he always fought tirelessly for the rights of the oppressed. He never forgot the lessons of his family. In 1948, Sean helped fulfill one of Yeats' dying wishes, to be buried in his homeland. Sean helped bring Yeats' body back from France to bury him in Irish soil.
Sean chaired the International Secretariat of Amnesty for 13 years. He set the basic structure and approach that Amnesty would apply to human rights and visits to countries with reported human rights violations were set up regularly to monitor the progress of human rights. Under Sean, balance and impartiality became the foundation of Amnesty's work. His vision set a standard by which all subsequent human rights groups were subsequently measured. As donations flowed in, the idea of human rights caught on and spread during Sean's tenure. Peter Benenson's organization became a force with a solid reputation for integrity, employing an unbiased approach to governments and their human rights violations. That was and is Sean's contribution. Over the years, we employees of Amnesty International just followed the pipers: MacBride and Benenson.
MacBride and Benenson were not always happy with the way that things at Amnesty International went, but their thoughts were to protect the organization, not conflict with it. For good reasons, Sean and Peter worried about intelligence forces sneaking into the ranks. Benenson thought Amnesty should relocate headquarters to a place like India where they could move more aggressively into economically developing countries with local offices and a more viable regional staff.
But unlike Benenson, Sean went on to other large and powerful institutions in world affairs. He used the legal system to embarrass and praise, to pound and celebrate governments as they navigated human rights. After his tenure at Amnesty, Sean went on to win his own Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights work in Namibia. To give a sense of the scope of his influence, Sean was awarded both the Lenin Award from the Soviets and the American Medal of Justice from President Carter.
I got to know Sean in his later years. I went to see him at Roebuck House in Dublin on my way to see U2. Bill Graham and I would put together a six-city tour of the USA that would later be called The Conspiracy of Hope. My first band was to be U2 because of their talent and outspoken respect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Native Americans. We would eventually add Sting and The Police, Peter Gabriel, Bryan Adams, Joan Baez, the Neville Brothers, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Third World, Fela Kuti, Hooters, Howard Jones, Yoko Ono, Bob Geldof, Dave Stewart and Pete Townsend. Live on MTV in Giant Stadium. I had Peter Benenson's blessing, but it was important for me to have Sean's as well. I respected Sean and wanted to see if he agreed with my drive to weld music to human rights and create a new generation of young activists. When I asked, he quickly agreed saying, "Amnesty needs young people. A new generation, especially in the United States." I smiled.
By the time I left Sean's house, I just knew that U2 would do the tour with Amnesty. I crossed town in a cab. It was raining. I went into the management room with Bono, Larry Mullen Jr. and their manger, Paul McGuinness, and got that agreement in eight minutes. Graham told me I had to have it in writing. Paul typed it up while I joked with Bono regarding the real Irish. With the agreement in hand, I flew out of Ireland with the clear goal of creating a new generation of human rights workers who were young and dynamic. As we took off from Dublin, "Danny Boy" played over the loudspeaker in the plane and I cried. I had the blessing from Sean and the new magic in U2. I felt my Irish mother there with me. Human rights would come higher on the agenda for governments. The new generation would drop human rights onto the troubled tables of governments, never to be taken off. Music is the magical newspaper, and Amnesty would become a song by Joe Strummer, Bob Marley and John Lennon. The young would sing it now and sing it from now on. It worked. Amnesty got 50,000 new members and three million dollars in donations. A photo was taken after the show of all the artists with former prisoners of concerts and we all were smiling.
After the tour, I returned to Dublin and fulfilled my promise to Sean. Amnesty USA gave the Irish section $300,000 to help fight human rights. His blessing on that tour was worth more than that to me. Sean was pleased, and we continued to work together for human rights: he came to the USA twice for me to help stop the death penalty, even as he himself was dying.
Before he left the last time, I asked Sean about his mother's relationship with Yeats. I knew Yeats had chased her for years and was curious if they had ever consummated their relationship.
"Oh no, Jack." He laughed, but who knows the truth in that.
"Fine," I said. "But I know all of us Irish boys know our moms are virgins." He chuckled at that.
As I called for a statue of Peter Benenson in Hyde Park in my Huffington Post blog re Peter, I now call on the Irish government to do the same for Sean in Croke Park in Dublin. Both men created a vision of human rights for all of us as they formulated the future of Amnesty International.
Happy St Patrick's Day.
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