Eileen Blake (1952 – 2016), a great class fighter and a campaigner for women’s rights, died in Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry on Tuesday 15th November. From Donegal, Eileen moved to Derry in 1990 and soon joined the Socialist Workers’ Party branch in the city.
She returned to education, doing access courses, a Women’s Studies qualification and, eventually, a Social Work degree. She divided her entire time as a student between study and political activism, in particular she was a central part of the successful campaign to save the student crèche at Magee.
In 1996, along with others, she was a founder-member of Alliance for Choice – the organisation which has since become the main pro-choice group in the North. At a time when the stigma against abortion was such that few admitted to having “travelled to England” to end a pregnancy, Eileen was an exception.
In the early 2000s, Alliance for Choice took its campaign to Westminster to try to get the Act extended to this part of the not-so-United Kingdom. As always, newspapers wanted to talk to women who had had abortions in Britain and Eileen spoke to the Guardian about her own experience. Not only did she use her own name, in full, but she agreed to the Guardian sending a photographer and her interview appeared along with her photo and full name. This was 15 years ago, before social media, so no one tweeted or posted about her bravery. But it was typical of Eileen that she believed in standing up for her beliefs.
After she qualified as a social worker in 1999, she worked as a residential social worker. Juggling her responsibilities as a single mother and working shifts, she dropped out of the SWP. But she never lost her revolutionary politics and always said she thought of herself as a member for life. She was a trade union activist, a member of NIPSA’s Broad Left and she attended every protest, meeting and demo that her busy schedule allowed.
Eileen’s solidarity with anyone who was oppressed was legendary and, however stuck for money she was herself, she would contribute to a collection for strikers, or a family who had been the victims of a racist attack, or a woman needing to pay for an abortion in England. One of the last conversations I had with her was when she phoned to say that, since she wouldn’t live to draw her pension, she was taking the money instead and wanted to give some of it to the volunteers working with refugees in Greece.
It is really hard to describe the impact that Eileen’s death has had on the Left in Derry – her funeral was one of the biggest gatherings of trade unionists and socialists outside of May Day. Our thoughts are with the three daughters of whom she was so proud – Saoirse, Alison and Sophie, as well as grandson Laochas. She will be sadly missed.
( Pic Shows Eileen Blake (with the white hair and glasses, behind the “Not A Criminal” placard) doing one of her favourite things – protesting the right to choose.)