Activist, Educator, Musician
General Workers’ Union (T&G, later Unite), he quickly became immersed in trade union politics. This would mark the beginning of more than three decades’ service to the T&G and wider trade union movement. A lifelong activist, he was heavily involved with his union branch and was instrumental in the re-establishment of Craigavon Trades Council in 1998, serving as its first Secretary and later as President (2005- 10). He also sat on the T&G Irish Executive in the 1990s and the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU (NIC-ICTU) in the latter part of the 2000s.
In 1984, while working at Clendinnings, Mel met Fiona McCafferty in a Lurgan pub. They went on to marry three years later, with sons Sean and Michael arriving in 1989 and 1991 respectively. To those of us that knew him, it was clear that he adored Fiona and was hugely proud of his two sons, not only for their talents and achievements – Sean in football, Mick in sports journalism – but for the men they had become. Grand-daughter Nancy came along in 2019 and was the apple of his eye.
Aptly, it was on their honeymoon in Blackpool, in 1987, that Mel bought his first banjo. Forging a close friendship with fellow musician Sean McKerr, he made the crossover from folk music to rockabilly swing and bluegrass, culminating in the formation of the Tennessee Hennessees. A 33-year career of tours, festivals and TV appearances followed, with Mel earning the reputation as one of the best banjoists on the Irish and American circuits, in the Earl Scruggs style. His personal and musical impact on the bluegrass community is felt far and wide.
At the same time, he remained adept at picking up the guitar to give a rousing rendition of ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, ‘My Old Man’, ‘Viva La Quinta Brigada’ or ‘The Internationale’ – to name but a few in his repertoire. It was thanks to Mel that a generation of activists became acquainted with these and many other songs of protest and struggle. Music, politics and trade unionism each were a big part of Mel’s life, and often combined in this way. He regularly offered his talents in support of workers’ struggles and other progressive causes, from the anti-apartheid movement to Spanish Civil War commemorations, to Cuba solidarity and the fight for women’s rights. In recent times, he finally bowed to pressure to record a number of radical folk songs, including his own ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears!’ as part of the 2020 May Day festival. Another May Day that stood out for him was in 2009, when he was part of a Belfast Trades Council delegation to Havana to mark the 50 th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.
The collapse of Mid-Ulster’s textile industry in the mid-1990s led to Mel’s redundancy from Clendinnings, after which he worked as an industrial official for the T&G. He had also entered adult learning through the union’s education programme and benefitted from the tutelage of people like Seán Morrissey, a working-class autodidact, communist and T&G education officer. This opened the door to his involvement in trade union education as a tutor, a role for which he was made.
It was also around this time that Mel joined the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), having spent years campaigning alongside and learning from communist stalwarts in the trade union movement. He gave two decades of his life to the CPI, sitting on the party’s National Executive Committee and chairing its Northern Area Committee, as well as penning the front page of Unity for a number of years. He was also key to the foundation and development of initiatives such as the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum and the Fermanagh People’s Dáil. A communist till the end, he was highly regarded as a man of principle, honesty and incorruptible integrity who practiced what he preached.
Mel carried these experiences into his work with Counteract, the anti-intimidation unit of the ICTU, before joining its successor organisation, Trademark, in 2007. During his thirteen years with Trademark, he was at the centre of everything positive the organisation did and achieved. Working alongside the late Joe Law, he developed and delivered pioneering anti- sectarian training on the shop floor and in communities. In more recent years, he established new and fruitful relationships with marginalised republican and loyalist constituencies as well as helping to resolve sectarian disputes in a number of workplaces. Like Joe, he brought an empathetic, class-based perspective to bear on the uphill task of building a transformative peace.
In the wake of the 2007/08 financial crash, Mel was central to the development of Trademark’s new political education programmes for trade union, community and political activists. Over the years he delivered these impactful programmes to hundreds of people, in community centres and parish halls, pubs and social clubs. He would travel for hours, at all times and in all weather, to fulfil his commitment to this vocation. He also continued to deliver core trade union education through the ICTU and individual unions. All-the-while he kept his door open to offer employment support and advice to those facing discrimination and exploitation, often talking himself into taking on difficult cases.
Unassuming and understated, Mel’s strength as an activist-educator lay in his authenticity and powerful ability to connect with people. These qualities could not be taught, but were innate to his personality and augmented by experience. Mel could calmly deconstruct deeply held shibboleths and translate complex ideas into common-sense language, using anecdotes to relate history and theory to people’s day-to-day struggles. His genuine and obvious empathy for people helped to break down barriers and build relationships. A whole generation of young activists found in Mel a teacher, a source of counsel, a leader, an inspiration, and someone to emulate. In turn, he had great faith in the young to carry through his hopes and aspirations for radical social, economic and political change.
Mel was a storyteller in the best tradition of the seanchaí. He could hold court in the pub like few others, regaling people with stories from his working life, music and activism. He brought characters to life and rarely failed to land a punchline. Wearing a mischievous smirk, he would play along with good-natured teasing and enthusiastically dish out a slagging in all directions. In short, he was a big character and great company, not to mention a kind and gentle soul. Family and friends knew that he would do anything for them, and he often did. Universally loved and admired, Mel’s passing has left a huge, irreparable hole in all of our hearts. The greatest tribute to his memory, perhaps, is that his influence and legacy will continue to inspire us in the fight for a better world.
“I only talked about freedom
And justice for everyone
But since the very first word I spoke
I’ve been looking down the barrel of a gun
They say I preached revolution
Let me say in my defence
All I did wherever I went
Was to talk a lot of common sense.”
Dick Gaughan – ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’