An extraordinarily ordinary life

In what he himself describes as an "extraordinarily ordinary life" Eamon Melaugh has managed to cram into 70 years what most of us couldn't do in 200.

A well known photographer, Eamon's countless years of pictures depict everything from his childhood days, Derry's civil rights years, the Troubles, right through to 2002 with his many visits to India.

Born in July 1933 in Bridge Street, looking back on his younger days in Derry, Eamon is reminded of Frank McCourt's famous novel 'Angela's Ashes.'

"People who have seen the movie have doubted that families were forced to live in those conditions," he said. "But I remember a time in Derry when people did live in slums and in terrible poverty.

"When I was a very small child my father moved the family to Belfast when he got a job there. We got a flat above a butcher's shop in the Shankhill Road and lived quite happily.

"One night the butcher told my father we would have to leave. The "boys" had been round, told the butcher they knew we were Catholics, and that we had to get out.

"Needless to say, we moved back to Derry very swiftly.

"Times were tough but we didn't realise how tough. Childhood days for us were full of joy Derry's streets were safe and there was no violence or crime. You could walk through Derry at any hour of the day and feel safe. No one ever locked their front doors, no one would ever think they would be robbed.
"We played all day in the streets with old bikes and tyres and for a football we would stuff one of my father's socks with newspaper and kick it around."

When he was older Eamon and his family moved to a house in Ann Street that seemed to them like the most beautiful house in the world.

"For the first time in our life we had electric lights," he said. "We had central heating that gave us hot water, and even a fridge. We were awe-struck by the mod cons. We even had members of our extended family coming into the house so they would be able to have a bath!"

However, times in Derry remained tough especially for men looking for work and after leaving school Eamon travelled to Scotland and England where he secured several jobs working as a labourer.
But the pangs of homesickness never left him and eventually he returned and married the first and only love of his life, May, affectionately known by Eamon as Mrs. Melaugh."

"I met May when my friend, Hugo Sharkey and I got tickets for a church social in Saint Columb's Hall. I was quite shy (you wouldn't believe it now!) and when we met up with a group of girls I didn't have much to say for myself.

"The next day I found out that May had been asking for me and I took her to a dance at the Ashfield Hall. That sealed the beginning of our romance and we are still romancing today.

"We were married in a simple ceremony in the Long Tower Church in 1956 and had a modest reception in May's mother's house."

After their marriage Eamon and May moved to England for a short while but eventually returned to Derry.

"When we returned housing was a serious problem in the city," he said. "Although May and I were on the list for a house we knew we would have to wait a long time for it.

"In the meantime we took a room in Albert Street in the Waterside with a Protestant family. We had our first child at the time and there wasn't much room in the place we were living.

"However we were forced to leave our home when the owner of the house told us that he and his wife were moving back to the country.

"I was delighted when he told me this. It meant that we went straight to the top of the housing list and before we knew it we were standing outside our new house in Creggan. My wife cried when I told her we got the house in Creggan, she was delighted.

"Ten more children were born in the house in Creggan including twins who were born on February 29, celebrating birthdays only every four years."

Despite having his own house Eamon was passionate about securing proper housing for the people of Derry.

"I put an ad in the Derry section of the 'Belfast Telegraph' inviting 'men of action who wanted to sort the housing problem' to come along. We later formed the Unemployed Action Committee and Housing Action Committee," he explained.

"The term 'action' in these two committees was a deliberate reflection of the desire to use the tactics of 'non-violent direct action' to force the Unionist controlled Derry Corporation and the Unionist government at Stormont in Belfast to introduce policies that would deal with the twin problems of unemployment and housing."

On one occasion Eamon was a key figure amongst the group of men who pulled a caravan across Hamilton Street demonstrating against the poor housing in Derry.

"That was the first act of public disobedience in Derry," he said. "We then focused on our civil rights struggle. We wanted one man, one vote."

Eamon was a marcher on Bloody Sunday in 1972 and has haunting memories of that day."As we were marching down Westland Street, I ran ahead of the march to check what was blocked in the town. I had my camera with me as normal.A Royal Anglican saw me with the camera and pointed his rifle at me. At that moment someone grabbed me and pulled me up Waterloo Street. When I turned round I saw that it was Barney McGuigan who had pulled me away and as we now know, Barney was sadly killed in the gunfire that day.

"For a year afterwards I couldn't walk past that spot because of the memories. I was haunted by that day. Afterwards I totally rejected violence.

"I am not a religious man but I live by the fifth commandment: 'Though shalt not kill.' I don't even eat meat anymore."

Eamon has been a keen amateur photographer for many decades and regularly carried a camera grabbing photographs of events occurring in Derry.

Eamon and May raised a large family of four daughters and seven sons. When the last of the children left home Eamon and May began to foster children on a short and medium term basis. In total they fostered 15 children.

"May and I began fostering when the nest was nearly empty," he said. "It is a great tribute to my children that May and I fostered. We raised eleven level headed individuals and still wanted to do more for other children.

"I was inspired to foster by my aunt, Julie Melaugh who was called 'the saint of the Wells.'
She took in waifs and strays from all over Derry and fed and cared for them.

"We are still in touch with many of the children we fostered and one of the girls we looked after as a baby is now living in Glen and wants to meet up with us. She calls us her "first Mum and Dad."
Now happily retired Eamon has turned his hand to a new project by helping the street children of India.
Each year he travels to India and walks the streets feeding and clothing young children and making donations to the poor.

"My experiences in India have completely changed me," he said. "On my first trip I was sitting in a cafe having a meal when I was aware of a small child staring at me. When I looked closer I saw that he was actually staring at my plate and waiting to eat my leftovers. After much protestation from the waiter I insisted that he give the child a meal. Afterwards I took the child and bought him clothes. I then realised that this was something I could do every day there and give the people some help.
"I have seen people whose bodies are rotting away with leprosy and children starving and living in appalling conditions.

"It is hard to watch, but I know I can do something to help. Many people I know have given me donations to help. I want to give everyone who knows me the opportunity to give a donation now so l can help these starving children on my next visit to India.

"Remember that the hand that gives is holier than the mouth that prays."

Courtesy of Erin Doherty (Derry Journal) 2002