Bernard Conlon talks to John Gray about his work as a social historian, an activist in the civil rights movement, and former Librarian of the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
John’s parents left England for Northern Ireland in 1946. John was born a year later.
John attended Brackenber House Preparatory School and then Campbell College. He found it difficult to fit in given the English accent that his parents insisted that he talked with. “I was pulled up for speaking with a Ulster accent when I returned from nursery school … hence my accent.”
John talks about his identification with the Ulster Liberal Party when he was in school and became a member. The politics of the Ulster Liberal Party were in direct opposition to those of his classmates. “The party did not hold public events… people were very careful about revealing where they lived, even in the mid-Sixties.”
John went to Oxford University where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics
“One description of that course is a little bit of everything and not very much of anything.” He became President of the Oxford University Liberal Club and worked as a trainee journalist for a local newspaper called The City Press.
He also produced a ‘duplicated newspaper’ called The Northern Informer with friend Jeff Dudgeon who was living in England at the time.
John decided to move back to Northern Ireland and became involved with People’s Democracy, a political organisation that supported the campaign for civil rights. It was originally based around Queen’s University but was planning its expansion.
“By 1969 the attempt was being made to move it out of the university to the community at large… the common thread was that people wanted to change society utterly.”
It was during a meeting in central Portadown of People’s Democracy, that John became disillusioned. “A baying mob of Loyalists hurled rivets, bolts, rocks, in our general direction… we were threatened by a guy with a gun… the police refused to assist us… ultimately you were left with the feeling it had been a pointless exercise.”
John and his future wife Mary left for London. John found work as a van driver and pushed his activism to the side.
It was the introduction of Interment that changed his mind. He heard the news that some of the members of People’s Democracy had been taken to prison.
“Within a very short space of time, we formed the Anti-Interment League, which was the umbrella organisation in Britain opposed to Interment… it was capable of turning out 50,000 people.”
One of the largest demonstrations by the organisation was in response to Bloody Sunday. “We sought to deliver mock coffins to Downing Street… we (the organisers) were all arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot and riotous assembly.”
John resigned from the People’s Democracy because he was not in favour of calls for the organisation to support the slogan ‘Victory to the IRA’. He returned to Northern Ireland, to north Belfast. His plan was to teach at Stranmillis College but they refused him due to his police record.
John’s career as a librarian began when the Public Library Service gave him a job as a library assistant. He moved on to become branch librarian in Ballymacarrett, and then went on to run the Local Studies collection in the Central Library.
In early 1982, John became the Librarian at the Linen Hall Library.
“It was a challenging job. The library, when I got the job, was literally physically derelict…the collections were in a terrible state as well.”
He was particular interested in developing the Northern Ireland Political Collection and making the library into a ‘cultural hub’.
During his time at the Linenhall Library, he published a number including City In Revolt, which documented James Larkin and the Belfast dock strike of 1907.
John was an active supporter of integrated education as chair of the Board of Governors at Hazelwood College. He was chair of his local community association in North Belfast, chair of the Cavehill Conservation Campaign and Chair of the United Irishmen Commemoration Society.
Today, the Linenhall Library is a testament to John’s dedication. It is a truly unique institution, the oldest library in Belfast and the last subscribing library in Ireland. It is renowned for its unparalleled Irish and Local Studies Collection, ranging from comprehensive holdings of Early Belfast and Ulster printed books to the 250,000 items in the Northern Ireland Political Collection, the definitive archive of the recent troubles. The Library also boasts the Northern Ireland Theatre and Performing Arts Archive, a unique collection reflecting our rich cultural heritage. The redevelopment of the Linen Hall has made it a centre of Belfast cultural and creative life offering a varied programme of events ranging from monthly exhibitions to readings and lectures.