Internationally respected, Sam McAughtry is a writer and broadcaster who was born in the Tigers Bay area of Belfast in 1923. Sam, one of a family of ten children, recalls the living conditions of the time “Tigers Bay was a big place, the origins of it were from the sailors because it was not all that far from Sailortown and there were a lot of sea faring people there, the people were great but the housing and everything else was dreadful….”
Sam’s father was a merchant seaman and spent much of his time away from home. “He went to sea at fifteen years of age. Children in the street used to say “is you daddy coming home?” as he always brought something home with him… didn’t matter what it was, it was something from Canada, Montreal, it was something from America, Boston, Philadelphia, it was always something to talk about.”
“He was like a God, he came home and he lifted us all up and he always needed a shave, when he kissed us it was all rough, I didn’t mind that and then he would put his hand in his pocket and give us money, then we would go out onto the street with whatever toys he had brought home with him.”
Sam left school at 14 and worked as a Riveter. When World War Two broke out, he recalls. “I could have stayed out of the war and kept my head up and said I was a ‘war worker’, but in fact I got sacked….”
That same day Sam went up to the Recruitment office and joined the Royal Air Force. “It was wonderful, it was great… it wasn’t wonderful getting shot at I didn’t like that end of it.”
Sam left the Royal Air Force in late 1946, spending some time working in the civil service and at Ford Motorworks in Dagenham before coming back to Belfast. He joined the civil service on his return.
“That’s how I became interested in the civil service trade union. In time I became the editor of the magazine for the union. Our union was not a part of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions at the time, but we managed to get the membership to agree to becoming member.”
Becoming editor of the trade union magazine was the beginning of Sam’s passion for writing.
Sam recalls campaigning against the marriage bar, a 19th century practice, which restricted married women from employment in many professions.
“Upon marriage the girls were sacked, that’s what the marriage bar was, they got the boot, it applied to the civil service and the banks and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. I started to discuss it in the magazine but the magazine wasn’t sufficient so I stuck an article in the Belfast Telegraph. My daughter was getting married and I said in this article that on the morning of her wedding day I brought her the telegrams and letters of best wishes. On the loveliest day of her life was a letter from the bank telling her that she was sacked because she was married….”
His article had an effect on the people who read it.
“Letters came in complimenting me on it. The civil service hung on and hung on. Then a civil servant, the manager of a Labour exchange in one of the country towns decided that one of the girls who was just about to get married should be allowed to stay on. She was the best clerk he had. He’s the man who really broke the marriage bar, then other managers in other centres started to do the same.”
Sam became a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
“What else would you do if you are fair minded and living in this country? There was something decent about Labour. I thought to myself that this is the only sensible party, there’s nothing else.”
In the early 1990s, Sam became involved with the Peace Train campaign. The Peace Train organisation was a group set up in 1989 in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in response to the repeated bombing of the Dublin to Belfast railway line. Trains were hired for a day, which would bring hundreds of people from all over Ireland to travel from Belfast to Dublin and back as a symbolic gesture to protest the bombing of the line. “We gathered the most lovely people, Eileen Bell and people like that, peacemakers, that’s all you could call them from all over the place.”
Sam also recalls the many contributions to radio an television programmes over the years, giving his memories of life in Belfast as well as political analysis during the Troubles.