On 14th October 2017, our comrade Hilary Coleman lost her short battle with cancer and passed away peacefully at the Marie Curie Hospice in East Belfast with her husband Ciaran Crossey, her daughter Nicola and other family members at her bedside. On the 17th October, Hilary’s family, friends and comrades gathered to say farewell and to celebrate her life.
Hilary was born in the Markets area of Belfast. Her family then moved to Ardoyne before settling in Downpatrick when Hilary was 17 years old. At school, Hilary excelled at sports and played camogie at county level for Antrim and also made it onto the Northern Ireland netball team. It says something about the impression Hilary left on people that some of her neighbours from Ardoyne, where she hadn’t lived for more than 45 years, attended her funeral. So too did many former work colleagues with whom Hilary hadn’t worked for many years.
Hilary hated inequality and injustice and she always put herself forward to protect the underdog. Those qualities led her to become a trade union activist and a revolutionary socialist. I first met Hilary during the NHS pay dispute of 1982 when she was a young shop steward representing clerical workers in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Hilary’s strengths as an organiser came to the fore. Not one for public speaking or the limelight, she was one of the “behind the scenes” stalwarts who got things done. Above all, Hilary was determined and strong in her defence of those under threat. When three NIPSA members were suspended during the pay dispute, Hilary worked tirelessly to secure their re-instatement. It was at that time that she also met her future husband and comrade, Ciaran Crossey, and also joined the Irish Militant, the forerunner to the Socialist Party. Hilary remained active until the end, taking part in the annual decision-making conference and other party events.
All of us have very fond memories and thoughts of Hilary. One comrade remembers her kindness to him when, as a young full-time worker for the party, he used to attend evening meetings in Hilary’s house. Hilary would insist that he arrive early so that he could eat with them before the meeting, to ensure he got a proper, home-cooked meal that day.
Hilary loved music, art and literature. She never missed an opportunity to see Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen and it was always a pleasure to join her and Ciaran at his concerts. She was an avid reader and loved to travel. She particularly loved to visit Italy, where she could enjoy art just by walking the streets. On a visit to Rome, Ciaran planned a walk to enable Hilary to see all the works of her favourite artist, Caravaggio, which could be seen in situ. She loved it.
Hilary’s favourite song was the American labour movement song “Bread and Roses”, which was an appeal not just for fair wages but also for better things in life for working-class women. The song pretty much sums up Hilary’s view of the world. She believed that the struggle for women’s rights and women’s equality is inextricably linked to the struggle for socialism and that everyone, and not just those with money, should be able to enjoy the beautiful things in life; music, art, good food and wine, to name a few. When Hilary attended May Day, she always made a point of wearing a red rose or a red ribbon as a symbol of that struggle.
Hilary’s cancer diagnosis came like a bolt out of the blue and her life ended too quickly. She will be sadly missed but will be remembered by her comrades for her sense of humour, her generosity of spirit and for her ‘no nonsense’ view of the world. She was an intelligent, strong, decent and fiercely independent woman who was very protective of those she loved and the ideas she believed in. Hilary and Ciaran raised a beautiful daughter who has inherited those very same qualities. Much of Hilary now lives on in Nicola, of whom she was immensely proud, not least Nicola’s achievement of becoming a lawyer.
Hilary Coleman’s early years in our party were amongst the darkest days in recent Irish history, when it was not easy to be an outspoken socialist or a trade unionist taking a stand against sectarian division and state repression. During a particularly difficult political time, Hilary commented, “This is a time to be friends as well as comrades”. The sacrifices of comrades like Hilary kept revolutionary socialist ideas alive and she played her part in passing those ideas on to the next generation of young fighters. We extend our heartfelt sympathy to all of Hilary’s family, friends and comrades.
By Carmel Gates, NIPSA President(personal capacity)