Remembering Sue Richardson/ Sarah Fenwick Owen

Three days after Christmas, on one of those clear winter days during which the dark clouds are pierced by a sunlight that turns the water to silver, a group of friends gathered at Bull Island in the heart of Dublin city to say goodbye to Sue Richardson. Sue died in October in 2011, aged seventy, sitting at her kitchen table, waiting for the kettle to boil. At her funeral a former housemate said, ‘Sue had an uncanny knack of turning the conversation away from herself’. She had an extraordinary life, yet spoke very little about it. The story here cannot be anything but incomplete.

She was born Sarah Fenwick Owen in 1941. At 23 she became Sarah Poulikous on marrying Dimitris Poulikakos. Dimitris later became a radical actor and Greek rock-star. Though they didn’t stay together, almost fifty years later she met him again to discover that both had in the intervening years followed similar political paths. In 1972, it was Sarah Poulikous who Scotland Yard said they were anxious to interview about the activities of the British anarchist group the Angry Brigade. In the previous year, one member of the brigade had received a 15 years prison sentence and four others were sentenced to ten years for involvement in a series of bombings. So it was that Sarah Poulikous came to Ireland and Susan Richardson was born, a new name, a new birthday, a new date of birth, a new passport.

She moved to Dublin’s inner city, was involved in the burgeoning Irish feminist movement and joined the Dublin Anarchist Group. Her life changed once more, when on February the 22nd 1978, a man entered the Bank of Ireland on Drumcondra road and passed a note to the teller saying “I am armed, push out all the money to me. Hurry. No delay. Return note”. He left with a bag of money and disappeared. Sue was found nearby, holding the bag, and was arrested. At her trial, at the Special Criminal Court she refused to identify the robber and so was sentenced to three years in jail on a charge of receiving money knowing it was stolen.

Conditions at Mountjoy Women’s prison were harsh. It had changed little since Victorian times. There were only two toilets for the 16 women prisoners, both open to those around, including to male prisoners. For washing there were two small basins with only cold water. Once in their cells, the women had to use pails and slop out every morning – often in the same basins. Sue, ever the fighter, took a case to the Irish High Court arguing that the state had failed in its duty to protect the health of the prisoners. She said to the judge “I don’t know what your stomach feels like in the morning, but it can be very unpleasant to go to wash your face and teeth to find the basin filled with human waste”. Justice Barrington, upheld her complaints and directed the authorities to improve facilities at the prison.

She was released in 1980 after serving 16 months, but was told by the prison authorities that she was not to communicate with newspapers, radio or television or to engage in public controversy. If she did, she would be considered in breech of prison discipline and returned to jail. Sue went to the High Court and contested the gagging order. Once more she was successful. The judge Mr Justice Barrington prohibited the Minister for Justice and the prison governor from attempting to restrict her freedom to express freely her convictions and opinions, through newspapers, radio and television. On release she remained active in Prisoners Rights Organisation and supported other prisoners, when she could, organising friends to visit prisoners when she could not.

The Dublin she returned to was beginning to see the corrosive effects of heroin addiction spreading through inner city communities. The threatened destruction of the inner city families lead to the rise of a grassroots anti-drug campaign known as Concerned Parents Against Drugs. Mass meetings were held to expose dealers, mass pickets were placed on their houses. With Noreen O’Donohue, Sue wrote ‘Pure Murder: a book about drug use’, which detailed the effect of addiction on the area she lived in. It was groundbreaking as it contained interviews with addicts themselves, giving voice to a group who were often demonised. It was published by the Women’s Community Press, which she helped to set up, in 1983.

I first met Sue, in the early 1990s at anarchist meetings in Dublin. She was a tall, frail woman.

I was told the damp and strain of prison had destroyed her lungs. Over the months, as her emphysema worsened she could no longer make it up the stairs to meeting rooms, could no longer leave the house, until eventually she was bed-bound and dependent on an oxygen machine. We didn’t think she had long to live. Then we heard she had been flown on an Irish army plane for a heart lung operation in the UK. The operation gave her back her life, though the anti-rejection drugs she had to take, lead to dialysis and a kidney transplant ten years later, and what she described as “only a bit of cancer” last year. Despite her new lungs, she continued to chain smoke, and gave short shrift to anyone who dared suggest she stop.

When I asked people at her wake where they first met Sue they said; I met her at a Residents Against Racism meeting, through the Women’s Community Press, I worked with her in CAFE, the community arts organisation, she helped me on my mothers fruit farm in Meath, I met her when I came out of prison, I lived in her house. Solidarity and direct political action were Sue’s core beliefs. At her funeral her close friend Trish MacCarthy told how, as Sue’s lungs began to fail, a group of friends held a fundraiser and raised 200 pounds, enough to buy Sue a car. A few years later, when Trish was herself short of cash, she found 200 pounds in her bag after a visit to one of Sue’s many parties. Trish said “that was the way she felt about money, it was only something to be handed on and passed around when needed”.

The house she lived in was a reflection of her personality. Trish described it as ‘as a communal space and numerous individuals who needed support and a place to stay were made welcome there over the years”. A former house-mate remembered the dinner parties and political arguments around the kitchen table. When I visited her house I always left with ideas, the name of a new book I needed to read, a film I should watch, a radical economist worth listening to. She loved her garden and her cat. She had a wicked sense of humour and was quick to laugh. Sue was one of those rare individuals that are always worth listening too but who share their wisdom in a gentle unassuming way. She could be strong without being forceful – though young male activists would often find themselves at the butt of her questions. She had contempt for those in authority, ‘assume nothing’ she said. In the last few years she cared for her terminally ill sister Jane, went wooffering in the Lebanon and travelled throughout the Basque country with her friend Rose Dugdale. It’s hard to believe that she is dead, because she lived so well.

Sue is survived by her two nieces, and missed by friends, comrades and house-mates.