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Friday, 16 August 2013 00:00

Inspirational life of an indefatigable activist

Bernie Dwyer: December 14 1943 July 10 2013

Bernie Dwyer, who died last month aged 69, was the driving force behind Ireland's Cuba Solidarity Campaign, an award-winning documentary film-maker and in recent years a campaigner for the Miami Five, imprisoned in the US on espionage charges.

Born in 1943, Bernie was the daughter of Arthur Hannon and his wife Mary in Galtymore Park, Drimnaugh. The family later moved to Sutton, Co Dublin.

She worked in a furniture store and pursued a modelling career before marrying David Dwyer in 1967.

It was when she began working as a childcare worker with Women's Aid in 1981, working with children with disabilities at St Ida's, Portrane, that she was politicised.

She came to see the raw deal that women who turned to Women's Aid had received. They were primarily defined by their personal relationships and society had determined that their place was beside a man.

Never having felt dominated herself, she began to see that she was privileged.

Having reared three daughters and a son she decided to broaden her horizons by becoming a mature student, starting a philosophy degree at Trinity College Dublin in 1983.

"I always did feel I had missed out on an education," she once said. She had left school at an early age, the "good feeling" she had once had about herself taken away by the nuns.

"I used to read things like Dr Zhivago, The Ginger Man and Catcher in the Rye with a wistful longing for a more structural way of approaching them."

She decided she needed a complete change of lifestyle. "I feel we have only one life to live and I really want to go through as many experiences as possible."

To that end she served as a student union welfare officer at Trinity, was then elected deputy president of the union, served briefly on the executive committee of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and also worked part-time in a Waterstones bookshop in Dawson Street.

In addition she joined Open Door Counselling, which offered non-directive help and support to women with unplanned pregnancies.

When the service was closed down after legal action by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, she continued this work with the Open Line helpline.

After graduating she lectured in women's studies at University College Dublin and was involved in adult education in Dublin's inner city and elsewhere as part of the university's outreach programme.

In 1988 she travelled to Latin America as a member of an international solidarity brigade, and later played a major role in reviving the dormant Cuba Solidarity Campaign founded to oppose the US blockade of Cuba, foster economic and cultural relations between Ireland and Cuba and lobby for an Irish role in ending the US bullying of the country.

In 1998 she accompanied leading Irish communist and Spanish civil war veteran Mick O'Riordan on an aid shipment to Cuba, and 11 years later she met then Irish foreign minister Micheal Martin in Havana when he became the first Irish minister to visit the island.

By this point living in Cuba, she made a series of film documentaries with Roberto Ruiz Rebo, including Che: The Irish Legacy, Che in Ireland and The Footprints of Cecilia McPartland, a film about the Irish mother of Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella.

She campaigned vigorously for the five Cuban intelligence operatives imprisoned in the US to be freed, fighting for recognition that they had not spied on the US but infiltrated anti-Cuban groups planning acts of sabotage and terror from Miami.

For several years she was the English-language newsreader on Cuban radio. On visits to Ireland she stayed at her home in Howth and regularly spent holidays in Inishbofin, a place of many great friendships.

She enjoyed good company, delighted in the cut and thrust of debate and never lost her sense of humour.

Her smile, her words in English and Spanish, her profound articles, international activism and her fertile work, even when ill, will remain with all of us who had the enormous privilege of knowing her as she was - a great woman, a great companera, a great documentary maker and a great revolutionary.

We send condolences to her husband, daughters and son, grandchildren and family members.

A strong embrace from all her companeros in Ireland who had the honour of knowing, respecting and loving her.

Cuba Support Group Ireland

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