Betty Williams is an auburn-haired housewife from Belfast with lines in her face that speak of overwork and emotion.She knows, all too well, a litany of Northern Irish sorrows:
"Two of my cousins were murdered. My aunt, she was a perfect housewife, perfect. Now she's an alcoholic. They found her last year on Donny's grave, dead drunk, frostbitten.She had a blanket she was trying to put over his grave. "Donny's cold," she says.
"My Aunt Mary, she doesn't know if she's coming or going. She still sets a place for her boy at the table. 'I forgot,' she says . . . And Bridget McKenna, Bridget's son was murdered too. The first two months she was great. She was a very staunch Catholic, it was God's will. Suddenly one night her husband found her in the corridor, screaming."
Its been 3 1/2 years since Betty Williams and her friend Mairead Corrigan started a grass-roots peace movement in Northern Ireland, and just over two years since they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
The factions that have been fighting in Northern Ireland for over 10 years show few signs of putting down their guns; terrorists attacks continue and a current government conference in Belfast trying to plan a warless future is not expected to succeed.
The peace movement has had its own troubles, and the two young women who idealistically called a peace rally in 1976, not knowing how many people would show up, have experienced traumas of fame and the scarring embrace of success in a way they never expected. But they have not given up, Betty Williams said during a lecture tour here, and they have no intention of doing so.
She used to be just a housewife with two children and a fur coat. She'd grown up a Catholic in Belfast, taught to hate the British and the prejudice that Catholics felt from the Protestants.
By the time she saw her friend Ann McGuire three children crushed to death by a car driven by an Irish Republican Army gunman who had been shot by a British soldier, she had already seen a 4-year-old on a tricycle have half his head blown off by a stray bullet, and a young British soldier shot while she was standing in the street. The blood sprayed all over her clothes and she could not remember the words to Act of Contrition to say to him as he died.
Last week she resigned from the Community of Peace People, the organization that was founded to manage what began as a kitchen table campaign. Williams and Corrigan remain friends, but she chafed under the strictures of the burcaucracy they had unwittingly created and felt stifled by what she felt had become an organization that forgot the people.
"We got organized, which is maybe the worst thing we could have done," she said, in as Irish a brogue as you could want, leaning her elbows on a friend's dining room table. "We got constituted, with the executive, and the consultative boards, and the assemblies, blabladibla. I could never work in the framework . . . I hate executive meetings, you sit there for hours. I mean, everybody has to say their point of view, when you could be out doing some work.
"I think they'll be delighted to get rid of me.I was very disruptive. Now they've got a bit of peace!" She grinned.
She will continue to work in the peace movement -- as distinct from the Community of Peace People -- until "Irish stop killing Irish." Until 4-year-old boys on tricycles stop getting the backs of their heads blown off by stray bullets, and restaurants and trains and hotels and stores full of people stop getting bombed. One hotel in Belfast has been bombed 36 times, she said.
She's separated from her husband -- it was not a good marriage even before she got involved in the peace movement, she said, and they are "the best of friends" -- and she has shared one of the most respected honors in the world and met presidents and queens and the Holy Father himself.
And three weeks ago Ann McGuire killed herself. Four years after the car plowed into her children, she took an electric hedge cutter and slit her throat.
Over these last few years "I watched her try to survive," she said, letting the tears fall. "She fought back. She tried. She just couldn't make it . . . And poor Jack, her husband, what will he do now? Sometimes I think if we'd really love her we should have left her a little bottle of pills so she didn't have to die in that horrible way . . ."
The violence keeps happening. And in her mind the only reaction a sane person can have is to say "Stop It!" and say it loudly, often, and not very politely. She is not an intellectual, and the movement has made a point of staying out of politics, for which it has been criticized. Movement members place their faith, unltimately, in the strength of women's desire not to see their families killed, and they have been criticized for being naive and unrealistic.
The movement's founders have been criticized for more. "The jealousy syndrome set in. People say, "Those two think they're famous.' People at home expect you to have all the answers." In many ways, the Nobel Prize was a "crucifixion."
The approximately $365,000 they were given by the Norwegian people went to the Community; the approximately $50,000 Williams and Corrigan each received from the Nobel Prize they kept in lieu of salary -- something they think now may have been a mistake. People thought they got rich.
"And how can Mairead go out on a date and have a glass of wine with a man? And how could I? The newspapers would have it the next day -- 'Betty Williams Has New Man.'"
Williams is a woman who likes to laugh, to dance, to have a "wee drink" every now and then. She likes the attention she's had -- but has decided that as necessary as fame is to bring attention to the cause, it has estranged her from the very people she has trying to get involved in the rallies, petition signing and non-violent protest and rescue work that make up peace activism.
"A woman that I carried the banner with up the Shanker Road made a comment the other day that hurt me deeply. She didn't say it to me, she told a (a friend) Colleen. She said, "Why did the girls go abroad? We would have supplied everything they needed if they'd stayed here with us.'"
Now she wants to return to the "cup of tea" campaign, to being an amateur rather than a professional. She tells a story -- as she is fond of doing -- that sums it up for her, about the time the movement started its first rally, attended by 10,000 people.
"My telephone number has been in the newspaper, it was a sort of 'Up Your Nose, Provisional IRA', attitude. You know, if you want me, here I am. So consequently the telephone was red hot and the door was knocking continually . . . A little old-age pensioner came to the door, and she just put her arms around me and gave me a big kiss and gave me 50 pence (about $1) in my hand. And she said that's for you and the work you're doing . . .
"The house was just mayhem . . . the next person who came to the door was Pat Knox. She is a very genteel Methodist minister's wife and she says 'I live just round the block, is there anything I can do to help?' And I gave her the 50 pence and said 'yes, your're treasurer.'"
Monday night Williams spoke to a group at American University, one of four lectures she is making on this trip. She lives on lecture fees and what's left of the Nobel money.
She told them how she and Mairead had met the queen of England and Pope John Paul II, and how they were "just human beings too."
"We knew one of the questions Her Majesty would ask us was about the behavior of her troops on our streets. And she did. And I said, "Well, to tell you the truth, ma'am, it leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, sometimes it's quite atrocious . . .' and she said, 'Well, my government ministers tell me . . .' And I said, 'Well, I'm not saying your government ministers tell lies, but sometimes they might bend the truth a little.'"
Subsequently, Williams said, the British Army does not fire rubber bullets any longer, for almost a year, and with mob scenes and riot scenes their control is much better . . . I believe that message got through to the human being that is the queen of England."
She says this not just to say that she, Betty Williams from Belfast, told the queen what to do, but she hopes to tell the audience that "an individual can make a difference."
Mairead Corrigan, she said, is a "very devout Catholic -- she even prays for (Protestant leader) Ian Paisley. I pray he may die of natural causes very soon . . ." So when they went to see Pope John Paul II, Williams asked Corrigan to teach her how to genuflect, something she had forgotten. "Mairead was shocked, you know . . ."
The two women went to the pope's private quarters, awed by the "Michelangelo all over the place." They sat on a tall bench, too high for Corrigan's feet to touch the ground.
Her genuflection, she said was "a disaster. My knee wasn't too good for weeks after. Mairead's was perfect. Then I thought he was giving the ring to me (to kiss) but he was really giving it to Mairead . . . The Holly Father sort of picked me up, as if to say it doesn't matter, forget it, and his opening words to us were 'I congratulate you ladies on the Nobel Peace Prize, but I'm sure the greatest prize is to serve your country.'
". . . so I said, now Holy Father, explain to me please why you justify war. And Mairead nearly dropped stone cold dead . . . So we had this terrific debate with the Holy Father over the theory of the just war, and we ended up the best of friends. And believe me, it's good to have friends like the Holy Father . . ."
Earlier she'd said that a man who "three years ago I would not have walked down the same street with" is now the best of friends and has turned from violence to politics as a way to solve Ireland's difference. Every year the peace workers try to "save" young men from the para-military organizations, and they do.
They get clothes and furniture for people whose homes have been bombed, and opened a youth center where Catholic and Protestant children can play football together and dance together. They try to help the survivors, letting them grieve but "looking for the signs of manic depression."
Someone once described her as "Joan of Arc," Williams told the Students. "I couldn't really believe someone would go into print and say that," she said wryly. "A) I'm a sinner, B) I have far too many warts, and C) There is just no way I would like to be burned at the stake."