The knuckles white as she grips the lectern for support.Her voice wavers a bit as she begins her speech with a lame joke for which she apologizes in advance.

Clearly, this slim, auburn-haired woman in a white dress wrinkled from a long, long day of activities in no orator.

But after a few generalities, a few statistics, the heritage of a race of story-tellers overpowers the shyness and mairead Corrigan thrusts her listeners into the fear and the pain and death of her native northern Ireland.

"I remember - it will be 10 months ago tomorrow - looking down on the cold stone slab, at my sister's daughter Susan, who was 8 . . . with her little brother, 2 1/2, on the stone on the other side . . . their mother, dying; the doctors told us that only a miracle could have her . . . "Praise be to God, there are stil miracles and she did survive."

It was the death of her sister's children, run down by a terrorist's car last August on a Belfast street, that impelled the young Catholic woman to say "Enough!" to the violence that has wracked her homeland.

Together with Betty Williams, a like-minded Protestant woman, she launched the Women's March for Peace, which has blossomed into a movement to adapt Ghandian principles of nonviolence to northern Ireland's situation.

Speaking to a skimpy audience at Trinity College here this week, she recalled the anguish and frustration over the senseless deaths; the search for some resurrection out of their own Calvary.

"I tried to comfort my brother-in-law-he was crying - to tell him that somehow, maybe some good could come out of all this," she recalled.

"He said, 'What can an ordinary person do against the guns?"

"On the day my sister's babies were buried," she continued, "I took some roses from the graves to visit the mother of the young man who drove the car which killed them.

"He was a good boy,' she told me. "he believed in the cause; he would have given his life for the cause, but he didn't want to kill your babies,'" she recounted the sorowing Protestant mother's remarks.

For Corrigan and Williams, and the thousands who have responded to their call, the real enemy is not the hated British, not Protestant nor Catholic, but the guns themselves.

"We've got to find another way to solve the problem," Corrigan said. "We have to get 1 million adults to bury the past and live and plan for the future."

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As a member of the Catholic minority in a Protestant dominated country, Corrigan is not unaware of the grievances of her people: of up to 40 per cent unemployment, discrimination in housing and some civil services, the violations of civil rights; the enforced hopelessness of youth.

The efforts to combat, by violence; these wrongs has brought far greater evil, she believes: the nearly 1,800 deaths and many times that number maimed since 1969; the prevading fear that dominates daily lives - "60 per cent of the housewives are on tranquilizers to get them through the day" - and the despair of the young people who can see no alternative to the vicious and deadly circle of vengeance.

"Martin Luther King once said: "An eye for an eye and you will become blind." All too quickly the people of Northern Ireland are becoming blind," she said.

One of the functions of her movement - they now are called the Community of the Peace People - is to rescue young men who are forced against their will into the paramilitary organizations.

These groups, both the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force and the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army, are the source of much of the fear that dominates life in Northern Ireland today, she said.

"When you speak out against the paramilitary, there is a chance you will lowe your life," she said adding that the young men who resist being pressed into these groups are either "kneecapped" - shot in the legs - or killed.

THe Peace People have helped almost 100 young men escape such a fate by spiriring them out of the country "because they can no longer live in their own streets," she said.

Paramilitary units have been infilitrated by racketeers, she said, who demand "protection" payments from businesses for them to buy immunity from becoming targets of bombs.

One of the fruits of last August's rallies and marches of the Peace people was the discovery that sizable numbers of people in Northern Ireland, both Protestants and Catholic, share the conviction that violence must end.

According to Corrigan, some people feel intimidated by the paramilitary organizations from taking part in any activities that reflect such beliefs. To reach these people, a twice-a-month newspaper, called Peace by Peace, is published and distributed on both sides of the barriers.

Corrigan believes the movement to end the violence is making an impact. Latest police reports, she said, indicate that killings in Belfast have been reduced from 33 a month a year ago to 13 a month. In part, she said, that is because the people are mustering the courage to inform police about the location of caches of weapons."This is very hard for them - it goes against all their tribal instincts," she said.

Ann Close, a Protestant housewife who accompanied Corrigan on her visit here, pointed out that the recent attempted national strike throughout northern Ireland, called by the Rev. Ian Paisley last month, was a virtual failure, in contrast to a similar strike that virtually shut down the country two years ago.

The Peace People had geared up to counter last month's attempted strike by laying in stores of food to be distributed in anticipation of closed shops.

For the longer run, Corrigan said, the movement hopes to raise money to launch artisans' cooperatives and other business ventures to alleviated both unemployment and poverty problems.

The most important thing the Peace People o fNorthern Ireland have at the moment is a vision. "We're trying to get these two tribes (the Protestants and the Catholics) together and work together . . . to learn to forget and forgive . . . to come together and talk about a new Irish identity."

For too long, she continued, "the world has seen us as the mad, fighting Irish. It used to be, in ages past, that the Irish produced saints and scholars. We hope once again to become known to the world as the land of saints and scholars."