OBITUARY: Irish-speaking union boss who spoke out against IRA

Al Mackle OBE
Al Mackle OBE

Al Mackle was an Irish-speaking Catholic who was strongly opposed to the IRA and had no compunction about receiving honours from the Queen.

A school teacher, who rose to become head of one of the biggest educational unions in the country, he died last month.

He was born on February 13, 1928 in Derryneskan, five miles south of Portadown, the son of mother Mary (nee Whan) and father Felix, who was the headteacher of the same small primary school at Derrycorrib which he went on to attend.

He later went on to join St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon before opting to follow his father’s career path and study to be a teacher, enrolling at St Joseph’s college in Belfast.

He had two brothers - Eddie (who since died) and Liam (who became a priest now lives in Australia).

A fluent Irish speaker, he was particularly interested in Irish history.

He took up a teaching post in Magherafelt in 1948, then Aughanlig Primary School in 1951, and then St Mary’s at Maghery in 1955. He remained at the latter schoo for 22 years, and served as its principal.

He had married his wife Maire (nee McCallion) in 1958; and in a slightly bizarre twist, the ceremony was performed by his own brother Liam, who was by then a Catholic cleric.

He had always been involved in the Catholic teachers’ union INTO, but in 1978 he became its northern secretary, in charge of thousands of members. He also rose to become a senior member of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions - the massive, island-wide umbrella body.

“He stood up to IRA threats to workers during the Troubles,” said daughter Fionuala.

“He was very vocal and that took considerable courage, given that he himself was a Catholic - but he really wanted to support the rights of all the workers, regardless of religion. He had taken that stand against terrorism in all its forms.”

He was living on the outskirts of Portadown during this period, and she added that people -- particularly in rural communities - could be “singled out”, adding that she knew of a farmer who had been shot for doing business with Protestants.

She said: “I’m sure that led to an element of fear. Nonetheless, dad was vocal and stood up for what he believed.”

He stayed with INTO until retirement, and in 1989 was awarded an OBE for his services.

Asked if he had thought twice, he said: “He didn’t. And my mother and father had a lovely time going to London to receive it. You know, some could well have said that it was unusual for him to accept, but certainly he didn’t think so.”

When he retired from INTO, he became chief executive of the Labour Relations Agency from 1991 until 1996, as well as chairman of the southern health board, the Optical Council for the UK, and a member of Queen’s University’s senate.

He suffered from vascular dementia, and died aged 86 on February 10.

He was buried on what would have been his 87th birthday at St John’s Parish churchyard, Tartaghan, following a funeral at St Mary’s in Maghery.

He is survived by sisters Brigid Mackle and Maura Kiely, and brother Liam. His widow also survives him.

His brother Eddie and sister Ena predeceased him.

Unusually for one family, Eddie had earned an OBE and Maura an MBE.

He is also survived by daughters Siobhan, Aideen, Fionuala and Catriona, sons Ronan and Declan, and 11 grandchildren.