Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce

Blue Plaque for James Viscount Bryce
Unveiling the plaque to James Viscount Bryce at 13 Chichester Street, Belfast on Friday 10 May 2013

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Warning - a Blue Plaque can change your life

Can a blue plaque change your life? Well, according to Jean McGuinness, a retired University lecturer, it certainly can.

I met Jean at the rededication of a blue plaque to Margaret Noble (or Sister Nivedita as she is known throughout the Indian sub-continent) in Dungannon on 27 May. The Circle had erected the plaque on 7 December 2007 at a ceremony attended by many Indian people including Shri Karamesh Sharma, the High Commissioner of India to the UK.

Jean with Maurice Hayes, who had suggested the plaque to the Circle
Margaret Noble was born and spent her first years in Scotch Street, Dungannon, County Tyrone, and was educated in Halifax. She trained as a teacher and was co-founder of a school in Wimbledon. In 1897 she went as a missionary nun to India, where she was given the name Sister Nivedita. She founded a school in Calcutta, the Sister Nivedita Girls' School. She wrote many articles and books, one of which, The Web Of Indian Life, is regarded in India as one of the few fair accounts of Hindu society written in English. She designed the first national flag of India and helped to revolutionise the Indian Art movement. She was in favour of Indian nationalism and lobbied British members of parliament to this end. In India today she is still revered and on the centenary of her birth a stamp was issued in India in her honour. In India there are many Sister Nivedita schools, colleges and academies. When she died her body was cremated in Darjeeling, and a memorial to her is inscribed: 'Here reposes Sister Nivedita, who gave her all to India'. Her school has published an official biography, Sister Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivikananda.

The May 2011 celebrations were the culmination of Jean’s remarkable personal journey of discovery and personal development that began on that cold December day more than four years earlier. As she recalls it, she asked her husband, a local councillor, when he returned in the evening whether anything interesting had occurred that day. When he mentioned the blue plaque to someone called Margaret Noble her curiousity led her to view it. She was struck by the description ‘Writer and Indian Nationalist’ and since she was completely unknown to her she began an Internet search. The volume of references available amazed her and the more she read the more interested she became and set out to find more about her, her origins in Dungannon and her life’s journey. The quest included extensive research of the Noble family and the discovery of living relatives in England and the USA.

Jean, who had taken early retirement some years before, had set out to improve her knowledge of the Irish language and was studying for a degree at University of Ulster. By 2008 she was two years into the degree course and had to pick a subject for her dissertation. She decided to concentrate on Margaret Noble and was awarded her degree in 2010.

Realising that Margaret’s story was virtually unknown in the place of her birth, Jean set out to put this right and approached Ian Frazer, Chief Executive of the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in April 2010 for Council support for a civic event in her honour. Council approval was received in August 2010. The event was organised through the Local History Forum, facilitated by the Killeeshil and Clonaneese Historical Society and expanded to a three-day event. Jean contacted representatives of the Indian communities here and in England, including the London based Hindu Academy, which was planning a celebration at the same time and they agreed to co-operate.

Jean, no doubt influenced by her former role as lecturer, was not keen to take the conventional route of talking about Margaret, or to use the usual presentational packages. Instead she turned her dissertation into a docu-drama that used Margaret’s own works and words to illustrate her life and achievements covering the aspects of spirituality, literature, arts and politics. As part of the three-day event the ninety-minute play, called Awakening a Nation, was performed in the Craic Theatre in Coalisland on 28 May, by The Noble Thespians. Arrangements are being made for the play to be performed in Birmingham in August, Belfast in October/November and in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin in November.

The Celebration Event included contributions from Malachy O’Doherty, journalist and Writer in Resdence at QUB who had first learned about Margaret Noble while in India as a disciple of a Hindu Guru; Professor Murdo MacDonald, Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee who linked Margaret Noble to Patrick Geddes, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Dr Malcolm Sen, Lecturer in English and Irish at UC Dublin and NUI Galway who spoke on India-Ireland connections.

The plaque rededication event was a great success, with many Indian people there from far afield. I spoke to several of them and was struck by the affection all of them had for their Sister Nivedita and how pleased they were that she was being honoured in the place of her birth.

The event was widely reported in the local papers, including a full-page article, in Irish, in the Irish News. It was also widely reported throughout India, including a report of the play.

Given the success of her crusade to make Margaret Noble known in Dungannon, I asked Jean what else she would like to do. First, she is set on getting a statue of Margaret erected in the town and she would like to retrace Margaret’s steps to Calcutta and Darjeeling.

Seeing what she has achieved so far, I’m sure Jean will realise both ambitions.

Jean’s journey, inspired by another Dungannon girl, is remarkable and I wish her well in everything she undertakes. Thanks Jean for sharing your journey with me. I can only hope that others of our blue plaques will lead people to stop, look and question who these people are and encourage them to find out a little more about the rich heritage we have all around us.


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