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02 June, 2011

Joan Tapsfield
Joan Tapsfield

Joan Tapsfield, who has died aged 97, was an unlikely candidate to become an English pilgrim in Northern Ireland, the title of her story published as a booklet in 1993. A patriotic Englishwoman, she was a senior civil servant, for whom England would always be Shakespeare’s “precious stone set in the silver sea”. Yet she moved from her comfortable home in Kent to live in Northern Ireland for 18 years during the Troubles.

She was a senior civil servant in London, where in the 1960s she was in charge of the operational work of more than 3,000 staff at the National Savings Bank.

She had a deep love of her country. In large gold letters across the top of the war memorial at her school, Finchley Grammar, were the words that she often quoted: “Live thou for England – we for England died.”

Her hero was Sir Charles Trevelyan, founder of the modern civil service, and she had a high regard for her boss, Leon Simon, who as a young man assisted in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration, which committed the British government to facilitate the creation of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

One Sunday evening in the 1970s, following her retirement, as she listened to a radio programme from Northern Ireland, she had a surprising thought: “That is where you ought to go and see what the establishment is doing.” And so she did. A friend put her in touch with another friend in Derry and she received a warm invitation. She went for a week, after which she left, utterly confused – but with an invitation to return.

Her second visit coincided with an exhibition in Magee College in Derry on emigration at the time of the Famine, for which England was blamed, an idea Joan strenuously resisted. However, while driving on the remote and beautiful Inishowen peninsula, she, an Anglican, visited a Catholic church with the Stations of the Cross. “The one that caught my eye was Pilate washing his hands to disclaim responsibility for the death of Jesus. It struck me like lightning that Pilate was a typical official, not deliberately wicked, but sacrificing truth for expediency.

I knelt and prayed for forgiveness for myself and my country and for the courage to do whatever God wanted. In time I decided to sell my home in Kent and move to Northern Ireland. The mainspring motive of my move there was a love of England. If my father, for whom I had great affection and respect, had died in debt I would have wanted to repay the debt. I feel the same way about my country.” In 1977 she moved from peaceful Kent to what was a war zone, first in Derry and then in Belfast, living in Northern Ireland for the next 18 years.

She attended a weekly Bible study in Clonard, the renowned Redemptorist monastery. It was in this monastery, in secret negotiations, that the framework of the Belfast Agreement was laid.

She read Raymond McClean’s book The Road to Bloody Sunday and began a life-long friendship with him and his wife Sheila.

She became convinced the Widgery report into what happened was an establishment cover-up. In February 1992, she wrote a letter to the Derry Journal which, coming from an English woman to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, was unusual in its strength of views.

The moral ins and outs of some incidents in the British-Irish relationship can be debated forever, but Bloody Sunday put the British unambiguously in the wrong. It was murder; and someone should say sorry,” she wrote.

Both she and McClean lived long enough to hear such an apology, made in the House of Commons by prime minister David Cameron and relayed live to a screen at the Guild Hall.

Richard Tapsfield, her nephew, speaking at her funeral, praised his aunt’s character: “She had a quick intellect and was highly articulate, with a strong character and strong views – but under strict control; only occasionally did the underlying fire appear, to be doused as quickly as it flared!

Had Joan been born in our time, she would have undoubtedly been at university... She never married and lived with her parents, caring for them in their later years: caring was a major part of her life, and I and my brother and sister benefited from her care and support during difficulties in our childhood.”

From the 1930s Joan had been involved with Moral Re-Armament, and when her father died in 1974, leaving her alone for the first time in her life, she offered her services to MRA and this led to a remarkable chapter in her life.”

Following her years in Northern Ireland, in 1995 she moved back to England to live at Wadhurst, East Sussex, and maintained her interest in MRA, a moral and spiritual movement, which changed its name to Initiatives of Change.

The organisation adheres to four absolute principles: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love – a value system that guided Joan Tapsfield throughout her long life.

This obituary first appeared in The Irish Times, Dublin, on 14 May 2011. 

Obituary in The Guardian

An obituary of the senior English civil servant Joan Tapsfield, written by Dr Roddy Evans from Belfast, appears into today's Guardian newspaper. It is accompanied by a photo of her, captioned: 'Joan Tapsfield worked for peace in Northern Ireland'.

'Joan was born in London, one of the three children of Harold and Alic Tapsfield, and was educated in Finchley. Her teenage years coincided with the depression and instead of going to university, she joined the civil service, aged 17. She was involved in the Moral Re-Armament spiritual movement from the 1930s and after retirement offered her services to MRA. This led to a remarkable chapter in her life.

'One evening in the 1970s she was listening to a radio programme from Northern Ireland, and she had a surprising thought: "That is where you ought to go and see what the establishment is doing." After only two short visits, Joan sold her home in Kent and moved to Northern Ireland. She lived there for the next 18 years, through the heart of the Troubles, working for peace with MRA. She later published her story as An English Pilgrim in Northern Ireland (1993).

'Joan returned from Northern Ireland in 1995 to her beloved Kent, where she lived until her death. She is survived by her brother, two nephews and a niece, and six great-nephews and nieces.'

Roddy Evans

This obituary first appeared in the Other Lives column of The Guardian, 1 June 2011.

Read online on The Guardian website here

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