December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

It was at the funeral for her sister’s three children that Mairead Corrigan first noticed reporter Ciaran Mc Keown. While the other journalists scribbled furiously into their notebooks, he stood alone—and wept.

The Maguire children—Corrigan’s niece and two nephews—were killed in Belfast, Northern Ireland in August 1976, when a terrorist getaway car careened into them. Galvanized by the tragedy, Corrigan, now 33, joined with Betty Williams, a 34-year-old mother of two, to organize the first mass movement for peace in Ulster after seven years of sectarian bloodshed. Their courageous effort brought them worldwide acclaim, culminating this week in their joint acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize.

For Corrigan and Williams, however, the ceremonies in Oslo will be marred by an unintended slight to Ciaran McKeown. A mainstay of the movement almost from the start, Mc Keown, 34, not only coined the name “Peace People,” but supplied the ideological momentum that kept the movement alive. His omission from the Nobel citation “nearly destroyed Mairead and me,” Betty Williams says. “Had it been any other prize, we’d have turned it down.”

Mc Keown owes much of his obscurity to the media’s early habit of portraying the peace movement as a strictly feminine crusade. When he was mentioned, Mc Keown was often described as a bearded Svengali—a characterization that strikes him as infuriatingly patronizing to his two colleagues. “Betty and Mairead are not ordinary in any sense,” he declares sternly. “They are two very exceptional women.”

Descended from once-landed Roman Catholics, Mc Keown’s father, a teacher, chose to rear his six children in a predominantly Protestant area of Belfast—to avoid “the gossipy, introverted mentality” of the Catholic ghetto. At 13, Ciaran was already a fledgling pacifist—”I tended to sort out family rows”—to whom schoolwork came so easily that he had plenty of time for soccer, boxing and the piano. At 18, after eight months as a Dominican novice, he switched to Queen’s University in Belfast, where he breezed through with honors in philosophy, was elected student union president and met schoolmate Marianne McVeigh. They were married in 1968 and have five small children, 8 months to 8 years.

Discouraged by the violence, Mc Keown once contemplated leaving Ulster entirely. But believing that shared outrage over the deaths of the Maguire children could prod disgusted Catholics and Protestants toward reconciliation, he quit his job with the Dublin-based Irish Press in October 1976 to devote full time as chairman of the Peace People. He sometimes works 16-hour days but draws no salary, supporting his family on outside grants totaling about $12,000 a year.

Though the Nobel laurel has been denied him, Williams and Corrigan have insisted that Mc Keown share in the cash award—about $145,000. He intends to use the money to pay off a bank overdraft and “buy a year of independence.” Foreseeing no magical end to Ulster’s troubles and hoping, perhaps, to stifle accusations that he is hungry for power, he plans to leave his post with the Peace People next fall to develop an annual summer school called the University of Peace. “One day,” predicts Betty Williams, “Ciaran Mc Keown will win his own Nobel.”

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