We're Not Activists! I'm Just an Electrician Who Wanted a Baby ...and a Chance to Sail Round the Med; the Extraordinary Story of the Mayo Couple Who Moved Abroad to Help Conceive. but Ended Up Leading Supply Boat Rachel Corrie into an Ambush by Israeli Commandoes

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), June 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

We're Not Activists! I'm Just an Electrician Who Wanted a Baby ...and a Chance to Sail Round the Med; the Extraordinary Story of the Mayo Couple Who Moved Abroad to Help Conceive. but Ended Up Leading Supply Boat Rachel Corrie into an Ambush by Israeli Commandoes


Byline: by Brian Carroll

AS BALACLAVA-CLAD Israeli commandos rushed towards Derek and Jenny Graham, pointing 9mm weapons at their heads, the strangest thoughts entered the Mayo couple's minds.

Jenny, 40, kept her hands still and visible, as she thought of the quirks of fate that had led them here, 56km off the coast of Gaza, about to be arrested and strip-searched. They were accidental activists, brought here by, of all things, IVF and their inability to have a child. At precisely 11.40am last Saturday, Derek, the 41-yearold captain of the Rachel Corrie, bowed his head, pressed his hands against the glass of the wheelhouse, and hoped he wouldn't be executed.

He'd spent five frantic days at sea, in direct and daily telephone contact with Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, and had just put the radio down from the commander of a 35-man Israeli platoon, who told him not to resist or he would be shot.

Nine of Derek and Jenny's colleagues in the Free Gaza Movement had been shot dead in a similar situation the previous Monday. But for all the fear running through Derek's mind, there was equal fascination.

He could see his wife and the other passengers below, surrounded at gunpoint mid-ship; then three commandos storming up the steps to the wheelhouse, while six semi-automatic weapons trained on his head from two naval boats alongside.

The commandos pressed him to the ground and cable-tied his hands behind his back. Dragged upwards to his knees, he suddenly felt the strange exhilaration of a life lived differently.

He and Jenny had left Ballina in Co. Mayo for Cyprus in 2006 in search of some excitement to fill the gap left in their lives by the absence of children.

They thought the Cypriot charms of Limassol would offer an escape, but instead Jenny spotted a small newspaper advertisement there. Ultimately, that advert led them here.

The story of how they ended up this week manning one of eight boats in a flotilla attempting to bring humanitarian aid into the 30km exclusion zone around Gaza is almost as fascinating as their recollections of two days spent in cockroach-infested cells last weekend.

In 2006, at the age of 38, Derek was still living at home in Ballina. His parents and brother lived there also. Derek had his own company providing electrical work. Jenny worked with him. They had been married for six years but had been together for 17. Life was good and so was the money.

They moved into a cosy two-bedroom house. The only thing missing was a child. They'd been trying IVF, intermittently, at a clinic in Galway since 2000. Frustrated with the lack of progress, they decided to uproot for a warmer climate. By then, the most dangerous thing Derek had done was to mistakenly down some illegal poitin at the age of 10.

When they arrived in Limassol, Derek found work as an electrician, while Jenny busied herself managing holiday apartments. Despite living a comfortable life, the absence of a child preyed on their minds constantly and by 2008 they had started IVF again.

In June that year, Jenny saw the ad in a local newspaper looking for someone to man a boat to Gaza. Having manned sailing boats off the coast of Mayo since his teenage years, Derek applied. It was posted by the US-based Free Gaza Movement. By August that year he found himself as the first person to sail a boat into Gaza port since the Israelis occupied Palestinian territory in 1967.

He wasn't a human rights activist, however, just a man who'd turned 40 and was desperately looking for a few weeks of escapism.

Derek remembers: 'I said to myself, "Perfect, I'll have three weeks holidays, I love sailing. This will be free sailing around the Med, a free holiday".

'Up to that, I would never have been an activist or anything like that. I had an interest in Palestine but no more than the next Irishman, just from what I read in the papers. …

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