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An Irish champion of human rights

THIS WEEK we celebrate St. Patrick's Day with parades that were originally organized by the Irish to express ethnic pride in the face of discrimination. So secure are the Irish in America that they are rarely offended by the marketing of Irish caricature. Target, for instance, sells a line of T-shirts proclaiming "6th Annual St. Patrick's Day Race for Beer" or "Green Beer Taste Tester."

Amid the worst representations of what it means to be Irish, it's a good time to remember the human rights struggles that have defined Irish history. I don't mean by going as far back as the famine or to British cartoons depicting the Irish as apes and an inferior "race." We only need to look to ongoing struggles in Northern Ireland where, to this day, it is not so safe to identify yourself as Irish and Catholic.

This week the residents of the Garvaghy Road in Northern Ireland will hold a memorial for their beloved friend and defender Rosemary Nelson. The Garvaghy Road neighborhood, a mostly Catholic and nationalist community hemmed in by a very Protestant and Unionist town, Portadown, has in the past decade been a point of resistance against invasive Orange Order marches, which celebrate Anglo triumph over the Irish and Unionist loyalty to the British crown. On March 15, 1999, Nelson, a lawyer who spearheaded the Catholic community's resistance to sectarian Orange Order marches, got into a booby-trapped car that exploded, killing her. She was only 40 and left behind a husband and three children.

The investigation into her death has languished. But if you ask most Catholics in the North, they will tell you that the best evidence points to the police.

That theory gains support from a January report by an independent ombudsman on widespread collusion between police and loyalist death squads. In the years before her murder, Nelson reported many death threats issued to her from police through her clients during interrogations.

In 1998, Param Cumaraswamy, the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, suggested that Nelson's life could be in danger. His report made specific recommendations to the United Kingdom government regarding police threats against lawyers -- none of which, a year later, had been implemented. In September 1998, just six months before she was murdered, Nelson testified before the US Congress about death threats against her and her family.

Nelson devoted her life to justice and equality. She advocated for independent inquiries into murders, such as that of human rights defender Pat Finucane in 1989, when evidence pointed to involvement by security forces. She did the same in cases of police inaction, as in the case of Robert Hamill, who was stomped to death in 1997 by a loyalist mob, as police reportedly stood by and ignored pleas to intervene.

I first heard of Rosemary Nelson shortly after she was murdered, when I spent nearly a month on the Garvaghy Road as an international observer invited by the Garvaghy Road Residents' Coalition. Stunned by the nonstop, police-protected Orange Order marches and bonfires surrounding the besieged Catholic community, the only humanity I could cling to in Portadown was in the stories told to me by traumatized residents about the loss of their friend Rosemary. They described a small-framed Irish woman walking confidently down the Garvaghy Road to confront security forces and the armored cars that were forcing the bigoted marches through the Catholic enclave. And though their voices quivered with grief, their stories of Rosemary seemed like a gift from their defender herself; as they spoke of her, these storytellers regained their strength and self-respect.

In today's America, the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has become a display of cultural amnesia, if not a full-on embrace of the worst stereotypes of Irish drinking and fighting. Thankfully, not all Irish Americans have forgotten their history, or its legacy for all victims of human rights abuses.

The remembrances are flowing across the pond, from New York and Boston to the Garvaghy Road. As the Brehon Law Society, a guild of Irish American lawyers, declared, "Let us construct in Rosemary's memory a most fitting memorial; namely, forging real reform in policing and the administration of the law so that counsel shall never again lose their lives in Northern Ireland for simply doing what any just society demands of them."

Michael Patrick MacDonald, the author of "All Souls" and "Easter Rising," is a guest columnist.