Irene Rickman, life member of Birmingham Clarion Singers, lifelong member of the Communist Party (Birmingham CPB Branch) and loyal Morning Star supporter, has died at the age of 84.
Just weeks after the birth of Irene Hickie in May 1931, South Birmingham was hit by a tornado, causing severe damage to properties in its path. This force of nature could have seemed a portentous sign to Irene’s parents, given the indomitable spirit of their daughter in the years to come.
Although in poor health, Irene’s mother was supportive, and made sure her large family had opportunities to develop their talents. In the aftermath of World War 2, and following her evacuation to the Welsh countryside, Irene was enrolled for singing lessons. At the age of 15, she joined the fledgling socialist choir Birmingham Clarion Singers; and as a headstrong, forthright teenager, was drawn to the fight against fascism and the belief in a better world. This political firestorm led her to join the Young Communist League.
Irene very quickly became a leading light in the soprano section of the choir, taking on challenging roles under the tutelage of fellow comrades Elsie Marshall and Katharine Thomson.
This brought her into a world of cultural and political activism, rubbing shoulders with luminaries such as Paul Robeson, Alan Bush, Charles Parker and Pete Seeger, as well as left-wing academic George Thomson. This was a world away from her life as a young typing clerk, performing “Ballad for Americans” at Birmingham Town Hall for Paul Robeson in 1949, and playing Anne Page in “Sir John in Love”, (and meeting composer Ralph Vaughan Williams during rehearsals).
Irene met her life partner Alan Rickman at a Communist Party event, and they married in 1952, the day after her 21st birthday. Alan regularly took Irene to her singing lessons at Elsie Marshall’s on his motorbike. It wasn’t long before Elsie had persuaded Alan to take singing lessons himself, and to join the tenor section of Birmingham Clarion Singers,
In 1952 the choir took its message of peace and socialism to audiences in Romania and in 1957 to Czechoslovakia, funding these cultural exchanges by taking their progressive music to local venues and public houses. The people of Birmingham were treated to the works of Mozart and Vaughan Williams, sung by ordinary working people from the factories and offices in the city.
Irene continued to play a pivotal role in Birmingham Clarion Singers, taking on many roles over several decades of performances, and ensuring her clerical training was fully employed in the role of choir secretary. As she matured, her voice became deeper and richer, and as an adult she ended up with a beautiful alto voice. In the 1970s, she retrained as a nursery nurse, finding a welcome setting for her warmth and generosity of spirit. She took great pleasure in her extensive circle of family and friends, and could always be found at the heart of social events, enjoying a sing-along or a quiet joke and observation.
Irene and Alan had two children, Ruth and Mark, and their family life was full of shared interests, including camping, protection of wildlife, a love of the British countryside and, of course, politics and singing. In 1984 Mark died suddenly and tragically at the age of 19, and Irene demonstrated her unconquerable spirit as the family courageously came to terms with the loss. Together, the Rickmans spent their remaining years supporting working people and the socialist struggle. They weathered the storms of the Party in the 1980s, and continued to give their time and energies to the movement until they could no longer live independently.
Alan died in April 2015, and, with the recent loss of her elder sister, Audrey, Irene became uncharacteristically melancholy and world weary. In her usual decisive manner, she decided it was time to bow out, from a life lived to the full, leaving a legacy of music and political activism to inspire the next generation.
Birmingham Clarion Singers
(With special thanks to Ruth Rickman-Williams and Jane Scott, for their valued contributions)