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12 October 2006 Edition

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Gathering of the Clans 2006

BY 
ELLA O'DYWER

The Gathering of the Clans, an event traditionally held to bring together the families of republican POWs held in jails in England, took place over the weekend of 6-8 October in the Sliabh Beagh Hotel and Tourism Centre, Knockatallon, County Monaghan.

Since the final release of this group of POWs under the Good Friday Agreement, the annual event, now organised by Coiste na nIarchimí, has expanded to become a reunion not only for the families but also for those Irish republicans imprisoned in Britain during the course of the recent armed conflict. Monaghan locals welcomed the large numbers of visitors from all over Ireland and beyond; places like Italy, Wales and Scotland.

On Friday, a film on the life of IRA Volunteer Seamus McElwain was followed by a talk by Dr Ruan O'Donnell, currently working with republican former POWs on a publication on the English jail experience, and former POW Seán Lynch, comrade of the late Seamus McElwain, who spoke about the IRA's border campaign of the 1950s, the 50th anniversary of which will be marked by a major commemoration on 1 January, the anniversary of the deaths of IRA Volunteers Seán South and Fergal O' Hanlon in 1956.

Last Saturday a guided tour around the local Monaghan countryside highlighted many republican monuments and sites of IRA operations. The tour underlined the virtually seamless revolutionary journey from the 1798 rebellion, through to the assassination of South and O'Hanlon, to the death of Tony Ahern in a premature explosion and the death of Seamus McElwain and onto the IRA attack on a British checkpoint in Derryard, County Fermanagh in 1989.

The Derryard attack was one of the most effective IRA operations in the area. It was memorable also for the fact that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said it would not drive British forces from the area was forced to eat her words when, within weeks of the operation, the checkpoint was removed.

Moving experience

On Saturday a number of speakers recounted their experiences of imprisonment in England while others described visiting and supporting loved ones in jail. One of the most moving and memorable moments of the entire event was when a young woman, born in England, spoke of being a youngster when her father was arrested and imprisoned in England. After an account of her recollections of visiting him and of the difficulties facing the entire family at the time, she rounded off in an English accent by saying : "People say to me - you're English. I reply - I'm Irish and I'm a republican." Her words moved us all in a very deep way - the pain endured by the families and ultimately their strength, endurance and political awareness. As the various speakers gave their account, video footage from the Whitemore escape was played in the background.

A very impressive exhibition was in place over the weekend with photographs, letters and memorabilia from English jails. This was a major achievement in view of the fact that a great deal of such material was lost in a fire at the Dublin offices of Coiste na nIarchimí last year.

The hugely successful weekend provided a wonderful opportunity for former comrades from a broad range of backgrounds, relatives and friends to meet up again. It also provided an invaluable opportunity for us to make new friends in the local area and to learn of their rich republican history.

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