19 February 2009 Edition
Interview : Le Chéile Ulster honourees: PJ and Mary Caraher
The spirit of south Armagh
THE Caraher family – led by PJ & MARY CARAHER – epitomise the spirit of resistance displayed by many, many families in south Armagh. For 30 years, the British Army, unable to militarily defeat the IRA or destroy the resistance they encountered in the border area, used the media and dirty tricks to denigrate a people that wouldn’t yield to their will. PEADAR WHELAN went to south Armagh to hear their story.
REPUBLICANS from across Ireland, and further afield, held republicans from the south Armagh area in awe.
We wondered at their ingenuity, bravery and sheer audacity when they took on an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, an enemy that could deploy the most sophisticated weapons of war yet never come close to defeating them.
In some ways to understand why the British were fought to a standstill in south Armagh to the point where they retreated to their hill-top bunkers and were forced to use helicopters to travel safely, we need to understand where the resistance to British occupation came from.
This year’s Le Chéile honourees from Ulster are PJ (Peter John) and Mary Caraher, from Cullyhanna in south Armagh.
Their story, and the story of their family, goes some way to helping people from outside south Armagh understand the story of that bastion’s contribution to the freedom struggle down through the years.
It was the killing of the unarmed Harry Thornton in Belfast that galvanised south Armagh
Like so many republicans, the story of their lives and their involvement in republican politics was never an easy choice but, like so many republicans, they are ordinary people who rose to the challenge when they were needed.
The couple paid a particularly high price for their involvement: their son, Fergal, was shot dead by British Royal Marines Commandos in December 1990; a second son, Mícheál, was seriously wounded in the same incident but survived.
There was clear evidence that the British unit involved in killing Fergal and wounding Mícheál shot them in cold blood, knowing they posed no threat.
Mícheál was arrested some years later and served time in Long Kesh before being released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
As PJ remembers that dark period, he is full of praise for his wife, Mary. “Mary was very strong.”
He also believes that the British Army was intent on wiping his family out on the night they ambushed the car Fergal and Mícheál were in.
He recalls how he was travelling to Mass with two of their younger children (Phelim who was 16 and Therese who would only have been 6 or 7) when the Marines pulled them in.
As the Brits carried out a P-check PJ said, “This is Therese in the back.”
On hearing that, the Brit, seemingly taken by surprise, blurted out: “There’s a fucking kid in the back!”
At that, the Brits let the Carahers go, but as they approached a T-junction near their home they noticed a heavier than usual Brit presence, including soldiers with machine guns pointed along the road they had just travelled.
South Armagh took on an enemy that vastly outnumbered them, an enemy that could deploy the most sophisticated weapons of war yet never come close to defeating them
PJ Caraher’s earliest memories of living in south Armagh after partition are full of stories of harassment at the hands of the RUC and B-Specials.
His father had been a member of the 4th Northern Division of the IRA and had spent some time in Newbridge Prison in County Kildare. He remained active in the struggle when returned home after partition.
This made him a target of the RUC and B-Specials and PJ recounted how they gave him “special treatment” right through the 1930s and into the 1940s by arresting him and raiding their home.
His father died in 1944.
When his father died, PJ and his Uncle Francie, who was an IRA Volunteer, took on the responsibility of running the farm.
One evening, as they were “coming home from the spuds”, an off-duty RUC man opened fire on them, claiming he suspected they were robbing his fowl pens.
“I’ll blow the fuckin’ heads off ye,” he warned before adding, “and I’ll get away with it, you know.”
PJ began working as a builder around this time, mostly across the border.
He remembers how on many occasions the RUC would stop him as he returned home and make him empty his dirty linen on the street, in public, to humiliate him.
This was around the time of the IRA’s Operation Harvest, which also coincided with PJ meeting Mary.
They were at the dance in the Rangers Hall in Crossmaglen. At ‘Ladies’ Choice’, Mary went to ask PJ’s friend to dance but another woman got to him first. So Mary asked PJ out instead. He accepted and so began their life together.
Mary soon found out what she was in for when, the very next day, the RUC raided the Caraher home and took Owen, PJ’s brother, into custody.
This was 1959 and when Owen was released in 1962 the couple married.
PJ believes that the British Army was intent on wiping his family out on the night they ambushed the car Fergal and Mícheál were in
As the 1960s passed and the Civil Rights campaign gathered momentum, it was soon clear that the North would erupt. However, it was the killing of the unarmed Harry Thornton in Belfast that galvanised south Armagh.
The south Armagh man was shot dead by a British paratrooper on the Springfield Road and as people from south Armagh gathered in Crossmaglen Barracks in protest they were set upon by the British Army.
Up to 20 people, including PJ, were arrested and while in custody they were brutalised by British soldiers and the RUC.
PJ explained how a young man by the name of Michael McVerry lead an attack on Crossmaglen barracks the next night. McVerry’s name and reputation as one of the bravest Volunteers from South Armagh grew as he helped organise the Army in the area that took the war to the Brits. He was shot dead on 15 November 1973 during an attack on Keady RUC Barracks.
PJ Caraher has the flag that draped McVerry’s coffin and he and Mary proudly speak of the man whose legend republicans admire but they knew McVerry the man.
“He told me before he died that we need to build a strong political party,” recounts PJ. “He said ‘We don’t want a 32-county Free State; we want an all-Ireland Republic’.
“He maintained that we needed well-informed men and women who could settle this and he warned, ‘The talking could be harder than the fighting.’”
It’s clear that PJ and Mary Caraher live and breathe republicanism. They are committed to the Republic that was declared in Dublin in 1916 as was Volunteer McVerry and those other republicans from the area who faced the British.
In truth, there is nothing mysterious about south Armagh republicans – they are good, sound people who have carried on the traditions of resistance from the days of the Ribbonmen and the Whiteboys through to the Volunteers of the 4th Northern Division who fought the Tans and on to the IRA of the 1960s right through to the 1990s.
The Carahers embody that tradition.
1991: The public inquiry into the Royal Marines Commandos’ murder of Fergal Caraher and wounding of Mícheál the previous year (Mícheál is pictured on the right, in white shirt)
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.