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16 August 2001 Edition

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Something inside so strong

BY LAURA FRIEL

At the corner of the Whiterock Road we stand. Raincoats, water boots and umbrellas keeping the worst of the weather at bay. A band, waiting with us, braves the worst downpour of this summer and keeps us entertained with a medley of familiar tunes. "It's hurting my ears," wails four-year-old Niamh. "I want to go home." From under a pink umbrella, her seven-year-old sister Aoife gives me a withering look. "Why are we here?" she demands.

Last Sunday, thousands of people from all parts of Ireland marked the 20th Anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike by participating in a march and rally in Belfast. Banners and bands bore testimony to the participation of people from places as diverse as Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh, Dublin, Longford and Waterford, Wicklow, Belleek and Kilkenny, Scotland, England and America, The Basque Country and Turkey.

     
The weather might be dismal but the mood of the crowd is far from that. There's smiles, waving and hugs as comrades and friends of longstanding greet one another. The commemoration marks the sacrifice and vision of republican POWs two decades ago, but as Bik McFarlane once said, "it seems like yesterday"
Marches, organised throughout the city, set out at different times to converge in West Belfast mid afternoon at Casement Park GAA stadium. The rain had began early and continued unrelenting throughout the parades, soaking the marchers and bands, turning roads into rivers and the entrance to Casement into a quagmire. But as Christy Moore remarked, "it takes more than eight hours of rain to dampen the spirits of people here".

Waiting at the Whiterock Road, Niamh is anxious to leave as line after line of people and band after band parade past. "When are we going?" she whines and "in a minute" comes the reply. But as we begin to realise this is one of the largest marches seen in West Belfast since the funeral of Tom Williams and as 30 minutes pass, there is still no sign of the last of the marchers.

And some people had already been marching for over two hours, from the north of the city, from the south and east and coming in the opposite direction from the greater West Belfast area of Lagan Valley. Earlier, loyalists protesting about restrictions placed upon an Apprentice Boys parade by the Parades Commission blocked the Ligoniel Road, preventing the Wolfe Tone flute band from joining a commemoration in Ardoyne.

"I've found the biggest puddle in the world," confides Niamh, her spirits momentarily lifting as we finally make our way to Casement Park in driving rain. And the weather might be dismal but the mood of the crowd is far from that. There's smiles, waving and hugs as comrades and friends of longstanding greet one another. The commemoration marks the sacrifice and vision of republican POWs two decades ago, but as Bik McFarlane once said, "it seems like yesterday".

But this is not a crowd of old comrades remembering the past. This is the broad republican community, young and old, north and south, home and away, commemorating the living legacy born out of those times but which continues to shape our daily lives. Inside the stadium, republicans were looking to the future as well as remembering the past. As Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams told the crowd, tomorrow is the first day of the next phase of the struggle.

Criticising the British government's suspension of the institutions, Adams warned that "behind the soft words really what is being opened up is a six- or seven-week period in which the British government and unionists are going to try to put pressure on republicans to move to resolve issues on British or unionist terms".

"Is anyone here going to allow that?" asked Adams and the crowd roared their reply. He warned that republicans would not be fooled by 'Humpty Dumpty' politics and nor would they allow those resisting change to 'pocket initiatives' and expect republicans to go along with it.

"If the British government is saying the deal is within reach, does that mean they are going to pull troops out of south Armagh, Tyrone, west and north Belfast?" asked Adams. "I hear also the patronising tone that the institutions have only been stood down for only one day and now it's okay. Well it's not okay."

Earlier, Bik McFarlane, the OC of the H Blocks during the hunger strikes, remembered the ten men who died and paid tribute to their courage and the courage of their families. Jennifer McCann, a former POW, described the living memorial that the hunger strikers had bequeathed to future generations, of which her own three young children are a part.

Addressing the rally, Sinan Ersay, the brother of a Turkish death faster, compared the imposition of F type prisons and the policy of isolation currently being pursued in Turkey to the H Block struggle in Ireland 20 years ago. Highlighting the inspiration drawn from Republican POWs like Bobby Sands, Ersay called for solidarity with Turkish prisoners, their families and supporters.

An extract from a play performed by Dubbeljoint provided a vehicle for the roll of honour, and each name, his age and the number of days on hunger strike rang out in the now silent stadium. Moments earlier, a Colour Party had marched into the centre of the pitch and, forming into a figure H, stood to attention during the playing of 'Amhrán na bhFiann'.

Children of former POWs carrying placards, which together formed the words 'Our revenge will be the laughter of our children', recalled the words of Bobby Sands and expressed the hopes of republicans for a future in which all the children of the nation will be cherished.

Forlorn and cold, Niamh climbs into my arms and snuggles for warmth beneath my raincoat. The rain has stopped but the sky is overcast. Across the stadium the strains of the song 'Something Inside So Strong' begin. Niamh lifts her face and smiles in recognition.

"The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become," sings one small voice. "The more you take my rights away, the faster I will run."

And suddenly her sister Aoife's indignant question, "Why are we here?" is answered for all of us. "And I know that I can make it," sing more than one voice, "because there's something inside so strong."

 

Remembering Tom Mór



The 20th anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Volunteer Thomas McElwee, Big Tom, was marked on Saturday 11 August.

A day of commemoration, organised by the local 1981 Committee, was held in Tom's native Bellaghy with an exhibition of personal items marking different stages of Tom's life, handicrafts and republican artefacts on show in the local hall.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams attended the exhibition and unveiled a plaque at Tom McElwee's house, among the rolling hills of South Derry, close to where his cousin Francis Hughes was also born and raised.

Of the ten men to die on hunger strike, five were from the county of Derry - that two were cousins whose upbringing was so similar and intertwined was remarkable. The boys from Tamlaghtduff were truly among the most remarkable of men; the bravest and most committed of republicans.

After he unveiled the memorial stone at the McElwee household, where he was with Tom's mother and his many brothers and sisters, Adams attended a special memorial mass in honour of the dead hunger striker.

The Sinn Féin President was then the main speaker at a wreath-laying ceremony in Bellaghy graveyard at the burial site of Tom, where he was laid to rest beside his cousin.

Hundreds of people attended the ceremony, many travelling many hundreds of miles, including Cork hurling great Jimmy Barry Murphy.

The MP for the Mid-Ulster, Sinn Féin negotiator Martin McGuinness attended, as did Francie Molloy, Sinn Féin chairperson of Dungannon council. Many ex-POWs from across the north, many of whom were on the blanket with Tom and his brother Benedict, were also there. Benedict, who was arrested and charged with Tom, spent around eight years in the H Blocks.

As he addressed the crowd, Gerry Adams, repeating something he has said on many an occasion, reminded his audience that the thinking behind British policy was to hive off the prisoners from the greater republican family and break them.

The policy of isolation was based on the thinking that the prisoners were the weakest link in the republican chain and if they were broken then the republican struggle would be broken or badly wounded.

The prisoners and the hunger strikers in particular, he said, showed the British and Margaret Thatcher that the spirit of resistance ran deeper than they imagined and proved that the British just don't understand the value Irish people put on their freedom.

Adams also disclosed how Tom, as he prepared himself for death, wrote it was his wish that the people of Ireland could live in peace with each other in the future.

The Sinn Féin President was speaking the day before he was due to address the main commemoration parade in Belfast, where he warned republicans that the unionist and the British strategy at this present time was to pressurise republicans into giving ground. We need only look to the example of the hunger strikers to see the failure of British and unionist attempts to break the republican struggle, he said.

 

Magnificent memorial and large crowds honour Kieran Doherty



A magnificent memorial to Kieran Doherty TD was unveiled to mark the 20th anniversary of his death on hunger strike as large crowds gathered in Ballyconnell Co. Cavan for a weekend of events from 3 to 5 August.

Doherty died on 2 August 1981 after 73 days on hunger strike, having been elected the previous June as TD for Cavan/Monaghan. Twenty years later, a full weekend programme of events drew people to Ballyconnell from all over County Cavan and further afield. The organising committee described it as "a celebration of the hunger strikers' lives and legacy as well as a commemoration of their deaths".

The weekend's events began on Friday, 3 August, with the opening of an exhibition in the community centre which attracted widespread interest over three days. On Friday evening, a large crowd was in attendance when former hunger striker and friend of Kieran Doherty, John Pickering, gave a detailed and heartfelt account of life inside the H-Blocks at the time of the hunger strike and on the events which preceded it. That night there was music and song at several functions in the town.

There was entertainment in the Market Square on Saturday when the group Village Folk played in the open air. At 7pm a large crowd turned up at the Gaelic Park to watch St. Teresa's from Andersonstown - Kieran Doherty's old club - play Kildallan. A most entertaining and competitive match saw the visiting side lose out by only a few points. The Mountain Road Pipe Band played on the Main Street afterwards and later there was a barbeque and function in Lizzie's Bar.

A commemorative Mass was celebrated in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Ballyconnell on Sunday morning at 11am. The chapel was packed to capacity. Among the congregation were Kieran Doherty's parents, Margaret and Alfie, and members of the extended family.

There was an air of excitement as a crowd of 1,800 people gathered in the town to take part in the parade at 3pm, which proceeded from Rakeelan on the Derrylin Road to the newly built monument. Four bands attended, one from as far away as Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, along with colour parties and pikemen. There were 1981 Committee contingents from Fermanagh, Armagh, Belfast, Monaghan and Cavan.

The unveiling ceremony was chaired by local republican Aidan Brady.and Alfie and Margaret Doherty unveiled the monument, which was blessed by Fr. Joe McVeigh. Wreaths were laid and a piper played a lament. Sinn Féin Cavan County Councillors Charlie Boylan and Pauline Tully addressed the crowed. Special thanks were accorded to Cavan County Council, which provided the site for the memorial and granted planning approval.

The main address was given by Cavan/Monaghan Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. He said he regarded it as a special honour to be asked to join with them as they unveiled the memorial. He said the memory of Kieran Doherty is "alive and relevant in Counties Cavan and Monaghan. His memory is a continuing inspiration as we move forward in our struggle for freedom, justice and peace."

Ó Caoláin paid tribute to the republicans of Ballyconnell for organising a very successful weekend of events in tribute to Kieran Doherty: "We are privileged to be joined by Alfie and Margaret today and I am sure they share with me great pride and appreciation of the fitting manner in which Kieran has been honoured here in Ballyconnell and throughout Cavan and Monaghan. Tá a chuimhne agus cuimhne a chomrádaithe beo agus leis an chuimhne sin is cinnte to dtiocfaidh ár lá."

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