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18 April 2002 Edition

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Proud to be here

Even Martin McGuinness, famously unfazeable, seemed almost overcome by the enormity of the occasion as he stood against the huge black and gold backdrop of the names of the Roll of Honour and surveyed the gathering of some 2,500 people in the grandeur of the banqueting hall of the City West hotel in Dublin on Saturday. "Were you ever proud to be a republican?" he asked - a question greeted by voluble affirmation.

They had come together for Tírghrá, an historic event organised so that republicans could pay tribute to the families of all the fallen Volunteers of the IRA and all the republican activists who have lost their lives in the course of the struggle in the recent years.

"This is easily the most amazing republican gathering that I have ever been at," said McGuinness in his welcoming address. "It is a tribute to all those people who have been involved in the organisation. The atmosphere here is absolutely electric."


And specifically to the families of the republican dead, he said: "More important than the speeches, or the content of the speeches, is the fact that you are here; you, the families and loved ones of those who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom. I'm so proud to be here with you, so proud to be associated with you."

Ireland is changing, he went on, and changing "because of the sacrifices which were made by the Volunteers and those republicans who gave their lives in the ongoing struggle. There are more republicans in Ireland today than at any time in our history, and that is because of commitment and courage - and the sacrifices which republicans down the years were prepared to make.

"I certainly know, coming from the northern part of our country, that the nationalist people are up on their feet like they have never been up on their feet before; they are confident, they are assertive and they know where they are going. And the reason they have that confidence is because of the leadership provided by young men and women who were ready to stand up and say 'we are not prepared to accept second class citizenship in our country'.

"So our message to the British government and the unionists is that those days are gone and they are never coming back"

 
Sinn Féin National Organiser Eamonn Nolan and renowned actress Fionnula Flanagan, perhaps best known for her role as a hunger striker's mother in the movie Some Mother's Son, acted as Fear agus Bean an Tí, respectively, on the night
As former POW Eamonn Nolan and actress Fionnuala Flanagan, Fear and Bean an Tí, respectively, called out the names of each of the dead from the stage, 20 representative republicans, including Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Bairbre de Brún and Michelle Gildernew, moved among the relatives. They presented a nominated family member with a copy of Robert Ballagh's commemorative work of a bronze lily mounded on a granite block inscribed with the name of their loved one and a signed copy of Tírghrá, I nDíl Chuimhne, a hardback book containing a biography of each of the men and women whose lives were lost.

With up to four members of each family of the dead present, the scale of loss and grief represented by those in that vast hall was incalculable, but on Saturday evening the mood, though at times emotional, was more one of celebration of the lives of the fallen and pride in their achievements. And it was a rather humbling experience to witness how the families of the republican dead manage, in public at least, to keep it together, keep going on with their lives, and to live with their sorrow without succumbing to endless rage and bitterness, as many of the less courageous amongst us undoubtedly would.

 

Eoghan O'Neill, father of Diarmuid, the last Volunteer to die on active service when he was executed by the London Metropolitan Police on 23 September 1996, was moved to tears when, accompanied by his son Shane, he was presented with his family's plaque by Martin McGuinness.

The O'Neills, in common with the so many of the families of the republican dead, have had to endure the additional pain of the vilification of their dead son, but here at last, amongst those who understood and supported the choices Diarmuid made in life, his individual courage and commitment to the republican ideal was acknowledged with gratitude. Like so many others, the O'Neill family had had to travel a difficult road to be present at Saturday's commemoration - they had been entirely unaware of Diarmuid's involvement until his death - and, as ever, conducted themselves with unfailing grace and good humour.

Displaying the precious bronze and granite work, Eoghan described the event as "marvellous, just marvellous.

"I had no idea it would be on this scale," he said, looking around the room and shaking his head in wonder.

 

The Wall of Freedom


BY JIM GIBNEY


 
Tírghrá Cathaoirleach, former hunger striker Raymond McCartney
"The IRA did us proud" was the most telling comment I heard used at the Tírghrá function in Dublin's City West hotel on Saturday night. It seemed to sum up not only the powerful event itself but also the struggle waged by the IRA since 1970.

Saturday night's function was a celebration of the lives of those who are named on the republican 'Roll of Honour'. In an impressive display of organisational skills and resourceful back up, the republican family mobilised over 2,000 relatives from all over Ireland, transported them to the outskirts of Dublin and put on a tribute to them and their lost loved ones that they will remember forever. One relative described the 24 hours around the event as a 'beautiful dream'.

It was a night for the relatives. It was a night for the IRA past and present. It was a night for Sinn Féin. But in particular it was a night for memories. Sad though the occasion was, wherever you looked you saw smiling faces; people embracing each other, shaking hands, and renewing old acquaintances.

Relatives exchanged stories with other relatives they met for the first time. They told each other the circumstances of their loved one's death, which they had kept to themselves for years. They did this to preserve the memory to protect it from those who would attempt to sully it. But tonight they were among friends and they could speak freely and they did.

Many were lost for words to express their sense of gratitude to the organisers. They were 'overwhelmed' - 'tremendous', 'outstanding' were just some of the comments. I spoke with many of the relatives. They felt that their grief and the sacrifice their loved ones made was being recognised and validated by the occasion. Tírghrá, love of one's country, dispelled any doubts they had that their loved ones died in vain or that they had been forgotten.

This was a rare occasion, a gathering of men and women who, in the words of Gerry Adams, were 'undefeated'; not only undefeated but intact, stronger and more confident about their future and the future of the republican struggle.

Sitting in the plush surrounds of the City West hotel, it struck me that we were a long way from the streets and lanes that claimed the lives of most of the IRA Volunteers and Sinn Féin members. But the corridors of the hotel offered up a connection with another era in the long struggle for Irish freedom.

There on the walls, in black and white photographs, were images of Dublin under British rule. The stark poverty of the people was obvious; the opulence of the aristocracy was on display as they were driven through the capital city, the second city of the empire as it was called. But also depicted was an earlier IRA fighting the Black and Tans and the RIC for independence. We were in good company.


Danny Devenney and his team of artists excelled themselves once again. They built a remarkable yet simple monument. A 'Wall of Freedom' formed the backdrop on the stage for the night's proceedings. Hand painted with loving care and attention in gold lettering were the names of all those on the Roll of Honour and Roll of Remembrance, men and women who died that we might live free from oppression.

The 'Wall' became the night's centrepiece. It may have started out as a prop. It very quickly became a shrine, a place of reverence. I saw relatives barely able to walk insisting they be brought to the edge of the stage to look up at the 'Wall'. Young people, too young to remember their lost relative, even younger not born, made the short journey to this hallowed spot.

They pointed with their fingers. They scanned the names searching for theirs. When located, a photograph was taken. An inanimate object came to life because living people invested their emotions in it.

Bobby Ballagh, one of Ireland's foremost artists, cast the Easter Lily and made it an enduring and permanent symbol of requiem for all the families.

It was a night for personal memories, for a walk down memory lane. I too scanned the names on the 'Wall' and wrote down those names that touched me closely or at a distance. As I did so the pages of history quickly flicked back through the last 30 years. Those names I recognised carried their own message of the struggle; what it was like at different times and the price we had to pay.

Eight Volunteers from the early '70s lost in premature explosions in the Short Strand. Jackie McMahon, also from the Short Strand. He disappeared in January '78. He was last seen in the custody of the UDR. In May of that year his body was taken from the river Lagan.

Lying on my bed on the 'Ones' in Crumlin Road gaol in April '77, I heard on the radio of the killing by the British Army of my friend Brendan O'Callaghan. He was one of the first 'shoot to kill' victims.

Eddie Mc Sheffrey from Derry was a small bundle of energy as we walked around the yard in Crumlin Road gaol. He died in a premature explosion in October '87. Ardoyne man James McDaid died in Coventry in a premature explosion in November 1974. The British Home Secretary banned his funeral and ground staff at Aldergrove refused to handle his coffin. Diarmuid O'Neill was the last IRA Volunteer to die, in September '96. He was summarily shot by English police in a London flat.

Peter Cleary's brother Jim told me he was 26 years dead "on Monday", that he was a "Volunteer with a difference" and that his family was taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Kathleen Thompson, whose freedom songs inspired a generation. The name Michael McVerry from South Armagh sent shivers down the spine of the Crown forces when he was active in the early '70s. John Green, shot dead by loyalists in one of the earliest examples of collusion near Castleblaney. I was proud to be involved in a very small way in helping John escape from Long Kesh dressed as a priest in the summer of 1973.

Paul Best, a gentle soul and member of Sinn Féin, was shot by armed members of the 'Workers' Party' during a feud in November '75. Seamus McCusker from the New Lodge Road was the first republican I heard arguing to build Sinn Féin as a political party in 1975, when no one else was interested or knew its importance. He met a similar fate to Paul Best in the same feud in October '75, close to the Sinn Féin centre he ran.

I can still hear the loyalists battering on their cell doors in the Crum's 'C' Wing, wallowing in the killing of Maire Drumm, shot as she lay in her hospital bed in late '76.

Martin McKenna, who travelled the country building support for the prisoners protesting for political status, died at the wheel of his car in an accident outside Newry. Sheena Campbell, one of Sinn Féin's brightest, was shot dead reputedly on the orders of the notorious loyalist Billy Wright. Sheena led the way when it came to the party's early electoral expertise.

Henry McIlhone was shot in the grounds of St. Matthews chapel while he was protecting the Short Strand area from attack by loyalists in June 1970. As a young teenager caught up in that gun battle, I remember the news coming round to the corner of Comber Street. Billy McKee was also shot. The modern IRA was born that night on the streets of Ballymacarret.

Liam Mullholland died in his 90s. He was the oldest internee arrested on 9 August 1971. I met him in late 1974 with Miriam Daly, who was shot dead by loyalists a number of years later. We were all members of the cumann attached to 'Republican News'. I learned a lot from Liam and Miriam about republican politics.

Kevin Barry O'Donnell and three of his comrades died in a hail of SAS bullets outside Coalisland in early '92. I was at their wakes and funerals. Their coffins were opened for the world to witness the frenzied attack. Their ages were 19 to 23. It was almost too much to bear.

The hunger strikers' names were there as were those of the Loughall martyrs. My eye dwelt on the name Patricia Black. Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley on his annual impressive tour of Milltown and City graveyards includes the circumstances of Patrica's death. She was one of twelve women who died on active service since 1970.

Quite by accident at the Tírghrá event I bumped into her two brothers, Liam and Peter. They spoke about their sister. Peter was 11 and Liam was 15 when the family got the shocking news that their 18-year-old sister and her comrade, Frankie Ryan, had died in a premature explosion in St. Albans, London. It was a cold November night in 1991.

Patricia was the second eldest in a family of four: two girls and two boys. Her brothers described her as a fun loving girl with many friends. She always looked on the bright side of life. Liam said: "She brightened up a room when she came into it." Peter said: "There was an aura around her. She made people smile."

Like so many other IRA Volunteers, her active service life was kept as tight a secret as possible, and more so in her case because she was on active service in England. But despite the seriousness of what she was involved in, she carried her IRA responsibilities lightly on her shoulders.

A few days before she left her Belfast home for the last time, she bought presents for all the family and in a light hearted gesture, she removed some hair from her head and gave it to her mum, passing a joke as she did so. That lock of hair is her mother's most treasured possession.

Liam's last memory of Patricia is of her telling him insistently three times, "I'm away" before something compelled him to look at her through his bedroom window as she walked down the path into eternity. For Peter, it's her telling him in the hallway she's going to the station. They never saw her beautiful face again.

The years since Patricia died have not been easy ones for the family. They have good weeks and bad weeks but they are proud of their sister; proud that someone as young as she was with so much to live for would risk her life and liberty for the people of Ireland for the freedom of her country.

Peter described the Tírghrá event: "We saw all the other families who had lost loved ones. Seeing all those people helped us come to terms with our loss."

And that is, I'm sure, how all the other relatives felt as well.

 

Adams pays tribute to the families




    
As we cry and laugh and make music and tell one another stories of the antics and bravery of those we remember, I propose that we renew our determination to pursue and advance and win the freedom they died for
"It falls to me speak to you here tonight. Others perhaps are more suited to address you on this occasion but I am very proud to have been chosen to say these few words. I have to say at the outset that this is a most difficult task.

Tá muid anseo le buíochas agus meas a theaspaint do chlanna na bpoblachtóirí a fuair bás i rith na bliana. Mar is eol daoibh, rinne gach cheantar ómós do na hÓglaigh agus baill Shinn Féin a fuair bás le linn an chogaidh, ach ní raibh cruinniú nó teacht le chéile mar seo a riamh i saol ár streachailt. Is fíor ócáid stáiriúl é ansin Mar sin, caithfidh muid íobairt na gclanna seo a mholadh. Ba chailliúnt s'againne é chomh maith. Nuair a fuair duine ar bith bás sa chogadh sa tír seo, go háirithe ag troid ar ár son, ghortaigh sé muid uilig. Is é sin an fhírinne.

Some of us gathered here tonight first met at a time of great trauma in your lives as you absorbed the shock and pain at the loss of a loved one. We came as strangers to be with you and you greeted us with great tenderness and love and humanity. We came to comfort you, and time and time again it was we who were comforted by you. This evening is our thanks for all that.

It is a night of commemoration. It is a night of celebration. It is a night of commendation. It is a night for us to pay tribute.

I am not going to name one person here this evening. But I do want to single out the group of people who organised this very unique event.

They know individually who they are, and whether it be the organising committee, the performers, the musicians, those who have travelled to be with us, those who produced the Tírghrá book and the video, or who designed and made your presentations, or provided this backdrop, the sound, and other technical support, or the sponsors, the security people or your chaperones, I want to thank you all. There are two and a half thousand people here. And there are thousands and thousands more who would love to be here. And why is that so?

It is because republicans and nationalists hold the families of our republican dead in great esteem. It is because we are in your debt. It is because we understand and have an affinity with you. It is because we are proud of you, and of your men and women, and your boys and girls. And tonight is a night in which we remember them all.

Eleven days from now 86 years ago, the Irish Republic was proclaimed in the Easter Proclamation of 1916, and asserted in arms by republican men and women of that time.

We remember them. We recall those throughout the last century, and particularly those families represented here tonight - from the high points in the '20s, or the great counter-revolution of the Civil War and the viciousness of the failed attempt at that time to smash Irish republicanism.

We welcome people here from the lean periods of the '30s, the '40s and '50s, and the '60s.

Céad míle failte romhaibh.

Of course, the bulk of our attendance here tonight is from that unprecedented period of struggle, of the 1970s, the '80s and the '90s - the end of the last century. All of you - the families of our patriot dead - are very welcome here this evening. All of the people here tonight have suffered. But all of us are also very mindful that no one has a monopoly on suffering or of the pain and emptiness that comes with bereavement.

Republicans freely acknowledge the grief of all those - enemies as well as friends - who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Republicans are also very mindful of the plight of the families of the civilian dead, whose grief, bewilderment and sense of loss is undoubtedly different from any other section. Part of our great endeavour at this time is to reach out to make peace with those we have hurt and with those who have hurt us. And even here tonight, on this very republican occasion, I want to once again stress to unionists that we want to build upon the opportunity for peace that exists.

Our commitment is to equality, to building a democracy and to ensuring that never again will anyone on this island be demonised as second class. Those days are over.

But Tírghrá is our opportunity to pay a special tribute to you, the families of our republican dead.

Tonight is for you and your loved ones, who we commemorate and whose lives and courage and achievements we celebrate.

Of the 365 names on the Roll of Honour, the vast majority are of IRA Volunteers. Many died on active service against the British Forces, some at the hands of loyalists, others as a result of tragic accidents. They were ordinary men and women, some little more than boys and girls, who saw injustice and who struck for freedom. They were prepared to put their lives on the line in pursuit of that noble cause. They died in back streets, or on quiet country roads, in glens and valleys and mountainsides. They died in prison cells on hunger strike or on escapes or through the lack of medical attention. Some died in Britain itself. Others fell further afield.

Sinn Féin activists died also. Elected representatives, constituency workers, family members, people who paid dearly to represent our party and our electorate. Women from Cumann na mBan died as well.

So did others, involved in work for the prisoners or in welfare work, alongside boys and girls from Na Fianna and Na gCailíní.

Some will ask why? Others will say was it worth it?

Most especially, it is you the families, you who were left to rear orphans, you who were robbed of a partner who can legitimately put those questions.

But you can also answer them. Because you knew your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, your spouses. You know their dreams and their frailties, their flaws and their strengths. You know what motivated them. You know it was not self gain. You know that they did what they did because that was their choice. Because they were people with a vision. Because they were people who wanted to see a better tomorrow for everyone on this island.

It is in the nature of life that there are inequalities, that there is unfairness, that there is injustice. It is in the nature of British rule in our country that up until now these have been perpetuated and defended by the use of force by the armed wing of British governments and their surrogates. It is in the human condition, and particularly in the Irish context, though this is also universal, that armed aggression is met with armed resistance, particularly and especially when there is no alternative.

That is what the IRA was about but none of us here are carried away with notions of romanticism which frequently ignores the cruelty and the horror of war. We know the reality.

The war in the north was vicious, dirty, and brutal. But out of it emerged an IRA often described by its opponents as one of the most effective guerilla armies in the world; as one of the few guerilla armies fighting from within occupied territory against numerically superior foes, and which enjoyed substantial community support.

That support saw ordinary families run enormous risk to clothe, feed and shelter and protect IRA Volunteers. But no guerilla army can survive on the assistance of its friends and allies alone.

The strength and character of any guerilla army is to be found in the calibre of the men and women who make it up. And the calibre of IRA Volunteers is extraordinary.

During the conflict, the IRA existed cheek by jowl with the British Forces, with their massive technical and financial resources, as well as a compliant legal and judicial system, and a battery of repressive laws. And despite all of this, the forces of the crown failed. And they failed because of you. They failed to defeat the IRA because they failed to defeat you.

Republicans have a very specific goal - a democratic goal - the freedom and independence of Ireland and the Irish people, and the establishment of a national republic. It is that mission that informed and inspired the IRA and its Volunteers.

But the IRA is not merely an army of soldiers; it is an army of political activists and it has demonstrated again and again amazing tenacity, determination and commitment. Not least in helping to create the space for a peace process, and in saving and enhancing that process when the actions of others threatened to bring it down. It takes bravery to wage war but it takes a special courage to sue for peace. The reality is that there would be no peace process if it were not for the IRA.

We also remember tonight those Sinn Féin activists and other republicans who have died. Their part in this great historic struggle is no less demanding of our admiration and praise.

I want to pay a special tribute to our women. To that strong, dignified, good humoured, generous, indomitable and anonymous mass of heroines - the invincible republican women of Ireland - who are our backbone, our guides, our conscience, our strength and our future. All of you found in difficult and dangerous times the inner courage and strength to stand against aggression and oppression, and to demand the rights and entitlements of the Irish people.

We salute you all.

Nations are built through sharing experiences, memories, a common history. That is why the British government and others have frequently tried to destroy our history, our language and culture, our memories - all of the things that give us our unique identity as a people. But we remain unbowed and unbroken. More than that we refuse to forget. We refuse to let our memories be taken from us, to be reshaped or twisted - to be deemed illegitimate or criminal.

Our memory is strong. Our memories of our friends and family and comrades we celebrate tonight are precious to us. They have been forged at a great cost and we will not forget.

Tá muid bródúil as ár gcairde. Tá áthas orainn gur chaith siad tamall linn, gur throid siad ar son mhuintír na héireann. Dhiúltaigh siad geilleadh tosc go raibh fís acu. Bhí fís acu d'éire nua, éire aontaithe, éire le síochán cóir agus ceart. Agus d'fhulaing siad ar son na físe sin.

None of us should underestimate our abilities. All of us should have confidence in our potential to succeed.

So, tonight I propose to you here, as we cry and laugh and make music and tell one another stories of the antics and bravery of those we remember, I propose that we renew our determination to pursue and advance and win the freedom they died for.

I propose that we remember with pride and love all of those who loved life and lived it to the full, but who loved freedom more and who led by example; that we build a new Ireland, a free and independent Ireland, in which all citizensare cherished equally. These achievements, which I believe this generation of Irish republicans will succeed in attaining, will be living monuments to the patriots whose names are emblazoned behind me.

We owe you, their families, a debt that can only be repaid through the success of our struggle for the liberation of the Irish people. That struggle goes on.

To all of you, to the families and friends of the fallen, but especially to all of our fallen comrades, our pledge tonight is to persevere until the day of freedom they lived and died for is achieved.

Last month, I spoke at an Easter reception in the offices of Dungannon Council. The reception was organised for republican families in that area by the Sinn Féin Mayor. And I told the families that evening that we think of your loved ones, our loved ones, every day. Their spirits are with us in the daily battles and in every advance of our struggle.

The ghosts of your loved ones are with us in all of our meetings with the British government, with the Irish government, with unionist leaders, and others as we seek to make sense of chaos, and to build justice as the basis for peace. And that is the reality.

What has been won, what is being won and what will be won in the time ahead will be because of your contribution, your fortitude and your great patience. It will be because of your inner strength. And for that my friends we thank you all. One IRA Volunteer spoke for all of us on this matter. He was a political activist, a poet, an MP, a political prisoner who knew your inner strength. He wrote:
It is found in every light of hope,
It knows no bounds nor space,
It has risen in red and black and white,
It is there in every race.

It lies in the heart of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants‚ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing 'cross the skies.

It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is, the undauntable thought‚ my friend,
That thought that says, I'm right!



Friends, brothers and sisters, families of our republican heroes and heroines, thank you all for being right."



 

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