3 July 2003 Edition

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Volunteers Anthony (Tony) Ahern and Dermot Crowley - 30th Anniversary

"If they had the same choices to make again, they wouldn't change a thing"

These were the words of Volunteer Anthony Ahern's brother, Maurice, as he addressed the large crowd who attended a function to commemorate the deaths and celebrate the lives of two young Cork IRA Volunteers killed on active service six weeks apart in Fermanagh and Tyrone in 1973. Volunteers Anthony Ahern and Dermot Crowley were remembered by Cork Sinn Féin with a full programme of events on the June Bank holiday weekend.

In an emotive and heartrending address, Maurice spoke for the two families and described the loss and pain suffered by them on hearing of Anthony's death. For the Crowley family it was particularly difficult, as they heard of Dermot's death over the radio. For many years, Maurice had not spoken about the anguish and pain of losing his youngest brother. It had a devastating effect on the family. It was too painful and too difficult to come to terms with at the time.

The Tír Ghrá event was a cathartic event for him. Attending it allowed him to come to terms with the death of his youngest brother all those years ago. Until then, the loss, the hurt and the anguish had been unexpressed, unspoken, repressed. He spoke with pride of the warmth with which the families were received, the awesome scale of the event itself and the professional way it was organised and presented.

"It meant a great deal to be at the Tír Ghrá, and share the evening with so many others who had the same sense of loss. I'll never forget that as long as I live."

Maurice spoke about Anthony and Dermot, boyhood friends who were into sports, including inter-county running. They were neighbours, living just four doors away from each other. Both were teenagers who had everything to live for. They made a choice to leave their native Cork and fight alongside their comrades in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Anthony and Dermot were very determined and committed young men. Maurice related how Anthony had stayed with him from time to time after he left Cork:

"He knew his own mind and no one could persuade him against a course of action he was determined to take. I can say this now about both Anthony and Dermot: if they had the same choices to make again, they wouldn't change a thing".

Last year, on the anniversary of Anthony's death, Maurice, along with June Burke, Dermot Crowley's sister, her family and dozens of Cork republicans, travelled to Roslea, County Fermanagh. There, he unveiled the newly erected monument to Anthony, located just yards from the spot where he was killed 29 years before. He met the priest, Brian McCluskey, who gave the last rites to Anthony on that fateful night. And he was shown the exact spot where Anthony died by one of the comrades who was on active service with him at the time. The bomb crater could still be clearly seen.

You could hear a pin drop as Maurice referred to the events that followed his brother's death, events that did not reflect well on the leadership of the Catholic church at the time. He described how Tony's coffin was denied entry to the church in Roslea because of the inscription on the nameplate, which read: Vol. Anthony Ahearne (sic), Provisional IRA, Killed in Action at Aghafin, Roslea 10.5.73, RIP. The plate had to be removed to facilitate entry into the church.

Since that time, the nameplate had been held for safe keeping by local republican Ned McCann. It was Ned's wish that the plate be returned to the family when the opportunity arose. Twenty-nine years later, the plate was presented to Maurice in Roslea. It is something he now cherishes. Holding it aloft for the assembled crowd to see, he spoke with an emotional tremor in his voice:

"It meant a lot to think that someone would keep it safe for almost three decades. I was amazed to hear the story. It was of great solace to think that someone would do that and then to see that it was passed back to the family. Just to know that people could be so thoughtful and considerate and then to hand over a cherished momento so many years later was unbelievable. It was like we were one big family."

He went on to thank all those who had travelled from Roslea in Fermanagh, from Tyrone, Monaghan, Belfast and throughout Munster. He paid a special thanks to the people of Fermanagh, who had provided shelter and support for Anthony when he was in the area.

"To attend events like this tonight was another reminder that Anthony and Dermot will never be forgotten. It is on a par with the hospitality shown to us last year by the people of Roslea when I unveiled a monument to Anthony near the spot where he was killed."

Maurice paid a special tribute to the republican family in Cork for organising the weekend of events to mark the 30th Anniversary. The Cork Volunteers were killed on active service just six weeks apart, Anthony in Roslea, Co Fermanagh, on 10 May 1973 and Dermot in Omagh Co Tyrone on 25 June 1973, 30 years ago.

Neighbours, Friends and Comrades in Arms

Anthony Ahern and Dermot Crowley lived just four doors apart in St Joseph's Park in Mayfield housing estate, Cork City. Both teenagers from large families, they had been neighbours and friends, went to the same school, North Monastery Cork, and both were keen sportsmen, members of the same Clann Éireann athletic club. They could have been any two young Cork lads who grew up in Cork City in the late '60s and early '70s - full of life, full of fun, everything to live for.

They couldn't have lived further away from the conflict that was to erupt in the Six Counties. Most young people in Cork were unaffected by the events that were to unfold. But these two young men and their comrades at the time were different. Children of a historical legacy, they were the products of a nation's dream and destiny as yet unfulfilled. Theirs is the story of the cry for freedom, the yearning for justice - a cry heard and answered since the dawn of history by young men and women who could not and would not stand idly by while their brothers and sisters were oppressed, their rights denied, considered second class citizens in their own country.

June Burke describes her brother Dermot as highly principled. He had an avid interest in history, he was politically aware and mature for his age. He started out as an apprentice plasterer after leaving school. Anthony went into gardening after leaving school. His big physique, he was over six feet tall, and his maturity led most people into thinking he was far older than he actually was. Comrades and friends remember him for his sense of humour and his determination.

Both young men decided to join the Cork Brigade, Óglaigh na hÉireann and volunteered for active service. Dermot left Cork in 1972 to fight with the East Tyrone Brigade, the OC in Tyrone at the time was also a Cork man. Anthony continually pressed the local leadership to go on active service and eventually, he too left Cork and early in 1973 was operating on the Fermanagh/Monaghan border. It was difficult moving from safe house to safe house, alone at times and many miles from home. Their determination and focus on the objective of removing the British presence, the support from their comrades and the people in the local areas kept them going.

The active service unit Anthony was attached to had planted a land mine at Mullinahinch to target British Forces who had been using the Roslea Road. The device went off prematurely, killing Vol Anthony Ahern on 10 May 1973. He was 17 and a half years old when he died. Anthony was the first Volunteer from the South to be killed in action in the occupied Six Counties in this phase of the struggle. People lined the route of the cortege as it made its way through towns and villages on its way home to Cork. Thousand attended the funeral, including his comrade Dermot Crowley, who had come to pay his respects to his friend and comrade in arms. Anthony was laid to rest in Carraigaline, Co. Cork.

Significantly, in terms of the continuity of the struggle, among those who also attended Anthony Ahern's funeral was Joe Clarke who fought in the 1916 Rising in the Battle of Mount Street Bridge. It was a salute from one remarkable generation of republicans to another. From those who rekindled the flame of the freedom struggle at the beginning of the last century to those who would fight the longest guerrilla campaign in the history of republicanism.

Massive though the blow of losing a friend and comrade was and despite efforts to persuade him otherwise, Dermot Crowley returned immediately to active service. It was a measure of his determination and commitment. Six weeks later, Dermot Crowley, along with his comrades Patrick Carty and Sean Loughran, was killed when the bomb they were transporting went off prematurely near Omagh, Co Tyrone. Dermot was given a republican funeral which was attended by thousands of mourners. He was laid to rest in Rathcooney Cemetery Cork.

It is a humbling experience and a great privilege to share the thoughts and memories of family members who have lost a loved one in the struggle. The loss never really fades with the passage of time. But time does give people the space to come to terms with the reality. The Crowley family are quiet, unassuming, decent people. In Cork, they would be described as the salt of the earth. June Burke (Dermot's sister) is a wonderful woman with a generosity of spirit that makes you feel you have known her all your life. June had been away nursing when Dermot was killed. The family knew his politics and had always respected that. But first and foremost Dermot was their brother and son, the young lad who was into sports. She speaks of him with great pride and affection. They were close, she was only three years older than him.

Dermot's father Jerry had a big interest in politics and current affairs so it was no surprise that Dermot grew up a thinking person. Jerry wanted his children to think for themselves and make up their own minds about things. Dermot did just that, so in a sense Jerry had a lot to be proud about. Jerry never spoke much about Dermot's death. In many respects, there was a sense that he blamed himself for the path Dermot had chosen. It's a very natural response from any parent as they seek to make sense of the loss of their child.

The truth, however, is that decisions of this nature and magnitude come from the hearts and minds of those individuals who choose a path that relatively few others would dare to travel. Those who hunger for justice, who abhor oppression and who have a vision of how better the world can be will have it no other way. No power on earth could persuade a highly motivated and committed person like Dermot otherwise. One can only respect such a decision.

With all the preparations for the funeral the family had overlooked the younger ones, so June decided to take her youngest brother Colm to the funeral home to see Dermot laid out. There was a Republican Guard of Honour present. "It's the little things you notice," she recalls. "I remember looking at him in the coffin and his hair was combed the wrong way. I regret not having the courage at the time to comb it the way he always had it. He seemed different and I wanted to remember him as he was."

June has never visited the place where Dermot was killed. She couldn't face it before now. However, Tír Ghrá, the visit to Roslea and this year's commemorative events have brought her to the stage where she now feels she is ready to make that journey.

Vols Anthony Ahern and Dermot Crowley will always be remembered. They will be remembered by their families and by the wider republican family. The people of Fermanagh and Tyrone will never forget them. Republicans in Cork will always remember them with pride, for they personified a generation that could not be bought and will never be beaten. The Sinn Féin premises in Cork City is named in their honour.


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