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18 August 2019 Edition

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Kevin McKenna – leader, freedom fighter, patriot

Kevin McKenna was a quiet and unassuming man to meet. He was also a man who displayed huge strength of character, determination, personal courage, leadership and political wisdom at times of great challenge in our country’s history.

Born into a farming family in Co Tyrone on 20th July 1944, Kevin McKenna grew up in the Brantry at a time when nationalists in the North of Ireland were treated as second-class citizens and the Orange state faced little effective challenge.  As a young man,

like many others he emigrated and worked in construction and oil in Canada.

Although a republican before he left Ireland, it was while in Canada in the late 1960s, that he heard of events at home including the attacks on civil rights marches by the RUC and B-Specials. As the situation deteriorated, Kevin felt that he could not stay away while his friends and neighbours in Tyrone were harassed, attacked and brutalised. He was compelled to return home to join the resistance that was being built. Back home in Tyrone, Kevin witnessed events such as the introduction of internment without trial and the Bloody Sunday massacre by the British Army in Derry. As war engulfed the North, Kevin McKenna’s life was changed irrevocably.

Despite all the risks, and like many others of his generation, Kevin McKenna stood up and was counted, involving himself in the reinvigorated IRA, which chose to fight back against the blatant injustices of the state and to assert the demand for an end to Partition, British rule and for a United Ireland.

Eventually, as the RUC and British Army became aware of Kevin McKenna’s role in the freedom struggle, he was hounded and harassed on a daily basis, forcing him to move permanently to Co Monaghan in 1972. Despite the goodwill of many of the ordinary people, the state authorities in the South pursued and imprisoned many of those involved in republican activism and Kevin was twice imprisoned in Portlaoise. During one of these terms in jail he spent 48 days on hunger strike. Others on the hunger strike included Colm Daltún and Pat Ward. Shortly after release from his first term of imprisonment Kevin married Marcella McAleer in 1975.

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• Kevin’s reads the IRA statement at the Carrickmore Easter Commemoration, 1975

Kevin continued his involvement in the republican struggle and subsequent years saw him take on major leadership roles in the IRA. He was instrumental in developing the IRA’s tactics and strategy to bring the war directly to the British forces of occupation. He was an effective, dedicated and fearless freedom fighter and an intelligent and disciplined IRA leader who knew when to fight and when to pursue peace.

Kevin was centrally involved in republican decision-making for many years and at crucial periods. He was instrumental, with others, in laying the foundations of the peace process.

A serious revolutionary, Kevin McKenna took an interest in political events and developments well beyond Ireland’s shores and sympathised particularly with those struggling for freedom and justice around the world. He strongly supported the struggle of the Palestinian people.

A proud son of Tyrone who also loved his adopted home in Monaghan, Kevin McKenna became known, admired and respected by many republicans across the length and breadth of Ireland during his long years of service to the struggle.

A father and grandfather, Kevin was also very much a family man who loved his children and grandchildren and took great interest in their lives. He followed Gaelic football, supporting his native Tyrone and the  local Eire Óg club in Smithborough.

Fond of country life, he was also interested in boats, building his very own, which he enjoyed with his family along the Shannon and Erne waterways. Kevin and his family also liked to spend time together in Co Donegal during the summer.

Kevin’s funeral in Smithborough in June was both a demonstration of solidarity with his grieving family and a coming together of the republican family itself, to pay respects to a republican leader whose life was one of commitment and dedication to Irish unity and freedom. 

An Phoblacht extends sympathy to Kevin’s wife Marcella, his daughter Gráinne, his sons Ciarán and Pádraig and Kevin’s grandchildren.

I measc laochra na nGael go raibh sé. 


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• Kevin and Marcella on their wedding day

Republican Ireland lays a leader to rest

The summer sun shone brightly on the many hundreds of mourners from across the island of Ireland and abroad, who converged on the small town of Smithborough in rural Co Monaghan on Thursday, 27th June. They had come to lay to rest an Irish patriot, a fearless freedom fighter and a former leader in the Irish Republican Army - Kevin McKenna.

A large and impressive republican Guard of Honour of men and women from North, South, East and West, lined the route as the cortège, with the coffin draped in the Tricolour and bearing the symbolic beret and gloves of an IRA Volunteer, made its way from the family home to St Mary’s Church, Magherarney where the funeral Mass was officiated by Kevin’s friend Fr Joseph McVeigh.

Chief among the mourners were Kevin’s wife Marcella, his daughter Gráinne, his sons Ciarán and Pádraig and their spouses and Kevin’s grandchildren. Also present were his son-in-law Eamonn, daughters in law Joanne and Maura, his sisters Ita, Kathleen and Bernadette, his brother Martin, brothers in law, sisters in law, nieces and nephews. Kevin’s extended family and friends were joined by many prominent republicans including Sinn Féin TDs, MPs, MLAs, MEPs and councillors.

Fr McVeigh told the congregation that Kevin’s life has been one “totally committed to justice and lasting peace in this our native land” and was “a reminder of the centuries old struggle in this country. His life was a life of sacrifice for the greater good. He gave it everything.”

The priest said: “Kevin will be remembered as a man of integrity who dedicated his life to the cause of Ireland and the people of Ireland – and to the poor and oppressed everywhere.

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“Kevin was an astute political analyst and made a huge contribution to the peace process in this country. Maybe someday his contribution will be recognised and acknowledged when the history of this time is fully written.”

Officiating at the graveside ceremony, Sinn Féin Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said: 

“Fellow Republicans, mo chairde dhíl,

“We have gathered here today to say a fond farewell to a faithful friend and respected leader. The passing of Kevin McKenna takes from our midst a man of commitment and of conviction. A dedicated soldier, he not only embraced the new challenges of dedicated political activism, he, with others, led the transition.

“The struggle has not ended. The struggle continues day by day, as relentlessly pursued as it ever was. Only the means of its pursuit has changed. 

“Kevin, a quiet, thoughtful man never shirked his responsibilities. From the dangers of times past to the more mundane activities of building the strength of our party, he was there, ever willing. There was no challenge too great nor any task too small.

“Kevin stood shoulder to shoulder with all of us, whatever our role in this struggle. We should today, in this cemetery, re-commit to stand shoulder to shoulder, together in his memory, as we march on to the achievement of the Ireland that he and countless thousands of our number have struggled through their lifetimes to secure.

“On behalf of the Republican Movement throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and overseas and with special reference to the Republican family of these counties of Monaghan and Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh, I extend our heartfelt sympathy to Marcella, to Gráinne, to Ciarán and to Pádraig and to their spouses Eamonn, Joanne and Máire and to the grandchildren Ríona, Fionn, Brogan, Tadhg, Cúlann, Cormac, Fiachra and Naoise, to Kevin’s brother Martin and his sisters Ita, Kathleen and Bernie and to all the bereaved members of the McKenna and McAleer families.

“I measc Laochra na hÉireann go raibh a anam dílis.”

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• Kevin with his wife Marcella

Gerry Adams oration for Kevin McKenna

We carry here the graveside oration at the funeral of Kevin McKenna delivered by Louth TD and former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

Tá muid anseo inniu lenár gcara, Kevin McKenna, fear chéile Marcella a chur faoi thalamh agus chun ceiliúradh a dhéanamh ar a shaol. Ar dtús ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhabháil le Marcella agus Ciarán, Pádraig agus Gráinne agus na gar pháistí. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil bhur gcroíthe briste. Tá ár gcroíthe briste fosta.

Fear iontach Kevin. Fear láidir. Fear chéile, athar, sean-athar nó Daideó, deartháir, ár gcomrádaí, ár gcara, ár gceannaire.

For all of us who had the honour to know Kevin McKenna today is a day on which we can remember with affection and pride a man of enormous commitment and personal courage.

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Kevin was a quiet, thoughtful republican. A committed comrade who dedicated years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and to the Irish people. Kevin loved Ireland — he loved the people of Ireland. It was in his DNA.

He was also a loving and attentive son and brother, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. So, on my own behalf and that of Colette, and on behalf of Republicans everywhere, I want to extend our heartfelt condolences to Marcella, to Ciarán and Joanne, to Pádraic and Máire, to Gráinne and Eamonn, and to all the grandchildren Ríona, Fionn, Cormac, Fiachra, Naoise, Brogan, Tádhg and Cúlann. Condolences also to Kevin’s brother Martin, his late brother Eamonn and his sisters Kathleen, Ita and Bernie and his late sister Eileen. You are all in our prayers and our thoughts. I want to thank the nurses and doctors and all those who looked after Kevin in Cavan Hospital.

My chomhbhrón also, to Kevin’s comrades and to the former prisoners who did time with him. I want to welcome Uachtarán and Leas Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill and Bernie McGuinness the bean chéile of Martin McGuinness.

Today is a very sad day in your lives and in the lives of the McKenna and McAleer families and of Kevin’s friends and comrades here in County Monaghan in Tyrone and across Ireland.

It is especially difficult for Marcella who has lost her soulmate, her partner, her spouse, the father of her children and her anam cara. There is a sense of loss which will never fade even though time may teach us how to cope.

But all of us also have a great sense of pride in the patriot we bury here today. Kevin first became involved in the republican struggle in 1970. He had just returned home from the Yukon Territory in north-west Canada, near Alaska. It’s almost six times the size of Ireland but has less than half the population of County Monaghan. It’s a beautiful place full of wild mountainous ranges, with long glacier-fed alpine lakes, and it gets cold. Once in 1968 while Kevin was there the temperature dropped to minus 60 degrees. The memories of his time in the Yukon stayed with him all his life.

He was especially fond of the poetry of Robert Service. Kevin loved Dangerous Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. He loved the wildness of north west Canada and his encounters with the native people there. But his heart was in the hills of County Tyrone. He was also very fond of the poems of WF Marshall, the Bard of Tyrone.

I’m livin in Drumlister 

An I’m getting very oul

I have to wear an Indian bag 

To save me from the coul. 

The deil a man in this townlan 

Wos claner raired nor me, 

But I’m livin in Drumlister 

In clabber to the knee. 

Me Da lived up in Carmin, 

An kep a sarvint boy. 

His second wife was very sharp, 

He birried her with joy. 

Now she wos thin, her name was Flynn 

She come from Cullentra, 

An if me shirts a clatty shirt 

The man to blames me Da. 

Kevin had heard of the Troubles at home - the campaign of the Civil Rights movement for reform, the marches in Coalisland and Dungannon, the Caledon squat by the Gildernews and the violent response of the unionist regime at Stormont and of the British government.

So, Kevin came back from the bitter cold of the Yukon to the hot house that was County Tyrone in early 1970 to join the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.

Among the rolling hills of Tyrone, in the narrow laneways, villages and roads of that historic county, Kevin and his comrades relentlessly and defiantly fought the British Army. The British Army didn’t stand a chance of defeating the spirit — centuries old — of an indomitable people with character and a culture, a history and a sense of freedom as old as Ireland. I was there often during hard times, usually with Martin McGuinness.

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• Gerry Adams comforts Marcella at the funeral

We were always made welcome by the republican people – even in the wake of huge disasters in their own lives – and too often at the funerals of brave sons and daughters of that historic county, and here in Monaghan also. 

Usually we had to run the gauntlet of British Army, UDR or RUC aggression. There are still big challenges today but the obscenity of concrete military fortifications is removed. The helicopter gunships, the SAS units, the huge military patrols are no more.

Even as we gather here today the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ is disuniting. Yes, we still have quarrels to settle with our unionist neighbours, and Yes, partition remains. But Republican Ireland remains also. Resolute, unbowed, undefeated and looking to the future. Why is this so? It’s because those, like Kevin McKenna and Marcella, who took a stand against British militarism, loved freedom more than anything else.

Kevin was a decent man doing his best in very difficult times. War is a terrible calamity. The republican people of the north never went to war. The war came to us. I am mindful of all those who have been hurt. And there has been hurt on all sides. But the war is over and the future is being written now. 

As we help to write that future we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna any more than we would the generations before him.  

I think the men and women of 1916 were right.

I also think the hunger strikers of 1981 were right.

I think Kevin McKenna was right.

I think the IRA was right. Not in everything it did. But it was right to fight when faced with the armed aggression of British rule. It was also right to make peace.  

Kevin McKenna’s leadership in that challenging period of change was essential. Kevin McKenna was a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight and the vision to know when to talk. 

This August marks 25 years from the first IRA cessation. It was an initiative created by republicans which opened up the potential of the peace process. Kevin had the courage to make the big decisions with others during the conflict. He was also one of those who had the courage to make the big and difficult decisions during the efforts to make peace. It is in the nature of these things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known.

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• Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD addresses mourners 

The tales will never be told. Others may boast. Kevin would have none of that. He had no time for ego trippers, or vanity projects. He had no time for loose talkers, Walter Mitties or spoofs. He was the real deal. An honest, decent republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table.

He also supported the building of Sinn Féin. Caoimhghín has testified to his support here in Monaghan. He also was very progressive in his social attitudes, on the role and rights of women and the need for social justice. He was a committed internationalist.

Probably none of his neighbours in Smithborough knew anything of this. Except Hensy maybe. Kevin was a modest man. He came to County Monaghan in 1972. In 1973 Kevin met Marcella at the Ulster Football final in Clones. Tyrone won. So did Kevin. In 1974 he was arrested in this state and charged with IRA membership. He was sentenced to Portlaoise prison where, along with others, he embarked on a hunger strike. After 39 days he was taken from the prison to the Curragh Military Hospital.

Kevin took the prison authorities to court for continuing to hold him beyond his normal release date and he was freed in February 1975 without returning to Portlaoise. Marcella and Kevin were married in Monaghan in November 1975. According to legend Marcella kept Kevin waiting over an hour. In 1976 he was back in Portlaoise for a short time. He met Martin McGuinness in Portlaoise. He says he taught Martin to play chess. That was always an issue of good-hearted banter between them. They were more serious about their receding hairlines. Martin always slagged Kevin for keeping a wee wisp at the front. And so he did until a few short years ago.

When I got to know Kevin and Marcella they were living in a mobile home up behind Sheila O’Neill’s. They lived a very frugal existence, harassed regularly by the Special Branch. Kevin fed their young family on rabbit – a big chest freezer was filled with bunny rabbits which he had lamped in his meanderings across the fields.  Kevin loved the land – the sight of it, the smells, the feel of it. He loved the outdoors. Farming was in his blood. And fishing.

When they got the house in Smithborough the mobile home was transferred to Melmore Point above Mulroy Bay in Donegal where the McKenna’s spent many happy summers between there, the Singing Pub and Paddy and Mary Doc’s in Gort na Brad.

Their family, like most families, did and are doing their best to live lives rooted in decency, fairness and justice. Kevin and Marcella embody that spirit. In their love for each other. Their loyalty. Their love for family and community and Ireland. In their humanity and compassion. Their children, Ciaran, Padraig and Gráinne are a credit to them.

I want to address my concluding remarks to their children - to Kevin and Marcella’s grandchildren – to the future – Ríona, Fionn, Cormac, Fiachra, Naoise, the twins Brogan and Tádhg and Cúlann. You are Kevin’s legacy. Kevin was quite rightly proud of you all. Those of you who are old enough, like Riona and Fionn, will remember Kevin. But some of the younger ones may not remember him.

So tell them about him. Tell them about their Daideó. Let them know who he was.

What he and Granny Marcella did for you all in your own personal lives, in that lovely subversive relationship, that good grandparents enjoy with their grandchildren. All children need iconic figures who they can depend on. Kevin McKenna was very dependable. Tell them all of this and tell them before they were born that he fought for them and for their future. So that they will grow old in a free and united Ireland.

Tell them their Granda was in the ‘Ra. He was a rebel. A freedom fighter. Tell them that he and Granny Marcella were fighters for freedom. Champions for rights. Activists for equality.

Thank you Marcella. Thank you Kevin for your friendship; for your comradeship; for your sacrifices. Thank you for your leadership, and for your vision for a new future.

When you came back from the Yukon to your native Tyrone almost 50 years ago the North was a very different place. There was no peaceful way to end the union and to build a new united Ireland.Thanks to your efforts Kevin, and the efforts of many others, there now is a growing debate about the future, about a new Ireland, and a referendum on Irish Unity. And thanks to your efforts there now is a pathway towards unity. Our duty is to complete that journey.

So Slán Kevin. Slán a chara, slán go deo. Tír Eoghain agus Muineachán Abú.

Up the Republic. 


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• Following Gerry Adams’s oration, a lament was played on the pipes, followed by a rendition of The Rising of the Moon and finally the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann by Colm Gildernew.

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