7 February 2023
Funeral of Óglach Henry ‘Hensey’ McKenna
There was much sadness among republicans when news spread of the passing after a short illness, on Wednesday 18 January, of Henry ‘Hensey’ McKenna.
A well-known and widely respected republican, Hensey, who was originally from South Derry, had adopted County Monaghan as his home alongside his wife Annie and their family. He was buried in Smithborough on Saturday, 21st January.
Piper Seán Kelly led mourners from the family home at Mulladuff to St. Mary’s Chapel at Magherarney where Fr. Peadar Corrigan celebrated the Funeral Mass.
Hensey’s tricolour draped coffin was flanked by a guard of honour, comprised of republican comrades from counties Monaghan and Derry, to St. Mary’s and after Mass, to his final resting place in the adjoining cemetery.
Sinn Féin figures from across Ireland, including former Party President Gerry Adams and former Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, joined hundreds of republicans from across the island and many of Hensey’s friends and neighbours for the funeral.
• Hensy McKenna revisiting his former cell in Crumlin Road Jail (Trip organised by Fáilte Cluain Eois, 2015).
At the graveside, a republican tribute was chaired by Sinn Féin Cllr. Pat Treanor. Brendan McKenna laid a wreath on behalf of Monaghan republicans. The graveside oration was delivered by Matt Carthy TD who said: “A chairde, We are all deeply saddened at Hensey’s passing. None more so than Annie, Fergal, Ann, Christine and Bronagh; and their families.
“Hensey was a family man. He loved Annie and he loved and was deeply proud of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Hensey was also an Irish patriot. The sadness of his family is shared by republicans across the length and breadth of Ireland who have known Hensey over so many decades.”
“Those who soldiered with him. Those who knew him from his seemingly constant presence within republican activism. The many people who met him during his regular visits to Sinn Féin’s Ard Oifig and An Phoblacht offices in Dublin over the years.”
“Hensey was known to all - from the most high profile republican leaders, to activists on the ground right around the country. And, he was deeply respected by all. He was particularly well known and loved here in his adopted county of Monaghan.”
“All of us grieve with Hensey’s family and we share their sense of loss because Hensey was a decent and honourable man. And because what he sought to achieve for the people of Ireland is noble and just.”
“The republican community is rightly proud of those others who, over the past 50 years and longer, have given their all in the struggle for Irish unity and independence. The recurring themes in the days since his passing have been Hensey’s decency, his integrity, his dependability. One of the words most frequently used to describe him is ‘a gentleman.’ And a gentleman he was - always with a ready smile and a friendly demeanour.”
• Hensey with comrades at the national Hunger Strike commemoration in Galbally.
“There is also no doubt that Hensey was a strong and a tough man, who had seen much hardship and suffering in the cause of his country. A native of Ballymacpeake in County Derry, he became involved in republican activism during the IRA’s Operation Harvest of 1956 - 1962, more commonly known as the Border Campaign.”
“At that time, a section of Irish youth had grown used to the empty, anti-Partition rhetoric of politicians in the 26 Counties but who were themselves sincere in their belief in Irish unity and freedom.
“The North was a one-party, apartheid state which sought to ensure that nationalists would never attain equality. Sectarian discrimination in housing and employment was endemic and any vestiges of Irish national identity and culture in the public life of that state was suppressed.”
“In Ballymacpeake, the local Thomas Meagher band, with which Hensey’s father was involved, was constantly harassed by the RUC. Hensey refused to live as a second class citizen in his own country. He made a conscious decision to be part of the struggle against British rule and so joined the ranks of Óglaigh na hÉireann himself.”
“By the end of 1957 there were more than 250 republicans interned in the North. Hensey McKenna was one of the very youngest internees.
“He was arrested in 1957, was badly beaten in Magherafelt Barracks and sent to Crumlin Road Jail spending almost a year there. Even then, his quick-thinking, wit and humour were evident. Hensey, a few years ago, participated in an interview with Fáilte, the republican ex-prisoners group. And he told of the experience of being interrogated at that time.”
• Hensey is borne to his final resting place in Magherarney.
“It was a brutal experience. But in its course one of his interrogators asked Hensey if there were any arms in Ballymacpeake. Hensey said that there were. His interrogators held their breath, perhaps thinking that they had broke their captive. ‘Everyone I know in Ballymacpeake’, says Hensey, ‘has a left arm and a right’. He got a thumping for his efforts but he didn’t mind.”
“The Border Campaign did not achieve its military objectives. But it did place the issue of Partition and the nature of the repressive sectarian Six-County state back on the political agenda. In a world of struggles for national self-determination it showed that the Irish struggle remained unfinished business.”
“On his release from internment Hensey worked locally and then went to England where he worked on the buses, mainly in Coventry and Birmingham, with his brother Hughie. He and Hughie eventually returned home to Ireland and Hensey met his future wife, Annie McErlean.”
“Apparently they met one night when Annie was after leaving the cinema – as fate would have it she was about to bump into her real-life movie-star. The lull which followed the end of the border campaign in 1962 proved illusory and six years later nationalists and republicans in the Six Counties rose up, never to retreat again.”
“Again, Hensey would be in the very front line, fighting back against the blatant injustices of the state and to assert the demand civil rights, for an end to Partition, British rule and for a United Ireland.”
“In 1969 Hensey found work in Belfast. At one stage he had to leave a site in Lisburn due to intimidation. He would often travel to Derry city and joined in the rioting that was a regular occurrence there.”
“Prior to the IRA split Hensey was the Training Officer in South Derry, an area that even extended into Derry City at that time. In 1970 he was appointed IRA OC in South Derry.”
“Eventually he was forced to go ‘on the run’ and was initially based in Dundalk. Annie was still at home at this stage. Hensey still was operating in South Derry. Eventually this became more difficult and Hensey began to operate around South Armagh. He moved from there after men with English accents asked locals his whereabouts.”
• Hensey’s tricolour draped coffin was flanked by a guard of honour, comprised of republican comrades from counties Monaghan and Derry.
“Hensey moved to Monaghan which was to become his adopted home. He was subsequently to be arrested many times and he served two sentences as a political prisoner in this state. “In Portlaoise Prison he was an important leader. He enjoyed the educational classes run by the Republican prisoners in Portlaoise and engaged in the craic that was to be had, despite the often appalling conditions for political prisoners.”
“August 1974 saw a famous escape attempt from Portlaoise in which Hensey was centrally involved.”
“This was, no doubt, a hard time for Annie. It was hard to get down to see Hensey. The children had to be looked after and the British army were constantly raiding the home. Hensey was involved in preparing a further escape attempt at Portlaoise but by the time of the attempt he was on the outside, having been released.”
“Hensey prepared the plans for the factoring in of the measurements of the prison yard; the weakest point in the jail. Arrangements were made for a dump truck to burst through the outer and inner gates of the jail.”
“Unfortunately the truck seized up after getting through the first gates and Tom Smith an IRA Volunteer from Dublin was shot dead by a sentry. Two other prisoners, including Brian Keenan were wounded.”
“The full story of Hensey’s contribution to the republican ideal must wait until another day. What we can say is that despite all the risks - and there were many - Hensey stood up and was counted. He was there when he was needed and he did what needed to be done. He showed physical and moral courage. He was wise and resourceful.”
“For his commitment and bravery, Hensey gained the admiration and respect of republicans across the country. I have been struck in recent days by the amount of people across Ireland who knew Hensey.”
“To me he was one of that cohort of wise republican leaders, such as his friend and neighbour Kevin McKenna, who we younger activists looked to for guidance and inspiration.”
“But, so many others, have much more interesting stories to tell of Hensey; many cannot be repeated here and others just crystallise the man he was. I was told yesterday that republicans in Wexford recounted their memory of Hensey frying eels for his comrades – you could almost picture it.”
• Matt Carthy TD delivers the graveside oration.
“Through each phase of struggle his contribution went above and beyond the call of duty and he played a key role in all facets of the campaign for Irish unity and independence.”
“Like other republican leaders, Hensey seized the opportunity for peace. He knew the value of political activism and understood, before many others, the need to secure republican voices in elected positions.”
“Hensey was part of the team that worked to assist the development of Sinn Féin in Cavan Monaghan and played an important part in assisting the breakthrough of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin as the first modern Sinn Féin TD in 1997.”
“Our promise to Hensey today is this - We will continue the struggle and we will not let you down. We say thank you to Hensey. We say thank you to his family. They made sacrifices also.”
“We remember his parents Maggie and Harry; and his sisters Eileen and Dolores.”
“We remember his sister Margaret, a long-standing Sinn Féin Councillor in South Derry.”
“And we remember his sister Maureen and her son, Hensey’s nephew Óglach Henry Hogan who was killed on active service alongside Declan Martin. We pay tribute to them all.”
“As we lay Hensey to rest today, we also celebrate his life, and republicans today will recommit ourselves to continue the struggle for the ideals which he represented with courage and pride.”
“I wish to extend my sympathies and that of Sinn Féin, and all republicans to Hensey’s devoted wife Annie, son Fergal (Loretta), daughters Ann, Christine and Bronagh (Morris), his grandchildren, Gary, Stephen and Aaron, Tara (Marc), Shane, Conor, Niall, Ciaron, Kelly-Ann and Katie, his great-grandchildren, Cormac, Clodagh, Aoife and Niamh; and all their families – that’s some legacy.”
“And to Hensey’s sisters Rose and and Betty, his brothers Hughie (Mary) and Pat, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, extended family, friends.
“Slán Hensey. Slán, a chara. I measc laochra na hÉireann go raibh sé.”
Piper Seán Kelly brought proceedings to a close with a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann.
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Contributions from key figures in the churches, academia and wider civic society as well as senior republican figures