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8 October 1998 Edition

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Roslea remembers its martyrs

by Laura Friel

  They rose in dark and evil days
to right their native land
And kindled here a living flame
That nothing can withstand.  
Memeorial in St. Tierney's graveyard

We arrive there suddenly, after an hour of searching, driving through the winding roadways of this most eastern edge of rural Fermanagh. A sharp curve in the road and then unexpectedly we are there. A monument to Fergal O'Hanlon and Sean South lies at the crossroads where they died. The green of native deciduous woodlands, offset by a more recent addition of grey pine forestry, overshadows the spot. The sky is overcast. At the crossroads signposts to Fivemiletown, Brookeborough and Roslea tell us we are six miles from anywhere. In such a deserted place the repetition of six, six, six adds to our sense of foreboding.

On New Year's Eve 1957, a unit of twelve IRA Volunteers crossed the border into County Fermanagh to launch an audacious attack on an RUC/B Specials barracks in Brookeborough. During the ensuing gun battle, a number of Volunteers were injured, two fatally. Fergal O'Hanlon and Sean South died of their wounds as the unit made its escape.

New memorial Roll of Honour

John Treanor 24.April.1797
Bernard McMahon 12.October.1797
Patrick Smyth 12.October.1797
John Connolly 12.October.1797
Connie Green 26.November.1955
Tony Ahern 10.May.1973
Seamus McElwain 26.April.1986

At a crossroads the bodies of the two dead Volunteers were carried by their comrades into an old sandstone barn. After it was demolished by a British army jeep, stone from the barn was used to build a memorial at the site. As we stop to photograph the monument, a shaft of sunlight breaks through the cloud. Suddenly what seemed remote is only secluded; what was lonely, now merely tranquil.

The nationalist village of Roslea stands on a loop in the River Finn. Its name reflects its location. In the early 17th century land owned by the Rooney family was allotted to an English overlord William Flowerdew, who renamed the Irish settlement Roslea, or grey peninsula. Today, almost four centuries later, British occupation remains a predominant feature in the lives of the villagers. A nationalist enclave, cut off from its natural hinterland since partition, Roslea is surrounded by British military installations. The high watchtower of Roslea RUC barracks stands over the village's main street. In either direction the skyline is dominated by British army barracks, the hilltop fort of Killavilla to the east and border checkpoint of Annaghmartin along the Monaghan Road to the south east.

While British army patrols have been withdrawn from the streets of Belfast, there has been no reduction in the Crown force activity in Roslea. Indeed, local people complain of an increase in harassment in recent weeks, an allegation borne out by the fact that there have been three recent attempts to entrap young people in the area into acting as informers. The most serious involved a young man thumbing a lift who, during a sixty mile drive, was approached by a member of British Military Intelligence.

  The weeping willow drooped its leaves,
the tree bowed it's head
And nature fashioned floral wreaths
O're Ireland's martyred dead.  
from The Martyrs of Roslea

In the heart of the village, the atmosphere reflects a caution evoked by constant military surveillance. Prefering to hurry about their daily business, few people stop to chat, leaving the main thoroughfare unusually quiet. Strangers taking photographs provokes no curiosity. It simply clears the street.

Next Sunday, 11 October the people of Roslea will be remembering their martyrs with the unveiling of a new memorial in the village. The monument, which has been erected to mark the Bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion, commemorates a continuity of resistance witnessed in Roslea from the United Irishmen, to the border campaign of the 1950s through to the current phase of struggle. Accompanied by several bands - two local and three travelling from Cork - as well as a company of pikemen and women, the commemoration is to assemble at Errasallagh crossroads for a five mile walk into the village for the unveiling ceremony. Last year, a parade to mark the 200th anniversary of three local United Irishmen who were sentenced to death by hanging in Enniskillen Assizes in October 1797, was attacked by loyalists. The ranks of loyalists from Fermanagh were swollen by loyalists bused in from Ballymena and Portadown, amongst them Joel Patten of the Spirit of Drumcree, and Dunloy Orange Order representaive John Finlay. Despite the decision by the parade's organisers to voluntarily reroute, 500 loyalists fought pitched battles with the RUC for several hours.

Ironically, the same people who objected so strongly to a re-enactment parade marking the bicentenary of the Roslea Martyrs continue to assert the right of loyalists to march through Roslea in the name of two local members of the Black and Tans who led a pogrom against the village in the early 1920s. In an orgy of sectarian violence the Black and Tans set fire to house after house, razing the entire village to the ground and forcing its Catholic inhabitants to flee, some never to return.

One member of the raiding party was shot dead. As the soldier battered the priest's door with the butt of his rifle, so the story is told, the weapon went off, fatally wounding him with a gunshot to his stomach. A photograph in a volume of Roslea's historial journal shows the extent of the destruction visited on the village by the Black and Tans that night. The image shows a row of terrace cottages, without roofs, windows or doors, with only the stone shells of the fire-gutted buildings remaining. Amongst the ruins sits three former inhabitants, their eyes straight to camera, resolutely proclaiming their right of residency.

Eighty years later and the `local' chapter of the Royal Black Preceptory, still bears the name of the two local members of the Black and Tans militia who led the attack on Roslea, Gordon and Nixon. Every August after their main County parade, fifty to sixty members of the Royal Blacks travel to Roslea for a parade and gathering at the Orange Hall which is located at the edge of the village. Despite the fact that no members of the Gordon and Nixon Preceptory actually live locally, the practice of allowing the sons and grandsons of former loyalist residents of an area to retain the chapter means loyalists who have only the most tenuous connection with Roslea annually assert their `right' to march through the village. To the residents, this practice is not merely inappropriate but an exercise in ritual sectarianism. In 1996, the people of Roslea decided enough was enough. Residents blocked the main thoroughfare forcing the RUC to reroute the loyalist parade. The parade was blocked again in 1997. This year a ruling in favour of the residents by the Parades Commission ensured the village remained free from sectarian harasssment for another year.

  There are a great number of Protestants and Orangemen who employed Roman Catholics. He [Sir Basil Brooke, later Viscount Brookeborough] felt he could speak freely on the subject as he had not a Roman Catholic about his own place...He would appeal to loyalists, therefore, wherever possible to employ good Protestant lads and lassies.  
Fermanagh Times August 1933


It was just before dawn on the morning of 26 May 1986, when two IRA Volunteers made their way across fields in the townland of Mullaghglass. Seamus McElwaine, although only 26 years of age, was a veteren of ten years standing. One of 38 Republicans to escape from Long Kesh in 1983, McElwaine had successfully evaded recapture while operating along the border. His comrade Sean Lynch from Baltreagh, Lisnaskea was equally experienced. As the two men climbed over a fence, Seamus spoke of a sense of foreboding. A split second later and there was a burst of sustained gunfire. Seriously wounded, Sean Lynch literally ran for his life. Obscured by undergrowth, less than a hundred yards from the SAS killing zone, Sean was bleeding profusely. In the field, seriously injured Seamus McElwaine was being interrogated by his British captors. The denim-clad assassination squad questioned their prisoner for half an hour before shooting McElwaine in the head. Today a small circular plaque, nailed high on a telegraph pole, overlooks the field where the last IRA Volunteer to die in Fermanagh, Seamus McElwaine, was executed.

The now notorious comments of Stormont Minister (later Prime Minister) Sir Basil Brooke, Viscount Brookeborough in which he exalted sectarian employment practices, boasting he himself employed no Catholics and imploring all true loyalists to follow his example, is often quoted in accounts of the Civil Rights Movement. Brookeborough's words appear to belong to another era when sectarian attitudes and practices were as blatantly advocated as racist segregation was promoted by the white supremacists of the US's southern states. Yet recent events in the Greater Roslea area suggest anti-Catholic sectarianism is not only alive today but kicking.

A dispute over the employment of two Catholic catering staff in kitchens attached to a local Protestant primary school is a sad reminder that twenty years after the Civil Rights Movement, sectarianism hasn't gone away. There are three primary schools in the rural parish of Aghedrumsee, two Catholic and one Protestant. This summer catering services were amalgamated and Aghedrumsee Primary now provides dinners for all three schools. When two Catholic women arrived to take up their appointments in the kitchen, they were met by a placard waving picket of parents opposed to their employment in the school. There is a long history of sectarian discrimination in employment in County Fermanagh. In the Roslea area, economic stagnation imposed with partition is exacerbated by a legacy of sectarian allocation of employment north of the border.

  The Nationalist majority in the county, ie Fermanagh notwithstanding a reduction of 366 in the year, stands at 3,684. We must ultimately reduce and liquidate that majority. This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone around our necks.  
EC Ferguson MP, later Crown Solicitor for Fermanagh, Irish News April 1948.


It had been a long and arduous journey, at night, on foot and bearing the coffins of their three dead comrades, Bernard McMahon, Patrick Smyth and John Connolly. Twenty miles of winding roadways from Enniskillen Assizes, across the mountains of Slievebeagh to the Catholic churchyard at Roslea. United Irishmen sentenced to death on the word of an informer for their part in an arms raid, the three young men died bravely, refusing to trade information for clemency. As the funeral procession approached Cranmore they were met by several thousand men, carrying burning torches and marching in military order. Such a massive show of strength by the United Irishmen must have appeared as an auspicious sign for the coming Rebellion. But the three hangings in Enniskillen were only the beginning of bloody and brutal repression by government troops in the County. In St Tierney's graveyard, the original graves of two of the three men still remain marked. Amongst the graves and beside a monument to the United Irishmen erected in 1947 stands a weeping willow. Bowed but unbroken the tree has became a living acknowledgement not only of loss but also renewal.

An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1