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20 January 2000 Edition

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Tom Williams comes home


Outside St. Paul's Chapel, mourners pressed forward as Joe Cahill and Liam Shannon gently unfolded a Tricolour over the coffin carrying Tom Williams' remains. For many in the crowd it was a significant moment. Tom Williams was not only home but welcomed by those who knew and loved him best. At the behest of the family, this was not a republican funeral but in the event it was a funeral fit for a republican.

It had been shortly before 11am, Wednesday, 19 January, with crowds of people beginning to gather. Outside traffic came to a standstill as hundreds of mourners continued to arrive. By 11am, the chapel was full to capacity, many people standing along the aisles, filling every available space and still the crowd spilled out into the street and beyond.

And everyone was there. Family, friends, and comrades, young and old. Contemporaries of Tom Williams, now in their 60s and 70s years, a poignant reminder of the passage of time between Tom's execution and this day's funeral mass. Joe Cahill, Tom's cell mate and John Oliver, sentenced to death with Tom but later reprieved. Madge McConville, who had been arrested with Tom, Greta McGlone, Billy McKee, Eddie Keenan and perhaps least known, Nell Morgan, Tom's girlfriend at the time of his death.

Members of Belfast's National Graves Association, who campaigned so long and hard for Tom Williams' remains to be released from Crumlin Road jail, attended - Liam Shannon, Tony Curry, Ann Murray and Frank Glenholmes. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams was accompanied by senior members of the party and local Councillors Tom Hartley, Ita Grey, Michael Brown, Michael Ferguson and Belfast Deputy Mayor Marie Moore.

Nationalists and republicans, too young to know Tom personally but who have grown up with the story of Tom Williams on their lips. School children who interrupted their studies to pay tribute to a brave Irish patriot and younger still, a woman comforts a crying toddler, beyond understanding now but one day she will listen to her mother recount this moment.

During the mass, Father Patrick O'Donnell from Clonard drew an analogy from the story of the prodigal son: ``He that was lost has been found. Tom has come home again to his people, his community.'' Fr. O'Donnell recalled the first mass said for Tom ``an

hour and a half after his death in prison near to the place of his execution. His comrades were the congregation and the priest conducting the mass broke down and the mass was finished by another.''

Fr. O'Donnell pointed out that Tom Williams had been baptised, taken his first holy communion and made his confirmation at St. Paul's. He said as he walked along Bombay Street, where Tom had lived with his Granny Fay, he often thought of Tom. ``When I see young lads playing football, I remember Tom was once one of these children playing here in this street.'' Fr. O'Donnell said Tom's Granny Fay had taught him to love his country - ``she was a strong Irish woman herself.''

As a teenager, a fire began to burn in Tom's young heart, said the priest. ``He was aware of the wrongs inflicted on his country and decided to right those wrongs.'' But Tom's ``greatest moment'' was at his condemnation to death. Fr. O'Donnell recounted the moment when five of the six men condemned to die were reprieved but Tom was still to be executed. ``Do not grieve for me,'' said Tom to his comrades. ``It is amazing so young a lad could at such a moment speak so well and from his heart.''

Fr. O'Donnell described a prayer card written by Tom to his family and friends just prior to his execution. ``Pray for the cause for which I am dying, God save Ireland.'' The mass was concelebrated by Monsignor Raymond Murray.

As tens of hundreds of mourners followed the Tricolour-draped coffin, hundreds of people lining the route from the chapel to Milltown cemetery further swelled the ranks of the cortege. It soon became clear that this would be remembered as one of the largest funerals ever to take place in West Belfast. More people waited at the cemetery gates as the funeral procession slowly made its way along the Falls Road.

Inside the graveyard, the final moments were reserved for Tom's comrades and friends, who carried his coffin from the hearse to its resting place at the grave of Tom's mother. A few hundred yards away, the republican plot reserved for Tom Williams for so many years remains empty but Belfast's nationalist community had ensured that the funeral of an Irish patriot did not pass unmarked.

Tom Williams commemoration

Speaking shortly after the funeral of Tom Williams, National Graves Association spokesperson Liam Shannon said: ``Today's funeral and burial of Tom Williams is the end of a campaign which has spanned over 50 years. The National Graves Association has been at the forefront of this campaign and is proud that our efforts have contributed significantly to securing the reburial of Tom Williams in Milltown Cemetery.

``In addition to the funeral service today, the National Graves Association is organising a commemoration event this Sunday. The parade will leave Clonard Street at 1pm and proceed along the Falls Road to Milltown Cemetery. A number of people will speak at the commemoration, including Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Joe Cahill, who was sentenced along with Tom Williams.

``This commemoration will be a dignified and fitting tribute to the important role which Tom Williams played in the struggle for a free and independent Ireland. It will afford republican communities across the island the chance to pay tribute to the life of Tom Williams. We would appeal to people across the island but particularly here in Belfast to mobilise in large numbers for Sunday.'' of the National Graves Association and Honorary Sinn Féin Vice President Joe Cahill in front of a portrait of the late Tom Williams in the Felons' Club


Completing the circle


When Tom and Joe shared their last days together in the condemned cell at Belfast's Crumlin Road Jail, they were both young men. Joe was the eldest at 21 years of age and Tom was just 19. Four other young men, held in two separate cells, were also facing the death penalty. All six were IRA Volunteers, members of the same unit caught during an operation, convicted for the shooting of a RUC officer and all expecting to die.

A local newspaper recorded the courtroom falling silent after the judgment, ``then the woman at the back of the court shouted and the men drew themselves up to attention, made a right turn and, waving their hands and shouting a few cries, were led away''. But by the time Joe entered the condemned cell, Tom was already making light of it. ``What do you think of this Joe, the great beds we're getting,'' remarked a grinning Tom.

But no amount of banter could dispel the gravity of what lay before them. The executions were scheduled to take place just 18 days after sentencing. An appeal might delay the procedure a few days more. The condemned prisoners settled into a routine of washing, eating and taking exercise, all under 24-hour surveillance by the prison guards. In the cell, Tom and Joe talked. They were not passing time. They were young men facing untimely death and in trying to square that circle, their conversations were immediate and intense.

In the upstairs function room of the Felons Club in Andersonstown, West Belfast, Joe Cahill meets us. Now 79 years of age, Joe is a veteran within the Republican Movement. At Sinn Féin's annual Ard Fheis last year, Joe's contribution was officially acknowledged by awarding him the title of honorary vice president. The honour had been announced amidst a roar of cheers from his comrades, but today that moment seems far away. It's a pensive Joe Cahill who stands to be photographed besides fellow Belfast National Graves campaigner Liam Shannon.

The two men stand beside a portrait of Tom Williams. Behind them, the National and Provincial flags are draped. For over 50 years, republicans have campaigned for the release of Tom Williams' remains. After his execution, as stipulated by the sentencing judge, Tom's body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls. A political hostage, even in death.

It was 1995 before the British government finally agreed to release Tom's body and late last year the remains were removed for DNA examination. On the eve of Tom Williams' funeral, after so many years, there should be some cause for celebration but the faces of the two campaigners tell a different tale. For once, Joe Cahill looks his age. It's been a long and often arduous journey from sharing a condemned cell in Crumlin Road jail in 1942 to this moment.

``We talked about death,'' says Joe. Condemned to hang and unlikely to be reprieved, the two young comrades spoke about their impending ordeal in the language which had shaped their understanding of the world into which they had been born. It was a language of struggle, of collective discipline and individual defiance. It was born out of a political understanding of their predicament and a revolutionary vision for the future.

``It is beyond the powers of my humble intellect to describe the pride of my comrades in knowing that they are going to follow in the footsteps of those who have given their lives to Ireland and the Republic,'' wrote Tom Williams to the then IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, about the six men facing execution . And in a message to Oglaigh na hÉireann, he wrote: ``The road to freedom is paved with suffering, hardships and torture; carry on my gallant and brave comrades until that certain day.''

But in the intimacy of their cell, Tom and Joe's conversations were less rhetorical and more immediate. ``We discussed the pending executions,'' says Joe, ``and the prospect of being buried in a prison grave. One day, we promised ourselves, the remains would be reinterred in the republican plot in Milltown cemetery. Tom was very clear, he would die a republican, he wished to be buried as such.''

To his uncle, Charlie Fay, Tom wrote: ``If it comes to the worst, as I'm sure it will, I will face my enemies with courage and spirit, which many gallant Irishmen have done this last 700 years... I am writing this letter to let you know that my heart was in the IRA.'' In Tom's mind there was no doubt. As he prepared himself for death he left those closest to him, his comrades, his family and his cell mate, in no doubt of his wishes either.

On 21 August, the verdict of the court was upheld on appeal and the date of execution was set for 2 September. The following day, the Irish News reported: ``A meeting of the Reprieve Committee, held in St Mary's Hall, Belfast, last night decided, in view of the dismissal of the appeal, to send telegrams... on behalf of 200,000 signatories.'' Telegrams were dispatched to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera and the British Home Secretary Herbert Morrison among others.

In 1940s Belfast, ``being a republican wasn't unusual but it wasn't popular'', recalls Joe. Republicans may not have always attracted the mass support they enjoy today but a court under British jurisdiction threatening to hang Irish Republicans was profoundly unpopular. A campaign to save the six men's lives attracted mass support.

On 30 August, the condemned men were visited by their solicitor. ``I've good news for everybody but Tom,'' he said. Five had been reprieved, only Tom was to be executed. The authorities still wanted their pound of flesh. Joe remembers the stunned silence that followed. It was broken by some of the bravest words ever heard by Joe. ``Don't grieve for me, remember, from day one this is how I wanted it. I wanted to die and I'm happy that you five are going to live.''

But Joe Cahill has grieved, not only for the loss of his comrade and friend but also for the many years of waiting to carry out Tom Williams' final wishes. ``He's always with me,'' says Joe, ``A priest who had been present when Tom was executed described his courage in the final moments of his life.'' Do not pray for Tom, Fr. Alexis had said, pray to him. And in moments of great stress, Joe has found himself doing just that. ``I've always been answered,'' says Joe. ``I'm happy that Tom's remains have finally been released from Crumlin Road Jail,'' says Joe. ``All my hopes and wishes would have been complete if Tom had been buried in the Republican plot. It was his wish. Everything would have come full circle.''

Along the Falls Road, the black flags are flying and everyone has a story to tell. An elderly man remembers a day at school when the classroom stopped for a minute's silence for a man who was being hanged in Belfast. ``Who was the man?'' he had asked his mother later that day. ``Tom Williams,'' came the reply.

A young woman tells of the factory where her mother worked. ``All the Catholic workers sang republican songs,'' she says. ``They were told to stop but my mother sang on.'' Someone else's aunt stood outside Crumlin Road jail in silent vigil during the execution.

In many small ways ordinary people, republican and nationalist, in the north and south of the border, have felt their lives touched by Tom Williams' death. His final wish to be buried in Milltown's Republican plot has not been realised. His wish to be remembered as a republican will continue to be carried in a thousand small voices and hundreds of faithful hearts.



An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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