Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Slán Peter John
Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy, Fergal Caraher’s parents, Mary and Peter John, and Sinn Féin Councillors Brendan Curran and Colman Burns at the memorial in South Armagh dedicated to Fergal Caraher
It was a fine autumn morning. The South Armagh hilltops, free of British Army forts, were beautiful in the bright morning light as we drove north from Dublin to Cullyhanna to attend the funeral of Peter John Caraher.
This blog has known Peter John and the Caraher family for many years. A few weeks ago his son Miceál contacted me to let me know that Peter John was terminally ill. I told him I would call. It was just before the Ard Fheis.
Miceál explained to me that Peter John had been told he only had a few weeks left but had forgotten this and I needed to be mindful of that in my conversation.
I was therefore a wee bit apprehensive about the visit but I called and I came away uplifted and very happy.
Peter John was in great form. We spent a couple of hours craicing away, telling yarns and in his case engaging in a little bit of loose. As I left there were 40 people crowded into the kitchen and Peter John followed me out and left me to the door. I think that this was his way of saying slán in his own quiet country gentleman’s way.
In my view Peter John hadn’t forgotten how ill he was. Like the kind, loving husband and father he is he didn’t want it to be sore on his family.
Peter John died on Monday morning. The family had asked if I would do the oration and I was pleased to have been asked.
So, this morning I headed to Cullyhanna to join with Peter John’s family and friends and neighbours to say slán abhaile to one of the unsung heroes of the republican struggle.
Below is an edited version of my remarks:
I want friends and comrades to welcome all of you here today to Peter John’s graveside and on your behalf to extend our solidarity to Mary, to Peter John and Mary’s daughters, Maria, Therese and Joanne and their sons, Francis, John, Miceál, Phelim, and Cahal, to Peter John’s surviving siblings, his 19 grandchildren and the wider Caraher family, and to Peter John’s friends and neighbours.
I’m sure that many of you have your own stories, your own tales to tell of his humour.
He was a giant in our struggle. He was like a very, very tall tree in very turbulent times in the centre of his own family and the republican community.
He was a quiet big man who held his republicanism close to his heart and who gave 100% in pursuit of the Irish unity and freedom.
He was a very proud Armagh man and a very proud south Armagh man. He was born not far from here on the 9th of May, 1928 on Creenkill Hill, Crossmaglen. He was the eldest of 7 children - 4 boys and 3 girls to John and Catherine Caraher.
His was also a republican family. His father was a member of the 4th Northern Division. Peter John was fiercely proud of this. His father was imprisoned in Newbridge, Co. Kildare in the 1920's. He escaped and was recaptured and received such a severe beating that he died at the early age of 44 leaving Peter John as head of the household at the age of 14.
Peter John went to Kildare to work as a bricklayer and when his brother Francie contracted polio he returned home to help with the farm. Another brother Owen was imprisoned in 1959 during the 50s campaign and Francie died in 2005 at the age of 73,a volunteer of Oglaigh na hÉireann.
Peter John married Mary Carragher on the 4th September 1962 and they had a family of 9 children. And like his father before him Peter John was a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army.
South Armagh in those days was part of the Orange state oppressed and under British military occupation and was a very proud republican heartland. Peter John was rightly proud of the actions of the volunteer soldiers of the IRA.
In the early years of the conflict he was adjutant to Michael McVerry of Culllyhanna, a volunteer who was killed in action while carrying out an attack on Keady Barracks in 1973. Mickey McVerry and Peter John were firm friends and his death had a huge impact on him. There was never a day went by that he didn't speak of or refer to him.
The flag on Peter John's coffin today is the same one that was draped on Mickey McVerry's coffin.
In the aftermath of McVerry's death Peter John took on the role of OC and promised that Mickey’s memory would live on in Cullyhanna. He instigated the building of the monument to his comrade and friend which was opened a year to the day after his death.
Peter John and his other good friend Tom Rooney were founder members of the Cullyhanna band and even though he was approaching 80 years of age he acted as foreman at the building of the band hall.
With the support of his wife Mary he devoted his entire life to the Republican cause and his whole family suffered house raids, arrests, imprisonment and harassment by British Crown Forces.
He was very keen always that people should recognise the central role played by Mary. Not in a supporting role only but in her own right as an indomitable Irish republican woman and a sound patriot. And Peter John always valued her opinion and her advice.
The family suffered a great hurt when in December 1990 Fergal and Miceál were the victim of a shoot to kill action by the British Army. Fergal was killed and Miceál was severely wounded. Peter John refused to be daunted by this huge personal loss.
At Fergal’s graveside, Peter John spoke about the need to hold a public inquiry – that the RUC and British system could not be trusted in any investigation. And in June 1991, just six months after the shooting, with the help of the Irish National Congress, a two-day public inquiry into the murder of Fergal and the wounding of Míceál was held.
People from all over this district and South Armagh and beyond came to assist in the quest for the truth and organised a truly historic event in the local Community Centre. Michael Mansfield QC chaired the proceedings and there was a panel of jurists from America, Germany and France.
The inquiry was recorded and relayed to the crowd that overspilled to a marquee and a reconstruction of the shooting took place on the Tullinaval Road. It was an amazing achievement for such a historic event to be organised by the local community and was a huge source of comfort and pride for the Caraher family.
After careful examination of the events and of witnesses to the shooting on December 30th 1990, they found that there was excess use of lethal force on the day and that:
‘There are sufficient grounds to indict or charge with murder those soldiers who unreasonably fired their weapons with intent to kill Fergal and Miceál Caraher.’
The experience of the Caraher family is not unlike that of the Finucane family this week. Pat was killed by loyalists acting for the British state and in order to cover up that fact the British government told the Finucane family that there would be no inquiry, as agreed at Weston Park 10 years ago, into his murder.
Geraldine Finucane has made it clear that her family will not be daunted.
And Peter John was not daunted by the release of the soldiers who killed their son.
He understood the real nature of the British government’s involvement in Ireland. He also knew that there were hundreds of families, just like his, who were victim of British violence or collusion between British forces and loyalists, and who needed help. He and his family along with others, helped establish the Relatives for Justice Group.
Peter John was involved in the Pioneer Society and in the Lourdes Committee, having gone there for over 25 years to help the sick. He was Honorary President of Cullyhanna GFC and foremost in this community he was an authority figure and a huge influence on the republican struggle.
He took a keen interest in Prisoner Welfare and their families and was a member of South Armagh Green Cross from it's foundation. He was also a founder member of the Michael McVerry Cumann and was very keen on promoting the Irish Language.
Peter John was his own man. He took his own counsel. He was totally unselfish in his commitment. If you want a role model for our time than Peter John is that role model. He personified all that is sound about our struggle.
He was never a war monger, but he had a justifiable sense of pride in his republican comrades, especially here in South Armagh, to take on and fight the British Army to a standstill.
And he understood the need to build Sinn Féin as the vehicle of republican struggle.
So it’s a very, very sad day. There is a lot to reflect on and to be proud of. Peter John lived long enough to see Sinn Féin and republicanism grow. And he was a very central and positive part of that growth.
He also lived long enough to see his family grow. To enjoy his grandchildren, to be with his bellowed Mary in good times and bad.
He’s now with his IRA volunteer father and his IRA volunteer son.
But Peter John’s spirit lives on in the lives of his clan and the onward progress of the struggle which he helped shape.
A last word to the 19 grandchildren.
There are 19 grandchildren so far. To the 19 grandchildren you have a grandfather, a dadó to be proud of and you have a mamó to be proud of. Mind your granny.
Slan Peter John, slan abhaile.