Derek Mooney does a really interesting radio show on RTE in the afternoons. It’s a mix of music, conversation and wildlife. If you are interested at all in our wildlife and fauna, in our seas and landscape you will be enthralled and entertained.
As anyone who knows me will testify I love the game. It’s the best sport in the world. Consequently I always carry a couple of hurleys and sliothars in the boot of the car for those odd moments when I am able to find a bit of space to practice my hurling skills – I once won the west Belfast Féile’s Poc Fada – but that’s another story.
Anyway I got one from the boot of the car and gave it to Brian who – he told Derek – keeps it under his bed. Derek also wanted a hurl and I duly sent one to him – hence my appearance on his radio programme and the opportunity to talk about Féile an Phobail.
The Féile is the largest community festival on these islands – and the best in the world!!!
The official programme of events and activities began last Thursday and Sunday saw thousands take to the Falls Road in a carnival celebration of Féile which this year has as its theme ‘Giants of the North’ with Cú Chulainn just one of the figures from Irish mythology to be taking part.
For ten days west Belfast will resound to the sound of ceol and comedy and craic. There will be theatre, exhibitions, sport, walks, and debates and discussions in venues across west Belfast. Last Friday evening there was a brilliant Mary Black concert in Clonard Monastery and the Wolfe Tones will be in the Féile Marquee in the Falls Park on Wednesday.
This years PJ McGrory lecture will be given by Doreen Lawrence on the killing of her son Stephen; George Galloway and Gerry Kelly will be participating in West Belfast Talks Back; and Mairead Corrigan will give the annual St. Oliver Plunkett Lecture in Lenadoon. And there is lots more.
I would like to give a special mention to the emotional and powerful ‘Ballymurphy – the Aftermath’ which will run in Conway Mill from the 5th to the 12th of August. It tells the tragic story of the three days in the Ballymurphy area in August 1971 during which 11 local residents were shot dead by the British Parachute Regiment and of the trauma of their families and community. If you haven’t seen it then go this week.
The Féile is a unique opportunity to showcase the talent and genius of the people of this part of the city. It is after more than two decades a vital part of the social fabric of Belfast with something for everyone.
And it was during my conversation with Derek Mooney that it really hit me for the first time that next year Féile will be a quarter of a century old! That is an amazing fact. And it is down to the hard work and determination of so many very good people who from its beginnings in 1988 and steered the Féile through good times and bad. Comhgairdeas to everyone involved.
For those of you too young to remember the Féile was born in 1988 against the backdrop of tragedy and conflict in the north but particularly in west Belfast.
In March of that year Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage were killed by the British in Gibraltar. The three, who were IRA Volunteers, were well known locally and widely respected.
There was a great sense of shock and distress at events in Gibraltar. This was evident in the huge funeral the three received when their remains were eventually arrived home.
This sense of shock was compounded by the death of IRA Volunteer Kevin McCracken who was shot dead by British soldiers in Turf Lodge on the night Mairead, Dan and Sean came back to Belfast.
But worse was to come. At the graveside in Milltown Cemetery the funeral was attacked by Michael Stone, a member of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association who was working in collusion with the RUC Special Branch. Using grenades and handguns he killed three mourners and wounded scores more.
Stone was chased by a section of the crowd onto the M1 motorway where he tried to stop cars while firing at his pursuers. As he threatened the young people who were closing in around him he was hit on the head with a wheelbrace. It was at this point that the RUC arrived on the scene. Stone was dragged away and driven off in an RUC vehicle.
The three who died were Thomas McErlean aged 20, John Murray aged 26 and Caoimhin MacBradaigh aged 30, an IRA Volunteer.
Several days later at the funeral of Caoimhin MacBradaigh two gunmen drove into the cortege on the Andersonstown Road at Casement Park. Mindful of the attack at Milltown days earlier the crowd surrounded the car. One of the gunmen fired a shot but the crowd challenged and seized the two. It was a confused and dangerous situation. Mourners thought the funeral was under attack by loyalists. However, it quickly emerged that the two gunmen apprehended by mourners and later killed by the IRA were undercover British Army officers Derek Wood and David Howes.
There was a crescendo of outrage from establishment spokespersons. Seamus Mallon, the Deputy leader of the SDLP, said that the people of West Belfast ‘have turned into savages’. Others said we were ‘animals’. Those unarmed mourners who defended the funeral were hunted down by the RUC and many were sent to prison.
This intense period of violence was a tragic, terrible cameo of the conflict. It was given added significance because most of those who died did so in very public circumstances and in the presence of thousands of other people. Some of them died in the glare of television cameras.
One response to this was the founding of Féile an Phobail. We decided to demonstrate to the world that the people of west Belfast are not savages but a generous, humourous, talented, gifted and inclusive community. The months lading to August 1988 were given over to planning, organising and then holding the first ever Féile an Phobail. It was a huge success and each year has seen it go from strength to strength.
So, enjoy this years festival and remember that next year, as we mark 25 years, it will be bigger and better again!