Early this morning I left Dublin and travelled to Kilrea in county Derry. It was there in the early hours of Saturday morning last weekend that two young men from that community were killed in a tragic road accident.
Christopher O Neill and Declan McKenna were both aged 22. Christopher O Neill was also a leading Sinn Féin member in the area.
Today Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Daithi McKay MLA and local Sinn Féin Councillors and party activists and hundreds of local people joined with the family to bury their Christopher.
Kilrea came to a stop. It’s much like any small town in rural Ireland and in brilliant sunshine the funeral cortege followed behind a coach pulled by two black horses.
We made our way to St. Mary’s in whose cemetery two other Sinn Féin members, Tommy Donaghy and Danny Cassidy who were killed by unionist death squads are also buried.
This is my oration at the graveside of Christopher O Neill.
“I am very sad but very honoured to be here speaking to you today at the funeral of Christopher who was tragically killed on Saturday with his friend Declan who was buried yesterday.
I want to welcome all of you who have travelled here this morning to stand with Christopher’s clann and to extend to them on your behalf, and to the McKenna clann, our sincerest condolences and solidarity at this terrible time.
Tá muid buioch daoibh. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil bhur croí briste. Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil a lan daoine brónach inniu. Caill muid ar cara.
The deaths of Christopher and his friend Declan have left a deep void in the lives of the O’Neill, Davey and McKenna families; their extended family circles and the community of Kilrea.
Their deaths are a deep blow to these families.
To Christopher’s mother Maria, his sister Ciara and girlfriend Mairead and their entire families I want to express my sincerest sympathies and condolences on behalf of republicans everywhere. Your loss is a terrible one.
I have some limited sense of what you are going through. Two of my young nephews – teenage brothers Liam and Miceál – were killed in a car crash.
Families never get over such a loss. You can only slowly learn to live with it.
So I hope it is some small consolation for you to know that you are in the thoughts and prayers of Christopher’s comrades, of your neighbours and people everywhere.
Christopher’s death at any time would have been hard but coming as it did on the first anniversary of the death of his father Kevin it was especially traumatic for the family.
Christopher and Declan were only 22. They were childhood friends growing up across the street from each other and going to the same school – St. Paul’s College in Kilrea.
From a very young age Christopher had a deep interest in Irish republicanism. He grew into a deeply committed republican activist. Christopher joined Sinn Féin at the early age of 16 and was highly regarded by all of his colleagues.
He was a member of the Dunloy Fallen Comrades Flute Band and was also the Chair of McGinn/Rodden/Donaghy/Cassidy Sinn Féin Cumann in Kilrea. This was an important role which he fulfilled with energy and distinction.
In 2011 he stood as a candidate for Sinn Féin in the Skerries ward in Coleraine Council picking up almost 300 votes and coming close to taking the last seat. Those who canvassed with him were impressed by his energy and enthusiasm and ability to articulate Sinn Féin policy.
This struggle has been blessed by having so many brave and courageous people involved with it. Christopher was one of these. He played his part.
Christopher’s death is not the first tragedy inflicted on his family. You suffered the devastating loss of his grandfather; our friend and comrade Councillor John Davey who was shot and killed in February 1989.
John is an iconic figure in the decades of republican struggle. He was a lifelong republican, who worked tirelessly for his community and who was loved by all who knew him.
I never to my knowledge met Christopher but without doubt we were in attendance at the same meetings in our time. I have met many hundreds of young activists, like Christopher, who have become involved in this struggle in the years since the IRA cessations and the Good Friday Agreement. Young men and women who were only youngsters in the worst years and have no personal recollection of the war or who weren’t even born then.
Like them Christopher was a republican through conviction. Yes, he was conscious of his grandfather’s enormous contribution to Irish republicanism and of the circumstances of his death, but Christopher’s republicanism also came from his own deep understanding of the damaging effects of partition and British government involvement on this island.
Christopher understood that the republican struggle for freedom and justice and the reunification of Ireland is the best means to secure a lasting peace between the people who live on this island and between these islands.
I am very certain that John Davey, who helped lay the foundations of a strong republican party in this area, would be enormously proud of Christopher. He would be equally proud of the achievements of local republican activists.
Because of the sacrifice of men and women like John Davey and Tommy Donaghy and Danny Cassidy, of Sheena Campbell and Bernard O’Hagan and the hard work and dedication of younger activists like Christopher O Neill, Sinn Féin and Irish republicanism is stronger now than at any time since partition.
In the 2011 local government elections Sinn Féin emerged with 25% of the overall vote and 138 council seats – a huge achievement. While other parties were in decline Sinn Féin’s vote and the number of seats we held increased. Christopher contributed to that.
Christopher will be missed by his family and all who knew him.
He will also be missed by his republican family. Next year we will be facing into the next round of elections for local councils and European elections. I have no doubt that Christopher would have been central to that endeavour in this area.
He would have been on the streets and laneways rapping doors, canvassing, arguing the republican case and looking votes for candidates – including probably himself.
But more than all of this Christopher was a much loved son, brother, boyfriend, cousin, uncle, friend. All of you who knew him best will have your own special memories. Keep them fresh; keep those memories – stay strong and be glad and proud of Christopher your family member, your friend and our comrade and his friend Declan.”
Christopher’s friend and comrade Sean Bateson also spoke at the graveside. Sean said:
“It is with great sadness that I stand before you at the graveside of Christopher O’Neill to pay my respects on behalf of Sinn Féin Republican Youth.
As you are well aware coming from the many comments and remarks from everyone over the past few days, Christopher was an exceptional young lad who had his whole life ahead of him but instead it was tragically taking from him in the early hours of Saturday morning along from him on the early hours of Saturday morning along with his close friend Declan McKenna.
I knew Christopher well, he was a comrade but also a friend of mine and it was only last Thursday that me and him sat outside the front of my house chatting about politics and this and that and the other.
Unfortunately like the rest of you it will be the last time I will ever get to speak to Chrissy again.
But that’s the type of lad Chrissy was. He was an exceptionally kind, generous, down to earth and warm hearted lad who had all the time of the day to sit and shat away to everyone regardless of who they were. These are the type of attributes which made Chrissy such a fantastic, capable and talented young Republican and he took these with him as he served the role of Chairperson of the local Sinn Féin Cumann here in Kilrea.
Coming from a large republican family with his grandfather being John Davey, a Sinn Fein Councillor from Lavey who was murdered by loyalists acting in collusion with British state forces in 1989, Christopher knew fine well about the struggle for equality, justice, unity and freedom here in Ireland and this is what propelled him to take on such a role within the republican movement.
His untimely death at such a young age is a great loss to the republican movement and of course to his family and friends and the wider community here in Kilrea and beyond.
I want to extend my sincere and heartfelt condolences to the O Neill and McKenna families on behalf of Sinn Féin Republican Youth. Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this very difficult time.