Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Leo Wilson - Saying slan to one of the good guys

Yesterday I gave the oration at the graveside of Leo Wilson in Milltown Cemetery. Leo died at the weekend at the age of 91. Hundreds of people attended his funeral.

 In my oration I said:

Dia daoibh is mo buiochas do teaglach Leo mar seans s onoir a thug sibh domhsa inniu.
Is mor on onoir domhsa a caint anseo faoi Leo.
Tá fhois agam go bfuil bhur caite briste – go hairithe croi a bhean cheile crogan Maureen.
Caithfid mé a rá go bhfuil a lan daoine bronachinniu.
Caill sibhse dhir fear cheile, bhur dadaí, bhur deideo, bhur daideo mór agus caill muid ar cara.

Leo Wilson was a small man with a great heart and a big vision. He was a family man, a community activist, a lover of music, of flowers, language, sport, talking and dancing. He was a proud republican who loved Ireland. But the love of his life was Maureen.

Leo met Maureen in the 1940s on a bus to Lurgan to support Antrim in a GAA final. Leo was much older than Maureen – he was born on December 3rd 1922 – four days before the Irish Free State came into existence, and was the oldest of a family of 9, reared in Balkan Street on the Falls.

It was a time of great poverty, division, and hardship, especially for nationalists living in Belfast city.
As a young man Leo immersed himself in Conrad na Gaeilge and the Ard Scoil. Around this time he joined the Army. He was of that generation that gave us Tom Williams, Madge McConville, Joe Cahill and Rocky Burns.

Leo had a great love for Irish history, language and culture. He spent months in the Ranafast Gaeltacht and developed a passion for Céilí dancing. I remember him in the 1960s as a Fear an Tí talking us through the 16 hand reel, the Siege of Ennis, An Caípín Cul Ard and the Walls of Limerick.

He and Maureen were married in 1950 and went on to rear Gearoid, Cormac, Pól, Padraic and Fiona. Ba maith liom mo bhron a thabairt daoibhse, your 10 grandchildren and great grand children and the wider Wilson clann including brothers Billy and Paul and sisters Anne and Mary.

In 1964 when Sinn Féin was banned under the infamous Special Powers Act, Leo was one of 12 republicans who stood as independent Republicans in the general election. He took a remarkable 4,000 votes in South Antrim at a time of widespread oppression by the old unionist regime and the state police – the RUC and its auxiliaries – the B Specials.

Leo understood the need to make republicanism relevant in the daily lives of citizens. He saw republicanism as a means for building a decent fair society based on citizen’s rights. He knew the value of reaching out to unionists, despite the challenges this presents. He also was about building empowered communities. Leo helped found the Andersonstown Credit Union.

He and Moscow Jack Brady formed a branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He was a founding member of the Roddy McCorley Society and was involved in the civil rights campaign, and in 1969 when the orange pogroms took place, Leo was part of the Citizens Defence Committees that sprang up at that time.

Later as the conflict intensified he joined with Ann and Dessie Murray and Clara Reilly and Frs. Faul and Murray, and Fr. Brian Brady and other great people to form the Association for Legal Justice. For years the ALJ worked tirelessly to help the families of citizens detained by British forces. The ALJ also exposed the torture and brutality of the British Army and RUC during internment.

Later Leo served on the National Smash H-Block Armagh Committee to secure the demands of the Fir Pluid (Blanketmen) in the H Blocks and the women in Armagh prison.

Maureen was active at that time in the Relatives Action Committee in the late 70s and early 80s. During this time the Wilson household suffered house raids, arrests, imprisonment and ongoing harassment by the British Crown Forces and like many other republican families, for the record, we should note that the Wilsons won that battle.

Leo and Maureen also enthusiastically supported the building of Sinn Féin as a radical and competent and principled political party. Leo signed my nomination papers each time I stood in west Belfast and he also was one of Paul Maskey’s nominators. He strongly supported Sinn Féin peace strategy.

During the negotiations our negotiating team used to meet in houses all across the city. As those who know him will agree Martin McGuinness loves his food and in Leo and Maureen’s they always made great egg and onion sandwiches. So whenever arrangements for a meeting were being made the Wilson’s home was always referred to as the ‘egg and onion.’

In his 70’s Leo graduated with a degree in political science. He loved learning and books and at the age of 87 he was in the high court in Belfast in defence of library facilities in west Belfast and he and I went to meetings of the Library Board where he articulated the right of citizens to accessible library services.

Leo passed many of his values on to his family. He was a man of faith – and proud of those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom. An active member of the Belfast National Graves Committee last Easter he unveiled the refurbished County Antrim memorial.

Leo is one of the latest of our veterans, heroes from Andersonstown, who we have buried recently. Great people all. People like Mrs Maskey and Mrs Finucane. We are proud of them all. We are proud of Leo and though we are sad at his passing we celebrate his long and useful and happy life.

A last word to the grandchildren. Be proud of your daideo. He was one of the good guys and mind your granny. As Leo would say she was one of the great guys.


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