“It’s always tomorrow for me” – Joe Reilly
Seven months ago my long-time friend and comrade Joe Reilly from Navan was given the awful news that he had terminal cancer. He had a rare form of the disease and was told that he only had months left. Never one to look on the negative Joe approached his remaining time with the same positivity that he brought to all aspects of his personal and political life. Don’t look back, he would say, keep looking forward.
Over recent months RG and I have made a point of visiting Joe almost every week, occasionally accompanied by Lucilita Breathnach. Six weeks ago he and I and Richard and Jim Monaghan and Lucilita were on the Hill of Tara. We had a song – ‘Cath chéim an Fhia’ from luci. We formed a ring for the group hug and enjoyed the walk.
On the way up the hill Joe asked me to give his oration. That was typical Joe. Always working, always thinking ahead, always planning. What should have been a wee walk on a fine day, was a chance for him to get another bit of work done. I know countless others who had the same experience of meeting with Joe for a coffee or a chat and coming away with something to do.
That’s how Joe built Sinn Féin in Meath, from a party with 88 votes and 29 punts in the kitty to 8 Councillors, Peadar Toibin as TD and a real chance of another TD in the time ahead.
Two weeks ago we spent a wonderful two hours sitting in the bright sunshine in his garden watching one of his chickens demolish an ice-cream cone that Joe had thrown into the garden. We talked about his strength, those projects that he was still working on, and the referendum to remove the eighth amendment to the constitution.
Joe was a feminist. He believed that decisions about a woman’s health was a matter for her.
Together we took a photo of him holding YES
leaflets. Two days later Joe went to the polling station in his wheelchair to cast his vote for YES. He was delighted with the result in Meath and across the State.
Joe was a team player and a team builder. He was a leader. He loved Navan and Meath. He loved his family. He was also a brave soldier and volunteer in the Irish Republican Army. And he specifically wanted a Guard of Honour of former republican prisoners.
Joe spent ten years in Portlaoise Prison. He famously escaped from the Special Criminal Court at Green Street. He was politically active in hard times, difficult times, when there was the heavy gang, harassment, censorship and demonization of republicans, and lonely journeys to Portlaoise or other prisons.
After his release from Portlaoise in 1985 Joe became an organiser for Sinn Féin. At different times he was Cisteoir – Treasurer –of the party, as well as our Ard Runai (general secretary). He was a member of the Ard Chomhairle for many years and our National Child Protection Officer. He was also Councillor and Mayor in Meath and Navan.
Joe understood the connection between the local and the national, and the importance of principled community activism. His every endeavour was focussed on improving the conditions of working men and women. He believed passionately that there was a better way to organise society – based on fairness and equality.
For Joe, republicanism was that way. He practiced these core values in his private life and in his political activism. Joe fully supported the peace process – he is one of those about whom it can be said that there would be no peace process without his leadership – neither would there be a modern strong and growing Sinn Féin.
A few weeks ago Mary Lou asked Joe what we would do without him?
“Don’t worry about that “Joe said, “I’ll be around – haunting you in the times ahead.”
He also sent me a text during the west Tyrone by-election. I spoke to our victorious candidate Orfhlaith Begley about it.
Joe text, “I think it’s time we spoke to unionism directly in west Tyrone. Seeking their vote. I know
it’s a zero result” he wrote “but we have to stop just talking to our own. This is an opportunity given Brexit etc”.
Joe absolutely understood the nature of the
current crisis in the north, the threat posed by Brexit and by the DUP/Tory pact. He believed fully in reconciliation based on equality between orange
and green. He also knew that the mark of any society has to be about the quality of life of its lowest class, its most disadvantaged citizens.
Equality was Joe’s watchword. For the Traveller community, for rural folks, for people in the north, for Palestinians, for women.
Joe’s pride and joy was the Solstice Arts Centre. He was one of the many drivers of that wonderful facility. One of the times I was there with him he told me it was his favourite space. He also told me recently that he was working for private sponsorship.
Monday May 28th was Joe’s last public act. He had secured a two-year creative investment programme with a company run by Valerie and Noel Moran. The day they agreed the partnership Joe text me his joy. The Solstice Arts Centre is part of Joe’s gift to Navan.
Last week he was to attend the opening of new offices for Springboard which he helped to establish. Springboard provides support for families devastated by bereavement or abuse or the trials of modern life. He was determined to go. His sisters Marian and Claire spent two hours getting Joe ready but in the end he was forced to go back to bed. He also could not attend a celebration we had planned in Leinster House in his honour. Once that happened I knew it was the end.
Joe had talked about that last final phase of his illness. He knew exactly what was coming. He faced his illness and the devastating news of his imminent death with great courage.
“I do 3 or 4 positive things everyday” he told me. And he did so to the end.
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds,
Above the wailing of the rain.
That’s what Francis Ledwidge wrote about Thomas McDonogh – the executed 1916 leader from the tranches of the first world war. He could have written this lamentation about Joe Reilly.
Joe was a small man but he had a huge heart – croi mór – and a big vision. The last time I saw Joe was the night before he died. As I was leaving I leaned forward to give him a little kiss on the forehead. He had been sleeping.
“Slán chara” I said. “Colette says Slán too”.
He reached up with one arm and gave me a wee hug and a wee smile. Agus sin é.
On Monday as his eco-friendly coffin – which Joe made sure he had – was lowered into the ground Pilgrim Street – a local group Joe especially liked – sang for the mourners. Joe left us with a smile on our faces as they broke into Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life”.
Joe always looked on the bright side of life. For him there was never a time for looking backwards. He used to say; “It’s always tomorrow for me.” That’s Joe Reilly’s legacy.