Family funerals are an occasion for relatives - aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, cousins and distant relatives – who probably haven’t seen each other since the last funeral, to get together. We reminisce about the person who has passed. Remembering the good times, the bad times, the craic. We talk about when we were kids, our families, those others who died previously, where we all are now, our hopes for the future, and especially our optimism for the next generation behind us.
Republican funerals nowadays are like that. Last week the republican family came together in Smithborough, County Monaghan to say goodbye to Kevin McKenna and to wrap our arms in solidarity around his bean chéile Marcella, their children and grandchildren.
I saw the genuine delight of former prisoners, reunited for the first time in years, as they greeted one and other. Some were obviously surprised and happy that old comrades were still alive, though a lot of the talk was about hip operations, stents, and arthritis.
Thursday was a scorcher of a day. Blue skies and a hot, hot sun as we made our slow journey along a road packed with mourners, through the green fields of lush countryside from the family home to St. Mary’s in Magherarney.
Family and relatives and neighbours were there. So too were many who counted Kevin as a friend and comrade, including some who were imprisoned with him in Portlaoise in the 1970s. Bernie McGuinness - Martin’s bean chéile – Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, and Leas Uachtáran Michelle O’Neill, Danny Morrison, Martin Ferris, and many others from all parts of the island of Ireland were present.
Kevin was a quiet, thoughtful republican. A committed comrade who dedicated years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and to the Irish people. He first became involved in the republican struggle in 1970. He had just returned home from the Yukon Territory in north-west Canada, near Alaska. It was a place he liked to talk about – “When I was in Canada” – was usually the start of reminiscence about his time there, the people he’d met – especially the native peoples – and the beauty of the place.
The memories of his time in the Yukon stayed with Kevin all his life. He was especially fond of the poetry of Robert Service. He loved ‘Dangerous Dan McGrew’ and ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. But his heart was in the hills of County Tyrone where he was born and grew to manhood. Consequently he was also very fond of the poems of WF Marshall, the Bard of Tyrone.
I’m livin in Drumlister
An I’m getting very oul
I have to wear an Indian bag
To save me from the coul.
The deil a man in this townlan
Wos claner raired nor me,
But I’m livin in Drumlister
In clabber to the knee.
Me Da lived up in Carmin,
An kep a sarvint boy.
His second wife was very sharp,
He birried her with joy.
Now she wos thin, her name was Flynn
Now she wos thin, her name was Flynn
She come from Cullentra,
An if me shirts a clatty shirt
The man to blames me Da.
Kevin heard of the troubles at home. The campaign of the civil rights movement for reform, the marches in Coalisland and Dungannon, the Caledon Squat by the Gildernew’s and the violent response of the unionist regime at Stormont and of the British government. So he came back from the bitter cold of the Yukon to the hot house that was County Tyrone in early 1970 to join the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.
Among the rolling hills of Tyrone, its narrow laneways, villages and roads Kevin and his comrades relentlessly and defiantly fought the British Army.
He moved to County Monaghan in 1972 where in 1973 he met Marcella at the Ulster Football final in Clones. Tyrone won. So did Kevin. In 1974 he was arrested and charged with IRA membership. He was sentenced to Portlaoise prison where, along with others, he embarked on a hunger strike. After 39 days he was taken from the prison to the Curragh Military Hospital. Kevin took the prison authorities to court for continuing to hold him beyond his normal release date and he was freed in February 1975, after 48 days on hunger strike, without returning to Portlaoise.
In 1976 he was back in Portlaoise for a short time. He met Martin McGuinness in Portlaoise. He says he taught Martin to play chess. That was always an issue of good hearted banter between them.
Lots has changed in the time since then. Even as we gathered at Kevin’s graveside the so-called ‘United Kingdom’ is disuniting. Yes, we still have quarrels to settle with our unionist neighbours, and Yes, partition remains. But Republican Ireland remains also. Resolute, unbowed, undefeated and looking to the future.
Kevin was a decent man doing his best in very difficult times. War is a terrible calamity. The republican people of the north never went to war. The war came to us. I am mindful of all those who have been hurt. And there has been hurt on all sides. But the war is over and the future is being written now. As we help to write that future we will not let the past be written in a way which demonises patriots like Kevin McKenna any more than we would the generations before him.
I think the men and women of 1916 were right. I also think the hunger strikers of 1981 were right. I think Kevin McKenna was right. I think the IRA was right. Not in everything it did. But it was right to fight when faced with the armed aggression of British rule. It was also right to make peace.
Kevin McKenna’s leadership in that challenging period of change was essential. Kevin McKenna was a republican soldier who had the politics to know when to fight and the vision to know when to talk. He also actively supported the building of Sinn Féin. He had progressive social views and was a committed internationalist.
This August marks 25 years from the first IRA cessation. It was an initiative created by republicans which opened up the potential of the peace process. Kevin had the courage to make the big decisions with others during the conflict. He was also one of those who had the courage to make the big and difficult decisions during the efforts to make peace.
It is in the nature of these things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known. The tales will never be told. Others may boast. Kevin would have none of that. He had no time for ego trippers, or vanity projects. He had no time for loose talkers, Walter Mitties or spoofs. He was the real deal.
An honest decent republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table. Republican Ireland is indebted to him and Marcella. In time thoughtful people of all political views, including some unionists, will acknowledge the important role played by Kevin and his comrades.
Tá sé at slí an fhirinne anios.