My sister Frances died two weeks ago. She asked that I say a few words at her funeral. This is what I said:
Our mother had thirteen children. Three died shortly after they were born. They were our Seán’s twin Brendan; and Seamus and David the other twins. Sixty years later our brother Liam died in February 2019. On the day of his funeral big Eamonn, our Anne’s husband, also died. And now today we bury our wee sister Frances.
Death is part of the story of life. Is é seo ar sceal. Sibling grief is a very special grief. Brothers and sisters usually know each other for the whole of their lives. So during these sad days Margaret and Paddy and Anne and Seán and Maura and Deirdre and Dominic and me are reflecting no doubt, in our own ways, on childhood memories and all the good times and bad times of lives bound up together.
So too with brothers-in-law and sisters-in-laws. And Frances’ friends. Everyone will have special memories of her.
It’s also a time when our generation ponders on the reality of our own mortality. But this isn’t just about our generation. It’s especially about Frances’ own wee family. It’s about Patrick and Ciaran, Liam, Sinead, Maura and their spouses and children. It is about our Frances, their mammy and mamo.
Frances had a hard life. Let there be no doubt about that. Some girls and other young people, have injustice heaped upon them in their formative years. It is to their great credit that many of them, like Frances, survive to grow into strong, loving, caring independent women.
When the British Army brought their war to Ballymurphy our house in Divismore Park, opposite the military base at Henry Taggart, was a particular target for them. Following the internment swoops and at the time of the Ballymurphy Massacre, wee Maureen McGuinness and Colette helped our mother to evacuate the younger children from our home.
Frances was among them. She was sixteen. As they fled the British Paratroopers opened fire. When asked what she did Frances would smile and say; ‘I ran as fast as I could’.
Our family never returned to 11 Divismore Park again. The Paras took over the house and wrecked it.
This was Frances’ introduction to decades of war, of house raids and arrests, prison visits, protests in support of the prisoners, and political campaigning. She marched and demonstrated for a lifetime with the rest of the risen women of Ballymurphy and Belfast.
But she also found love. She and young Patrick Mulvenna were married on November 11 1972. She was widowed less than a year later. Patrick was an active IRA volunteer. Along with another freedom fighter, the legendary IRA warrior Jim Bryson, Patrick was killed when they were ambushed by Brits firing on them from a concealed position on 31 August 1973 in Ballymurphy.
Frances was pregnant. She gave birth to Patrick’s son, Patrick on what would have been their first wedding anniversary. As a young widow – a single parent with a baby son - Frances faced up to all the challenges life threw at her with fortitude and courage. I am sure she wasn’t always in a good place but she persisted. And she prevailed.
And she found love again. With another IRA volunteer Billy McAllister. From that union came Ciaran, Liam, Sinead and Maura. Patrick was outnumbered by McAllister’s but they all thrived together. Later Billy and she separated but they remained good friends. He used to bring Frances her dinner. She loved his cabbage.Billy died in March 2019.
Eventually through all the hard years of the conflict, a few house shifts and the ongoing arrivals of grandchildren Frances moved into 34 Springhill Avenue. She always described it as her favourite home.
Her children, adults now, have nothing but praise for her. I know all of us probably think our mammy is the best mammy we ever had. But Patrick, Ciaran, Liam, Sinead and Maura are certain about that. As long as you knew how far you could go. They all agreed that you couldn’t cross her. If you went too far the reprimand was accompanied with a stern reminder. ‘I’m your Mammy and don’t you forget it.’
She spoke her mind and tried to keep them on the straight and narrow. But if this wee woman - and she was tiny – all four foot and eight inches of her; if she was a good Mammy she was a Super Dooper Granny. It was as if she wanted to ensure that whatever she lost out on in her youth, her grandchildren would be cherished and nurtured so that they might reach their full potential, whatever that might be.
She told her daughters that her aunts – the generation before us - were the really strong women. She drummed into them that they were the best role models. I am glad my favourite aunts Síle and Brenda are still with us. And aul Paddy and Mrs Mulvenna.
Frances was a quiet republican. She told her children she wanted to see a United Ireland. When she was in hospital she said she wanted to go to the Conway Mill Republican Museum when she got out and the new one in the Roddy’s when it was finished.
She suffered from ill health for years. But she always said everything was okay, even when it wasn’t. She believed in prayer and Jesus and his mother.
She told me she didn’t want to die. Did she have a premonition that she would not grow to be too old? Who knows? She insisted on Patrick bringing her to Milltown Cemetery in March to pick a grave and she went to the Credit Union to pay for it. She was very fussy about her last resting place and rejected the overtures of the man from Milltown a few times before picking her spot.
‘I don’t want to be looking at the motorway’ she told him. ‘I need to see the Mountain and the Republican Plot’.
Afterwards she told Patrick she was silly. The headstone would block her view. She also sorted out her funeral arrangements with Healy’s. When Patrick queried all this she dismissed his concerns. Everything was ok she told him.
Each of her clann will remember her many acts of kindness and giving. All her children benefitted from her love. But for me her presence at Maura and Michael’s wedding just a few short weeks ago - when she discharged herself from hospital in pain and under pressure - was an act of unconditional maternal love and of her desire for her whole family to have a good and joyful day out together. She wanted everyone to have a happy memory.
Patrick and Brídín, Ciaran and Mary, Liam, Sinead and Manuel, Maura and Michael. Maura you were right to bring your wedding forward. Your mammy wanted her family to be happy. All of us.
I always told Frances that she is my favourite sister. She knew I tell all my sisters that. But she knew I was telling her the truth. I tell all my sisters that as well.
She was a loyal friend to Colette and she had a special bond from childhood with our brother Liam. And now she is gone. Ar slí an fhirrine. So I want to finish by talking to Frances’ grandchildren and great grandchildren.
To Padráic, Cliodhná, Deirbhile, Mairtín, Seánna, Kevin, Orlaith, Ciara, Tiernán, Meghan, Cori, Liam, Caitlín, Miceal, Gerry Óg, Kyla, Caelán, Oisin, Barra, Conchúr, Olivia and Maebh. And her three great grandchildren; Freyah, Zara and Sieanna.
I want to ask the older ones who knew their granny better than anyone else to tell your stories of her to the younger ones. The wee ones missed the life you shared with Frances. Tell them about her.
Tá aithne an mhaith agaibhse ar bhur mamo. Níl cuimhneadh ag na daoine óga uirthi. Cathfidh sibhse a bheith ag caint faoi leo.
Caithfidh sibhse na scealtaí a rá. Agus na deanagaí dearmaid. Tá bhur saol nios fearr inniú mar throid Frances ar bhur son. So sin bhur obair a gar phaisti nios aoiste agus na sean daoine eile.
The young women here and the girls should know especially that the rights you enjoy today - your entitlements- came about because many, many working class women like Frances fought for you even before you were born by taking a stand in their own homes, on the streets, the prisons and the churches.
My daughters had daughters as brave as were their mothers. And my fourth green field will bloom once again said she.
All these extraordinary ordinary wee women standing up for us all and for your future.
Bhi fhios acu, agus ní chainteoir mór í Frances no a lan do na mná eile, níor thug sí nó siad óraidí de gnáth. Ach bhí fhios aice agus acu gan Saoirse na mBán ní bheidh Saoirse na hÉireann. Agus ní bheidh.
This is one of Frances’ big days. I can see her smile at me saying that. It is the day we tell her slán. Even though we did not want her to die we give thanks that she passed quickly eased by the wonderful nurses and carers and medical workers.
Let’s set aside the angry times. The sad times. The hard times. Let’s remember the good times. The funny times. We think of our lovely Frances. Let us give thanks for her life. Go raibh maith agat sister. All of us are privileged to have loved you and to be loved by you. Slán Francesco. x