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Big Eamonn was a mighty man

Eamonn, myself and Cleaky

By Gerry Adams

On Wednesday morning we buried my sister Anne’s husband Eamonn. This was our family’s second funeral in the last few days.

Last Friday we buried my brother Liam. On his way to the funeral Eamonn died suddenly from a heart attack. I want to thank everyone who has supported us or who sent messages of support during this difficult time. Tá buioch mé daoibhse go leir.

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Big Eamonn would be scundered at all the fuss we made of him. He would be scundered but he would also be chuffed. That was his way. A modest shy man. He was born into a staunchly republican family.

His mother Nelly was from Bombay Street. She was a volunteer in Cumann na mBan and a neighbor and friend to Tom Williams. His father Dan was interned in the 1940s and 50s.

Eamonn was born in Ballymacarrett in 1949. The family moved in the 1950s to Kenard Avenue in Andersonstown. He first came into my life in the mid-1960s. At that time republicans were reorganizing. Eamonn – nicknamed Shank - was also busy chasing our Anne. He was a regular feature in our house where he often entertained us with Elvis songs or Roy Orbison numbers, and his own peculiar form of jiving.

Eamonn joined Na Fianna and then the Army. During the pogroms in August 1969 he was in the front line helping to evacuate his granny and others from Bombay Street, and from other districts under attack from RUC, B Special and loyalist mobs. In the immediate aftermath of the pogroms there was a split in the Army in December 1969 and in Sinn Féin in 1970.

In hindsight, this represented a significant set-back for the struggle. For a short time after Eamonn stayed with the Official IRA, but he quickly shifted his support to the Provisional Army Council.

He and Anne were married on April 5, 1971. They went on to have four children Eamon and Fionnuala, Seán and Bronagh. During the 1970s, Big Eamonn was arrested and interned twice. His sister Breige Anne was in Armagh Women’s Prison.

After I was shot in 1984 the late Tom Cahill decided that I needed a driver. Up until then there were about a dozen people at different times who I could get lifts from. Eamonn was always reliable when I needed transport. So Tom asked him to drive me on a fulltime basis.

He agreed, and together for over seventeen years we travelled the length and breadth of this island. Eamonn was Sinn Féin’s first security team.

It was a dangerous time and a dangerous job. As well as the constant threat of assassination there was the daily gauntlet of RUC and British army harassment. The arrogant viciousness of RUC officers, UDR and British army soldiers who at every opportunity and at every checkpoint, made threats and tried to intimidate us.

Sometimes we were three or four hours on the side of the road. The arrival of Peter Hartley into our team increased the danger and many times Eamonn and I had to protect poor wee Brits from Peter. Our adventures and misadventures, were numerous.

I have limited myself to two of these. The first was when Eamonn was joined by Cleaky, Chink and Moke, Big Austin, Bernie, Mousey, Chico, Jamesy and others in providing security around the Sinn Féin negotiating team.

Cleaky, who had just been released from prison, and was under treatment for cancer, was asked to take charge of this.

He had few resources and almost no money to work with. But his skill as a scrounger was legendary. Working with Big Eamonn and their small security team they liberated security doors, outside lights, inter-coms, security grills, toughened glass, bullet-proof vests and anything else that could save lives.

On one occasion, just before the first public engagement between Sinn Féin and the Brits, Cleaky secured ear pieces and microphones for personal radios that would allow the members of the security team to keep in contact. There was only one problem Cleaky told Eamonn, before briefing the rest of the team. The radios didn’t work. But Cleaky explained that given the appearance of having a very efficient security team could put off any would be attackers.

“Ok,” said Eamonn.

So they pulled the rest of the team together and handed out the ear pieces and microphones.

“Put these down the sleeve of your coats,” Cleaky told them, and then speak into the microphone.

“But there’s no transmitters,” said Moke.

“They don’t know that,” said Eamonn.

“But the radios aren’t working,” said Moke.

“We’re going to have a visible presence at the meeting tomorrow. We have to look as if we know what we are doing. So, just let on the radios are working,” said Cleakey

“Ok,” said Moke. “What’s my code name?”

“What do you need a code name for,” said Cleaky. “The radios aren’t working.”

“But we’re letting on they are. So we need code names.”

“Ok,” said Cleaky. “You can be Chucky number 1.”

The next day, when our delegation arrived at Parliament Buildings for negotiations with the British, Big Eamonn and the rest took up their position, for all the world looking like U.S. Secret Service agents talking to their sleeves!

The media and everyone was hugely impressed. There is old television footage of Cleaky talking into his sleeve. But they didn’t know what he was saying.

“Come in Chucky number 1 this is up the Ra. Over and out mo chara.”

I have no doubt that in a bunker somewhere MI5 and British Intelligence and GCHQ were desperately trying to find how the Shinners security team had a wave length they couldn’t listen in to.

My next story is a more tragic one. After Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage were executed by the SAS in Gibraltar, Eamonn was part of the long journey home from Dublin airport to Belfast. It took six and a half hours to reach the border where the RUC stopped us. They wanted to hijack the hearses. We wouldn’t let them.

As we sped toward Belfast the RUC Landrovers tried to force our cars out of the cortege. We were surrounded on all sides. Inches separated our car from the armored Landrovers. Eamonn drove mightily that night as he prevented the RUC from isolating the three hearses. Eventually, however, we were forced off the road at Kennedy Way.

That was Big Eamonn. A quiet thoughtful republican. A comrade who dedicated years of his life to the cause of Irish freedom and to the Irish people. Dependable, Courageous. Loyal. Tireless. A loving husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. We will miss him. Ar Dheis Dia go raibh a anam.