It’s the age we’re at. I tell myself and my declining peer group this as we attend funeral after funeral this last wee while.
The great wheel of life is now turning for our generation. This phase started with Colette’s sister Martha. Martha was eighty five. The matriarch of the Mallon family. A kind, strong, gentle woman who lived on through Parkinson’s and the loss of her husband Jim and their son Jim.
Martha was ferried between Andytown and Donegal and Spain by her devoted family until her time came. Mary Herald, the same age as Martha and a childhood friend and neighbour in the Whiterock, went next. A valiant Camóg in her day and a lifelong Antrim Gael.
Then out of the blue our friend and comrade Damien Gibney died quietly and unexpectedly dozing in his chair. Damien, one of the two first Sinn Féin Councillors elected to Lisburn, along with Pat Rice, and in dangerous times, will be deeply missed by May and Sineád and the entire Gibney clann. Andrée Murphy’s tribute last week speaks to the history, kindness and compassion of that family.
On Sunday, on the road back from an event in Dungannon we got the news that Rab Kerr had died suddenly. Laurence McKeown, who was 73 days on Hunger Strike in 1981, remembered Rab and Jennifer McCann.
“33 years ago today, the 17th May 1990 I was best man at the wedding of Rab Kerr and Jennifer McCann. The wedding took place in the chapel of the H-Blocks, Long Kesh where Rab and I were both life-sentence prisoners. Jennifer too was a prisoner at the time in Maghaberry Prison (and before that Armagh Women's Prison) where she was serving a 20-year sentence. Her bridesmaid was Mary McArdle, also a life-sentence prisoner. They were both brought from Maghaberry to the H-Blocks for the wedding and then returned to Maghaberry that afternoon.
"Jennifer, aged 21 at the time of her arrest, was sentenced on the 6th March 1981. She was a close friend of Bobby Sands and Bobby wrote in his prison diary while on hunger strike that day, 'My friend Jennifer got twenty years. I am greatly distressed.'
After the wedding ceremony Jennifer and Mary were held in the prison hospital over lunchtime before getting visits with Rab and me. They both often talk about how strange and emotional it was to be in the place where Bobby and the other 9 died.
"Last Sunday afternoon I got the tragic news that Rab had died suddenly. Rab, a volunteer, a blanketman, an escapee (1983) but most of all a gentleman, loving husband of Jennifer, and devoted father to Meadhbh, Sáerlaith and Fionntan. Slán a chara."
Laurence speaks for all of us who knew Rab. Go raibh maith agat chara.
Pat Donaghy from Tyrone, a friend of mine and a long time Sinn Féin supporter in the USA and a champion of the search for peace in his homeland, lost his brother Gerald around the same time. Gerald, like all the Donaghy clan, was a good Irish patriot. He hosted a number of Friends of Sinn Féin events for me to speak at. The family organized for him to be buried in Carrickmore. He was to be waked in the family home in Tromogue. His older brother Jim made all the arrangements. Then Jim died suddenly. We buried the two brothers together on a beautiful May morning last week in their beloved Tyrone.
On the way back to Belfast I got the news of the death of Kieran Monaghan, Máire’s husband, Daddy of Harry and Gabrielle, and son of Ciaran and Gabrielle. Kieran had been valiantly battling cancer.
For months he defied death and astonished family, friends and his medical team by his calm, stoical refusal to give up. Eventually Kieran left on his own terms on his Divis Mountain utopia surrounded by his clan and close to nature and his dogs.
Too many funerals in too short a time. Yet this is life. In these times of loss and grief the blessings of an Irish wake are clear. So too is the kindness and generosity of local communities. That was a character of all the funerals I attended. It's what we do well. There is comfort too in religious rituals, in music and story-telling.
No one, even people of great faith, knows what happens to us after we die. That’s one of life’s great mysteries. In the Irish language we describe the dead as being on the way of truth - ar slí an fhirinne. They now know what comes next. The ancient Irish believed that the spirits of the dead linger in places that they loved. I like the sense of that. So Kieran's spirit will forever roam the mountain.
We also know that friends and family members continue to be our friends and family members after they die. Death does not change that.
Death does not stop brothers being brothers. And mammies and grannies are mammies and grannies forever. Grandas too. And daddies. They all live on in our memories. The Donaghys and Damien, big Rab and Martha and the others will continue to mind their families. Forever.
Cleaky told me decades ago that immortality is to be remembered and spoken of, by friends and family. So let us speak of all them. With love and affection.
Last week’s northern local government election was an outstanding success for Sinn Féin. Well done to everyone involved, especially the voters.
The Sinn Féin leadership, its local election directorates and activists, including many from the South, presented the electorate with sound policies and a powerful team of experienced and first time candidates to vote for. The party stood on its commitment to Irish Unity, our record of work in the councils, our defense of the Good Friday Agreement and on the imperative of getting the power sharing institutions back up and running. Michelle O’Neill demonstrated her commitment to be a First Minister for all.
As a result, there are now 144 Sinn Féin councillors.
Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly; the biggest party in local government by seats held and vote share; has the greater number of MPs at Westminster and is the largest party in the South. In addition, the number of voters who backed parties that favor a united Ireland is greater than those who backed the union with Britain.
But we still have to secure the unity referendum promised in the Good Friday Agreement and to win it. That means increasing our efforts to persuade the Irish government to establish a Citizens Assembly and to begin the process of planning for Irish unity.
Citizens want us to deliver on commitments. They want the promise of change and the hope for a new future to be more than rhetorical. We need to keep building greater political strength. The momentum is with those who want change but the big challenge facing Irish republicans is how we use our growing strength, not least to secure and win the Good Friday Agreements unity referendum.
Last week a video was posted on social media of a vicious attack on a young person in Navan in County Meath. It shows a 14-year-old boy being violently assaulted by a group of other young people. The boy is punched to the face and forced to the ground where he is kicked and punched again as he tries to crawl away. The assault only ends when other young people step in to stop it.
The 14-year-old suffered concussion, broken teeth, and extensive bruising, including the mark of a shoe imprinted on his forehead.
According to the young person’s family he was targeted because he is gay. He is the victim of a homophobic hate crime. In the aftermath, five young people were arrested and there is an ongoing Garda investigation. At the weekend, people marched through Navan in solidarity with the young person.
I want to extend my solidarity to the victim. There can be no place for such hatred in any society. Bullying and hate crime, whether against the LGBTQ+ community or whether it is gender based or sectarian or motivated by race or color, must be confronted wherever it rears its ugly head.
POEMS FOR HARD TIMES
A little girl
A wee boy
Brother and sister
Wind in their hair
Rain on their faces.
Like an escaping captive
Intoxicated by fresh air.
Uplifted by nature
And their own hyperness
At one with the elements
And with themselves
Dancing in the nowness.
And the sheer and simple
Joy of being.