Dan Breen was an integral and powerful man in Ireland’s long fight for independence. He was a husband and father, a gangster, a politician, a speakeasy operator, and an author, but first and foremost he was a self-described soldier who was dedicated to freedom.
The conflict known as the Troubles was a long war on many fronts. There were some people fighting against those they saw as invaders and oppressors and others fighting to show how loyal they were to the country they felt part of. There was also a propaganda war being fought as various groups tried to reach sympathetic audiences (and large pocketbooks) around the world. The third battleground was the deadliest of all and it was comprised of all the tit-for-tat, mostly Sectarian killings between various paramilitary groups. This last front resulted in the vast majority of civilian deaths throughout the region and it was the hardest to prepare for or justify. It includes the Devil’s Night massacre at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, which happened on this day in 1993.
In the wee hours of the morning of October 23rd, 1971, the British Army rolled into the Falls area of Belfast with the intention of raiding houses and arresting anyone they suspected of criminal or “dissident” activities. It was a regular occurrence in the area and the residents had various ways of warning each other when the army was around. Runners would spread the word ahead of the vehicles and the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) would bang trash bin lids on the streets as an early alarm system. Sometimes people would blow whistles or sound horns from their cars as well which was exactly what two sisters, Maura Meehan and Dorothy Maguire, left a party to do on that early Autumn morning. When one of Meehan’s children asked where she was headed she told him that she’d be right back, as she grabbed a handheld horn and headed to a car outside. These words were the last she ever spoke to her family.
Danny Doherty and William Fleming grew up in Derry. They were from Republican families and each had relatives that were imprisoned at one time or another for their political ideals and paramilitary activities. They followed in their families’ footsteps and each joined Na Fianna Éireann at a young age, before funneling into the Derry Brigade as soon as they were able.
Each man knew what the cost might be. They knew their membership in the IRA could land them in prison or in the grave but they felt it was worth the risk. Danny Doherty was a veteran with six years of active service in the Derry Brigade but Willie Fleming was younger and greener with only two years under his belt when the two men were killed (or overkilled) in a hail of gunfire on this day in 1984.
Piaras Béaslaí may have been born in England, but that didn’t stop him from being profoundly Irish. His Irish Catholic parents emigrated to Liverpool before Piaras was born but he grew up with a strong love for his heritage. By the time he was a teenager he was fluent in Irish and obsessed with Ireland’s struggle for independence. He wrote fiery newspaper articles and rebellious poetry that highlighted the Irish Republican cause and eventually led him into the Gaelic League and the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood. He developed close friendships and worked side by side with many prominent revolutionaries like Ned Daly, Thomas Ashe, and Michael Collins, just to name a few.
Humans are animals. It’s not something we like to admit, but it is true. Our animalistic instincts come out when we are hurting and angry, when we need to protect ourselves or our loved ones, or when we are desperate and afraid. Over time we learn to control them, not letting that dark side rear its ugly head just because our toy was taken away at the playground and if we’re lucky that animal fades into the background of our minds, never needing to come out.
When James Martin Pacelli McGuinness was growing up in Derry a lot was wrong in his world. The boy who would come to be known as Martin was partially named after a pope in a society that was violently sectarian and discriminatory against Catholic communities like his. He saw things most of us thankfully never will. War raged in the streets as he grew up. He witnessed friends being mowed down by soldiers without consequence. He saw authorities break the law over and over without punishment. That animal inside him grew and raged, like many others in the region and Martin found his way into the Irish Republican Army at a relatively young age. He stayed for a heavily disputed amount of time. Let’s just call it many years.
The world lost a giant a few moments ago. Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was a warrior, a peacemaker, and so much more. It’s not shocking news, but it is devastating. It is safe to say that without Martin McGuinness, the IRA ceasefire(s) and the Good Friday Agreement would probably have never happened. He is remembered by some as a modern Michael Collins and any Irish historian would probably agree that there’s a good deal of truth in that comparison.
McGuinness shaped politics in the North for decades and this evening the region lost much more than a single man. My thoughts and condolences go out to his friends and family and I hope that they can find the comfort they need in the days to come. My candles are lit and there is nothing else I can say at the moment as I try to form my own thoughts into words and to process the passing of such a vital and important person in modern Irish history.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam