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Charlie McKiernan

Anthony McIntyre remembers an old friend from the cages and H Blocks of Long Kesh.

Singin': "Don't worry 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right."
Singin': "Don't worry (don't worry) 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"

Charlie Chuck McKiernan stood out in the H Blocks because of his soccer ability. A forward who could finish from virtually any angle, the collective attitude of the team when on the ball was get it to Chuck. He loved the jail's twin all weather football pitches where he could soar like one of three little birds, and forget his confinement.

As a striker, he could make the often mediocre midfield feeding him look good. Like Dominic Adams or Leonard Ferrin, great to have on your side but a nightmare to play against. Pace, control, vision, skill, opponents were lucky not to have to face all three of them in a forward line at the same time.

Chuck was also a passionate Manchester United supporter whose ups and downs would often be determined by what happened on the pitch at Old Trafford or the away grounds when United were the visiting team. I used to enjoy asking him "who scored for United Charlie,?" on those occasions when the team were beaten and failed to net. Even for a blog as relaxed as this, his collection of responses remains unprintable. With Liverpool having just this evening defeated Arsenal 5-1, and unbeaten in the league, I can visualise the scowl on his face.

I had known some of Charlie's brothers back in the day but first met him in 1977 shortly after arriving in Cage 10 to begin a life sentence. The republican command set-up then allowed for sections and he was a section leader. He was a fairly young prisoner who may have been serving a detention sentence - gratuitous beak speak to describe jail time dished out to those sentenced before they were 17. Then Charlie was quiet and seemed quite serious for someone so young.

The next time I met him was in the less relaxed H Blocks where he was just into the first year of a life sentence for having killed a prison governor and a member of the UDR. In my view then, supporting Manchester United was a much worse offence. Charlie, when arrested - not long married and with a baby son - panicked and went into a tailspin. He quickly retrieved the lost ground but never forgave himself even though the bulk of his fellow prisoners had. When the late Gerry Bradley in his compelling book Insider: Gerry Bradley’s Life in the IRA, described Charlie as treacherous, I responded in Fortnight magazine that "those of us who know Charlie McKiernan and spent a long time in prison with him came to see human frailty rather than treachery" as the root cause of his wobble.

While in prison one of his brothers was shot dead. Anthony had been accused by the IRA Security Department of having being a British agent. The chutzpah doesn't bear thinking about and prompts wonder at what strange symbiosis of British army officer and IRA army council member signed off on that. The family of Anthony McKiernan, an IRA icon in the early 1970s, deserve nothing less than for their loved one to be awarded a posthumous pardon by the IRA. Charlie suffered over the loss of his brother, confiding to me and some others in the prison his anguished misgivings.

Although he had upped sticks and relocated with his family in Ballycastle sometime after his release, he would for a while work in the evenings doing the door at a bowling Alley in West Belfast. I would run into him while out walking and stop for a chat. The last time I saw him it was there. When I learned from his wife Nancy that he had cancer, I chased him up on the phone and finally reached him at his Ballycastle home, having previously phoned him there when one of his brothers had died. We had a great conversation. He knew there was no coming back from this, no lost ground to be retrieved, but he was for facing it head on and living life out rather than merely dying. From Chemo to the bookmakers, that was Charlie Chuck.

He didn't do Facebook so I kept in touch with Nancy, although life being what it is not as much as I wish I had. Chatting one day, she said it was the first time she had got a chance to talk to me since Charlie died. My stomach sank. He had died the day my sister was cremated. His death left a huge void in Nancy's life. She was the love of his life and he was besotted with her. They had married in the 70s and despite the pressures and chicanes that relationships often endure and veer into there was one destination they never allowed their marriage to approach - a dead end. Nancy was more than his soulmate. Hers was an arduous and often lonely odyssey. 

There is no point in being too hard on Charlie for his love of Manchester United. The joy Chuck got from their unparalleled success, alone is cause for cheer. He supped very little from the victor's cup while in jail, Manchester being a trophy free zone, while we Liverpool fans savoured the moment, many of them. He was cremated in his own Man U top and had a signed team shirt along with letter of authenticity draped across the bottom of his coffin.

His physicality departed from this world to the tune of Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, a reassurance to his family that every little thing gonna be alright.

Charlie McKiernan had his failings and his shortcomings. But life is a motion film of its entirety not a still shot captured at a particular moment in time. His dynamic existence, rather than the static pauses, is what defines him. Just once, for you Charlie Chuck, Up The Red Devils.




Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.


Follow Anthony McIntyre on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

15 comments to ''Charlie McKiernan"

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  1. RIP Charlie,a good man and his wife nancy to who helped my brother Padraig in the last election in Ballycastle,they loved a sunday afternoon at Ballintoy harbor with there grand children and a wee ice cream, he was a very popular man in Ballycastle and was well loved and is sorely missed, RIP mo chara

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  2. If my memory serves me right, I recall the daughter of the volunteer executed by the 'security dpt' speaking on the local news, urging the IRA to investigate the circumstances of her dad's death. She wanted to clear his name. She relayed that her dad told her mother,the night before he was killed, that he was going to meet a few senior people(security dpt?) because he believed he knew the source of a security breach. She also said republicans from all over attended her fathers wake including Danny Mc Cann, who vowed to her mum that he would get to the bottom of her husbands death. Alas he was murdered in Gibraltar not long afterwards. Whomever he met, they sure were in a rush to shut him up.
    Btw, I don't wanna speak ill of the dead, but Whitey once told me that he "was the best IRA man I would ever be likely to meet". The tumbleweed had a pronounced spring in its bounce at that moment!

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  3. Anthony..nice one for Charlie Chuck! RIP. Again you’ve proved yourself a better man than the shinner establishment. He was vilified by them , lets not mess words. Always reminds me of Martin Meehans words.. “you try your best, against all odds, but make one mistake, they’ll persecute you” . I remember playing against a frontline of Chuck and Brendy Meade, both of them could have played in the premier league. Happy new year!

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  4. Msspikemilligan - Meehan had a point definitely although I am not sure it always operated as straightforwardly. There was certainly an element of elitism and resentment and not always restricted to the Provo establishment. I know Storey worked particularly hard to remove the stigma from people who had fallen by the wayside so to speak. I tended to detect a difference in outlook between people who were already in prison by 81 and those coming in after it. Those already there tended towards tolerance but it was never across the board. As years went by we developed a better understanding of human frailty and came down from our high horse.

    Imagine a defence having to face both Brendy and Charlie Chuck - there wasn't much chance of holding out. The power and pace that Brendy brought to a game was tremendous. Chuck was more skilful, like Dicky McCann, and could read a game better. Brendy powered his way through defences. Jock Home was another in the high skill category.

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  5. Chuck and Tomboy....Two amigoes that tortured the life out of you....great skill on the pitch but hadn't the fitness to play the full game...ran out of steam quite quickly...there were those who manipulated others never to let him forget his cross and yet those same people turned out bastards of the lowest form...I found myself standing in front of him at a till queue once...it was his broad Belfast accent that alerted me to him. I never introduced myself for some reason, don't know why.....
    Away from Tomboy you could have a conversation with him but once the two were together forget that even for a second....quite witty at times but I always wondered how the hell he carried that stigma that he was never allowed to forget...that was tough.

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  6. Chuck and Tomboy....Two amigoes that tortured the life out of you....

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  7. Niall - you must have been playing defence and he tormented you! I don't remember him running out of steam now.

    Tomboy was a great keeper - would throw himself at anything and wholly unafraid of the charging opponent. Big Bunter had something for Tomboy about him when he did nets.

    Once in that situation it was always going to be tough but Charlie got on with it. Was thinking of him there while watching the highlights from the Utd-Bournemouth game.

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  8. How can an irish Republican support and English football ⚽ ♣? Get the rosary beads out and pray big-time for the City game on Thursday night 🌃. Up 👆 the 🎱 Pool,29 years of hurt.

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  9. AM,
    In our first few encounters he tormented me a few times alright but I put that down to my complete unfitness.....once that was resolved the GAP soon closed for good after that AM and you know it!!!!!

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  10. Niall - strange how memory distorts!

    He was torturing us long after you had gone so maybe we all got unfit just to keep up!

    Did you ever play against Brian Campbell? One hard player.

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  11. Nancy Spain here, Charlies wife of 37years alot of that time spent apart and the best years spent together. Charlie was born into a Republican family like myself and three other brothers imprisoned. One blip in his Republican career set the tone for the rest of his life.Together we were a team I knew the boy and the man. I walked proudly by his side because I knew what he was made of and I loved him with all my heart and always will. As the song goes... Let friends all turn against me, let the folks say what they for my heart is in my country and I love old Ireland still.
    Born a Repubĺican and died in my arms a Republican like the rest of his brothers. There is and was only one Charlie Chuck and Im proud to say he is/was mine.

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  12. Nancy - that is so moving.

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  13. mmmm...not too sure about Brian but something tells me I did and from what I can remember he was hard but fair...another was Beefy...can't recall his actual name...bloody speed machine..I thought that he was the fittest I ever came across on a pitch....some good defenders and forwards....as for Chuck, a stone statue could have tortured you on the ball!!!!!

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  14. Brian was hard as nails at the game but not dirty … Beef Murray, another very good player. Could run a game well. Even Dominic Adams had a hard job getting past me LOL and he was greased lightening on the pitch. He turned me one time and I knew if he got as much as six inches he would leave me standing so I grabbed his arm in the penalty box and pulled him back and the ref awarded us a free kick!! Dominic was one of the best I played against. He and a small number of others like Leonard Ferrin were in a class of their own.

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  15. Bringing back good memories....cheers.

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