Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided … that other men be ready to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns … 'Che' Guevara
Travelling into the heart of the Cooley Mountains for the spreading of Brendan Hughes’ ashes was an experience given to quiet reflection. I had met Tommy McKearney close to the border and we made the winding drive deep into the mountainous area, the location where Brendan had requested most of his remains be scattered. The Hughes clan had family origins there and Brendan had always loved the freedom of the place and the solitude it afforded him, far from the madding crowd.
The quiet reflection far from being brooding had something uplifting about it. I have always found it with cremations as distinct from burials. Whenever I have gone to collect the ashes of family members there was a sense of having got the lost one back again. In a burial they are handed over to someone else for their remains to be disposed of. The hands-on style of goodbye is always truncated by the intervention of the grave digger. The mourner is reduced to a powerless spectator with burials which is redeemingly absent with a cremation.
Moreover, it has always rested uneasily with me that anyone who had been in prison should ever want to be buried. As if we had not spent enough time already banged up without having to do it for eternity. Brendan being scattered in the Cooley Mountains was an act of setting him free; like a bird cupped in hands which open to the whispered word ‘farewell.’
Tommy McKearney spoke at the short secular ceremony attended by around 30 family and friends. Tommy and Brendan had been old comrades and had come through both the blanket protests and 1980 hunger strike together. He delivered a very powerful oration about the role that Brendan had played in ensuring that whatever judgement one could make on the IRA campaign it had forced the British state into ending the policy of croppy lie down. No longer could the surrounded Catholics of Belfast be held hostage as a means to secure nationalist good behaviour and enforce conformity throughout the North.
Following Tommy was Arthur Morgan the Sinn Fein TD for Louth. Arthur was another old comrade and whatever views Brendan had of Sinn Fein and the peace process he never lost his strong personal warmth for Arthur who always made him feel welcome whatever the political climate. The Sinn Fein TD carried on in the same vein as Tommy McKearney, reinforcing the point made about Brendan’s role in pushing back British and unionist malignancy.
In the Cooleys there was a dignified serenity about it all more in keeping with Brendan’s outlook, which was not in evidence at the funeral in Belfast three days earlier. There, the clash of perspectives manifested itself in scowls, silences and jockeying for position. That serenity lends to the Cooleys a sense of being a ‘natural’ resting place for the remains of a man who cherished peace of mind. Now when I look on the Cooley Mountains thoughts of the ‘wee Dark’ roaming free somewhere deep within the hills warm me. They can never bring him together for the purpose of caging him in again. He is beyond all that now.
The following day in Belfast some remaining ashes were being scattered in the Falls Commemorative Garden. It was a place revered by Brendan. We had sat in it alongside him one Sunday morning while tears streamed down his face as he remembered those comrades who had gone before him. I am not aware of other ashes having been spread in the garden but it seemed a worthy spot to receive Brendan. He had a deep love for his comrades.
I missed that ceremony, unable to catch a taxi up the Falls Road in time. When I arrived the crowd that had gathered was dispersing. A volley of shots had been fired. It was in keeping with the tradition represented by Brendan. Although some claimed it was intruding on the grief of his family, few could argue that it would have contravened his wishes. He had been an IRA volunteer and traditionally those volunteers have received that form of salute.
Imposing itself on the discussions about the merits or otherwise of the armed salute was a gulf that has polarised many on the ground including those who once shared the comradeship of the IRA. While present for the Falls scattering of Brendan’s ashes were those who unambiguously supported the firing of the volley, they mingled with others publicly committed to informing the PSNI on anyone engaged in that type of action.
There is a very good convention which holds that we can never say with authority where the dead would have stood today. It is a custom we should stick with come what may. At the same time, Brendan lived along enough to see the lurches and spins of the peace process and wince at the staggering fumbling shambles which the republican struggle had been reduced to as a result. Try as they might no one managed to persuade him that informing on republican firing parties could somehow be spun as an act of revolutionary touting.