Forgotten Heroes

TPQ's own  Ramblin' Man, guest writer Frankie McKillen, with a very poignant piece. 

Drunks, river rats and Johnny Cash

I'm not to sure how to start this piece of ramblin'. I'll hold my hands up and say I didn't listen to much republican or Irish music during my 'formative years'. If I'm honest, I still don't. I wont apologise for it ether. I don't see any need to. When I entered my parents home, the troubles always seemed a millions light years away. And instead of watching the news about one death after another or a bomb in some country lane. I'd simply switch off and go to my bedroom. I''m not sure if I became numb by it all but I tried to blot out the troubles as much out as possible with music. But as I grew older I started to see some similarities in my type of music to certain events that happened when I was a pup.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he wont answer any more, not the whiskey drinking Indian nor the Marine who went to war - are some of the lines from 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes' written by folk singer Peter La Farge that was made famous by Johnny Cash. Although those words could easily describe Kieran Nugent's final days.

Ira grew up on a Pima Indian Reservation in Sacaton, Arizona. The Pima are a proud and peaceful nation who farmed for a living until one day the US Government cut off their water supplies, making it almost impossible for them to make any kind of living. But when America went to war in WW2 and called it's men to arms, Ira like thousands of young Americans signed the dotted line and joined the US Army. Ira signed up for the Marines. He joined for several reason, mainly to leave the reservation to earn money to send home to his family so they could eat.

Then at the age of 23 in Feburary 1945 an event occurred that would change Ira's life forever. During the battle for Iwo Jima and in the rush for victory over the Japanese a group of Marines raised the stars and stripes on a small mound. As the flag was being raised, Ira rushed to help his comrades just as the photographer snapped what was to become one of the most famous pictures during WW2. The battle of Imo Jima was as bloody as it was costly. Ira's platoon consisted of 45 men and only 5 lived and in a company of 250 Marines only 27 lived to tell the tale of Imo Jima.

After the war had ended Ira returned to the reservation and there was still no water to irrigate the crops, no hope for him or his people but he was wined and dined my the rich and famous who often paraded him around the country to speak as a war hero. But Ira never seen himself as a hero. To him the real heroes were his comrades who didn't make it back home and Ira took to drinking. Each day he needed more whiskey to deal with his ghosts of war and to forget about the despair of his people. Then in 1954 just nine years after the immortal photograph of The Raising of the Stars and Stripes, Ira got into an argument while drunk and still thinking about his army comrades and friends who never made back, unable to come to terms with his new found fame, Ira fell into the only source of water that the American Government allowed the Pima Indian to irrigate their lands with and froze to death a drunk ...

I'll fast forward to The Twilight zone, and one of the articles that caught my eye by Brendan Hughes was this and this line shot out at me ....

Hughes mentions Kieran Nugent, the first IRA man on the Blanket protest in Long Kesh. "Kieran died in 2000. They called him a 'river rat' because he spent his last days drinking by the river in Poleglass. "Why didn't somebody in the movement not see he'd problems and help him? He was the bravest of the brave. The screws ordered him to wear the prison uniform and he replied, 'You'll have to nail it to my back.'"

I had heard about blanket men and the five demands. I never understood why they wanted those demands. I would catch the odd TV news report and see protesters walking the Falls Road wrapped in blankets calling for political status. But it generally went out my right ear just as quick as it entered my left ear. I was 12-13 during the two hunger strikes. I didn't understand what was going around me at the time. But I discovered after reading the piece that Kieran Nugent and Ira had things in common. Both were young men who became iconic figures within their armies who didn't see themselves as anything other than soldiers fighting a war in a cause they both believed in. Like Ira, Kieran wasn't offered help to come to terms with his ghosts and had to deal with them himself. Today Kieran's image is blazoned across walls in Belfast as a war hero and the first blanket man. Like Ira, Kieran was first used by the rich and famous of the PRM to promote their struggle and plied with alcohol and slapped on the back and called a hero but wasn't offered any help to come to terms with his demons. Instead he was allowed to drink himself to death like a river rat ...

Today knowing what I know about the conflict just as Johnny Cash's Boy named Sue did ... I'm coming away with a very different point of view too.


  1. Frankie

    Good piece about men like Ira and Kieran. You might not know it because it happened back in 1996 but Pat "Beag" McGeown also slipped out of sight and mind that his corpse was found several days after he had died.

  2. nice one frankie, God be with nugent , psf are a million miles away from the likes of him now. those two royal republicans at the top arnt made of the same stuff as that man. funny was listening to johnny last nite covering Hurt song.

  3. The sad aspect of all of this is that Kieran Nugent wasn't and isn't the only river rat....the number of ex POWs that are left to drink and ruin by the leadership is appalling....these POWs once gave all and were willing to give their lives while imprisoned and in return they are left to rot and in quite a few cases scorned for their drunken cares to ask why?

  4. Frankie,

    Ranblin’ man suits you in that Rock n’ Roll, blues way, I had heard the song from when I was a nipper and read the story later on that was back when you had to go to the library. My father would play the likes of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Guy Mitchell and of course Jim Reeves to name a few and odd enough both my mother and father could carry a tune.

    Reading along other things were popping into my mind The Trail of Tears and the massacre at Wounded Knee, which in today’s terms would be ethnic cleansing. I thought about Sitting Bull ending up as a spectacle in Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Life on the road along with the abusive hatred directed at him from the spectators, he was appalled at the poverty and ways of life in these cities. He headed home and basically told Christianity where it should go with his “I would rather die an Indian than live as a white man.” Back home he lived by the old ways, the Ghost Dance ceremony was on the rise and this was grounds enough for his arrest as the local law didn’t want a respected chief to be involved in any revival. The story goes they sent a squad of local Lakota cops to go lift him and outside his house a scuffle broke out, then a gun fight that left Sitting Bull dead. That sounds a bit sketchy I reckon they had no intention of arresting him and just shot him.

    I was busy reading the way you think through music caught up in the Ira Hayes story I had stopped a few times to listen to the ballad and remembered my Father would sing it along with other songs but his favorite was Sunday Morning Coming Down. He didn’t start on the booze until 74 or 75 but that’s another conflict related story for another time.

    Then, The Twilight Zone hit me like a wrecking ball in the back of my mind instantly a few dead faces flashed through my mind all with common links, involvement, and hard time, and then the struggle of trying to adjust or fit back in, the Ra had no use for them as they were marked cards. One bloke I knew had a falling out even before he was released which should have been no problem. On the outside he was treated like a pariah but he didn’t care about that as other things were as other things were eating away in his mind which no amount of drink could numb.

    Sadly Frankie like Niall said there is and was no shortage of who ended up forgotten with no help.
    Great article mate a sad truth of a bitter reality.

  5. Thanks for the honour folk's but the real 'Rambin' man' is Luke the drifter although Waylon comes a close second...Piece of triva...Waylon always kept a bed on his tour bus for Hanks ghost..

    Back to the forgotten heroes..or unsung heroes. A while back a good Ardoyne man called 'it'sjustmackers' (I hope he's on the mend) put Michael Henry in his place and educated me by telling both of us his late wife done more for the PRM than we (MH) have both done together. She would 'transport' weapons hidden in her pram at the start of the conflict and I wonder how many more wives, GF's etc done similar acts to help the provisionals. How many neighbours kept their doors open and gave up their beds so republicans engaged in armed conflict could rest, eat or other...I bet their are are lot of un-sung heroes out there who's names wont appear on wall plaques or aren't remembered during various commerations.

  6. Frankie,

    I am glad you brought up “itsjustmackers” as I have been wondering about him and hoping the same that he is on the mend.

    So if anyone reading Knows itsjustmackers maybe they could give us a heads up on how he is doing as he is part of the quill family.

    Without the nameless people who were the back bone or the RM doing all the things they done the Ra would have faded out in the early days.

  7. Tain,

    I emailed him a week back trying to find out how he is but didn't hear back from him yet. Hope he is ok

  8. Anthony,

    thanks, that doesn't sound so good. Hopefully one of the readers know him and can fill us in or at least let him know we are hoping the best for him.