Tony Catney: A Month's Mind

Tony Catney

The writing of an obituary a month to the day of Tony Catney’s death might suggest something of a Catholic touch, given the Month’s Mind tradition. While not guided by Catholic sentiment and having read somewhere that the ‘minding day’ has its origins in Viking culture, I still find something enriching and endearing about the Month’s Mind service as a means of commemorating those who have just passed.

When his life ended a month ago today, many other lives were deprived of something also, none more so than the immediate family of Tony Catney whose grief will be inconsolable. Knowing him as I did and having often called on him while he was at home with his family, I have seen him in his role as a father, son, brother and husband. He will be missed with a heaviness of heart that family invariably bear greater than all the rest.

At the same time TC was very much a part of a wider family made up of those people who gathered under the roof of republicanism. The composition and complexion has changed over the years, with Sinn Fein having vacated the premises en bloc to move into the old stately home once inhabited by the SDLP. TC’s idea of a republican family was quite unlike anything we would be familiar with from our experience of family life in the Sinn Fein abode. He saw no need for an authoritarian father figure driven to manipulating the family and turning the siblings against each other as a means to boost his own political career, and willing to sell off the family heirlooms to finance it. The republican family to TC was something that was egalitarian rather than hierarchical, something to be nurtured, occasionally nudged, but never to resemble a borstal where the least powerful are bled dry by the biggest bully on the block. His life, while too short, was long immersed in republicanism. The longevity of his involvement never led to him becoming a career republican. 

When I first came across him we were heading in opposite directions. He had arrived in Magilligan Prison in the closing days of my sentence towards the end of 1975. Teenagers, he was beginning a life sentence while I was on the way to a home that turned out to be a temporary interregnum of less than four months. I too would soon begin a life sentence. While on remand in Crumlin Road prison in 1976 I met up with him once again. He had been transferred down from Magilligan to face trial for what I think was an escape bid. Later we would end up in the cages of Long Kesh at the same time but it was not until he came down to the H Blocks in the mid-1980s that I saw the cerebral depth of the man.

TC could think. He could think deep and think long. A 3D thinker, he clinically and forensically unpicked narratives, getting behind the façade and burrowing beneath the surface. He not only saw the dots that were visible to us all but could join them, intuiting patterns in instances where others discerned only atomisation. 

He was forever planning, weaving threads into his own strategic tapestry, calibrating and re-evaluating as he went. I remember one of our first heavy exchanges in the blocks when he was surveying the new political terrain opening up in front of us. He asked what I thought of Sinn Fein. Because we still believed Martin McGuinness when he said things like the IRA was the cutting edge of the struggle, we were averse to a future sans an IRA. So, cynically, but not completely facetiously, I commented that the DUP had the right idea, smash Sinn Fein. I told him Sinn Fein would ultimately occasion the death of the IRA, and blunt the much vaunted cutting edge; we would be left with a career driven party and no army other than a presidential guard. Not much use to any man or beast other than the president. 

I think he thought then I was wide off the mark. I probably thought I was wide off the mark too but I felt instinctively, knowing our republican history, that the wrong party would destroy the movement. And there were signs already that Sinn Fein might just be the wrong party. I didn’t think Ruairi O’Bradaigh was right, but I knew he was more right than he was wrong.

Leaving prison on my second home leave or parole TC, already free, managed to get me half cut before I got out of the car park. When I was finally released he became my point of contact for making my way back into the movement. Sinn Fein was okay but not really where either of us wanted to be although we would never shirk from working for it. I recall both of us laughing derisorily when a senior party apparatchik accused TC of hiding in the IRA where he didn’t have to do the challenging Sinn Fein work. His witty rejoinders are too coarse for repetition. Hiding and sloth were not characteristics that anybody other than a clown would associate with TC.

Because of our association with the Bobby Sands Discussion Group and its propensity to ask questions in public that the leadership did not like, both he and I were, in his view, ultimately split up, with him being exiled to Brussels to manage the Sinn Fein European office, and myself allowed to wander the roads at home like some demented Jeremiah prophesizing doom. I was never completely convinced he had called it right as to the real motive behind it. They wanted him gone, that was for sure. I was coincidental. Yet he was brimming with organisational acumen, which rendered him an ideal candidate for running that end of the operation. We would slag him that there would be no hiding place for him now; he was at the heart of the struggle ... in boring Brussels. They certainly succeeded in marginalising him from the debate back in Ireland where his input would have been seriously influential.

He was not just a comrade but a close personal friend whom I confided in. In need of advice, I immediately made my way to his place. When my children were born I headed up with them to him and his wife Rose. Early on I realised just how much I had come to rely on him.

While I had my fill of leadership lying by the time of the Good Friday Agreement and had severed my ties with the Provisional Movement, he held on but crucially no more believing the lies than I did. He thought I had seriously erred by pulling out and had ceded ground to the leadership that it should have been forced to fight for. When the heat was on he was there for me. His friendship proved most robust at the time of the Provisional IRA killing of Joe O’Connor in West Belfast. Sinn Fein and the IRA had both lied to cover up Provisional culpability and stepped up the intimidation. We faced it down but it was a tense time. My pregnant partner and I were out of the house for a while. At every step of the way, alongside a small number of active Provisional IRA volunteers who refused to buy into the organised lying of the leadership, TC was on call to ferry us from place to place, ensuring we had accommodation on offer if required. He was never more than a phone call away. 

At times we argued like demons. His criticism was sharp but easy to take. The nights spent drinking, smoking joints, debating, analysing, all of it floods to mind. When, where, who else was there, is often a haze as one event seems to have melded into another.

I was sitting in a hotel in Coventry when I got a text through from my wife that he had cancer. I had been with him the month before at the funeral of Dolours Price and had felt at the time that he looked tired, nothing that I could put my finger on, just something not right.

When I came home I made arrangements to travel up and see him. Along with Alec McCrory I landed in his ward of the Belfast City Hospital on a Saturday around lunchtime. It was an amazing encounter but I cannot claim to have expected something else. From his hospital bed he discoursed about politics and strategy, the need to organise meetings and of course he disagreed sharply with my view that there was no future in republicanism. We talked about his health and while he looked tremendous, there was no disguising the fact that he knew his illness was terminal. He stated as much.

A few months later I travelled to Belfast to spend the night with him. We headed off to Toome where a function was on for Brian Shivers, who had just won his appeal in the Masserene case. I didn’t know Brian and can hardly pretend that he rather than the booze up was the draw for me. While there I hardly got to talk to TC. In a sense his experience was similar to that of Brendan Hughes in those situations. Everyone seemed to want his time to discuss something with him.

While the drink flowed I don’t think TC took any, unlike a previous occasion where he and I hit the city centre shortly after the 1994 ceasefire for a fill of pints and shorts before he drove me home, both of us blocked out of our tree. We were not cut out to be saints, nor wanted to be. Both of us very much subscribed to the George Orwell sentiment: we wanted to be good but not too good and not all the time.

On the drive back from Toome to his house where I would spend the night I explained to him why I would not be attending his funeral, because if I did he wouldn’t go to mine. That was my main problem with dead people: they don’t reciprocate as far as funerals are concerned. The Grateful Dead was not a good name for that 1970s rock band given how ungrateful the dead actually are. Other than curse me he laughed most of our journey home. It was a route we had travelled countless times together in our republican odyssey. This was to be the last. 

Shortly before he died I had arranged to make the journey up to see him in Belfast although I had already been the recipient of legal advice not to cross the border: the British police were certain to arrest me over the Boston College tapes. He objected most strongly, telling me not to add another notch to the list of daft things I had done over the years. Along with Glen, his close and devoted friend, he made his way to my home. I gave him a bottle of his favourite tipple and we talked for three hours. His voice was strained and he was on a stick. But rather than talk about his illness he dived into politics. Unlike the previous time he had been here we didn't fight the piece out. On leaving we embraced strongly and he told me he would be back in my house for Christmas. I knew that would not happen. As he left my home I was in no doubt this was it, the last time. I would never see him again. 

When the text arrived from his cousin that Saturday morning a month ago with the news of his death my heart sank. Braced as I was, the head still dropped, the stomach fluttered, and the throat lump had to be forced into abeyance. 

It simply is not possible to capture the life of TC in anything outside of a book. All an obituary can do is provide a snap shot of this or that aspect the man’s life. He was one of the genuine Provisional intellectuals and not one of the poseurs given to an idea on the basis of the length of the words required to explain it or the number of people who failed to understand it. He could make the complex simple and lost nothing of the content in the conveyance. 

TC lived and breathed ideas. Now that he is no longer here to push them perhaps consideration should be given to running an annual lecture in his name. It would be a worthwhile project, a fitting tribute to a man who brimmed with intellectual vibrancy. 

Life moves on. I am just more conscious now of it moving on in his absence.


  1. That's really a brilliant thought provoking obit Anthony. First time I ever heard of him(and you) was in that 1996 book "we Wrecked the place" and while the book wasn't great and its author really just a worthless piece of trash it did inform people that there were free thinking republicans ready to challenge the SF leadership. Unfortunately we needed many more of them.

  2. Ryan,

    the author of that book tried to get Brian Pearson deported from the US. I gutted the book in a review which infuriated him.

  3. Kind and considerate words for a good fella...didn't really know him as you had but he always made time for me when we met even though I wasn't one of the 'in-crowd'.....that just about sums him up I think, no-one was above or below him to stop and talk to.

  4. I don’t know how many times I have read this heartfelt piece thinking only a true friend could pen such a genuine tribute. It is very personal yet very unselfish allowing the reader to gain a sense of following or belonging to the journey.

    An excellent tribute Anthony if only we were all as fortunate to have a friend and comrade to remember us in a powerful moving way.

  5. What a lovely, illuminating, funny and sad tribute that could only be written by a close friend.

  6. Thanks to all,

    he touched many lives. A very dynamic person.