I came to know Maura McKearney shortly after being released from prison. I stayed in her Moy home one weekend with her son Tommy. After that I would visit the house over the years. Many a fine rural meal was served up to me in the family kitchen, and often on my return to Belfast I would have a bag of fresh meat ready for freezing, courtesy of the family butchers. It helped feed us for weeks.
Her husband Kevin was alive at the time and I always wondered how they both coped with the immense loss they had experienced in their lives. It is harsh enough for parents to lose one child but to lose three of them in separate incidents was surely a burden very few are unfortunate enough to bear. The Grahams of Fermanagh and the Reaveys of South Armagh spring to mind as families who lost three of their children to the North's violent political conflict. Grief in its vicelike grip spares no one.
Behind the stoical exterior of both parents there must have lain an incredible sadness. Their children were buried a few hundred yards from the family home. Maybe it was easier that way, having their loved ones in close proximity although I failed to see how. The thought proved daunting. I would later travel to Moy for the funeral of her husband Kevin. Tyrone in many ways has in my mind become synonymous with funerals and cemeteries. Other visits to the county over the years were to bury former prisoners.
I was in Crumlin Road prison when Sean died in May 1974. It was there that I first met Padraig, and got to know him much better in Magilligan where I spent the bulk of 1975. Eight years later he would escape from the H Blocks only to be gunned down by the SAS during an IRA operation in Loughall in 1987. Along with Tommy I visited his grave and those of the other IRA dead from Tyrone. We also drove past the spot where the IRA active service unit was ambushed. It was an eerie drive. Kevin died just months before Tommy and myself were released from Maghaberry.
I felt then and still do that the joyful anticipation Tommy parent's might have been expected to experience coming up to his release was stolen from them by the death of their son Kevin. The HET concluded that the RUC did little or nothing to prevent the killing of both Kevin and his uncle Jack despite being in possession of information that an attack was likely. Yet there is still the pretence in officialdom that the RUC was holding the thin blue line against lawlessness.
My thoughts of Maura McKearney were captured in the words of Independent Councillor Barry Monteith when he said:
I had the honour and privilege of meeting her, and was always struck by the dignity and bravery with which she met all the challenges and tragedies in her life. She will be greatly missed by the family circle and wider community.
But the esteem in which she was held was not restricted to anti-Treaty republicans. Martin McGuinness, himself quite unwell at the time, tweeted a message of sympathy to the family. Other Sinn Fein members did likewise.
Maura McKearney walked the Via Dolorosa, ‘with sorrows that most mothers will never face’. Reaching the end of it must have come with a sense of relief most of us will never understand: a shedding of terrible burdens that would have crushed most others and which we would have shirked from sharing.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.