It’s a great honour and privilege to stand here with the McBrearty family and friends, to remember and to honour their son, husband, father, brother, and comrade George, who gave his young life with fellow volunteer Charles Maguire in the cause of Irish freedom and unity. In remembering these two, we also remember with pride the many young men and women, like these two in the prime of their young lives, who died in the struggle for Irish freedom, and we stand with their families and comrades in solidarity today.
I commend the McBrearty family for organising this annual event, an event which simply attests that to those who loved them, our volunteers will not be forgotten. I particularly commend George’s mother, Bridie, who refuses to let her son’s name be erased from the memory of the people of Creggan and this city, and who stands here today in proud recognition of his sacrifice. We remember also George’s brother Pat, who died to the day 10 years after his brother, and who in a way was also a victim of the SAS who killed his hero.
Padraic Pearse wrote a poem about his own mother, but which has resonance for so many of our women:
I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge
My two strong sons that I have seen go out
To break their strength and die, they and a few,
In bloody protest for a glorious thing,
They shall be spoken of among their people,
The generations shall remember them,
And call them blessed;
But I will speak their names to my own heart
In the long nights;
The little names that were familiar once
Round my dead hearth.
Lord, thou art hard on mothers:
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And tho' I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow - And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.
A mother’s experience of loss is both personal and universal – it speaks for all those whose suffering includes both grief and pride. Pearse speaks about opposites-failure and triumph, sorrow and joy. The poem is about the complex emotions aroused by death for an ideal, the shared experience that bind family and nation together. To stand in solidarity with families of those whom maybe we didn’t know personally, at funerals or protests, we shared in a small way their experience.
I work in the health service, and I have seen every day of my working life the legacy of and broken bodies and broken minds that the war in Ireland, waged on our streets by our own people, has left. When George McBrearty died, he left a widow and three small children, the youngest only a few weeks old. Charles Maguire likewise, was married with a child. These children grew up without one of the two most important people in any child’s life in their households.
These personal tragedies were replicated in almost every street in the working-class areas of this city, and in towns and parishes across the north. They were truly terrible times. I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those families of volunteers, and especially the mammies and partners. Many young women in this town were left without their husbands whether through death or imprisonment-don’t forget our people spent 100.000 years in jails in this country and across Europe-and had to struggle to cope with their personal grief and also to rear families with little or no support, without income and with constant abuse and vilification from the “security forces” and a hostile media.
When their men were in jail or on the run, they and their children slept in houses with security chains, alarms, Perspex windows and locked stairgates on what was likely the only fire escape route. I visited many houses, where the children slept in fear of raids, attack and even death in what should have been their safe place, their home.
Mothers made the long trek, to the Crum, or the Kesh or Port Laois, often leaving Derry in the middle of the night, with bags of nappies and sandwiches, weekly for years and in some cases decades, to try to keep their family together as best they could. These women were the backbone of the struggle for Irish freedom.
I remember the year of 1981 well. As the Ballad of Joe McDonald says - “oh sad and bitter was the year of 1981, when everything I’d lost and nothing won”. It was the year of the hunger strikes, when hundreds of republicans in Long Kesh and Armagh jail used the only weapon they had, their own bodies, to assert that they were political prisoners and not criminals. Ten men starved to death. They were terrible times.
I was at University in Dublin, doing my final exams in May 1981, and I remember clearly hearing about these two Derry volunteer’s deaths.
At that time, the level of ignorance among the intelligentsia in UCD and wider Dublin society about the situation only a few hour’s drive away in the six counties was truly staggering. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which operated from 1971 to 1994 censored any media analysis of the causes of conflict here, because it would “promote terrorism” There was no explanation as to why ordinary children became “terrorists” and gave their freedom, and their very lives for an ideal.
To explain the reality of life under military occupation was impossible, so I used to carry a photo from a local newspaper of one of my brothers’ primary four class. An ordinary group of children, in what could be any school, from loving families and with their whole lives before them with limitless possibilities. A short few years later, one was dead and four others in prison. It could have been a class in any primary school across the north.
And where are we now, 38 years on? Has the ultimate sacrifice paid by men like George Mc Brearty, and women like Mairead Farrell achieved freedom?
Sadly no. We’re actually not that much further on the “one road” of the song of the time, rather more like on the wrong road, we’re on the road to God knows where.
In Derry employment, housing stress, poverty, ill health, emigration and the gap between the haves and the have nots are similar to pre-civil rights times. We still have for example 60% child poverty in Shantallow where I work. We still have children who are being failed by a still selective education system, despite selection being abolished in 2002. At eleven years of age, they are coached and chosen, squeezed and stretched, and labelled as being passes or failures. Our young people are being failed by this government. Many are addicted to drugs, porn, gambling before they are finished their education. This country does not cherish all her children equally.
The Good Friday Agreement was never presented to the Republican base as something to be defended. Instead, it was considered a stopgap, a halting site on the road to national sovereignty. It was to be replaced by better within a short timeframe.
It was not supposed to spell the end of our hopes for unity and a lasting peace. We would fight on, we were assured, only this time the ballot box would be the only weapon.
And of course, it’s good that families in the years since the ceasefires haven’t had to endure what the Mc Breartys have suffered. Children don’t have to miss school to visit jails, mothers don’t have to bury their children. As my father said, you don’t have to fight Mahomed Ali with boxing gloves. But Imperialism and injustice must be fought somehow.
What has happened in the twenty years since the “agreement”, to promote the cause for which George McBrearty and Charles Maguire died?
The Good Friday Agreement essentially asserts the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland. As a person who opposed it at the time, and campaigned for the retention of Articles 2&3 of the constitution which asserted the claim of the republic to include the whole island, I am bewildered by what has become of the republican movement I knew. While it is a political reality, that we did not possess power to alter the GFA, we were never meant to defend it. It is entirely outside of what Republicanism should mean, something we must overcome, not celebrate. Too many erstwhile republicans are a bit too comfortable in the house on the hill, while people like the McBreartys and thousands of others wonder what happened the unfinished revolution.
This six-county state cannot be fixed. We live in an artificial entity where a gain for one side is a loss for the other. We need petitions of concern, weighted majorities, and other such nonsense to maintain a semblance of functionality, and then when the corruption becomes too big to hide, as with the RHI scandal, the whole heap collapses.
One hundred years after partition, sectarianism is worse than ever, but it’s different in type. There are no catholics or protestants anymore, even though these labels are still used because they describe national allegiance and perceived political ideology. Our new gods are the gods of consumerism, football, the latest TV talent show or sitcom. Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people. The box in the corner or the app on your phone is the new fix.
The sectarian divide, based as it always was on the acceptance or rejection of British Imperialism in Ireland, has vanished in terms of religion, but remains identical in membership. Historical Prods are still unionists and Taigs are nationalists, it’s just that they no longer go to chapel, unless as an excuse for a party. The stalemate which passes for governance in Stormont was totally predictable, indeed inevitable.
Meantime our people, and especially our young people wait for real solutions to the failing education system, which caters only for the privileged, to a health care system which is crumbling, to lack of investment in social housing and infrastructure, to endemic discrimination which still puts Derry at the top of every index of deprivation. We still have no university, the only city of this size and with this historical and cultural legacy in Europe without one!
In Stormont the Big Two parties, with the collusion of the others divvy up the wealth of our land, shamelessly. The new sectarianism is the culture wars-language rights, bonfires, traditional routes, gay and trans rights, women’s health, which is of course a coy euphemism for abortion on demand. These are all issues worthy of discussion and healthy debate in a normal society, but instead they are used as weapons, cudgels to divide.
These issues by and large, have little or no resonance for the vast majority of ordinary people who just want to work for a fair wage and rear their families with dignity and in peace. But solutions for austerity and structural inequality must wait, apparently, until we are all “equal” whatever that means. Unless of course you dance outside the box, as defined by the media and big business.
The European project is eulogised as never before, by people who once condemned it. Despite a democratic deficit which renders national governments all but irrelevant, and despite the very real threat of our children being drafted into a European army, we’re all for further integration, it seems. I’m personally not anti- EU, just think we need a real and inclusive conversation about where it’s taking us.
And if there was a border poll tomorrow, and say people advocating for Irish Unity won by a small majority, would that be good for the future? We know what it’s like to be a large minority in a state to which we cannot give allegiance. Would the Unionist community be happy to live in the same way? The GFA has actually prevented us from doing the necessary groundwork for Irish Unity, to have the hard conversations with those whose British identity is important. It has wasted two decades for real work on “people of Ireland” unity. Unionists, people who identify as British, live here too, and belong here. This is their country, even though many don’t accept it yet! They must be included in our vision of a new Ireland.
The republican struggle goes on. Our beautiful island, and her people deserve real leadership, not the shower of gobshites who currently rule the roost, north and south. After the 1916 rising, the Brits knew what they were doing, by shooting the leaders, the visionaries, the poets, the idealists. Many of our true leaders died in this latest phase of Ireland’s struggle for national sovereignty. I often wonder what would have been the outcome if heroes such as George Mc Brearty and the many others like him who paid the ultimate price for an ideal, had lived on and were still around to lead the peace. We’ll never know.
To his children, his mother, his sisters and brothers and to the people gathered here today, I thank you for your strength and dignity, and hope his memory lives forever in your hearts.
|Anne McCloskey is an Aontú councillor in Derry|