Marty McElkearney was born into Bedeque Street in 1962, one of Belfast’s now long since demolished red brick streets of sprawling proportions, just off the Crumlin Road in what is now roughly the Lower Shankill area. It was in settings that could not, by any social standards be considered normal.
Born into a quasi-fascist state, the leaders of which resented his very existence (by virtue of his religion) and who regularly concocted novel social schemes designed to encourage Catholics to leave “Northern Ireland”, Marty Mac’s Donegall-born mother and Tyrone father would have faced subtle discrimination of varying degrees on a daily basis and were most likely ‘tolerated’ in their district at best.
Soon into Marty’s childhood, that tolerance would evaporate before his eyes; in August 1969 along with so many others, the McElkearny family were forced to flee their home as it was torched by Paisley’s mobs, determined to stem the growing confidence of the Nationalist population in the wake of the ongoing Civil Rights initiatives of that year. His younger brother James still remembers staring down from his bedroom at the hats of disinterested RUC men who refused to prevent Orange gangs from engaging in the pogrom that was being played out across Belfast and beyond.
James kindly related to me over Christmas the situation they found themselves in following the pogroms, describing firstly the makeshift camp that his family (and 49 other families) were forced to live in as a “shanty town of old caravans”.By all accounts the conditions at the Beechmount evacuation camp were appalling and its occupants' anger was becoming fast palpable. Conditions in the nearby camp at Cullingtree Road were no better as scores of families squeezed into no more than 9 makeshift huts there.
From the Beechmount camp, Marty’s parents were allocated a house in the poorly constructed Springhill Avenue area of West Belfast, an area designated for attention by Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity due to its impoverished status. It would soon also become a warzone.
Marty McElkearny was nine years old when, within earshot of his home, an occupying British Army slaughtered eleven unarmed civilians, including Father Hugh Mullen in a two day operation of deliberate terror designed to inflict an atmosphere of total fear, complementing the ongoing Internment operation that was affecting every family in the district.
Less than a year later, outside his own front door, five more neighbours, including Fr Noel Fitzpatrick, would lose their lives as Paratroopers opened fire again on locals and homes for 90 minutes, on a warm summer evening. This was again an attempt to create total fear amongst the populace and in response to the breakdown of the IRA ceasefire earlier in the day.
The McElkearny boys went on to become close friends with the McWilliams brothers who lived directly across the street from them. Together they did (or tried to do) all of the things that young lads everywhere else would do. And while one can only speculate today upon the various social and political pressures that pulled their collective psychology and ultimately shaped their respective life choices, there can be no doubt that successive British governments were determined that none would enjoy any greater social or economic opportunities for personal development than Stormont had granted their parents' generation before them.
Much has been written and said about the Springhill and Westrock areas in the 1970s. Attempts (with the help of Father Des Wilson who we also sadly lost this year) to create indigenous industries as a substitute to the lack of investment into the area, such as a local bakery, car repair workshops, and even a local cinema, were actively targeted from outside by the British state and again internally by the Catholic Church hierarchy. Between these economic factors and the ongoing British military occupation, avenues for existing with dignity, beyond militant physical struggle must surely have appeared few and far between to many young men and women.
One August day in 1977, young Jason (Paul) McWilliams, a Fianna Volunteer who was on temporary release from St Pat’s boys home having been convicted of rioting a year earlier, was shot in the back and killed by a British Army sniper as he walked to his home along Springhill Avenue with his brother Christopher (Crip). James McElkearny describes how from that point on, his brother Martin viewed every wheel and turn of his life through the prism of militant revolutionary struggle: his people were clearly at war with the British State and so was he. An inevitability surely!
By the time Marty McElkearney had moved with his clan to the Divis area of the Falls Road a virtual war of daily attrition was taking place between the wider community and the British Army; house raids were a daily occurrence for Marty’s clan who in the main were staunchly loyal to the Politics and ongoing campaign of the IRA. For Martin McIlkearny however, mere circumstances saw him become a Volunteer within the Irish National Liberation Army, alongside his comrade Matt McClarnon (husband to Marty’s sister) who was shot and killed by the British Army while on active service on May 12th 1981, the day on which IRA Hunger Striker Francis Hughes passed away.
By all accounts, the Divis unit of the INLA were a formidable group of fighters, who on a daily basis conducted a ‘hit and run’ Guerrilla campaign against the British Army and the RUC when and where they could find them. It is a matter of record that in the course of one such operation in 1982 two young local lads; Stephen Bennet (aged 14) and Kevin Valliday (aged 12) were accidentally and tragically killed alongside a patrolling British soldier; an immeasurable loss to their families and to their community.
By virtue of that action, Marty Mac was sentenced to life imprisonment in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh, from where he would not be released until the Good Friday Agreement early release scheme in 1999. Marty Mac lived on the outside under the shadow of a ‘life licence’ until the day he died.
I first met Marty having taken the decision to join the Irish Republican Socialist Party around five years ago; earlier intentions to join the party way back in 1996 failed when nobody turned up to a pre-arranged meeting with a Socialist friend of mine, a school teacher whom I had met some years previously. I could have tried again to join but chose not to, alternative political pressures then pulled me in another direction altogether.
By the time I sat talking politics in Marty’s kitchen I had long since come to a position of progressive realism on the issue of Armed actions, as had he, there was no need for them in the current environment, and we both agreed that we were glad of that fact.
Upon release from prison, Marty lived and breathed the Irish Republican Socialist Party, although it was very clear to all who knew him that despite his obvious and passionate preference for a peaceful path towards Irish Unity and Socialism, he still viewed the world through the same prism of revolutionary struggle that he had formulated in his mind since those tragic events of the mid 1970s. He passionately sought to establish the IRSP as a bona fide, legitimate and effective political party, immediately setting about (upon his release) to persuade former and current supporters of Republican Socialism to get involved in party structures, often in an environment wherein people were extremely reluctant, be it though fear of demonisation in the press or through fear of real physical consequences to their person.
His commitment to this end was quite remarkable as he was fully aware of the efforts of others who had tried the same thing only a few short years earlier, not least his good friend and comrade Gino Gallagher who was murdered for his efforts to assert the primacy of politics within militant Republican Socialism. A particular gift of patience and calm was required in the process of rebuilding the party of Seamus Costello, but luckily for the IRSP, patience and calm were something that Marty Mac had in abundance.
Ironically, despite his passion around rebuilding the party, having attended only a few branch meetings with Marty Mac, it appeared evident and obvious to me that he had little time for talking unless something really needed to be said. If somebody else was saying it Marty was content to let them carry on. It was later explained to me that this was a deliberate tactic of his, designed to ensure that all party comrades (in particular younger ones) became used to speaking their minds and finding the skills to do so with confidence. Only if a pressing matter was being neglected or ignored would Marty pop into verse, he had seen & heard it all before.
But where Marty McElkearny firmly came into his own, was when there was a crisis at hand, a skill he learned firmly within the H-Blocks with all the twists and turns of horrific reality that occurred within their walls. Described accurately by friends and comrades across Ireland as ‘the safe hands’ and ‘the cool head’ of the IRSP, Marty Mac was famous within Republican Socialism for having a natural talent of restoring calm in situations wherein others would easily panic and potentially go astray, often prescribing to others a mere suggestion that they ‘go home and get a good nights sleep’, before returning and revisiting the source of panic the next day with a clearer head. For this reason he was taken seriously by both friends and political opponents and competitors alike. Examples are too numerous to recall here.
‘Go and see Marty Mac’ is something that every IRSP member in Belfast has heard at one stage or another. No doubt, many political activists within other republican organisations have heard the very same thing, testimony if anything to the gift of patience and calm that could, and indeed was often, called upon at all hours of the day and night.
On May 16th this year, a non-political friend of mine speaking with some shock stated aloud, “Jesus, Martin McElkearny has been shot in the graveyard.” He had just read of the incident on a Belfast News internet site and was thinking out loud. Strangely, at first it did not dawn on me who he was referring to as I had never once heard anybody refer to him as ‘Martin McElkearney,’ My mind only registered him as ‘Marty Mac’.
Of course within seconds it became real though and through that strange cloud of adrenalin induced confusion that comes over people when shocking news arrives I struggled with my phone in an attempt to make a call to party colleagues in West Belfast who could clarify and hopefully deny the reality of what I had just heard. Before I could even find the correct contacts however my mobile began ringing with others trying to establish the same thing from me. Marty Mac’s death was becoming real.
Later in the day I heard at first hand the heart-breaking accounts from Marty Mac’s closest and most trusted friends and party colleagues, whom he had trusted enough to make a final phone call to from the Republican Socialist plot in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery before finally and tragically taking his own life.
Martin’s family are aware of this event and the belief of his friends that he done so in order to avoid any inaccurate and potentially dangerous speculation as to who could have been behind his death. Again, the safe hands and the cool head, total commitment to the wellbeing of his party, friends, family and community.
In this call, Marty made one friend aware that he was happy with the direction that the party had been going on in recent times and directed him to ensure that they stayed confidently on that path, assuring him further that ‘everything will be fine’ if they did so. Prior to making the short journey to Milltown, he had gone into Costello House, the headquarters of the IRSP, there he made observations about various structural needs of the building and left directions with other members regarding damp proofing and other matters around the deeds to the building. Nobody had any idea that anything was wrong, there were no signs of distress whatsoever.
Unbelievably, Marty Mac, (having made his friends and party colleagues fully aware of his intentions) it was he who sought to calm them, as they passionately pleaded with him to reconsider, while scrambling to start cars and fight their way through traffic to try and physically prevent what was unfolding. One woman later described on Twitter how she was in a Taxi driving down the Falls Road, when its driver pulled over and told her she had to get out as his friend was about to take his own life, before watching him speed off in the direction of Milltown.
Tragically however, Marty had taken his own life. By the time his friends had arrived there was nothing they could do. Heartbroken they called the Ambulance services, who by all accounts did a sterling job in trying to preserve the life of Martin McElkearney, all of whose working organs were donated to others in need, as per his instructions.
Early on a blistering hot morning shortly after his death, I was asked by the IRSP to set up a Public Address system in Milltown cemetery, to provide the sound for Marty Mac’s funeral ceremony. A lack of available cars and subsequent logistics meant that I had to remain in the cemetery with the expensive and bulky equipment for around four hours, getting badly sunburned in the process. To be honest I was honoured to have been asked and to have taken the task.
But while sitting there in the sun baked silence, pondering on the strange reality that this was the spot where Marty Mac had tragically taken his own life just days earlier, I noticed first the presence of a Military or Police spotter plane which went onto circle perpetually overhead. Not long afterwards it was replaced by the intense buzzing of a Police chopper, and by the time Republican Belfast had entered Milltown cemetery en masse to pay its respects, it was clear that the state operation to prevent or dissuade Martin McElkearny’s friends and comrades from burying him in peace was in full swing.
The same state which through oppressive tactics had created the prism through which Marty Mac had made militant decisions in life were determined to maintain the pressure upon him and his friends in death. Whether or not they were aware that he passionately sought a peaceful solution to Ireland’s political affairs is a matter of speculation. If you ask me, it is unlikely that they would have cared. Regardless, he would have wanted all of us to persevere, for a better future for everybody and for the Socialist Republic ultimately.
Martin McElkearney, faithful to the last!
⏩ Ciarán Cunningham is a West Belfast republican