Anthony McIntyre remembers an old cell mate from the H Blocks who died in April.
|Peter Pepe Rooney|
If we talked politics and strategy I don't remember much of it, but it was a subject he maintained his interest in right to the very end, something pointed out by his comrade Padraic Mac Coitir: "and even when he was diagnosed with cancer he'd still talk about politics." What I do recall was a seamless funny experience where we winded and backstabbed for the sheer hell of it. He enjoyed my acerbic tongue which I often lashed across a few backs to get a laugh out of him. Pepe had sustained an injury to his eye and couldn't read a book for any length of time before it started to get sore. So he was a conversationalist.
Pepe had been arrested at the funeral of the hunger striker Joe McDonnell and was sentenced to five years. A talented footballer he introduced Gaelic to the jail yard where we normally played soccer. The style of Gaelic based on the hand pass which Pepe excelled at was suitable for the conditions in the wing yard, where the ball had a tendency to go over the wire and the screws had a tendency not to be able to find it. He was also a capable soccer player who planned match strategy on the big pitches as well as turning out for the side on the day.
I was on the wing with him at the time of the 1983 escape from H7. When 7 reopened many from our wing were transferred to it and it became all shoulders to the wheel in a battle of attrition against a prison management determined to thwart us in our attempt to regain control of the wings which had been in a state of almost lockdown since the escape. Pat Sheehan was O/C and when he got taken to the boards I found myself running the block until he returned. It was to people like Pepe I would turn to for advice as to what our next move would be because it was literally a battle a day and we saw our role as one of trying to force a wedge between the NIO and the POA. With some dexterity we managed to wage a fight against the prison management while not giving a hard time to the screws on the wing who wanted to get their day in without having to put up with a well organised group of prisoners who could turn strategic aggression on and off like a tap. Slowly we broke it all down. By the time Pepe left us to return to the IRA on the outside, we had reached an understanding with the wing screws which allowed us to go about our daily routine pretty much as we pleased.
Pepe and myself spent Christmas together and between the two of us hundreds of cards arrived. He thought I was getting a sympathy vote due to the length of time I had been in jail. We soon ran out of space to hang them and began stacking them one atop the other. Then the event that came to symbolically define our friendship happened. A Saint Martin de Porres magazine ended up in our cell and I was lying on the top bunk flicking through the pages, making some snarky comments about the miracles that Marty had worked when I came across the pen pal section. I told him I would write in pleading for somebody to write to me. I asked him whether I should describe myself as a lovable old murderer or a cuddly old killer. That was it - Pepe laughed the rest of the night and ever since, no matter when he met me, the greeting was always the same: "how's the lovable old murderer, the cuddly old killer?" He told everybody else as well! The memory of it still brings a smile to my face and my wife commented that I kept laughing while writing this piece. Laughing while writing obituaries is hardly the done thing but Pepe would forgive me for it. He got enough laughs out of it himself.
On parole and after release I would call to see him. In the final stages of the release programme, while standing talking to him on the Donegal Road I got gripped by the RUC's Divisional Mobile Support Unit. Aggressive as they tended to be, they demanded to know how I knew Pepe. Rather than tell them to get stuffed as was the norm I told them I knew him from playing football and hadn't seen him in years as I had been living outside the city and had just returned. While a somewhat incomplete account, it would never have mounted to perjury were I to repeat it in court. The sergeant in charge of the patrol, a cupid stunt, seemed satisfied with that and told me to go on my way. He didn't even search my bag. That was a DMSU response that was not to be repeated.
A few years before my release, a short time after the Gibraltar executions of three unarmed IRA volunteers, Pepe was arrested as he left a ferry returning from Europe. The speculation went into overdrive that he had been one of the Gibraltar team. I don't know and never discussed it with him but as a friend and comrade Angela Nelson wrote:
The speech given at his grave by his life long comrade touched on his active service over the years in many countries throughout the world.
Pepe stayed the course but was never willing to acquiesce to leadership drivel. He often spoke to me about his determination to oppose any attempt to decommission. I told him it would happen, the career men would have their way. And they did. In the words of Angela Nelson, Pepe, "a truly courageous volunteer who was active for 35 years before he was shown the door for opposing the acceptance of policing in 2006."
There is perhaps no more fitting a way to summarise Pepe than through the words penned by another comrade, Alex McCrory, upon hearing of his death:
Peter fought many battles in his life, displaying great courage and determination. He was an intelligent and thoughtful individual with a clear understanding of the historical roots of the struggle for national independence. Peter could engage with others in debate and critical analysis with a fiercely independent mind. He was never a meek follower or a sycophant.
His short and torturous experience with cancer was a battle he could not win. Although his physical body was ravaged by the disease, he was able to converse with his many visitors and well-wishers until the end.
Peter will be sorely missed by all who knew him: family, friends, comrades and community. He never expected to complete 63 years on this earth, but having done so, his departure is painfully premature.
Keep Smiling Peter.