|Donnacha Mac Niallais|
Photo: Derry Daily.
I was on a bus with my wife approaching Monaghan Town to attend a book launch when a stalwart from the H-Blocks protest, who hails from the same city as Donnacha Mac Niallais, texted me with the news that the prominent Gaeilgeoir and political activist had succumbed to a fatal heart attack.
The sunny day that I could see on the other side of the bus window seemed to slip under the dark shadow of a cloud. My Derry friend then told me that Donnacha was the fourth brother in the family to die. The grief that his mother Mary must be carrying is not something I can easily comprehend. No coffin heavier than a child's. I had met her during an earlier phase of my life and was honoured to. From I arrived on the blanket protest her name was synonymous with campaigning on behalf of the prisoners whose strategic views she most definitely did not share. It never stopped her. Another brother would also join the blanket, John. I would later meet his sister Cathy. Their grief, like that of their mother, can only be overwhelming, devouring their peace of mind.
Donnacha and myself would not have seen eye to eye politically and he could be openly critical of my perspective. The last time we spoke was at a debate on policing in Derry, where he was critical but courteous. At times like these the political differences hardly matter. What does matter is that he wore the blanket in the face of serious institutional violence which, for political reasons - in a climate of tribunals and legacy - has never been brought to account. Other institutions have been scrutinised but never the prison service in the North.
His death has been overshadowed by the death of the British queen. I read in passing while searching for something else that her coffin had begun to make its journey from Scotland to England. I looked no further. It was not something that would warrant my attention. I did look at the photos of the tricolor draped coffin of Donnacha Mac Niallais being shouldered through the streets of the Bogside.
I am not going to pretend for a minute that the death of the British queen concerned me any more than the death of the last pope. I am certain that more than a few elderly working class English women died in the past week after long lives that were not lived in splendor, and we will never hear tell of them. The words of Rex Stout intrude as I write: “Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.” I do mourn the deprivation inflicted upon us through the denial of access to live soccer matches, the result of an unsolicited and imposed mandatory respect. Rugby, cricket and ice hockey matches have all been allowed to continue but not soccer. And of course the fans of Liverpool and Celtic are being blamed. Even Shamrock Rovers fans have been subject to the accusatory tone. Maybe that is because it was anticipated that Celtic and Liverpool fans would not participate in the falsehood of universal mourning. The Daily Mail writer has in all probability called it right:
Concern that tributes to the Queen may not have been universally respected — and the potential for global embarrassment in the event of any dissent from fans — was a factor in the decision to call off all football in the United Kingdom this weekend.
It had all the logic expressed in a tweet that "the Met Office has canceled weather for the next 10 days," while someone else observed:
We had 96 years to ask the Queen if she really wanted all football fixtures called off the weekend after she died. Yet here we are. Absolute shambles.
I did not gloat when the British queen died. Deriving satisfaction from others dying seems a perverse endeavour and ultimately futile investment. And while I am as mistrustful of revolutionaries as I am of royalty, it did not pass unnoticed that Jedward managed to sound more revolutionary than Sinn Fein who could not wait to don the sleeveen cap and allow Jedward to wear the vitriolic equivalent of the Pitch cap.
Donnacha Mac Niallais did more for the city of Derry than the British queen or her regiments. He will be remembered for different things, better things.
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