Credit: Cork Lifelong Learning Festival.
The canvas obituarists draw upon, while wide enough to fit the shape in, is not 3 D and invariably misses out on the depth. In the case of Frank Quigley, the canvas has yet to be invented to take his outsize activist frame. If there are volunteers who were as lethally effective as Frank, they are very few.
Within the republican community Frank was a famed IRA sniper. Within the British Army he was a feared one. But other than via the words of Timothy O'Grady you don't get a sense of that elsewhere in the post-death commentary. Reading about Frank shortly after his funeral in September I was regaled with his ability as an artist, his passion as an advocate against car crime, but little about Frank's virtually unrivalled operational prowess.
Frank was also known as Lucas. Towards the end of 1976 I was in a large double cubicle with three Lower Falls men in Cage 13. So jail being what it was, the exploits of Frank would occasionally come up. Earlier in the year while in the Crum with one of those cubicle mates, Owen Farrell, he would sing the praises of Lucas. It was a strange name, which I commented on at the time. Owen explained that it was from the televised Western series, The Rifleman. Lucas Quigley, from the perspective of Owen, was the most effective sniper the IRA in Belfast had ever produced. Nobody yet has claimed otherwise. After his death a friend told me that at IRA training camps if a young person showed promise they would be described as a budding Lucas; that British soldiers leaving the barrack on patrol were shown a photo of him and cautioned to beware. In a small area that saw more than fifty British soldiers killed, there was every reason to beware the Rifleman.
Sentiments about the military acumen of Frank were echoed by other prisoners including the late Pat McGeown who as my next cell neighbour during the blanket protest in 1980, commented after a successful IRA sniping operation in Ballymurphy that the Brits would be desperately hunting Lucas again. Something hazy in my memory tells me on that occasion Frank was taken by the British Army up the mountain and severely beaten and threatened with death. When Bobby Storey later spoke of Lucas it was about exploits of a different sort - being on the drink together. Bobby didn't talk about the operational side of Frank but his glowing admiration for Lucas left its mark on me.
When I first began working out of prison in the autumn of 1992, before eventual release in December, I was employed as a researcher on an Ace project in Turf Lodge Enterprise Scheme. Tommy Hale was the manager and he invariably took ex-prisoners on so that they could make the cut and leave the jail behind them. Lifers had to find work before being released. Tommy introduced me to Frank who had an art studio of sorts in the wider complex and so I ended up calling in to chat with him whenever I was in the building and he was there. It was never deep conversation, mostly about his art and jail. If we talked about strategy or politics I no longer remember it. On occasion Gerry Adams would call in on him as well. I was never present during their conversations.
I had reached the stage in my life where I was no longer in awe of people but I cannot deny that meeting Lucas was a significant moment. This was a guy who was the stuff of legends. A couple of years later I met Brad Pitt in my home in Ballymurphy. Meeting Brad was fine but meeting Lucas was better.
Once out of TLES I didn't see Frank much. When I did, no matter how ostracised I was by the Movement for expressing views it didn't approve of, Frank would never pass me by. He would always stop to say hello. The saddest occasion was when I met him by chance in Westrock in 2003 just after his son was killed by car criminals. We embraced in the street. A day or so later, I attended the funeral.
The last time I recall seeing Frank was around a year and a half after the death of his son. We were both at an event organised by the US Consulate in Belfast on the night of the election count in the States. The sitting President, George W Bush, was vying with the Democrat contender, John Kerry. Frank's partner was doing the floor as was my own. He and I propped up the bar for a while. That was the one occasion where we got into the trajectory of the Movement. He suggested that I was a fundamentalist republican. I explained that I was anything but, that my focus was on where things had gone and were likely to go, rather than fidelity to to some hifalutin concept of the Republic; that I viewed the republican project as a failure masked by deceit and that I would continue to describe it as such. Frank was philosophical but I was not convinced he was happy with how things turned out. He seemed to be resigned to it not because he approved it but because he didn't see much in the way of options. Frank had a sense of what was doable and his view was always to be taken seriously - whatever else Frank was in life, he was a deep thinker, his own man.
The British Army shot Frank when he was 19. Injured, he later escaped from Musgrave Park Military Hospital and resumed armed struggle. His brother Jimmy would be killed by the British Army in September 1972, an event I still recall. He died in the same street where, a year earlier throughout the day that internment was introduced, we had rioted against the Brits until exhaustion and hunger drove us home. Later a brother, Tommy, would be sent down for life in England. Frank ended up doing what very few Belfast volunteers achieved - operating in South Armagh. There is a photo somewhere in the archives of him exiting the front gate of Portlaoise, lawfully this time! I think he sported a bow tie for the camera, Frank's own inimitable way of saying he was ready to party. Something I am told he did right to the end in the hospice.
In the ranks of the IRA most of us got to go on active service for a short while. For Frank it was very active service for a very long time.
⏩ Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.