Death in the rain

by Colman Cassidy

A terrible beauty is stillborn in the rain, as alert, grim-faced, inward-looking men and not a few women stand outside the mortuary at Dublin airport – and wait.

Talk is low and spasmodic.  Everyone is occupied with his or her own interpretation of the Gibraltar killings.  There’s an all-pervading sense of grief – and defiance.

It is harsh reality time.  Sunday Telegraph columnist Mary Kenny has “wept for Dublin” last night on prime-time television.  Pearse’s words at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa, “The fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead…” are re-incarnated, ruffling susceptibilities.

Gardai are courteous and keep a low profile.  IRA stewards are disciplined, but firm.  They lock hands to make room for the hearses.  Everywhere is taut with expectation.

“I don’t see any of our famous politicians here,” asserts a middle-class Dublin accent.  Donegal TD, Neil Blaney, is less than ten feet away: “Gurriers!”  Yellow-kilted piper, Donal Ó Dubhthaigh, from Dundalk, spells his name slowly for an eager young English reporter in search of colour.  “Duffy,” he adds, confidentially.

“I haven’t been in Ireland for a while,” says a press photographer.  “I can’t get over the number of dark-haired people with dark-blue eyes,” he tells a good-looking blonde from an Irish daily.
“Where are you from?”  He lowers his eyes and his voice: “Daily Express, London.”  End of conversation.

The plane has landed.  The paper-work is perfunctory.  Black-garbed female members of the guard of honour stub out their cigarettes and stand to attention.  The mortuary doors open.

A shiver runs through the rain-drenched crowd at the sight of the pale foreign-looking coffins, accompanied by distraught relatives.  Ageing IRA veteran Joe Cahill shares their grief.  He and Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison are prominent as the bodies are gently loaded into the hearses.  The Daily Express camera is lifted above the heads of the hand-locked stewards, and clicks.

    In the car on the way to Dundalk: three reporters and one photographer, are speeding along secondary roads to gauge the town’s atmosphere prior to the arrival of the funeral cortege.  There’s little conversation.  Each of the newsmen is mulling over the scene at Dublin airport – and there’s some residual anxiety at the way the driver, one of the reporters, is taking the corners.  He changes up quickly just before the brow of a hill, then changes down again as the car tops the brow and shoots down at over 70 mph.  Too late – the driver realises the road going straight on leads into a boreen; the main road goes round to the left at a sharp right-angle.  His colleague in the passenger seat realises the car will never take the corner at that speed and yells into the driver’s ear, “go straight on!”  There’s nothing coming around the corner and the car plunges straight ahead into the narrow boreen and comes to a halt.  The driver and co-driver change places and they proceed at a more leisurely pace into Dundalk, arriving there well in time for the funeral.


The streets of Dundalk are poorly lit, which serves to deepen the solemnity of the approaching cortege and heighten the impact of the huge reception.  The Provo propaganda machine is milking this one to the last drop.  The cameras of the world are focused on the most militantly nationalist town in the Republic.  The footage is perfect.
A Canadian television reporter attempts to mount a portable ladder at intervals to record his dramatic on-the-spot account for posterity.  Jostling crowds make his task impossible.  His efforts are superfluous.  The camera has got it all.
Further up the main street, another frightened-looking camera team, from Madrid, is trapped in a Belfast-registered Citroen.  Eventually, they’re unscrambled by a few determined stewards and sent on their way to the Killeen border crossing.  There, along with the rest of the international press corps, they spend a long night waiting, while the RUC and the Provos act out their gargantuan struggle with what passes for diplomacy.
Many hours later, the three coffins make their separate ways to the Farrell, Savage and McCann homes in West Belfast.


All next day, Danny McCann’s house in Cavendish Street is surrounded by alert heavily-armed soldiers and RUC – with two Saracens parked menacingly in V-formation, near the entrance to the road.  They might as well not be there so far as mourners visiting the dead man’s house are concerned.  The dead man leaves a wife and two young children.  He was a butcher by trade, and popular in his own right, quite apart from his status as a senior IRA activist.
Inside the house, 31 year old McCann lies in state, with two masked men in full paramilitary battle-dress standing guard at the head and foot of the open coffin.  One is chronically asthmatic, his laboured breathing the only sound in the room.  The dead man’s forehead is partly covered by a white cloth but there is no indication that he has died violently.  He is a handsome figure, as he lies there, in the darkly-lit room.  The scene is unforgettable, and not the least macabre.   A tangible sense of pride permeates the entire household.
In Turf Lodge, meanwhile, a trickle of old women, daughters and grandchildren wends its lost way through a neat red-brick corporation estate in search of 23 year old Sean Savage’s home in Downfine Gardens.
There is no visible military or police presence in the immediate neighbourhood, in contrast to Cavendish Street.  Inside the house is the familiar guard-of-honour.  The dead youth in the coffin looks incredibly young.  He bears no obvious trace of violence either. The top of his head is also swathed in white.
Sean Savage in death, looks peaceful.  His father is distraught; he has only one other son, Robert, a Down’s syndrome victim.  Robert worshipped the quiet, athletic intellectual Sean whose class-mates were amazed to learn he had become a volunteer.
The scene in the Farrell home is more private.  It’s a middle-class detached house on the Stewartstown Road.  The door is opened by Seamus Finucane, Mairéad’s boy-friend.  Her father, Danny Farrell, is inside looking at Mairéad’s coffin, strewn with mass-cards.  Quietly he explains why he has not allowed his beautiful daughter to lie in state.  They decided not to, after opening the coffin.  His voice cannot conceal the hurt he feels.
In another room sits his wife, Marie, whose grief matches his own.  Mairéad was an only girl in a family of six.  None of the others was in the IRA.

Later that evening Danny Farrell reads from the prophet Ezekhial at the requiem Mass for Mairéad.  His voice now, is strong and believing.  Seamus Finucane reads Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’.  The mother has not come, opting to stay at home with the remains.  They want to keep Mairéad in the house as long as they can.  All too soon, they must give her up to the Provo propaganda machine.

Fr. Raymond Murray, the Armagh diocesan administrator, and former chaplain at the women’s prison, speaks of punishment and reward.  Lots of former prisoners for whom, he says, Mairéad Farrell was both mother and sister, are in the church.  He commends her to the care of another victim of violence.  It is a moving ceremony that will be pounced on by the unaffected.

Not a soldier or policeman is in sight the following morning, when Danny McCann’s remains are being removed.  Sean Savage’s little brother, Robert, carries up the offering at the requiem Mass for the two men.  The presence of Robert and his “special friends”, including a cousin of Danny McCann, symbolises the kind of Christianity, this community must settle for, says the priest.

The cortege moves off towards Milltown.  Again, there’s a full media presence.  At the Republican plot, the grave must be dug deeper to accommodate the three coffins.  Eventually, it is ready.  The grave is blessed; a decade of the rosary is said.  Sinn Féin’s Dodie McGuinness comes forward, pink notepaper in hand, to say a few words and introduce Gerry Adams.

Five grenades go off, followed by intermittent gunfire.  A young woman is badly injured and covered in blood; not far away, a man lies dead.  Another is shot through the leg.

A loud cry goes up from a group, some 30 yards back from the plot.  They’ve jumped on someone.  “They’ve got him, the bastard,” a woman screams.  The sight of the angry crowd reaching for the alleged assailant is blood-chilling.
Seconds later – it seems like hours – the group disbands.  They had jumped on an unsuspecting cameraman, whom someone thought was wielding a gun.

In the ensuing panic, no one bothers to find out whether he is all right.  It’s assumed, as someone says, that “he’s just shaken, not stirred”.  Much more relevant is the news that the man we now know to be Michael Stone, has been run to ground, literally.

At this stage, events become unreal.  Danny McCann’s coffin had still to be placed in the grave when the attack began.  The prayers are over and Dodie McGuinness stands there, still clutching the incongruously pink notepaper, waiting her turn to say a few words and introduce Gerry Adams.

Almost unknown to everyone, the three bodies are interred and the grave filled in.  Most people are still gazing in the direction of the motorway.  They begin to speculate about the presence of a white van.  His accomplice must have driven off and left him, is the general view.

Dodie begins her speech.  Nobody listens.  By the time it’s Adams’s turn the nucleus of people still around the graveside has regained its composure.  He gets a lacklustre clap.  But they’re ready to listen.
Adams makes the most of it.  Had he just said “Three blind mice”, it would have been enough.  He is succinct, vehemently condemning the manner in which Mairéad Farrell, Danny McCann and Sean Savage were gunned down, without mercy.  He admits they were on active service and says that the reality bears no relationship to the apocryphal tales being spun by the British.

Journalists race for telephones and encounter John Jordan at the gates of the cemetery.  There is an ominous-looking bullet hole in the windscreen of his mini-bus.  He has seen everything:

“He was burly.  I’d even say fat.  He just came at me as I was waiting there to pick up the (American) ABC News people.  I threw myself sideways as the bullet hit the window.

“Then some fellows went after him.  He just shot at them and two of them went down.  I went over and picked them up and put them in the back.  Look in there.  You can still see the blood.  I took them up to the hospital, but I don’t know how they are.”  The two die later.

The discipline demonstrated by the Provos up to this was exemplary.  People doubt that the nationalist community will be able to stop inevitable reprisals from breaking out, however.
The Sinn Féin press conference later in the day makes the most of the fact that an RUC helicopter hovered above Milltown cemetery throughout the entire ceremony.  Adams seeks to take advantage of the fact that the premeditated absence of security involves collusion between the police and the attacker.  The RUC deny it.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether the events of the last week have done anything to restore the IRA’s flagging morale – particularly on the recruitment front, in the wake of the arms find, Enniskillen, Loughgall, and most recently, Gibraltar.

The answer now seems obvious: the instant reaction of the cadres in Milltown cemetery showed no shortage of willing volunteers when the occasion demands.  Pearse and Willie Yeats have got it terribly right.

Colman Cassidy ©

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