4 October 1996
Oration by Gerry Kelly
at the funeral of
Councillor Pat McGeown
Is le brón mór ach le bród mór chomh maith, go seasaim romhaibh inniu le onóir a thabhairt dár gcara agus dár gcomradaí Pat `Beag'
It is with deep regret yet with great pride - because of the man we come to honour that I stand here today to say a few words about our friend and comrade Pat `Beag'
On behalf of Irish Republicans everywhere, I extend deepest condolences to Pat's wife Pauline, to their children, Sean, Siobhan, Michael and Conor, to Pat's father Joe, his sister Collette and brothers Michael, Ciaran and Paul.
Among Republican activists and those whom Pat touched in his day-to-day work there is a sense of deep loss, a sense of quiet desolation.
When I heard the news myself on Tuesday night one of my first thoughts was of a very short poem that a fellow hunger-striker and friend wrote on first hearing of his own father's death. Let me read the four short lines penned by Laurence McKeown as I think they reflect most accurately that small lurch of the heart I think we all experienced on hearing the news.``Despite a conscious effort to control it
My heart beat rapidly
When told that my father's had stopped''
Testimony to Pat's popularity has been the genuine and outspoken grief which followed the news of his sudden and tragic death. Since the news broke a few days ago there have been hundreds of calls to the Sinn Fein offices. Tributes have poured in, not just from Irish Republicans but from people in Britain, America and the Continent. People who had met Pat on tours or at conferences. Journalists who had interviewed him. All of whom had been impressed by his sincerity and the quiet but determined way he articulated the republican position.
He neither sought nor cultivated popularity but it came to him through his discreet intellect and humble manner. I can imagine him now, rolling his eyes and saying ``Skip the praise, Kelly, and get on with the job!'' That was the sort of person he was. So where did these qualities come from.
Undoubtedly, his mother and father, Claire and Joe, prepared Pat for life's challenges by teaching him love and respect and fair-mindedness which has stood by him. But what they could not legislate for was surviving in a sectarian statelet which would go to extraordinary lengths in order to preserve privilege and sectarianism.
So at the tender age of 13, after the pogroms of August 1969 Pat found himself on barricade duty, risking life and limb to defend his people. A 13 year old on the barricades might seem strange today but those were remarkable days and young people like Pat did remarkable things. Against the background of the Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday, Pat joined Na Fianna Eireann and then the local unit of the I.R.A. in the Beechmount area. He was a proud active service volunteer for many years. Highly respected by his comrades he displayed considerable leadership skills, both practical and intellectual. Nothing wass too big or too small a challenge to him as a soldier and at one point he held the most senior rank in the Belfast Brigade of the I.R.A.
However, the path of struggle is never a smooth one and he was arrested in a minibus with several other youths in 1973. The story goes that they were going on a fishing trip. When the British soldiers uncovered only one and a half fishing rods between ten of them they were promptly interned! I doubt if he ever got over the slagging on that one.
Upon his release in late 1974 Pat married Pauline which of course meant practically shifting a whole movement into your living room. She set about becoming the pillar of strength that seems to be only one of the many qualities demanded of Republican women and walked steadfastly into an unknown future which was to bring much suffering and heartbreak.
Pat was re-arrested in 1975 and after being tortured in Springfield Road Barracks was charged and sentenced to 15 years in Long Kesh.
Pat was a political prisoner in the infamous Cage 11 where along with such notables as Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes he read extensively on political theory and encouraged the other comrades to become involved in discussion and debate. He helped pioneer new methods of political education and put meat on Thomas Davis' phrase ``Educate that you might be free''.
However, his first priority was always to escape, whether to get away from the long political debates he instigated or not is hard to say but with his two close friends Bik McFarlane and the late Larry Marley he donned Prison Warder uniforms and attempted to escape. After being caught they were stripped of their political status and sent to the H-Blocks where they went on the blanket protest, then the no-wash protest and finally Pat joined the 1981 hunger strike.
Although quite shy Pat had an inner strength and determination recognised by his family and friends and demonstrated most clearly by his 47 gruelling days on hunger strike. This ordeal undoubtedly led to the untimely death this week.
But Pat's prison battles did not stop there. When he regained some strength after the end of the hunger strike he became central to the debates, discussions and activities which led to the POW's establishing the gains from the hunger strike. Always the planner, he was second in command of the H-Blocks in 1983 and along with his old comrades Bik and Larry he was central to the biggest prison escape in British history.
No matter where Pat was to be found in this struggle he was active. Upon his release in 1985 he joined Sinn Fein holding various posts which included being a spokesperson for republican prisoners. At the time of his death he was a Sinn Fein Councillor, a member of the Ard Chomhairle and Chairperson of Belfast Sinn Fein. He was a central figure for at least the last 10 years in developing Sinn Fein's political strategy and assisted greatly in anchoring Sinn Fein's present political project within the party and wider debate outside the party.
He was held in such high regard that even his unionist opponents in the City Hall listened attentively when he spoke instead of indulging in the usual heckling and banter. He had no illusions about the sectarian nature of politics here yet he was clear visioned and unafraid to build bridges between Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists.
He worked hard to build good relations particularly through his work with the Upper Springfield Development Trust, community bodies and statutory agencies. He was willing to try new approaches to old problems and has left a lasting legacy to the area and its people.
Perhaps the most telling tributes are the accolades paid him by his Protestant and unionist friends and colleagues. In many ways - without putting it too grandly - he would have symbolised what a new Ireland was all about. We have a past, which we are proud of, we have a future, which we want to shake hands on. We know that Pat's work which undoubtedly took its tool on him, will be shown to be truly worthwhile.
Pat had much that he could've been bitter about. In 1988 he was, like many others, falsely charged in connection with the deaths of two British army corporals at Kevin Brady's funeral. While in jail his two year old son Mark, Siobhan's twin, died of meningitis and within weeks Pat's mother, Claire, died of a heart attack. Pat was tortured in interrogation, in jail he was beaten systematically and even in freedom was faced with petty acts of harassment. In fact he was due to appear in court next week for refusing to give his name to an RUC man who knew his identity. But there was not an ounce of bitterness in Pat McGeown.
So how do I sum up the short but full life of Pat McGeown? Perhaps it isn't possible. He was an ordinary youth in extraordinary circumstances. He rose to the challenge, not once, but on every occasion it was demanded of him. Even when his illness was diagnosed he gave his all without complaint. He was the first to crack jokes about his heart condition or laughed in his black-humoured way when others ribbed him about it.
We lay to rest a good Irish patriot whose life was dedicated to the people. Proudly working class, amongst other things, he has been a soldier, politician, community worker and bridge builder. He devoted his entire life to the establishment of an independent Ireland because he believed, as we all do, that only by the removal of the British government and partition could the people of Ireland live in a just and equal society. His family can be proud of him. And we, his Republican comrades, his friends from all walks of life, from all parts of this city and beyond are proud to have known and loved him.
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