Chapter 14: Republican Funeral
Two weeks had passed since the night of the Ballygreagh Ambush. The security forces and British Government denied any knowledge of any ambush which resulted in 8 members of the infamous Military Reaction Force being killed. A media attack was launched on anybody who reported or promoted the idea that there had been an ambush. Security forces saturated the area for miles around Ballygreagh. They searched high and low for the Provo terrorists that did not carry out any ambush. Dozens of people were lifted and held for questioning. Sean Clarke was promoted to Public Enemy Number 1 with many hours of television dedicated to his evil ways and methods. The Irish Media south of the border, lapped it all up and tried to outdo the British media in their reports of the devious Clarke and his murdering gangsters. The media talked to the local community to try to find one of the gang to interview. The locals were not talking and Sean and the other Glenbeg Volunteers had disappeared into the mountain mist and were nowhere to be found.
The day after the ambush Barry’s body was brought to an undertaker in Omagh. When the security forces heard of this they moved quickly, seized the remains and moved them to the military hospital outside of Belfast. The seizing of Barry’s remains led to protests and rioting throughout the north of Ireland. These riots in turned brought more attention, especially from foreign news teams, as to the mysterious reason that Barry’s body was being held by the Security forces.
Under this international scrutiny of the denying the ambush the British hierarchy decided that they had to go on the public relations offensive. The British Authorities released a statement of how two of their informers had been shot and murdered by the terrorist gangsters, the Provisional IRA. The establishment’s media, politicians and religious allies jumped on the bandwagon and issued condemnation after condemnation of the murders and gangsters in the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
A tearful Helen was interviewed by the press following these statement being released and publicised. She gave her interview with O’Malley in close proximity to assist and to keep the media in order. Helen begged for the release of her husband’s body, to bring closure to this unfortunate incident. When questioned about Barry’s role as an informer Helen broke down and O’Malley stepped forward to remind the press that the Republican Movement awaited Barry’s body to give him a full military burial.
O’Malley was quite firm in his handling of the informer allegation.
“The Republican Movement do not conduct Military Funerals for informers.” He declared “There will be a military funeral ceremony because he was killed on active service, during the Ballygreagh Ambush. A military operation which resulted in the biggest slap in the face to the mighty British Empire since the Kilmichael Ambush of 1920! And that is why the IRA Volunteer’s body is being held hostage by the Queen of England and her lackeys!” he bellowed at the assembled media.
He continued with a flourish “And the same criminal lackeys try to blacken their victims name by accusing him of being an informer! This is the pathetic and desperate actions of a pathetic and desperate occupying government! Then the same vindictive and loathed British authorities attempt to further blacken this brave volunteer and soldier of Mother Ireland by issuing doctored and scurrilous pictures?! Shame on them!!” O’Malley shouted with enthusiasm.
The international media spread the story far and wide. The British government came under severe pressure to end the nightmare for the young Volunteer’s wife and family.
That night following the interview, Helen sat at home in her kitchen with some close friends and family when a knock came to the door. It was O’Malley and two men, one they recognised as a top IRA man from the TV and the other one they did not know at all. O’Malley hugged Helen and acknowledged all of the friends and family, knowing most of them by name.
He then introduced his two companions “This is Greg Mullins from Sinn Fein Head Office in Belfast.” Greg stepped forward and shook Helens hand and offered his condolences and nodded at the rest of the room saying a quiet greeting.
O’Malley then introduced the other man as George Cosgrave from Army GHQ. George’s was well known in the general nationalist community as a top ranking IRA member. He was known to be a good upstanding honest man whom others turned to for advice and guidance. He was a staunch Republican all his life. Now in his early fifties, he had been a founding figure of the Provisional movement. He too stepped up to Helen and offered his condolences as the other people in the room nodded their recognition of his name. There was an awkward silence as one of Helens sisters rushed to put on the kettle and brew a fresh pot of tea. With the tea poured and everyone in the room settled back down O’Malley said that Greg had something that he would like to say concerning Barry’s remains. This provoked everyone’s interest and they all moved closer to Greg, in anticipation. Greg in turn looked at Helen and moved his chair closer to her
“We have been in touch with the British Government.” he began “These talks have been concerning the despicable manner of their behaviour towards Barry and his family.”
Those in the room nodded and muttered their agreement.
Greg continued “And we have condemned and criticized them for their conduct with the seizing of the remains and the non-dialogue with the family. They naturally enough, refuse to accept any responsibility as to what is happening here.”
This caused a stir and a murmuring of dissatisfaction amongst the family.
Greg put up his hands into the air “Our main concern is to get Barry remains home so we were not going to argue every point with these Brits.” he said.
This seemed to calm down the families as indeed their main agenda was to get Barry home for a funeral.
“However” Greg continued “We were adamant that Barry is entitled to a Republican funeral as a fallen volunteer of the Irish Republican Army. This caused the Brits great concern and disagreement.”
Greg turned to Helen “During these talks we could not communicate with you directly as our window of opportunity and talks was very slim. I hope you understand?”
Helen nodded, still a bit confused as to where this was all going.
“Is Barry coming home?” she asked directly.
George Cosgrave rose from his seat to answer Helen question
“Yes, they have agreed to release Barry’s remains to his family tomorrow.” He told them.
Helen and her family were delighted and so relieved on hearing this news. They all stood up hugging and shaking each other’s hands and thanking O’Malley, George and Greg for all their help and support. As the family milled around George raised his hand and his voice
“There are certain conditions attached to this movement by the Brits.” he said.
They family paused and their hearts sank on hearing this. There was an air of defiance and desperation now in the room.
“Typical Brits, you can’t trust them” muttered one of the family as there were mutterings of agreement and anger.
George said “Listen to me. What they want, it is not a slight to the families or to our community. We will have Barry returned to us.” he said “and he will have the rightly deserved military funeral. The Brits have agreed to stay out of the church grounds and away from the proceedings This is from the wake in the house, through to the burial and afterwards.”
George again raised his hands as the families once again started talking excitedly.
“Please listen to me. In turn the local Glenbeg Army Company will have no participation in the proceedings. The Brits are adamant on this point. So all the military trappings will be provided by the Belfast Brigade.” George announced.
There was a silence in the room on hearing this as everyone had presumed that Sean and the boys would be the Army presence.
O’Malley now spoke up
“Helen” he said and then turning to face the families he continued “The fact that our local boys will not be the Guard of Honour or the firing party is an advantage to the families. Sean and all the local company are in safe houses throughout Ireland. They pulled off one of the greatest military feats in this struggle for freedom. We can see the price of that, with the massive military presence that the British government have inflicted upon us. That they agree to withdraw from our community while we lay Barry to rest is another victory for us.”
He paused and looked around the room feeling the anger subsiding, he continued
“Does it really matter who fires the Gun Salute? If at all possible I’m sure Sean and the rest of the boys would rather fellow Volunteers conducted this other than having no Salute. I’m also sure that if at all possible, Sean will attend in a quiet manner to pay his respects to his comrade and friend. The Brits have agreed that they will not attempt to apprehend any known Volunteers present at the funeral. Including the Glenbeg Company, but the boys will not be allowed to attend in an official capacity.”
Helen nodded and was suddenly so tired
“I’m just so tired” she said in a near whisper “Please bring Barry home to me, my children and his poor mother.” Nodding over to Barry’s mother, “bring him home so that we can finally say good bye properly. Thank you for all your help.” she added to Greg and George who nodded appreciative to her.
George said “We will contact you tomorrow with all of the details from the Brits, as soon as we have the information.”
He shook the people’s hands and said his goodbyes and walking straight as an arrow headed out the door with Greg and O’Malley close behind.
The next couple of days were a haze of activity and sadness. Barry was brought to the house and the neighbours came from far and wide to pay their respects to Barry, his family and to the local Army Company. There was a constant stream of people in and out of the house.
Stephen and Bernie slipped into the house to pay their respects and to sit and hold Helen for a while.
“Thank you so much for showing up.” Helen told them “but it’s an awful risk to take. You could be lifted and arrested.”
Bernie hugged her tightly and said “We have been told that if we keep a low profile and vanish again immediately after the burial, that we will be ignored by the Brits.”
Helen nodded “Aye” she said “Big George Cosgrave came down from Belfast to broker a deal for the remains to be returned and that Barry could have a military funeral.”
Stephen said “We are down in Monaghan in a safe house together, and all the boys including Sean are scattered all over the country. Some as far away as County Kerry. We heard a lot of rumours but we don’t know the exact details of what happened for the funeral.”
Helen looked at her two friends and smiled “I’m glad that things are working out for you two. You seem much closer and happier together now.”
Stephen blushed and looked away while Bernie smiled back and replied “To tell you the truth we needed to get away for a bit of time on our own and being in a safe house in the middle of nowhere gave us that breathing time. We are still both married to the cause but we have agreed that we can do this together.”
Helen sighed “I’m glad for ye. But ye have a hard road ahead of you. After that night in the barracks, all I wanted was for Barry to stop risking his life. I begged him to quit the Army and join Sinn Fein, that he could stay involved with the cause there, not risking his life every time he stepped outside the door.”
Bernie knelt on the ground beside her and squeezed her hand as Helen continued
“I could see it in his eyes that he wanted to, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t quit. I blamed Sean and you both, but now I know that he was just a pawn in the Brits games. They used him and didn’t give a fuck about him or anyone else.”
Helen took a deep breath “I’m all cried out and I can’t cry anymore for my poor Barry.”
Bernie stayed squeezing her hand and the three of them stayed quiet, deep in their own thoughts. After a minute or two Helen shook her head and ran her fingers through her hair and looked up at Stephen
“Will Sean make an appearance?” she asked “I need to talk to him and thank him for coming to talk to me that night, after the ambush.”
Bernie once again gave her a big hug “You don’t need to thank anyone pet. Sean knows you well enough to know. I know that there is a safe passage deal, but the Brits are rabid for Sean’s head so I hope he stays away.”
Stephen laughed “I doubt that will happen. I think that he will show up. Barry was a Volunteer under Sean’s command. They were working together on that operation and Barry lost his life during it.”
Stephen paused thought for a moment and said “Definitely, Sean will show.”
Looking at Helen he continued “And that’s his choice and chance to take. He wouldn’t have it said that the Brits stopped him from paying tribute to one of his Volunteers. You or me can’t change that.”
They stood up to go
“We are heading back to Monaghan, I don’t trust that the Brits wouldn’t raid our houses tonight” said Bernie. “And you should try and get some sleep. There’s enough people around to watch over Barry.”
Helen sighed “To tell you the truth I wish that it was just me and the wee ones, and that we had Barry to yourselves tonight.”
She held back a sob and kissed the two volunteers, who slipped out the door and vanished into the night.
The next morning in a sea of colour and flags the people walked Barry’s coffin into the church in town. The Irish Tricolour wrapped coffin was carried on the shoulders of family members and senior Republican leaders. They were flanked by an Honour Guard of two dozen Volunteers dressed on black berets, white shirts and black trousers. The procession was led by Volunteers carrying the flags of the Republican Movement, the Tricolour, the Sunburst, the Starry Plough and the flags of the four Provinces of Ireland. Helen and Barry’s family walked immediately behind the coffin as his remains was carried through the town. The local GAA football and hurling club and neighbours lined the street of the town, forming a second guard of Honour.
As they arrived outside the gates of the church the procession stopped walking and Barry’s coffin was laid on a gurney. The crowd parted to allow three Army volunteers dressed in full military combat uniform with rifles, to march to the coffin. There they stood to attention and upon the order fired three shots over the coffin. The crowd gave a quiet cheer and a loud round of applause as the volunteers saluted and once again vanished into the crowds. Some of the people in the crowd looked apprehensively over at the security forces but they had stayed a reasonable distance back from the proceedings and made no attempt to approach the funeral procession or any of the volunteers.
After the Mass everyone moved into the Graveyard for the burial and the oration. The oration was given by George Cosgrave, which was quite an Honour considering George’s notoriety and fame as a leading Provisional Army leader. George gave a very humble yet inspiring speech which had Helen and the family and half the crowd in tears, some in sorrow and more in defiance. After the burial the crowd stayed in the graveyard and gathered near the families in different groups, quietly talking to each other. Others in the crowd formed a line to approach the families to offer their individual condolences. The families stood by the grave as the people filed past, numbly acknowledging most and giving others, that they hadn’t seen for a while a warm smile.
Ann Clarke stood in the line of mourners as it slowly worked its way past the families. When it got to her turn she shook the family’s hands and offered hers and her families condolences. She approached Helen and drew Helen into her chest in a warm hug.
As she did, she whispered into Helen ear “Sean is a few people behind me. He wants to offer his condolences.”
They drew apart and Ann continued smiling and whispering “Just shake his hand as he does not want to draw attention to himself with so many Brits around.”
Helen smiled and squeezed Ann’s hand “Thank you so much” she said “I really appreciate you and Sean’s help.”
Ann walked away shaking other family members’ hands. Helen glanced down the line to see if she could see Sean, as she continued to shake people’s hands and acknowledge their sympathy. 10 feet to her side and slightly behind Helen Eoin Harris stood, mingling with the crowd. Eoin was now dressed neatly with his dyed hair cut short and a trimmed goatee for a beard. His cap was pulled low over his eyes. He recognised Ann Clarke from the British Army Intelligence files, as she approached Helen and was instantly on the lookout for Sean. There were a lot of people milling about, but he made sure that he kept a clear view to Helen. Sure enough Eoin spotted Sean, two people back from Helen. Sean was keeping a line of people between him and the families and was trying to go to Helen without drawing attention to himself. Then he gently squeezed in front of an elderly lady talking to Barry’s mother. The person in front of Helen moved on and as Sean moved closer to Helen she turned and hugged Sean
“I’m sorry the way it turned out.” he said softly “Barry was a great soldier.”
She held him tight “Thank you, Sean for saving my family from being blacklisted here. It would have killed the children.”
Sean stood back “Maybe someday you can help my family,” he said “I am here to salute a fallen soldier and his brave wife. Take care, Helen and mind the children.”
He turned and mingled in with the crowd still standing around the families.
Eoin Harris, had taken off his cap, the pre-arranged signal with his handler, as Sean hugged Helen. He now walked parallel to Sean still with his cap off. Sean stepped into an open area as he crossed a grave to walk towards Ann. He never heard the shot but his head snapped back with the force of the bullet smashing into his lower jaw and twisting out through the back of his skull. He was tossed backwards and sent sprawling across a grave, his shoulder leaning against the gravestone. People screamed when they heard the shot and saw Sean thrown to the ground. Everyone dived for cover, behind gravestones or any shelter that they could find.
Ann ran to Sean throwing herself onto the ground beside him, screaming his name. She saw the damage to his face and the blood and brain matter weeping from the gaping wound in the back of his head. Helen sobbed helplessly into his shoulder begging him to be alright. Sean lay there not moving. He tried to tell Ann that he loved her and the children. He could say nothing, his lips refusing to move. He was slipping into darkness.
“I’m dying.” he thought
His eyes caught Ann’s eyes and they held their eye contact, momentarily locked to each other. Their eyes spoke in volumes of their love for each other. His eyes glazed over and his thoughts changed.
“For the love of Mother Ireland” he thought unafraid, and was gone.