Memories of a singer, a republican and a comrade
Gerry Adams pays tribute to Kathleen Largey, who died twenty years
ago this week
Lily's husband always tried to look after me. Sometimes he got me
into more trouble than I could handle, sometimes he confused me, but
sometimes he delivered big time. When he introduced me to Kathleen's
house he delivered big time.
That was in 1972. I knew Kathleen long before that of course. Not on
personal terms. But as a singer. So did most music lovers in Belfast.
Because Kathleen McCready was one of our city's foremost ballad
singers. She sang all over the country and could have enjoyed a
lucrative music career if she had kept to `conventional' music.
Indeed during a sojourn in the USA she sang in Carnegie Hall. But
Kathleen was first and foremost a republican and when she joined up
with Eamonn Largey and they came together with some fine Belfast
musicians as The Flying Column their rendering of patriotic and
street ballads electrified audiences throughout Ireland.
That was in the late 1960s and in 1970 and 1971 the Flying Columns
recordings, Folk Time in Ireland and Four Green Fields were best
So in 1972 when Lily's husband directed me to the small kitchen house
which he promised contained a bed for me I was delighted when
Kathleen opened the door. Her smile and warm welcome settled me
immediately. Life on the run in Belfast was a dangerous and lonely
existence, not just for the person involved but especially for their
families. Kathleen understood this instinctively. Almost the first
question she asked me was if I was married. I was, I told her. Well,
get your wife to come here to see you, she told me.
``Eamonn and I are away this weekend. The two of you can stay here. No
one will bother you''
That became our routine for as long as we stayed with Kate. By this
time Kathleen and Eamonn were married and they had one small
daughter, Aine. She and I became buddies. Kathleen was pregnant with
her second daughter Maire. Colette was expecting our Gearoid so a
close bond quickly grew between all of us and when Maire came along
we became buddies also.
Eamonn Largey was a character. He was extrovert, eccentric, extremely
hyper and happy go lucky. And very funny. He was also extremely
goodhearted and generous. He was very, very good to Colette.
Tragically Eamonn was killed in a car accident in July 1973. Aine
was about eighteen months old. Maire was six weeks. I watched
Eamonn's funeral from a side street as it made its sad, slow way up
the Falls Road. The British Army watched from another corner. Eamonn
would have been delighted.
Colette and I have numerous fond memories of his escapades. One story
which Eamonn himself enjoyed telling was about the day that a priest
stepped into Largey's Butcher's shop just as a British Army patrol
was passing. Eamonn was busy behind the counter serving and bantering
with the customers. It was a minute or two before he saw the priest.
``Father,'' he exclaimed with a laugh,'' you want to watch yourself
about here. Jesus Mary and Joseph, sorry Father, but Jesus you are
the image of Sean MacStiofan.''
The priest reddened in embarrassment as Eamonn drew the attention of
the other customers to him.
``Missus,'' he went on, full of craic and devilment, ``isn't he the spit
of Sean Mac? Don't go out there til them boys pass.'' He gestured to
the passing patrol. ``You'll end up in the Kesh''.
That was Eamonn's way. He slagged the priest relentlessly until he
made his purchase and left. Then, as Eamonn tells it, an hour or so
later a car drew up outside the butcher's. A number of large men in
trench coats got out and took up positions outside the shop. One of
them came in. He had one hand inside his trench coat (obviously
carrying, according to Eamonn). He towered over Eamonn.
``Sir,'' he said quietly in a soft Kerry accent. ``Sir, the next time
you see Sean MacStiofan we would appreciate it it if you kept it to
yourself. The boys don't like blabber mouths''.
``What did you do?'' I asked Eamonn.
``I became one of the wise monkeys,'' he said. ``But I know now how Gypo
Not long after Eamonn died I was arrested. Colette and Kathleen were
by now close friends. They continued to stay together frequently.
Sisters and soulmates together, they shared each others' heartbreak
and happiness the way that only women can. Our Gearoid was born a few
months after I took up residence in Long Kesh. Kathleen was his
godmother. A firm ally of Green Cross, by now she was also heavily
involved with Republican Prisoners Welfare.
Famously after Long Kesh was burned down she emptied the contents of
a friend's clothes shop and transported them up to the jail so that
within days of the place being reduced to ashes out off the ashes
arose a crowd of bogging dirty POWs kitted out in the latest and most
fashionable flairs and showaddywaddy gear.
Her home continued to be a resting place for republican waifs and
fugitives. That's how wee Harry came into the picture. He started to
work for the prisoners and he and Kathleen became very close. It was
during this time that Kathleen was diagnosed with cancer and when she
and Harry were married in June 1976 she had already undergone
surgery. She refused to acquiesce to her illness and continued with a
hectic schedule of prisoners' welfare work. She also worked for The
Comfort of Cancer Patients.
By now the protests in Armagh Women's Prison and the H Blocks had
commenced. Kathleen visited both prisons frequently. She and wee
Harry were a great team. I was out of prison again and on the road
most of the time reorganising Sinn Fein and working with the
Relatives Action Committees and the fledging H Block Armagh campaign.
I still saw Kathleen regularly and Colette and she remained in
constant contact so that when secondary cancer set in Colette went to
live with Kate. Aine, Maire and Gearoid, always close, were now to
be reared together.
Until this time Kathleen was singing regularly for the republican
cause. This had been her lifelong contribution to the struggle. She
had a special and long standing affection for the work of the
National Graves Association and a long involvement, since the time of
her old friend Jimmy Steele, with the Belfast Graves. A member of
Cumann Na mBan, Kathleen kept very close to the women prisoners in
Armagh and I am sure that Eileen, Marie and all the rest of them have
as many stories as I have of Kate's generosity.
Confined more and more to the house and frequently in hospital, her
inability to continue this work was the cause of almost constant
frustration. Once not long before her death Colette found Kathleen in
tears. Someone had sent her a new song about the H Blocks and she was
trying to record a demo tape on her tape recorder.
But her once strong beautiful singing voice was victim also of her
illness which was now in her lungs. Kathleen just couldn't get enough
breath. Her records were still selling well during this period and
not long before her death she released The Price of Justice. By now
Kathleen was in her final struggle with the disease which killed her
and on the Kerry track if you listen carefully you will hear how she
had to battle valiantly to control her breathing.
Visits to the hospital were more and more frequent and everyone's
routine was now built around that. It was a particularly harrowing
time for wee Harry. By February 1979 Kate was confined for a long
time. I visited her and on my last visit days before she died,
because she was so much like her old self I fooled myself into
thinking she was going to recover. Aine's seventh birthday was on 8
February. There was a little party for her and Colette visited Kate
that evening. Harry was on a constant bedside vigil along with Kate's
family. As Colette left Kathleen hugged her.
``Take me home,'' she whispered.
But it was impossible. She was too ill. The next day she died. I was
out of town but I knew the awful truth as I drove up the street and
saw the cars outside the house. Far from getting better, as I
stupidly thought to myself, it is now my belief that Kate kept
herself alive for Aine's birthday. That is what her last struggle was
about. She deeply loved her two daughters and it is to wee Harry's
eternal credit that he, aided and abetted by `Auntie' Colette, raised
the two girls as Kathleen wanted and that they are now two fine young
women. Their mammy would be very proud of them. And of Harry. And
Colette. I know I am.
I consider my friendship with Kathleen to have been one of the
constants of my life. I know she shared her life and and love and
talents with many people and that they have their own stories to tell
but Colette and I and our Gearoid were privileged to enjoy a special
relationship with Kathleen and our lives have been intertwined in
many, many ways right up to the present day.
Next Sunday marks the twentieth anniversary of Kathleen's death. It
is entirely fitting that her friends are organising a little
commemoration in Belfast. Later in the year there are plans to
relaunch some of her recordings. That also is a good thing. Kate
would enjoy all of us getting together. She would be pleased that we
can still hear her singing.