Republican News · Thursday 4 February 1999

[An Phoblacht]

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 sellers.

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 Nolan felt.''

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.

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