Forty years to the day after he was gunned down by British paratroopers, Official IRA Volunteer Joe McCann was commemorated in Belfast.
Hundreds of people attended a ceremony in Joy Street (where he was shot) organised by the McCann family. Members of the Official Republican Movement, the Workers Party, the Irish Republican Socialist Party and Sinn Féin (including Gerry Adams TD) were present. Many of those attending were veterans of the IRA before the 1969 split into the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA.
Born on 2nd November 1947 into a working-class family in Belfast, Joe McCann was an intelligent, self-educated young man with a keen interest in Irish language and culture.
Through his readings, of James Connolly in particular, Joe developed a strong belief in the establishment of a Socialist Republic and the liberation of working classes, both Protestant and Catholic.
“Big Joe” became a great Commander in the Official IRA, as well as an inspiration to the working-class people he worked with on a daily basis.
A photograph of him holding a rifle while taking cover during a gun battle with British forces has become one of the undying images of the conflict from that era.
McCann was killed by members of the First Parachute Regiment and RUC Special Branch in Joy Street on the 15th of April 1972. He was spotted by the RUC, who informed him that he was under arrest. McCann was unarmed and tried to run to safety when he was confronted by British soldiers. He was shot dead at the corner of Joy Street and Hamilton Street after a chase on foot through the Markets.
Ten cartridge cases were found close to his body, indicating that he had been shot repeatedly at close range. Bullet holes were also visible in the walls of nearby houses.
Even to this day he is still highly regarded by those who knew and worked with him, and the pain of his loss is keenly felt.
His 40th anniversary commemoration was chaired by Ciaran McCann on Sunday while his brother Fearghal gave the main oration. Aine McCann read a poem in memory of her father while her sister Fionnuala sang a song about Joe originally written by Market’s woman Margaret Power. Joe’s widow Anne laid a wreath as did members of the extended family.
In his oration Fearghal read from a contemporary account of how Long Kesh internee Gerry Campbell reacted to news of Joe’s death. He then placed Joe’s murder in the context of the shootings by British forces of civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry.
Fearghal recounted how Joe had become involved in republicanism as a teenager, collecting for internees during the Border Campaign.
“After firstly joining the Fianna he became an IRA volunteer in 1964. He was jailed in Crumlin Road during 1965 and on release became active again in the various republican political movements of the period,” he said.
“McCann was involved with the Belfast Housing Action Committee and took part in the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon in 1968. He embraced the idea of an ‘Army of the People’ and the need for the IRA to become involved in social struggles.
“In August 1969 he was active with the IRA in defence of the people in Belfast and was arrested again shortly afterwards. McCann took part in the fighting during the Falls Curfew in July 1970 and in August 1971, as commander of the Official IRA in the Markets area defended the district from much larger forces of British troops.
“The RUC Special Branch and British Army made it clear that they would not take Joe alive and in April 1972, they murdered him.”
The ceremony ended with the ‘Last Post’ and lowering of flags. The McCann family thanked all those who helped make it such a success.
FUNERAL OF INLA VETERAN
Meanwhile, the funeral took place on Tuesday of Derry republican Seamus ‘Chang’ Coyle, who died last weekend. He had been a member of both the Official IRA and the INLA in Derry.
The coffin was flanked by a colour party dressed in military uniform, shortly before a a dozen shots were fired over it in the Rosemount Gardens area of the city.
Mr Coyle, who was in his late fifties, died in Derry on Saturday following a short illness. Interned in 1971, he was one of a number of Derry Official IRA members to transfer to the break-away INLA after its establishment in late 1974.
In later years he remained an active member of the INLA’s political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP).
As Mr Coyle’s coffin was carried from a house at Rosemount Gardens, it was flanked by a six-person INLA colour party dressed in black with dark glasses and faces covered with masks. A three-person ‘firing party’ emerged from the crowd and one figure, carrying a rifle, fired the final salute.
Members of the IRSP said it was decided that an ‘IRA member’ would fire the shots instead of an INLA figure to show the Derry man’s status within the broad republican movement.
The coffin was draped in a red ‘Starry Plough’ at his request -- a variation on the traditional blue flag to reflect his commitment to socialist principles.
Representatives of Sinn Féin, the IRSP, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and other organisations attended the funeral.