Republican News · Thursday 20 January 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Completing the circle


Liam Shannon of the National Graves Association and Honorary Sinn Féin Vice President Joe Cahill in front of a portrait of the late Tom Williams in the Felons' Club

When Tom and Joe shared their last days together in the condemned cell at Belfast's Crumlin Road Jail, they were both young men. Joe was the eldest at 21 years of age and Tom was just 19. Four other young men, held in two separate cells, were also facing the death penalty. All six were IRA Volunteers, members of the same unit caught during an operation, convicted for the shooting of a RUC officer and all expecting to die.

A local newspaper recorded the courtroom falling silent after the judgment, ``then the woman at the back of the court shouted and the men drew themselves up to attention, made a right turn and, waving their hands and shouting a few cries, were led away''. But by the time Joe entered the condemned cell, Tom was already making light of it. ``What do you think of this Joe, the great beds we're getting,'' remarked a grinning Tom.

But no amount of banter could dispel the gravity of what lay before them. The executions were scheduled to take place just 18 days after sentencing. An appeal might delay the procedure a few days more. The condemned prisoners settled into a routine of washing, eating and taking exercise, all under 24-hour surveillance by the prison guards. In the cell, Tom and Joe talked. They were not passing time. They were young men facing untimely death and in trying to square that circle, their conversations were immediate and intense.

In the upstairs function room of the Felons Club in Andersonstown, West Belfast, Joe Cahill meets us. Now 79 years of age, Joe is a veteran within the Republican Movement. At Sinn Féin's annual Ard Fheis last year, Joe's contribution was officially acknowledged by awarding him the title of honorary vice president. The honour had been announced amidst a roar of cheers from his comrades, but today that moment seems far away. It's a pensive Joe Cahill who stands to be photographed besides fellow Belfast National Graves campaigner Liam Shannon.

The two men stand beside a portrait of Tom Williams. Behind them, the National and Provincial flags are draped. For over 50 years, republicans have campaigned for the release of Tom Williams' remains. After his execution, as stipulated by the sentencing judge, Tom's body was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls. A political hostage, even in death.

It was 1995 before the British government finally agreed to release Tom's body and late last year the remains were removed for DNA examination. On the eve of Tom Williams' funeral, after so many years, there should be some cause for celebration but the faces of the two campaigners tell a different tale. For once, Joe Cahill looks his age. It's been a long and often arduous journey from sharing a condemned cell in Crumlin Road jail in 1942 to this moment.

``We talked about death,'' says Joe. Condemned to hang and unlikely to be reprieved, the two young comrades spoke about their impending ordeal in the language which had shaped their understanding of the world into which they had been born. It was a language of struggle, of collective discipline and individual defiance. It was born out of a political understanding of their predicament and a revolutionary vision for the future.

``It is beyond the powers of my humble intellect to describe the pride of my comrades in knowing that they are going to follow in the footsteps of those who have given their lives to Ireland and the Republic,'' wrote Tom Williams to the then IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, about the six men facing execution . And in a message to Oglaigh na hÉireann, he wrote: ``The road to freedom is paved with suffering, hardships and torture; carry on my gallant and brave comrades until that certain day.''

But in the intimacy of their cell, Tom and Joe's conversations were less rhetorical and more immediate. ``We discussed the pending executions,'' says Joe, ``and the prospect of being buried in a prison grave. One day, we promised ourselves, the remains would be reinterred in the republican plot in Milltown cemetery. Tom was very clear, he would die a republican, he wished to be buried as such.''

To his uncle, Charlie Fay, Tom wrote: ``If it comes to the worst, as I'm sure it will, I will face my enemies with courage and spirit, which many gallant Irishmen have done this last 700 years... I am writing this letter to let you know that my heart was in the IRA.'' In Tom's mind there was no doubt. As he prepared himself for death he left those closest to him, his comrades, his family and his cell mate, in no doubt of his wishes either.

On 21 August, the verdict of the court was upheld on appeal and the date of execution was set for 2 September. The following day, the Irish News reported: ``A meeting of the Reprieve Committee, held in St Mary's Hall, Belfast, last night decided, in view of the dismissal of the appeal, to send telegrams... on behalf of 200,000 signatories.'' Telegrams were dispatched to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera and the British Home Secretary Herbert Morrison among others.

In 1940s Belfast, ``being a republican wasn't unusual but it wasn't popular'', recalls Joe. Republicans may not have always attracted the mass support they enjoy today but a court under British jurisdiction threatening to hang Irish Republicans was profoundly unpopular. A campaign to save the six men's lives attracted mass support.

On 30 August, the condemned men were visited by their solicitor. ``I've good news for everybody but Tom,'' he said. Five had been reprieved, only Tom was to be executed. The authorities still wanted their pound of flesh. Joe remembers the stunned silence that followed. It was broken by some of the bravest words ever heard by Joe. ``Don't grieve for me, remember, from day one this is how I wanted it. I wanted to die and I'm happy that you five are going to live.''

But Joe Cahill has grieved, not only for the loss of his comrade and friend but also for the many years of waiting to carry out Tom Williams' final wishes. ``He's always with me,'' says Joe, ``A priest who had been present when Tom was executed described his courage in the final moments of his life.'' Do not pray for Tom, Fr. Alexis had said, pray to him. And in moments of great stress, Joe has found himself doing just that. ``I've always been answered,'' says Joe. ``I'm happy that Tom's remains have finally been released from Crumlin Road Jail,'' says Joe. ``All my hopes and wishes would have been complete if Tom had been buried in the Republican plot. It was his wish. Everything would have come full circle.''

Along the Falls Road, the black flags are flying and everyone has a story to tell. An elderly man remembers a day at school when the classroom stopped for a minute's silence for a man who was being hanged in Belfast. ``Who was the man?'' he had asked his mother later that day. ``Tom Williams,'' came the reply.

A young woman tells of the factory where her mother worked. ``All the Catholic workers sang republican songs,'' she says. ``They were told to stop but my mother sang on.'' Someone else's aunt stood outside Crumlin Road jail in silent vigil during the execution.

In many small ways ordinary people, republican and nationalist, in the north and south of the border, have felt their lives touched by Tom Williams' death. His final wish to be buried in Milltown's Republican plot has not been realised. His wish to be remembered as a republican will continue to be carried in a thousand small voices and hundreds of faithful hearts.

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