"The IRA did us proud" was the most telling comment I heard used at the Tírghrá function in Dublin's City West hotel on Saturday night. It seemed to sum up not only the powerful event itself but also the struggle waged by the IRA since 1970.
Saturday night's function was a celebration of the lives of those who are named on the republican 'Roll of Honour'. In an impressive display of organisational skills and resourceful back up, the republican family mobilised over 2,000 relatives from all over Ireland, transported them to the outskirts of Dublin and put on a tribute to them and their lost loved ones that they will remember forever. One relative described the 24 hours around the event as a 'beautiful dream'.
It was a night for the relatives. It was a night for the IRA past and present. It was a night for Sinn Féin. But in particular it was a night for memories. Sad though the occasion was, wherever you looked you saw smiling faces; people embracing each other, shaking hands, and renewing old acquaintances.
Relatives exchanged stories with other relatives they met for the first time. They told each other the circumstances of their loved one's death, which they had kept to themselves for years. They did this to preserve the memory to protect it from those who would attempt to sully it. But tonight they were among friends and they could speak freely and they did.
Many were lost for words to express their sense of gratitude to the organisers. They were 'overwhelmed' - 'tremendous', 'outstanding' were just some of the comments. I spoke with many of the relatives. They felt that their grief and the sacrifice their loved ones made was being recognised and validated by the occasion. Tírghrá, love of one's country, dispelled any doubts they had that their loved ones died in vain or that they had been forgotten.
This was a rare occasion, a gathering of men and women who, in the words of Gerry Adams, were 'undefeated'; not only undefeated but intact, stronger and more confident about their future and the future of the republican struggle.
Sitting in the plush surrounds of the City West hotel, it struck me that we were a long way from the streets and lanes that claimed the lives of most of the IRA Volunteers and Sinn Féin members. But the corridors of the hotel offered up a connection with another era in the long struggle for Irish freedom.
There on the walls, in black and white photographs, were images of Dublin under British rule. The stark poverty of the people was obvious; the opulence of the aristocracy was on display as they were driven through the capital city, the second city of the empire as it was called. But also depicted was an earlier IRA fighting the Black and Tans and the RIC for independence. We were in good company.
Danny Devenney and his team of artists excelled themselves once again. They built a remarkable yet simple monument. A 'Wall of Freedom' formed the backdrop on the stage for the night's proceedings. Hand painted with loving care and attention in gold lettering were the names of all those on the Roll of Honour and Roll of Remembrance, men and women who died that we might live free from oppression.
The 'Wall' became the night's centrepiece. It may have started out as a prop. It very quickly became a shrine, a place of reverence. I saw relatives barely able to walk insisting they be brought to the edge of the stage to look up at the 'Wall'. Young people, too young to remember their lost relative, even younger not born, made the short journey to this hallowed spot.
They pointed with their fingers. They scanned the names searching for theirs. When located, a photograph was taken. An inanimate object came to life because living people invested their emotions in it.
Bobby Ballagh, one of Ireland's foremost artists, cast the Easter Lily and made it an enduring and permanent symbol of requiem for all the families.
It was a night for personal memories, for a walk down memory lane. I too scanned the names on the 'Wall' and wrote down those names that touched me closely or at a distance. As I did so the pages of history quickly flicked back through the last 30 years. Those names I recognised carried their own message of the struggle; what it was like at different times and the price we had to pay.
Eight Volunteers from the early '70s lost in premature explosions in the Short Strand. Jackie McMahon, also from the Short Strand. He disappeared in January '78. He was last seen in the custody of the UDR. In May of that year his body was taken from the river Lagan.
Lying on my bed on the 'Ones' in Crumlin Road gaol in April '77, I heard on the radio of the killing by the British Army of my friend Brendan O'Callaghan. He was one of the first 'shoot to kill' victims.
Eddie Mc Sheffrey from Derry was a small bundle of energy as we walked around the yard in Crumlin Road gaol. He died in a premature explosion in October '87. Ardoyne man James McDaid died in Coventry in a premature explosion in November 1974. The British Home Secretary banned his funeral and ground staff at Aldergrove refused to handle his coffin. Diarmuid O'Neill was the last IRA Volunteer to die, in September '96. He was summarily shot by English police in a London flat.
Peter Cleary's brother Jim told me he was 26 years dead "on Monday", that he was a "Volunteer with a difference" and that his family was taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Kathleen Thompson, whose freedom songs inspired a generation. The name Michael McVerry from South Armagh sent shivers down the spine of the Crown forces when he was active in the early '70s. John Green, shot dead by loyalists in one of the earliest examples of collusion near Castleblaney. I was proud to be involved in a very small way in helping John escape from Long Kesh dressed as a priest in the summer of 1973.
Paul Best, a gentle soul and member of Sinn Féin, was shot by armed members of the 'Workers' Party' during a feud in November '75. Seamus McCusker from the New Lodge Road was the first republican I heard arguing to build Sinn Féin as a political party in 1975, when no one else was interested or knew its importance. He met a similar fate to Paul Best in the same feud in October '75, close to the Sinn Féin centre he ran.
I can still hear the loyalists battering on their cell doors in the Crum's 'C' Wing, wallowing in the killing of Maire Drumm, shot as she lay in her hospital bed in late '76.
Martin McKenna, who travelled the country building support for the prisoners protesting for political status, died at the wheel of his car in an accident outside Newry. Sheena Campbell, one of Sinn Féin's brightest, was shot dead reputedly on the orders of the notorious loyalist Billy Wright. Sheena led the way when it came to the party's early electoral expertise.
Henry McIlhone was shot in the grounds of St. Matthews chapel while he was protecting the Short Strand area from attack by loyalists in June 1970. As a young teenager caught up in that gun battle, I remember the news coming round to the corner of Comber Street. Billy McKee was also shot. The modern IRA was born that night on the streets of Ballymacarret.
Liam Mullholland died in his 90s. He was the oldest internee arrested on 9 August 1971. I met him in late 1974 with Miriam Daly, who was shot dead by loyalists a number of years later. We were all members of the cumann attached to 'Republican News'. I learned a lot from Liam and Miriam about republican politics.
Kevin Barry O'Donnell and three of his comrades died in a hail of SAS bullets outside Coalisland in early '92. I was at their wakes and funerals. Their coffins were opened for the world to witness the frenzied attack. Their ages were 19 to 23. It was almost too much to bear.
The hunger strikers' names were there as were those of the Loughall martyrs. My eye dwelt on the name Patricia Black. Belfast Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley on his annual impressive tour of Milltown and City graveyards includes the circumstances of Patrica's death. She was one of twelve women who died on active service since 1970.
Quite by accident at the Tírghrá event I bumped into her two brothers, Liam and Peter. They spoke about their sister. Peter was 11 and Liam was 15 when the family got the shocking news that their 18-year-old sister and her comrade, Frankie Ryan, had died in a premature explosion in St. Albans, London. It was a cold November night in 1991.
Patricia was the second eldest in a family of four: two girls and two boys. Her brothers described her as a fun loving girl with many friends. She always looked on the bright side of life. Liam said: "She brightened up a room when she came into it." Peter said: "There was an aura around her. She made people smile."
Like so many other IRA Volunteers, her active service life was kept as tight a secret as possible, and more so in her case because she was on active service in England. But despite the seriousness of what she was involved in, she carried her IRA responsibilities lightly on her shoulders.
A few days before she left her Belfast home for the last time, she bought presents for all the family and in a light hearted gesture, she removed some hair from her head and gave it to her mum, passing a joke as she did so. That lock of hair is her mother's most treasured possession.
Liam's last memory of Patricia is of her telling him insistently three times, "I'm away" before something compelled him to look at her through his bedroom window as she walked down the path into eternity. For Peter, it's her telling him in the hallway she's going to the station. They never saw her beautiful face again.
The years since Patricia died have not been easy ones for the family. They have good weeks and bad weeks but they are proud of their sister; proud that someone as young as she was with so much to live for would risk her life and liberty for the people of Ireland for the freedom of her country.
Peter described the Tírghrá event: "We saw all the other families who had lost loved ones. Seeing all those people helped us come to terms with our loss."
d that is, I'm sure, how all the other relatives felt as well.