By Danny Morrison (for Daily Ireland)
Despite the loss of many young friends and comrades during the conflict, we never become so hardened or stoical as to become inured to the devastation that death wreaks when it comes unexpected or even, more often these days in the case of serious illnesses, when it comes anticipated.
The sensation is familiar: that sense of still being surprised and shocked; the soreness in your heart which erupts as grief; an irrational, floundering sense of guilt of not having done enough; the selfish contemplation of one’s own mortality, of how seemingly insignificant we are and how cruel the world appears for not having stopped, just as it will continue on its journey after you too are dead.
Yet, regardless of our familiarity with death, each loss is still unique, reflecting the uniqueness, the special qualities, the individuality of the friend who last week was alive but whose voice you shall never hear again, whose laughter you will never again share and the barbs of whose irate tongue you would now happily welcome.
When Siobhan O’Hanlon was dying she made a note to her friend Trisha Ziff who had travelled from Mexico to say goodbye.
“Think of me now and again”, she wrote in shaky handwriting.
“Think of me now and again.
“For as long as we are alive, we shall.”
We shall also benefit from the work Siobhan, who was buried last week after a long battle with cancer, did in her life - in the freedom struggle, in the peace process, in the bridges she built, the international fraternities she established and maintained, for the goodwill she engendered towards republicanism - and for the huge political enterprises to which she contributed.
I am not sure when I first met Siobhan but I remember hearing about her and Marie Wright being arrested in Andersonstown in 1983 and charged with possession of explosives. They were sentenced to seven years. Ironically, in 1989, two years after Siobhan and Marie’s release from prison, Marie was again arrested, this time with Pat Sheehan, Siobhan’s future husband. They were charged with possession of a bomb and sentenced to 24 years but were released under the Belfast Agreement. Tragically, Marie died of cancer in December 2004.
I remember being at a big Christmas social in Andersonstown in 1987. It was like an ex-prisoners’ reunion. Siobhan was there, again with a number of former prisoners, and introduced me to her sister, Eilish. Mairead Farrell was having the time of her life, up on the dance floor. Kevin Brady was there with his girlfriend. Within months, Mairead and Kevin would be dead. Mairead and her comrades, Dan McCann and Sean Savage, were shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar on March 6, 1988. Ten days later, at their funerals in Milltown cemetery, Kevin Brady, Thomas McErlean and John Murray were killed in a loyalist attack, which almost certainly involved state collusion.
It was in late 1988 or early 1989 that I asked Siobhan to come and work in the Republican Press Centre. She was brilliantly efficient and commanded a natural authority. However, it wasn’t long before Gerry Adams, recognising her abilities, poached her as his secretary.
When I went into jail in 1990 Siobhan visited me and helped me out by bringing my sons Kevin and Liam, who were too young to visit alone, up on visits. Later, in the H-Blocks, I was fortunate to be on the same wings for many years with Pat Sheehan whose company and wit I thoroughly enjoyed. Pat had previously served ten years in jail and had been on the hunger strike for over 50 days when it ended in October 1981. We often doubled-up in the same cell.
Siobhan began visiting Pat and then became his regular visitor, then organised his food parcels, his newspapers and books. From those visits a solid relationship developed over the next thirteen years that culminated in their marriage last February, two months before Siobhan died.
After the ceasefire, when paroles became regular, Siobhan planned Pat’s days out, balancing family and friendship commitments. She was the perfect organiser and wise in every respect.
Aside from her private life, politically she was totally involved in organising Gerry Adams’ schedules, was privy to the Hume/Adams’ talks, and was involved in the negotiations from an early stage right through to the signing of the Belfast Agreement. Thereafter, she dealt with the British government and the US administration, was on first name terms with Irish government officials and got on well with loyalists and unionist representatives. For 15 years she was also a stalwart of Feile an Phobail [the West Belfast Festival] and brought to its management a variety of skills which made her virtually indispensable.
When Pat and I, in Crumlin Road Jail in 1990, watched Nelson Mandela walk to freedom after 28 years in prison little did we know that Pat would one day meet him and shake his hand, thanks to Siobhan who headed up Sinn Féin’s South African desk, on top of all her other responsibilities. In 2001, on the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes she planned and organised a visit to Robben Island. There, Gerry Adams unveiled a memorial to the hunger strikers in the prison yard where Mandela and his ANC comrades had exercised for almost 30 years.
Siobhan was also a great go-between. In a tumultuous period in my personal life she encouraged me to follow my heart. On another occasion - after a break-up - she, through Pat, delivered the letter to me which led to reconciliation with my partner and future wife.
One year she invited my partner Leslie to help her shop for a bracelet that Pat was going to give her for Christmas (Siobhan loved jewellery). While at the jeweller’s shop Siobhan asked Leslie if she saw any engagement rings she liked. But Leslie explained that I was totally opposed to engagement rings (especially at, or because of, my age), though there was a specific ring at another shop that she particularly liked. Later, walking passed this jeweller’s shop Siobhan asked Leslie to point out the ring. She then said she should try it on, just for fun, but Leslie repeated that there was no point and so they continued with their shopping.
On Christmas morning Leslie opened my presents, including a large poster cylinder. She shook it and a small box, containing the engagement ring, came shooting out one end. Leslie phoned Siobhan immediately and congratulated her on her academy award-winning performance.
I remember the day Siobhan came to our house to announce the joy of her pregnancy (with Cormac) and that other day when she came to announce that she had breast cancer.
Against that enemy she fought tenaciously, amazingly, and explored every potential remedy that would prolong her great life and keep her united with the loves of her life, Pat and Cormac.