Oration for Brian Keenan
Oration for Brian Keenan

Thousands turned out for the funeral of IRA commander Brian Keenan in Belfast on Saturday. The following is an edited version of the oration at his grave by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams.

Dia daoibh a chairde agus failte mor romhaibh uilig. I want to welcome all of you here today - Brian’s family and friends and comrades from all parts of the island coming together to salute a great republican.

On your behalf I want to extend our sympathies to Chrissie; to Brian’s sons and daughters, Bernadette, Annemarie, Chrissie, Frankie, Sean and Jeanette; his 18 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren; his brother Sean, who can’t be with us today, his sister Anne and the wider Keenan family circle.

Ta muid buioch daoibh. Ta fhios agam go bhfuil bhur croi briste. Caithfidh me a ra go bhfuil a lan daoine bronach inniu. Caill muid ar cara.

I also want to thank Pauline and Tina McNulty in Cullyhanna and their family, who took such great care of Brian.

He had a very special gra for South Armagh. And I want to thank everyone from there and Dublin who looked after him during his long illness.

I had put down some names for mention; people like Phil, wee Tom, Harry, Fra, Christy but then I realised that the list would be too long. So my friends you all know who you are and you know how much Brian appreciated your friendship and support.

I want to thank Brian’s surgeon Gerry McEntee, his oncologist John McCaffrey and their family doctor Seamus McHugh, and all the other nursing and medical staff.

How do you describe Brian Keenan? Where to begin?

For me it began just down the road from here at the bus stop up from Mrs Campbell’s house.

It was 1968. I was getting on the bus. So was Brian Keenan. I was 20 years old. He was 27. I was single. He was married with six children.

He introduced himself to me. Inquired after my family. I admired his teddyboy hairstyle.

Our lives were inextricably linked from that point on.

At that time the Orange state was being challenged by the democratic demands of our generation.

Two years later this area was under military occupation and the young people of Ballymurphy were resisting the British Army.

I mention all of this only because here we are, close to the spot where Brian and I first met, 40 years later completing the circle and saying goodbye.

It is a great honour for me to give this oration. Brian sent for me about six weeks ago.

He told me that he wanted to make arrangements for his funeral.

I know that he had this conversation with other comrades as well. He said he didn’t think he had much time left.

He said if he died in Cullyhanna that he wanted to be waked there for one night and then taken to New Barnsley.

He wanted Sean Hughes to say a few words in Cullyhanna and then he said he wanted me to say a few words at the Garden of Remembrance in the Murph.

Fear le dha oraid. Shin Brian.

To tell you the truth I was going to make a joke of this and say he had ordered me and Sean to give the oration, but in fairness he was very humble about it all.

For example, he told me he was thinking of asking for a republican funeral - he asked me what I thought of that?

I said I didn’t think he qualified on the basis that he was still alive. He also said he wanted someone sensible to take care of things in Belfast. In the absence of anyone else I suggested Big Bob. Brian immediately sent for him and gave him all his orders.

That was Brian.

Even in the face of great illness he never gave up, never stopped plotting and planning and arguing and looking to how republicans could best develop our policies and advance our struggle.

He had boundless energy - nervous energy - like a Duracell bunny.

He loved an argument.

At times when he was confronting a problem he came at it from every conceivable angle.

I know for certain this was because he agonised over some issues and spent sleepless nights trying to figure out propositions. He was very, very intense and drove everybody and especially me, mad in the process.

But leaving aside politics, if he was socialising or having a drink, he loved driving people mad anyway just for the devilment of it.

I’m sure that many, many people here have tales to tell of his humour and contrariness and craic.

Brian loved people. He loved conversation and debate.

He was very, very well read. And had a huge capacity to retain information on a enormous range of subjects.

He loved sport, particularly hurling.

He played for St. Gall’s and rumour has it that his playing career ended when he was suspended for life. Which is no mean achievement. In fairness he always denied this.

He loved the countryside and natural things.

I remember being amazed away back in the early 70’s at his knowledge of trees, wildlife and especially birds.

He loved animals, particularly dogs. He and I had an hilarious experience one time trying to mate one of his dogs with one of mine. He loved children and had a childlike ability to engage them.

He loved his own family very, very deeply.

Many, many times over the years he would speak to me of each one of them separately and individually with considerable pride after some event in their lives or some accomplishment.

He was especially chuffed as grand children and then great grand children started to arrive and he took huge interest in their progress.

It’s always hard for families of activists, no matter how sound they are, because the activist is off doing what he or she wants to do while a partner, a spouse is left to rear youngsters and look after family affairs.

I have huge time for Chrissie Keenan. The Keenan family are a credit to her and her love and resilence.

She reared her fine sons and daughters almost single handedly. Is bean go h’iontach thu Chrissie.

I have memories of times in Donegal in the 70s when Crissie and her young brood would be waiting up in Mulroy Bay or Gort na Brad for Brian to arrive for a few days holidays.

Invariably he would be late. Sometimes days late. And then he would appear like a whirlwind and sweep them all off for a mad adventure. Then all too soon he would be away off again on his nomadic life’s work.

He cared deeply about other republicans. Those who opened their homes to the IRA, who sheltered and protected them, had his abiding loyalty and affection.

He would travel a hundred miles or 500 miles to help a comrade in trouble. When Tommy Devereaux was ill and in post-operation convalescence, Brian, who was hardly able to walk, went across the country to gee him up.

He also had a huge affection for Anne Devereaux, who is here with us today. He was greatly flattered to be honoured at the recent Le Cheile event and chuffed to meet so many old friends. In fact he spent the last few months of his life renewing old acquaintances and touching base with other activists on a one to one basis.

But woe-betide any activist who allowed ego or self gain or elitism to undermine our struggle.

He also dealt with his illness in an amazing way. He fought cancer the way he fought all his other battles. With passion, total commitment and no sense whatsoever of self pity. He said to me once. ‘Life owes me nothing. I’m very lucky.’

In the days before his death he told some of us that he was very happy.

In these remarks I have tried to give some sense of Brian Keenan, the human being, the Irishman, a comrade, a friend.

Like others here I could tell a thousand stories. Martin McGuinness or Paddy Doc could tell a thousand more.

Now I come to deal with Brian the IRA Volunteer - the revolutionary, the activist.

Brian was first arrested in 1964 during the Divis Street riots. He was beaten and then taken to Hasting Street Barracks where he was again beaten.

He was refused water to drink or to wash in and after a sham trial in which the late PJ McGrory demolished the RUC evidence, Brian was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison or a fine of #85 - a lot of money in those days.

Brain spent 2 weeks in Crumlin Road prison before the money could be raised to have him released.

By this time he had also spent some years working in England where he was an active trade unionist and beginning to develop the class consciousness that was to shape his view of the world for the rest of his life.

After the Divis Street riots came the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and then the start of the civil rights struggle.

In a recent interview Brian described his decision to join the IRA during this period.

He said: “Anger and frustration about injustice brought me into the IRA ... it was quite easy for me to join the ranks of Oglaigh na hEireann and translate that militancy into a military response.”

Initially he was one of those, along with Joe Cahill and John Joe McGirl and others who travelled the length and breadth of the island after 1969 searching out weapons to defend nationalist areas.

Inevitably, his boundless enthusiasm, his instinctive ability to encourage and motivate, and his natural talents as a leader and planner brought him ever greater responsibilities within the IRA.

As a consequence he saw less and less of his family.

He threw himself into the struggle. And for almost a decade he played a pivotal role during what was a very dangerous and difficult time.

In 1974 he was arrested and imprisoned in Portlaoise on a membership charge. Along with others he plotted to escape and on the evening of March 17th 1975 the lights went out, explosives were used to blow open a doorway into the yard, the gate in a wire enclosure was also blasted open with an explosive device.

Unfortunately a heavy lorry which was supposed to smash through into the yard for the men to escape became entangled in barbed wire. IRA Volunteer Tom Smyth was shot dead when soldiers opened fire on the prisoners. Six others prisoners were injured, including Brian, who was shot in the hand and leg.

Martin Ferris, who was there tells it well. “We could hear the engine fading at the other side of the gate and we knew then that the game was up. Brian was wounded but he was still running around trying to find a way out. In fact himself and Kevin Mallon were trying to get behind the commanding officer of the Free State Army garrision to try and jump him and take the gun off him. They hadn’t given up at that stage even though it was fairly obvious that we were going nowhere.”

Brian was released a few months later.

In 1979 he was arrested and taken to England where he did his time, mostly in the draconian Special Secure Units.

Nil spas agamsa inniu a caint faoi uair seo. Shin sceal eile.

During this period he showed a talent for landscape painting. I think his paintings were very good. But he bowed to Hughie Doc as a real painter. His was technically good, he said, but Hughie was a genius.

Even in prison he watched events closely and wrote to me very often. He never complained once. These years were also the years when Chrissie Keenan shone as an example of a strong woman in dire economic times facing the rigours of long journeys with children to a hostile place. This she did for 16 years.

In 1993 Brian was released and returned home to Belfast.

He immediately returned to activism.

By that point the Sinn Féin peace strategy was well developed and Brian was a vocal advocate of it in all of his conversations.

I know that at times of great turbulence within republicanism he defended me and Martin McGuinness and others the length and breadth of this island.

And this wasn’t purely though personal loyalty although he was hugely loyal. It was because when he argued and debated the issues out within republican forums he always took and defended the line which those forums agreed upon.

For him it was always about strategy and tactics. The goals remained the same - a free, independent United Ireland.

Sean Hughes put it well on Thursday, when he said, ‘Brian was a student of Tone, Connolly and Mellows. He knew that for struggle to be successful you have to bring the people with you and be able to adapt to any changing political situation.

He believed just as Connolly believed in constitutional action in normal times, in revolutionary action in exceptional times.’

Brian put it another way. He said for those in struggle who want to succeed: ‘revolutionaries have to be pragmatic - wish lists are for Christmas.’

But it will only be when the history of this period is properly written that the real extent of the key role Brian played can be told.

For now let me say that he was central to securing the support of the IRA leadership and rank and file for a whole series of historic initiatives which made the peace process possible.

And for the sceptics within unionism, let me remind them that the recent watershed moments in our history, including the election of Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible without the work of Brian Keenan and his colleagues.

I was one of those who was privileged to work alongside Brian in developing responses to the many challenges that faced us in recent times.

On behalf of that small group let me say we will miss him dreadfully. In the run in to the Special Ard Fheis on policing I was at numerous meetings with Brian. At one particularly pivotal discussion he made a few remarks which turned into a keynote address.

Brian was like that. When he mustered his thoughts and weighed up all the possibilities and got the measure of what could be done, his remarks were inspirational.

On this occasion he started off by saying ‘my time in republicanism is coming to a close.’

It became clear as he spoke with great passion and clarity that he saw this as one of his last big contributions.

So I wrote down what he said. And I think it’s appropriate that the man who organised his own funeral should also contribute to his own oration.

Brian spoke about the fears and the hopes he had for the future. About the pitfalls and opportunities that may open up. About our strengths. About the strength of our opponents.

He always had an ability to deal with realities. That’s what marks out the real visionary from the dreamer; the revolutionary from the verbaliser; the do-er from the theorist.

Struggle has to be embedded in the daily realities of peoples lives. He believed that what we had achieved thus far was mighty but he asked and I quote,

“Was it good enough? No. Why? Because the Brits are still in our country.” He went on.

“But we have made great advances. Strategically we have kept to our united Ireland objectives. We are working with the best people we could ever meet.

“People who have shown great courage and discipline and honesty. I am immensely proud of the young people coming up. I believe we will achieve our goals.

“I hear talk from some quarters about war. I will not lightly commit successive generations to continuous war.

“Armed actions were always about advancing and defending our struggle. Anyone else using violence for any other aim needs to be challenged.

“There is only one option. Republicans must go forward with the strength we have into government, onto new ground, building our political strength, changing our country.

“This is not about changing a flag. It is about a socialist republic. It’s about a continuous inexorable drive - a mobilisation - towards the republic.

“That is our responsibility that is our moral duty.

“Unity is our strength. We have a moral responsibility not to do anything that hurts our struggle.

“There will be many challenges. The DUP may not come forward. The Brits may mess about. But we have to keep going at them. We have to keep going.”

Brian Keenan’s dedication to the republican struggle was unswerving.

Brian loved the IRA.

He was passionate about his republicanism.

He was totally unselfish in his commitment.

He personified all that is sound about our struggle.

He was never a war monger, but he had a justifiable sense of pride in the IRAs ability to take on and fight the British Army to a standstill.

His pride wasn’t in glorifying or glamorising war in some elitist sense.

It was pride in the ingenuity and talent and ability of the mostly working class men and women who rose up against a numerically stronger, much better armed and imperial military power.

But he saw the IRA as a instrument. His commitment was to the people and to the Republic. The Army was a means to that end. He believed in the primacy of politics.

And he understood the need to build Sinn Féin as the vehicle of republican struggle.

His working class politics and his republican and socialist principles were his constant guide through four decades of unstinting activism.

That was his hallmark plus an ability to attract and work together with other highly competent and talented men and women; to motivate and inspire and encourage.

When we last met a week before he slipped into death Brian was as ready as ever to give his assessment and to express his view of what republicans need to do; whether in terms of building the party in the south; the Lisbon Treaty campaign, or the DUP stalling on the transfer of powers on policing and justice.

He was a huge influence on us all. He would also be a little embarrassed by all of the nice things that have been said about him over recent days. But he would be very pleased.

Occasionally, particularly in stressful times he would say to some of us ‘I love youse to bits’ And so he did. So I am confident that he would not want us feeling sad or sorry for him or for his loss to our struggle.

That’s why as part of his funeral he organised for the Roddy’s to be open for any of you who want to go there and relax before heading home. There will be musicians. And drink. Brian wanted a celebration. He also told me to tell you all that Fra Fox is standing the first round.

Finally a chiarde, Mairtin O Direain in a tribute to Mairtin O Cadhain had a few focail suited to Brian Keenan.

Le fioch ba minic a d’fhiuchais.
Truabhail do chleacht
A lion doracht gur scaoil
Mura ndeachaigh namhaid na cara Féin slan
O aghaidh do chraois
Maitear a lan do ri an fhocail;
Maithfear duitse mar sin...

You often boiled with fury,
Your traditions dereliction
Swelled your heart to bursting.
If neither friend or enemy escaped
Your abrasive tongue,
Much is forgiven the king of the word:
Much will be forgiven you...

Brian only looked forward; to the future.

And that’s what he would want from us.

To look forward. To the future.

Slan Brian a stor. Slan

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