by Mary Nelis
Between the years 1983 and 1987, twenty-five Republican funerals were attacked by the RUC and British troops. This was seen as a desecration of the most sacred ritual, the ritual of burying your dead with dignity. The attacks caused widespread anger in the Republican/ Nationalists communities. This was exacerbated by the double standards of the Catholic hierarchy, which forbade the draping of coffins in church with the National Flag -the Tricolour. British Forces dead were allowed into Catholic churches with full military honours, including the draping of the coffin with the Union flag. Despite the efforts of many decent priests, the Catholic Bishop’s ban on the Irish National flag angered many, especially young Catholics who could not understand the double standards of the bishops.
In March 1987, an IRA Volunteer, Gerard Logue from the Waterside area of Derry, was accidentally shot while on active service. He died some days later in Altnagelvin Hospital.
As was the Republican tradition, Oglach na hEireann soldiers were given a Republican military funeral. The coffin of the Volunteer covered with the National flag was escorted by comrades in IRA military uniform to the Church and later to the final resting place in the cemetery. As was the custom a volley of shots was fired over the coffin of the volunteer.
The Catholic Church had long banned coffins draped in the National flag from entry into the Church for Requiem Mass. The RUC were determined to stamp out the military tradition and in that year(1987). they had attacked many funerals including that of Larry Marley in Belfast. The RUC tried to prevent the coffin containing the remains of Larry Marley leaving the family home draped in the Tricolour. The family resisted and a three day stand- off developed between the Marley family, mourners and the RUC before the funeral was permitted to proceed. This received a lot of media coverage internationally. With tacit support from the Catholic hierarchy the attacks on Republican funerals continued.
This was clearly demonstrated when hundreds of RUC jeeps accompanied the remains of Gerard Logue along the route to St. Columba’s Church, Long Tower.
An IRA Guard of Honour accompanied the coffin into the grounds of the Church where a volley of shots were fired over the coffin. The Tricolour was removed and the coffin was then carried into the Church for Requiem Mass.
With the Requiem Mass over the remains of Gerard began its journey to the cemetery accompanied by a heavy RUC presence.
Bishop Edward Daly was outraged at the firing of shots within Church grounds. He issued a statement banning all paramilitary coffins and all Republican military funerals from Church grounds. It seemed that in effect it was a ban on traditional Republican funerals and IRA volunteers being accorded a requiem Mass.
The situation was further exacerbrated later in the month when another IRA Volunteer was killed. The funeral of Finnbar Mc Kenna could only be described as a battleground between mourners and the RUC. The RUC attacked the funeral procession and many people were beaten and badly injured. My son Martin was beaten so badly that he ended up in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
My son Liam at that time was 28 years old. He had fallen in love with an American woman, Peggy Grimes, a graduate of Yale University, whom he had met some years previously and they were to be married on the 19th August of that year.
Meanwhile, Liam’s future wife had read in the American papers of the ban imposed on Republican funerals entering Church grounds. Peggy wasted no time in writing Bishop Daly of her dismay and objections to his ban and informing him that she and Liam were to be married in St Eugene’s Cathedral on the 19th August, and enquired if he, the Bishop, would also be banning the weddings of Republicans.
I knew nothing of this until some time later when the priest, Fr Michael Doherty, who was to officiate at the wedding, arrived at my door to inform me that Bishop Edward Daly had instructed him not to officiate at the wedding. This was upsetting for the family but Liam and I decided that we would ask Fr. Des Wilson, a friend from Belfast if he would conduct the ceremony. I rang Fr. Des who told me he would be on holiday on that date and suggested I asked Fr. Joe Mc Veigh, another friend who at that time was a curate in Irvinestown.
Fr. Joe readily agreed. I am not sure who made the decision on whether to have the wedding in our home rather than in the Church but Fr. Michael Doherty was informed. Some weeks later he came back to our home to say that he would after all officiate at Liam and Peggy’s marriage in the Cathedral.
I don’t know what transpired between Fr Doherty and Bishop Daly. I know that Bishop Daly and I had not been on good terms since I stood, clad only in a blanket outside the door of the Cathedral in 1976, to protest the treatment of Republican prisoners in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. The Nelis name was probably persona non grata with the Bishop.
In any event I called Fr. Joe McVeigh to tell him that the wedding was going ahead in the Cathedral with Fr. Doherty officiating. I think Fr. Joe would have preferred the other arrangement but I also believe that the notion of couples marrying in their own homes rather than in church would have sounded a warning bell in the Bishop’s head. Liam and Peggy were married on the 19th August 1987 as planned.
In October that same year (1987), two IRA volunteers, were killed in a premature bomb explosion. Their names were Patrick Deery and Eddie McSheffrey. Their deaths were greeted with great sorrow not just by their families but by the community in which they lived and the people of Derry as a whole.
The ban on the funerals of IRA Volunteers was still in place and the families of the two Volunteers were determined that they would be buried as they would have wanted. Meetings took place between the Bishop and the representatives of the families but they ended without resolution.
On the morning of the funerals, a large presence of RUC gathered outside the Church. The coffins of The Volunteers followed by a huge crowd of mourners arrived at the Church grounds. The coffins were removed from the hearse and carried by relatives to the door of the Cathedral. The bishop did not appear but a priest stood at the door. The relatives walked past him into the Church.
The funerals of Eddie Mc Sheffrey and Paddy Deery were among the most violent that took place during that period. As the cortege made its way up Eastway Road, mourners and relatives were attacked and many were seriously injured requiring hospital treatment. One young man was beaten so badly that his testicles had to be removed. The evidence of this brutality emerged in a photograph in the local paper of Eastway Road, covered with shoes, dislodged from the feet of mourners as they fled the onslaught.