By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
In Ireland’s centuries long struggle for independence, exceptional men and women, heroes, emerged, which set them apart and around whom people rallied, inspired and motivated by them.
Ireland’s history is replete with people of renown, without whom the struggle for independence would have long been defeated.
If it is possible for one individual to embody the spirit, the dynamic, the duration and durability, the depth and complexity of the republican struggle over the last forty-five years then it is Bobby Storey, ‘Bob Mor’, big Bob, as he was known affectionately in republican circles.
Bob Mor’s unexpected passing last week sent shockwaves through activists and supporters of the Republican Movement in Ireland.
The loss to his partner Teresa, the love of his life and rock in recent years, and her children and grandchildren and Bobby’s own family is immeasurable. In Teresa’s company he glowed. His love and care for his late parents Bobby and Peggy his sister Geraldine and brother Brian, who has special needs, showed his great humanity.
Bobby was a towering figure in terms of height and his personality; he was 6’ 5” - a beacon with a big generous heart – money and material comforts were not a priority.
His close friend and comrade Gerry Kelly said: “Bobby took the marathon of life and ran it as a sprint.”
He was powerhouse, a human dynamo, irrepressible in pursuit of a united Ireland: “Why else would you bother getting out of bed in the morning,” he told a journalist.
He was a skilled and great listener and gave people space around him; a mentor and an adviser on many life and struggle related topics. He was patient with those who veered from the struggle and kept the political door open.
He used his own confidence to instil it in those he met especially republican activists. You left him feeling reassured, uplifted and confident whatever the challenge you faced – great reverence and loyalty were returned.
He was charismatic with a magnetic, charming and infectious personality; a caring nature which endeared people to him; men, women and especially children.
Bobby enveloped his personality in a quick-witted and bottomless, self-deprecating yet fluent sense of humour, assisted by his deft use of a speech impediment, which he applied in all sorts of circumstances, fraught and relaxed. A storyteller extraordinaire. A stand-up comedian in another life.
His lifelong friend John Pickering spoke of his recall and forensic mind - sharp, astute and keen, which analysed, computed and stored facts; which he employed during the conflict and the peace process.
He was hugely influential during both phases of the struggle; fearless, a problem-solver, he led from the front on all the big issues of our time: the IRA’s ceasefire, Sinn Féin’s entry to Stormont, support for policing and IRA decommissioning.
His span of service to the struggle covered practically all of the IRA’s armed campaign and the peace and political processes.
He was part of the republican struggle when the use of arms dominated it and the consequences of war were all too present for republican activists: risk to life, arrest, interrogation centres, imprisonment, losing comrades.
He was in gaol for twenty years for his republican activities. His first time in prison was as a 17-year-old when he was interned in 1973. I recall seeing him in the company of John Pickering, Kieran Doherty and Joe McDonnell as they walked around Cage 3. He was frequently on remand, in Crumlin Road prison, in interrogation centres and spent time in prison in England charged with aiding the late Brian Keenan to escape.
Brian and Bobby shared many characteristics – particularly a determined will.
He brought all his skills to bear on one of the biggest endeavours of his life – the great escape from the H-Blocks of Long Kesh in 1983.
Another friend and comrade, Eibhlin Glenholmes sent me a shortened version of Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘When Great Trees Fall’, in tribute to Bobby.
‘When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder lions hunker down in tall grasses and even elephants lumber after safety…….
‘And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.’