Several hundred people attended a commemoration in Derry this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the shooting of two local IRA men by British forces in the Bogside area of the city.
Colm Keenan, who was 19, and Eugene McGillan, who was 18, were killed in the Dove Gardens/Stanley’s Walk area on March 14, 1972. Both were unarmed when they were fired upon by a British Army patrol.
The killings took place amid clashes between the IRA and the British Army on the last day of the original Widgery tribunal into the events of Bloody Sunday.
The two young men were taken into houses in the area after they had been shot. Local residents who attempted to assist the wounded teenagers were clear that neither was armed, despite claims by the British military that they were.
Speaking at the commemoration, held on Monday evening at a refurbished republican monument on Lecky Road, former Sinn Féin Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin paid tribute to both men.
He said: “1972 opened as a terrible year in Derry. It began with Bloody Sunday when 14 people were shot dead and 14 others left with crippling and life-long injuries, and in total throughout that year nine of our bravest volunteers were to make the ultimate sacrifice.
“Today, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Colm Keenan and Eugene McGillan, two brave IRA Volunteers who were shot down in a hail of machine gun fire during a raid by the British Army into the Free Derry area.
“Afterwards, the Brits claimed that they were escorting investigators of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. However, as the Bloody Sunday murders had happened in the Glenfada Park and Rossville Street area, and Colm and Eugene had been shot down in Dove Gardens/Stanley’s Walk, I have always considered that claim to be as truthful as the statements issued by the British Army after Bloody Sunday. The now totally discredited Widgery Report demonstrated that the British Government had no interest or intention of investigating British Army killings.
“The Bloody Sunday massacre had been authorised by the British Government and I am convinced the British Army operation that night had been sanctioned at the highest level. The mission was to hit the IRA headquarters in the Gasyard cottage, but that raid had been thwarted by the vigilance of volunteers guarding the barricades.
“The Brits suffered heavy casualties that night as IRA Volunteers mounted a very determined defence of the area but did not become clear until afterwards that Colm had been killed outright and Eugene had been badly wounded.
“This was the deadly reality in those early days of Free Derry and many other nationalist areas in the North. In addition to the sectarian RUC and UDR, the British Army was operating as the cutting-edge of British Government policy to subjugate the nationalist community in the Six Counties.
“In the 50 years since Colm and Eugene died, Derry has made a huge contribution for Irish freedom. Political attitudes have also changed radically over that period. It is now beyond dispute that a united Ireland will be achieved and those today of the same age as Colm and Eugene when they died will live to see that dream realised.
“Even in 1972, Derry had already had its long-standing republican history and many of those who had been active in the IRA in previous generations, their siblings and their children and their children’s children had become involved in the modern day conflict, even though in this city the prominent political outlook was more nationalist than conservative.
“Colm was brought up in a republican household. His father (Sean) was a republican leader throughout all of his adult life. Colm’s mother, Nancy Ward, was a republican icon in her own right. His brothers, Sean and Seamus, had already made the commitment to republicanism and his sister, Roisin, was a highly regarded platform speaker in the anti-internment campaign of that time.
“However, Colm’s decision to join the IRA was also based on his opposition to the Vietnam War and the principled support for the Palestinian cause.
“Eugene McGillan had a different and some what longer journey into republicanism. Politics were rarely discussed in his home. His parents were quiet and non-political people, good neighbours to all and very well respected in the Rathowen Park neighbourhood.
“Early, in 1972, Eugene had started working with me and had become my apprentice and, as we say in Derry, was the ‘best of craic’ and a solid and reliable friend.
“Internment was the issue that compelled Eugene to join the IRA. He made his own mind up and like so many others decided that the British Government and the British Army had to be challenged in every way possible.
“The funerals of Colm and Eugene reflected the prevailing attitudes in society at the time but also reflected the changes that had to come about.
“Colm Keenan had a republican funeral with full military honours. His father, Sean, was released from internment to attend and republicans from far and wide, including national leadership, attended.
“Eugene’s family had organised a private family burial, a decision which was their entitlement and which was accepted and respected by the republican movement. We knew them both as committed Volunteers.
“We recognise their selfless contribution and we will ensure they will be always be honoured and sacrifice for the struggle for freedom, justice and peace in Ireland.
“I want to, in particular, note that Eugene’s family has joined us this evening for this commemoration.
“Of all the tributes I’d like to see paid to these fantastic Volunteers, the McGillan family making this journey is testimony, in my view, to the integrity of the struggle and to the integrity of our Volunteers.”
Floral tributes were laid by Christy Tucker and Patsy McNaught on behalf of the Martin McGuinness Cumann and Pearse/Starrs Cumman respectively. Members of the Keenan and McGillan families also laid floral tributes.