The family of Official IRA commander Joe McCann have marked the 50th anniversary of his death.
Mr McCann was shot in controversial circumstances in the Markets area of Belfast on April 15 1972. He had been unarmed when British troops opened fire on him at Joy Street, close to Belfast city centre.
Eyewitnesses were clear that ‘Big Joe’ had been shot once in the back and wounded in the leg as he ran from the patrol – but a soldier then fired at least ten rounds as he lay on the ground.
His funeral was one of the biggest the region had ever seen up to that point. Around 100 women carrying wreaths followed the Tricolour-draped coffin, as did four MPs, including the internationally-known civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin. The funeral procession included both an Official IRA contingent and Provisional IRA members, and thousands lined the route to the cemetery.
At the graveside, Cathal Goulding, chief of staff of the Official IRA, said that McCann had been “murdered” by “the agents of imperialism and the Orange junta” in the North.
In Washington, the State Department heard that the killing of McCann had boosted support for the IRA. In London, a senior member of the government admitted to the Irish ambassador that the British had made “a martyr” of McCann.
On the introduction of internment in August the same year he was among a group of Official IRA men who took over the Inglis Bakery in the Markets area of south Belfast and was involved in a famous all-night gun battle with British troops.
During the fight for control of the district, Mr McCann was pictured in the silhouette of a burning building, holding an M1 carbine as a Starry Plough flag hung overhead. The iconic image continues to be widely shared to this day.
As Life magazine put it: “Joe was a tall, thin man who moved only in leaps and crouches.. He was an absolute hero to his men, mostly neighbourhood irregulars, and as he directed them with grunts and waves of the American semi-automatic carbine he carried in one hand, he looked as though all Ireland were at stake on Eliza Street.”
Mr McCann’s involvement in the republican movement dated back to his teenage years when as a 14 year old he joined Na Fianna Éireann before becoming an member of the IRA in the early 1960s.
Before the outbreak of conflict, he had been an active campaigner for better and fair public housing allocation. In October 1968, McCann was photographed in a march to Belfast’s City Hall carrying a placard demanding ‘Civil rights for EVERYONE’.
When the IRA split towards the end of 1969 into what became known as Officials and Provisionals, he became a senior Official IRA figure in Belfast.
Relatives and friends of Mr McCann gathered in Belfast last week for a commemoration at the spot where he was shot dead. A short procession was followed by speeches, a wreath laying ceremony, and an exhibition.
His son Feargal McCann said it was important for his family to remember his father.
“It’s of huge significance for us,” he said.
“Fifty years is quiet a milestone and given the current events that have happened since the failure of the PPS (Public Prosecution Service) to prosecute, it’s the first public chance for us to comment on the case as well and how we felt it went.
“It’s significant for us and for a lot of people, republicans themselves, but even the ordinary people of the Market who remember him.”
He said that his family continues to feel the loss of his father.
“There’s not a day that goes past we don’t think about him,” he said.
“And despite the passing of years it’s going to be a hugely emotional day for us and indeed Joe’s extended family and our grandchildren.
“I am a grandfather myself and actually Joe has great grandchildren now, he’s a great grandfather, so despite the passing of years it never fades, it’s always there. It’s the same for every family that suffered a loss, and particularly a violent loss as well.”