a family at war

Sons and Guns" is chapter eleven of Peter Taylor's book "Families at War" - the stories of three groups of families caught up in the violence - Catholics, Protestants and British soldiers. BBC Books, London. 1989.

[Reprinted with permission of the author and BBC Books]

...The hunger strike is the ultimate weapon in the IRA's traditional armoury of protest and can only be undertaken as a last resort when sanctioned by the organisation's ruling Army Council. In the autumn of 1980 it gave authorisation for selected prisoners in the Maze to embark on a hunger strike. On 27 October seven Republican prisoners refused food and began their 'fast to the death'. One of them was Thomas McKearney. He told his mother and father, 'I'll put all my cards on the table. I'm going on hunger strike. If and when I die, I want to be brought back to Roscommon and be buried alongside my "Granda" . . . Don't let people try to influence you, your only friends will be the Republican Movement. If I die, never let the family be ashamed. If I die, I'll die in the knowledge that my life was for the cause and for the other boys here. If at my funeral the press say, "See how the IRA let your son die", just say, "My son died as an Irish soldier, not a British criminal".'

Tommy McKearney went without food for 53 days. Great pressure was applied on Mrs. McKearney - and the other families to persuade their sons to come off. As Margaret McKearney remembers, her mother would not hear of it. 'I remember her saying, "He's twenty-eight. At twenty-eight a man can make his own decisions." That's always been her attitude. She understands why they do what they do. She would never interfere.' Tommy came within hours of death. Mrs McKearney had begun to alert all the cousins and nieces and to get the house ready for the funeral. 'In the last few days, the authorities let us in nearly every day. Tommy was like someone dying of cancer. He was just a bag full of bones. How they ever come back to normality after such an experience, I'll never know.' The hunger strike was called off on 18 December 1980 after the prisoners were led to believe they had won significant concessions from the government. But the concessions proved illusory, and two months later the IRA prisoner, Bobby Sands, began the final showdown. This time it was to the death. Nine others followed him.

By the time Tommy McKearney had begun his hunger strike, his brother Padraig had joined him in gaol, sentenced in 1980 to fourteen years for possession of a loaded sten gun. But unlike his brother, Padraig McKearney got out early, unofficially - on 25 September 1983 along with thirty-seven other IRA prisoners in the biggest gaol break in British prison history. Padraig was one of the handful who was never recaptured. He appears not to have made straight for the border where every blade of grass would be watched but to have sought refuge, literally, under the floorboards of a 'safe' house within the North.* And he wasn't alone. Remarkably, seven other escapees are said to have shared the space with him, which was directly under the living-room of the house. At one stage the smell was so powerful that they were ordered to pass out their socks for washing lest it attract the sniffer dogs that roamed the area still in pursuit of the escapees. They stayed there for two weeks. There were said to have been heated discussions about the direction the Republican Movement was taking - not least over the political path down which Sinn Fein President (and Westminster MP) Gerry Adams and the Belfast leadership seemed intent on taking it. Padraig McKearney, it seems, was advocating the 'third phase' of the struggle, what he termed 'the strategic defensive' in which the RUC, UDR and army would be denied all support in selected areas following repeated attacks on their bases. During the long hours and even longer days in the cramped conditions under the boards, some of the men started to pray, a gesture most had abandoned long ago. Padraig adamantly refused to do so, declaring that it was a well-known fact that there was no such thing as God. He was an atheist and a communist too - like his brother Tommy who was subsequently to split with the Provisionals and form his own revolutionary socialist movement, Congress '86, which, nevertheless, did not forswear 'the armed struggle'. What Padraig and Tommy McKearney both questioned was the military strategy and direction of the leadership of the Republican Movement.

I asked Mrs McKearney how she reacted when she heard that Padraig was 'out'. She said she just wondered how long it would be before he was recaptured. Occasionally, once he was safe in the South, she would see him, having got a message that he needed a pair of boots. For Christmas he said he wanted a jumper and a couple of shirts: they'd be more useful to him than a video or a cassette. 'A strange existence, a strange existence,' she mused staring down at the tablecloth, almost oblivious of my presence. I wondered whether she'd tried to persuade him to leave the IRA once he'd escaped, to minimise the risk of recapture or death whilst on an operation. 'I suppose I'm a bad mother, but I don't think I ever asked him to leave,' she said, looking up. 'I can't answer for that side of my make-up. He didn't fight for personal gain. When he died, he had 10p in his pocket. In his bag were two shirts, a paperback, The Year of the French, and a pair of trunks. They were all his belongings. That was his wealth in this world.' She keeps the zip bag upstairs in the loft...

*This account is based on the book, Out of the Maze, by Dublin journalist Derek Dunne. The book is based on interviews conducted with some of the men who evaded capture.

Margaret was very close to Padraig, as brother and sister both born in the same year. She was obviously deeply upset when I raised the subject and needed some time to compose herself before she could bring herself to discuss ti. She asked me if I had any brothers and sisters. She said she didn't kow how to explain her feelings without sounding dreadful. 'In every family you love everybody, but there's always one to whom you feel terribly, terribly close - a natural affinity. It doesn't affect your love for the rest, it's just one person you can go to with your troubles. Padraig was that person for me in my family. I was extremely upset when he was arrested for the third time [in 1980] and I thought I'd never see him again. [Margaret was unable to cross the border and visit him in gaol lest she be arrested herself.] I always saw him as my "big" brother because I was so small and he was nearly six foot.' It was only two and a half months after his escape before Padraig got to Dublin and saw his sister. He arrived at the beginning of December 1983, almost like a ghost from her past. 'I always remember him coming through the door. He just looked so small, thin and tiny. He'd been living in ditches and under floorboards, literally, and it had really taken its toll. I was shocked when I saw him. I thought, My God, he's not my "big " brother. He seemed so shrivelled and shrunk. He was literally physically wrecked, and mentally wrecked too. He just wanted a little bit of time to get his body and self together.'

By the beginning of 1984 Padraig had recovered, managing to remain at liberty whilst, in ones and twos, his fellow escapees were gradually being picked up. At the time of writing, none of the thirty-seven escapees are still at large. Surprisingly, to an outside observer, Padraig didn't stay in the South but returned to the North on active service, a process known as 'going across.' He remained active for the next three years until his death in the ambush set by the police and SAS at Loughgall RUC station on 9 May 1987. I naively asked Margaret whether Loughgall was his first major operation after his escape, having failed at the time to have worked out the chronology clearly in my mind. She laughed. 'It was more like his hundred and first! He was extremely active. He would 'go inside' and stay in for six and seven months at a time. The danger in the North is crossing the border. Once you're in you stay in. After I'd seen him that Christmas, he went back inside and never really left the North after that.'

If there had been a price on her brother's head it would have been high. For three years Padraig McKearney's unit bombed and killed around the border and central areas of the province - apparently, judging from the operational pattern of those years, trying to put into practice the 'third phase of the struggle' that McKearney had discussed during his fortnight under the floorboards. RUC stations were attacked and mortared, and contractors who tried to repair them were killed in order to try and deny the security forces control of more and more areas. Between January 1984 and the end of 1986, there had been over seventy attacks on RUC establishments and more than thirty-five policemen killed, nine of them in an IRA mortar attack on Newry RUC station on 28 February 1985, after which the IRA warned it would shoot any builder who worked on repair. Padraig McKearney was, in the words of the Republican Movement, 'a key figure on some of the most daring and innovative missions in the last few years.'

In the eyes of the police and army Padraig McKearney, at thirty-three, was one of the most experienced and dangerous terrorists in the North. The history of the eight weapons analysed by the security forces in the wake of the ambush at Loughgall gives some idea of the extent of his activities and those of the seven other IRA men killed. RUC forensic experts traced them to over thirty incidents. One of the weapons was a .357 Ruger revolver which had been used in six incidents. It had been seized from a dead police officer in one of the attacks in which Padraig McKearney was said to have been involved. At 6.55 p.m. on 7 December 1985 an IRA unit which apparently included Padraig McKearney launched a gun and bomb attack on Ballygawley police barracks. One member is said to have shot dead two police officers, Constable George Gilliland and Reserve Constable William Clements. The Ruger revolver was then taken from Reserve Constable Clements; it was said to have become Padraig McKearney's personal weapon. The revolver was subsequently traced to three killings, one of them of John Kyle, a man from the Omagh area who, the IRA alleged, had been supplying concrete to a number of RUC establish-ments, presumably to repair the damage the IRA had done.

During this three-year period of frenzied and bloody activity, Margaret occasionally saw her brother in Dublin. The last occasion was around Christmas and New Year 1986-7, when he spent two or three weeks in the Dublin area. 'He came down to me out of the blue one Sunday evening. We had a few drinks, well perhaps more than a few, and we sat and we talked about death. He told me he knew he was going to die at some stage. I found it very hard, because I knew it was probably true. It wasn't inevitable but it was a risk.' Her observation was an understatement given the charmed life her brother had led since his escape from the Maze three years Padraig was on earlier. The last time Margaret and her mother saw Padraig was on 24 March 1987 when Margaret had arranged a family get-together for a Mother's day meal in Monaghan. She had managed to get Padraig to come. 'He was on the best of form that day,' recalls his mother. 'It was the last time I saw him.'

On 8 May 1987 two of the IRA's most experienced units, one from each side of the border, combined for an attack on the small RUC station in the County Armagh village of Loughgall. It was to be a carbon copy of an attack the previous summer on another RUC station at Birches, again in County Armagh (in which the police are said to believe Padraig McKearney was also involved). Around 6 p.m. the IRA took a mechanical digger from a farm near Dungannon and placed a 200-pound bomb in the front bucket. They also hijacked a blue Toyota van. Dressed in boiler suits and trainers and armed with six high-powered rifles, a Spaz shotgun and the Ruger revolver, the eight IRA men - three on the digger and five in the van - made for Loughgall RUC station. They didn't know that the station, which was only manned on a part-time basis, had been cleared in preparation for the SAS ambush. The digger rammed the station, the bomb went off and the police and SAS opened up, killing all eight IRA men. The precise order of events is unclear. The result was not. Eight of the IRA's most experienced men, including Padraig McKearney, were dramatically removed from the scene. Anthony Hughes, an innocent civilian, was also killed, and his brother Oliver seriously wounded. Tragically both were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were few complaints about shooting to kill'. The security forces - and the government and most of the British people - were jubilant at the success at what was obviously a brilliantly planned and executed operation, tempered only by the tragedy the Hughes family suffered. It was the IRA's biggest single loss since 1920.

...Padraig McKearney was buried in the same plot as his brother Sean. The family did not allow Gerry Adams or any of the leaders of the Republican Movement to give the oration at the funeral. Sinn Fein leaders Danny Morrison and Martin McGuiness paid their respects at the wake. Mrs McKearney knew it was an unpopular decision. She's not bitter against the soldiers and police who pulled the triggers. 'I'm not blaming the British soldiers who shot my son dead. It was one soldier fighting another. You wouldn't have to be very bright to work out that Loughgall knew they were coming.'

Margaret is as bitter and unforgiving as her mother. 'I haven't a lot of trust in the IRA at the moment- because somebody betrayed my brother. Someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, wanted my brother dead- whether for pure money or political advantage. I can't make my mind up whether someone just went and took British gold to put my brother and his friends in the grave,* or whether it was part of a preconceived plan for internal reasons - with their little plots and schemes to become part of the constitutional process--when there were men like Padraig who would stand there and say "no". He would have been very concerned abut the political developments - but he was prepared to give them a chance. But Padraig would have stood firm against any "sell out" after twenty years. He was taken out for pure greed or because he stood in the way.' Given the obsessional - and understandable - secrecy that surrounds such operations, we shall probably never know the answer. But the odds are heavily on British intelligence, not on some Machiavellian plot within the Republican Movement.

In conclusion, I asked Mrs McKearney the inevitable question: what had the deaths of her two sons achieved? She paused and gave a long sigh. 'I suppose the straightforward answer is to say it hasn't achieved anything.' There was another long pause while she thought. 'You couldn't pinpoint something they'd really achieved. Their life would have achieved more than their death. Sean was only a short time involved but I would say that Padraig with sixteen years involved has left his mark, his pressure, on the history of this country. All my sons fought for equality on the island of Ireland.' To Mrs McKearney her sons were revolutionaries, more socialist than nationalist. And yet the prerequisite of their socialist or Marxist revolution was first getting the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland. I suggested that after twenty years of strife the British showed not the slightest inclination to go. 'I don't know, I've no idea,' she said sadly. Did she mind? Did she still want the British to go? She sighed for the last time. 'I think if the British left the Irish alone, the two traditions on the island would be forced to come to terms with each other. People would die, but there wouldn't be this bloody civil war.' She put down her teacup and stared out of the window with sadness in her eyes. There was nothing more to be said. I thanked Mrs McKearney and left, with nine heavy scrapbooks under my arm.

* Like the IRA 'mole' working for MI5 in the Stalker case who was paid 30,000 pounds over a period of time for his information.

home .  the conflict .  inside the ira .  readings .  poems & songs .  special reports .  chronology .  map .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts

New Content Copyright © 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline
PBS Online