Extraordinary Trip to Ireland

Blizzards, power outages, airplane mechanical issues, missing luggage, unplanned stops in foreign airports and cancelled hotel reservations couldn’t keep the large contingent of AOH and LAOH members from making the trip to Derry this year to attend the final Bloody Sunday commemoration march.  The trip started out more like an episode of “The Amazing Race” than our yearly visit to Derry.  Members left from airports in Florida, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Newark with most taking connecting or direct flights to Belfast or Dublin. More than 30 plus hours after the original planned arrival and with unexpected stops in airports from London, Paris, Frankfort and Shannon many arrived exhausted and with no luggage – but it did not dampen our enthusiasm or dedication to complete our journey.  To be there and to feel the vindication that the Bloody Sunday families experienced was entirely worth every obstacle we had to overcome.  It was an amazing and unforgettable trek that the AOH and LAOH members from Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas will not soon forget.

Our trip started in Belfast but because of the late arrival we were forced to cancel many of the visits and events that we had scheduled. Luckily we were still able to meet and greet the organizations that we support in Belfast at our welcome dinner in Culturlann on the Falls Road in West Belfast.  With the majority of people eating their first meal in two nights not in an airport or on a plane, the great food and Irish music was much appreciated.  Our presentations on Friday night to Relatives for Justice, Belfast National Graves, Coiste, Green Cross and the West Belfast Suicide Awareness group were well received with sincere thanks from the representatives of these groups.  Most of the groups we met that Friday night in Culturlann are long time groups tied to the Republican community but all recognized the importance of our support of cross community efforts.  On Saturday we took a brilliant tour of the historic Belfast City Hall hosted by former Sinn Fein Belfast Mayor Tom Hartley.  Former LAOH FFAI chair Kathy Savage later told me, “This was truly a highlight of being in Belfast. I have to say that I had marched for many years in the Anti-Internment March in Belfast and could never even go near the City Hall so to be able to tour it with a former Sinn Fein Mayor was a wonderful experience for me. It is such a beautiful & historical building”.

Later that afternoon the group made a very special stop at the remembrance wall on Beechmount St. in West Belfast.  In my last article I described the wall as a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done to bring justice to those lost to British state-sponsored murder.  We met long time civil rights champion Clara Reilly, Robert McGlenahan from the justice group An Fhírinne and Jim McCabe.  (For a video of our presentation visit the AOH homepage.) Jim McCabe’s story is a sad all too common one about the discriminatory way the British security system treated the Irish and the justice that is stilled denied many.  On the same day that hunger striker Joe McDonnell died on July 9th, 1981, Jim McCabe’s wife Nora was murdered by the RUC – it was just three months after the birth of her child. RUC members including the senior officer testified at the inquiry into her murder in November 1982. The RUC claimed that there were barricades on the Falls Road in West Belfast; they testified that there were rioters and that they fired two plastic bullets when petrol bombs were thrown at them.  Their account also stated that there were burning vehicles on the road.  Unbeknownst to the RUC until the November 1982 inquiry was that a Canadian film crew had filmed the attack. That film showed that there was no rioting, or barricades or petrol bombs.  What it did show was the RUC vehicle turning to where Nora was walking and the firing of rubber bullets. Nora McCabe was shot in the back of the head at close range by a plastic bullet fired from that RUC vehicle. She died the next day in hospital from her injuries. Inexplicably and despite the film evidence the Director of Public Prosecutions or DPP decided not to press any charges against the RUC officers.  It was only in April of last year that Jim and his family experienced some vindication when another court ruled that there were significant factual conflicts between the evidence of the RUC witnesses and the film evidence. The judge said that consideration ought to have been given to charging the RUC witnesses with perjury.  Jim and Nora’s youngest child who was just three months when her mom was murdered is now 30 years old. That is entirely too long to wait for justice.  What do you say to a man like Jim McCabe? How do you try to make sense of what happened or not feel a rage at those who killed his wife, covered up the truth and protected murderers?  In an article referencing this story Gerry Adams wrote “Jim McCabe is one of our unsung heroes. He reared his young family while pursuing truth and justice for his wife Nora. I am sure there were times when grief, anger and frustration must have threatened to overwhelm him. But he never gave up. He persisted”.

As we prepared to make our way to Derry, Kathy Savage’s comments and the story of Nora McCabe would put our trip in perspective.  The North has come a long way, touring Belfast City hall with a former Sinn Fein mayor would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago, so there has been progress made.  But the story of Nora McCabe reminded us that in the North of Ireland the time it takes to achieve justice is often measured not in days, months or years but generations.  Nora McCabe and the hundreds other on that wall on Beechmount Street deserve justice, the wall is a testament to the fact that there is still much that needs to be done.

On our way to Derry our group stopped in Bellaghy, County Derry at the graves of hunger strikers Francis Hughes and Thomas McEllwee, we met with local activists and representatives and discussed the current social and political landscape of the North.  Texas AOH member Tim Pat O’Connor read at the grave site memorials to Hughes and McEllwee that Tim’s division places every year in local papers to commemorate the anniversaries of the hunger strikers.

The focal point of our trip would be our time in Derry and that would prove to be very memorable.  The Derry AOH as always provided tremendous hospitality, and mass was celebrated at the hall with a large crowd in attendance.  Christmas Appeal donations were made to the Pat Finucane Center of Derry, the Ti Chulain center in South Armagh, the Bloody Sunday Families and the world renowned Bogside Artists (more on this group in my next Digest article).  Our visit to Derry was made even more special by the attendance of two special guests; past AOH Sean McBride winner and the author of “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” Don Mullan and Patricia Breglio.  Mullan addressed those gathered at the AOH on Saturday night and spent time with our group at the march on Sunday. Don was also instrumental in arranging for the group to be received at the Guildhall in Derry where current Lord Mayor Colum Eastwood presented Patricia with a plaque to commemorate her visit to the city.  Patricia’s father Robert Breglio was an NYPD ballistics expert who worked with Don Mullan gathering and reviewing ballistic evidence that was instrumental in the appointment of the Saville Inquiry.  Robert passed away prior to the release of the Saville Inquiry but his daughter Patricia made it a point to represent her father at this historic event.  It was a tremendous honor to have Patricia and her cousin Walter on the trip with us.

Sunday’s memorial and march were emotional and historic. For the first time Protestant clergy attended and contributed at the morning memorial, but conspicuous by their absence and silence were any Unionist politicians – I guess that would be too much to ask for.  It was by all accounts the largest march ever and very symbolically the march ended at the Guildhall, just where it was supposed to have ended 39 years earlier. Many were heard to ask what would have happened if the British paratroopers let the march finish as planned 39 years ago. What would have happened if they didn’t murder innocent people? What was gained by stopping the march a little less than a quarter mile before its planned end?  How would have the history of the North changed? There are questions that are without an answer.  The end of the final march was celebratory unlike any previous ones.  Vindication was indeed in the air. Instead of ending with the reading of all the victims of Bloody Sunday’s names and a moment of silence, all in attendance were asked to applaud as the names were read.  Thousands applauded and eventually ended the day singing We Shall Overcome. Somewhere one had to hope that the victims: Patrick Doherty, Gerald Donaghy, Jackie Duddy, Hugh Gilmour, Michael Kelly, Michael McDaid, Kevin McElhinney, Barney McGuigan, Gerald McKinney, William McKinney, William Nash, Jim Wray, John Young and John Johnston could finally rest in peace vindicated.

Leaving Derry we would, over the next several days, meet and learn more about other groups that our Christmas Appeal supports; Cairde in Strabane, the Omagh Basketball team and Omagh Choir in Omagh and Justice for the forgotten in Monaghan.

In Strabane we were hosted by the ex-prisoner group, Cairde.  We visited the community development area that Cairde has helped develop over the years; what had been waste land has been developed into sport fields, an Irish speaking school and a community garden of plants and vegetables. Kathleen Savage and I had the great honor of planting the first of what will be twelve trees in memory of the hunger strikers of 1981 and Frank Stagg and Michael Gaughan.

A highlight of the trip was our time in Omagh where we met with the Omagh basketball team, toured the Ulster American Folk park, visited the garden of remembrance dedicated to the memory of those lost in the Omagh bombing, met with AOH members from Tyrone and attended a dinner hosted by the Omagh basketball team.  Our good friend and Philadelphia AOH division 39 member, Eamonn Daly, and the team arranged for our entire group and to have dinner at Sally’s in Omagh.  It was a tremendous night where local officials, team members and their families welcomed us to Omagh and thanked us for our support of this cross community program.  Recognized especially for their support in organizing the 2010 Omagh basketball tour of the U.S. were Frank Kearney, Richard Thompson, Jere Cole, Tim Myles and the AOH of Philadelphia.  Thanks to the efforts of AOH National Director Danny O’Connell we were also entertained by the world class Omagh choir another successful cross community group that the Christmas appeal had supported.  We hope to post highlights of their performances on the AOH website and online digest.  In Omagh we also experienced first-hand a great example of Hibernian friendship, unity and Christian Charity.  Patti Flaus of Allegheny County Pennsylvania received a call late one evening and was told that her mother was hospitalized and she needed to come home.  After the initial shock many pitched in to do whatever we could to help Patti make calls to try to get home.  It was almost midnight and we were hours from Belfast or Dublin airport.  Finally we were able to make flight plans and arranged for a taxi to bring Patti to Dublin airport.  The fare for this three plus hour taxi ride was 125 Euros.  There were about a dozen of our members in the hotel bar and we passed the hat to help defray the cost of the taxi.  In a little over five minutes we had collected enough to pay the fare, tip and allow Patti to have a meal in the airport.  It was a great testament to those who without hesitation pitched in and donated to help a fellow Hibernian.  Luckily Patti made it home and even better news is that her Mom is recovering.

In Monaghan we were received by local representatives including Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, it was interesting to get his take on the upcoming Irish elections.  We also met Margaret Unwin director of Justice for the Forgotten a group that has worked for justice for those lost in the Dublin- Monaghan bombing and other unsolved collusion murders of the troubles.

In Dublin, a 1916 themed tour that included Kilmainham Gaol, the Arbor Hill graves of the leaders of 1916 and the GPO provided a historical perspective of the struggle for Irish freedom.  Our tour concluded with a reception that the Irish government hosted for our group in the Iveagh House, which is the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. This was possible thanks to the efforts of our National President Seamus Boyle, National Director Jere Cole and National Immigration Chair Dan Dennehy.  Over the years they had developed close ties with the past Irish Consul General Niall Burgess, who is now head of the Department of Foreign Affairs.  Prior to the reception members of the National Boards met with Burgess and members of his staff to discuss immigration, legacy issues in the North of Ireland, the growth of the AOH in the south and future plans to work closely on several topics.