Oration for Brian Keenan
Dia daoibh a chairde agus failte mór romhaibh uilig. I want to
welcome all of you here today - Brian's family and friends and
comrades from all parts of the island coming together to salute a
On your behalf I want to extend our sympathies to Chrissie; to
Brian's sons and daughters, Bernadette, Annemarie, Chrissie,
Frankie, Sean and Jeanette; his 18 grandchildren and 4 great
grandchildren; his brother Sean, who can't be with us today, his
sister Anne and the wider Keenan family circle.
Tá muid buioch daoibh. Tá fhios agam go bhfuil bhur croí briste.
Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil a lan daoine brónach inniu. Caill muid
I also want to thank Pauline and Tina McNulty in Cullyhanna and
their family, who took such great care of Brian.
He had a very special grá for South Armagh. And I want to thank
everyone from there and Dublin who looked after him during his long
I had put down some names for mention; people like Phil, wee Tom,
Harry, Fra, Christy but then I realised that the list would be too
long. So my friends you all know who you are and you know how much
Brian appreciated your friendship and support.
I want to thank Brian's surgeon Gerry McEntee, his oncologist John
McCaffrey and their family doctor Seamus McHugh, and all the other
nursing and medical staff.
How do you describe Brian Keenan? Where to begin?
For me it began just down the road from here at the bus stop up
from Mrs Campbell's house.
It was 1968. I was getting on the bus. So was Brian Keenan. I was
20 years old. He was 27. I was single. He was married with six
He introduced himself to me. Inquired after my family.
I admired his teddyboy hairstyle.
Our lives were inextricably linked from that point on.
At that time the Orange state was being challenged by the
democratic demands of our generation.
Two years later this area was under military occupation and the
young people of Ballymurphy were resisting the British Army.
I mention all of this only because here we are, close to the spot
where Brian and I first met, 40 years later completing the circle
and saying goodbye.
It is a great honour for me to give this oration. Brian sent for me
about six weeks ago.
He told me that he wanted to make arrangements for his funeral.
I know that he had this conversation with other comrades as well.
He said he didn't think he had much time left.
He said if he died in Cullyhanna that he wanted to be waked there
for one night and then taken to New Barnsley.
He wanted Sean Hughes to say a few words in Cullyhanna and then he
said he wanted me to say a few words at the Garden of Remembrance
in the Murph.
Fear le dha oraid. Shín Brian.
To tell you the truth I was going to make a joke of this and say he
had ordered me and Sean to give the oration, but in fairness he was
very humble about it all.
For example, he told me he was thinking of asking for a republican
funeral - he asked me what I thought of that?
I said I didn't think he qualified on the basis that he was still alive.
He also said he wanted someone sensible to take care of things in
Belfast. In the absence of anyone else I suggested Big Bob.
Brian immediately sent for him and gave him all his orders.
That was Brian.
Even in the face of great illness he never gave up, never stopped
plotting and planning and arguing and looking to how republicans
could best develop our policies and advance our struggle.
He had boundless energy - nervous energy - like a Duracell bunny.
He loved an argument.
At times when he was confronting a problem he came at it from every
I know for certain this was because he agonised over some issues
and spent sleepless nights trying to figure out propositions. He
was very, very intense and drove everybody and especially me, mad
in the process.
But leaving aside politics, if he was socialising or having a
drink, he loved driving people mad anyway just for the devilment of
I'm sure that many, many people here have tales to tell of his
humour and contrariness and craic.
Brian loved people. He loved conversation and debate.
He was very, very well read. And had a huge capacity to retain
information on a enormous range of subjects.
He loved sport, particularly hurling.
He played for St. Gall's and rumour has it that his playing career
ended when he was suspended for life. Which is no mean achievement.
In fairness he always denied this.
He loved the countryside and natural things.
I remember being amazed away back in the early 70's at his
knowledge of trees, wildlife and especially birds.
He loved animals, particularly dogs. He and I had an hilarious
experience one time trying to mate one of his dogs with one of mine.
He loved children and had a childlike ability to engage them.
He loved his own family very, very deeply.
Many, many times over the years he would speak to me of each one of
them separately and individually with considerable pride after some
event in their lives or some accomplishment.
He was especially chuffed as grand children and then great grand
children started to arrive and he took huge interest in their
It's always hard for families of activists, no matter how sound
they are, because the activist is off doing what he or she wants to
do while a partner, a spouse is left to rear youngsters and look
after family affairs.
I have huge time for Chrissie Keenan. The Keenan family are a
credit to her and her love and resilence.
She reared her fine sons and daughters almost single handedly. Is
bean go h'iontach thú Chrissie.
I have memories of times in Donegal in the 70s when Crissie and
her young brood would be waiting up in Mulroy Bay or Gort na Brad
for Brian to arrive for a few days holidays.
Invariably he would be late. Sometimes days late. And then he would
appear like a whirlwind and sweep them all off for a mad adventure.
Then all too soon he would be away off again on his nomadic life's
He cared deeply about other republicans. Those who opened their
homes to the IRA, who sheltered and protected them, had his abiding
loyalty and affection.
He would travel a hundred miles or 500 miles to help a comrade in trouble.
When Tommy Devereaux was ill and in post-operation convalescence,
Brian, who was hardly able to walk, went across the country to gee
He also had a huge affection for Anne Devereaux, who is here with us today.
He was greatly flattered to be honoured at the recent Le Chéile
event and chuffed to meet so many old friends. In fact he spent the
last few months of his life renewing old acquaintances and touching
base with other activists on a one to one basis.
But woe-betide any activist who allowed ego or self gain or elitism
to undermine our struggle.
He also dealt with his illness in an amazing way. He fought cancer
the way he fought all his other battles. With passion, total
commitment and no sense whatsoever of self pity. He said to me
once. 'Life owes me nothing. I'm very lucky.'
In the days before his death he told some of us that he was very happy.
In these remarks I have tried to give some sense of Brian Keenan,
the human being, the Irishman, a comrade, a friend.
Like others here I could tell a thousand stories. Martin McGuiness
or Paddy Doc could tell a thousand more.
Now I come to deal with Brian the IRA Volunteer - the
revolutionary, the activist.
Brian was first arrested in 1964 during the Divis Street riots.
He was beaten and then taken to Hasting Street Barracks where he
was again beaten.
He was refused water to drink or to wash in and after a sham trial
in which the late PJ McGrory demolished the RUC evidence, Brian was
convicted and sentenced to three months in prison or a fine of £85
- a lot of money in those days.
Brain spent 2 weeks in Crumlin Road prison before the money could
be raised to have him released.
By this time he had also spent some years working in England where
he was an active trade unionist and beginning to develop the class
consciousness that was to shape his view of the world for the rest
of his life.
After the Divis Street riots came the 50th anniversary of the 1916
Rising and then the start of the civil rights struggle.
In a recent interview in An Phoblacht Brian described his decision
to join the IRA during this period.
He said: "Anger and frustration about injustice brought me into the
IRA … it was quite easy for me to join the ranks of Óglaigh na
hÉireann and translate that militancy into a military response."
Initially he was one of those, along with Joe Cahill and John Joe
McGirl and others who travelled the length and breadth of the
island after 1969 searching out weapons to defend nationalist areas.
Inevitably, his boundless enthusiasm, his instinctive ability to
encourage and motivate, and his natural talents as a leader and
planner brought him ever greater responsibilities within the IRA.
As a consequence he saw less and less of his family.
He threw himself into the struggle. And for almost a decade he
played a pivotal role during what was a very dangerous and
In 1974 he was arrested and imprisoned in Portlaoise on a
membership charge. Along with others he plotted to escape and on
the evening of March 17th 1975 the lights went out, explosives were
used to blow open a doorway into the yard, the gate in a wire
enclosure was also blasted open with an explosive device.
Unfortunately a heavy lorry which was supposed to smash through
into the yard for the men to escape became entangled in barbed wire.
IRA Volunteer Tom Smyth was shot dead when soldiers opened fire on
the prisoners. Six others prisoners were injured, including Brian,
who was shot in the hand and leg.
Martin Ferris, who was there tells it well. "We could hear the
engine fading at the other side of the gate and we knew then that
the game was up. Brian was wounded but he was still running around
trying to find a way out. In fact himself and Kevin Mallon were
trying to get behind the commanding officer of the Free State Army
garrision to try and jump him and take the gun off him. They hadn't
given up at that stage even though it was fairly obvious that we
were going nowhere."
Brian was released a few months later.
In 1979 he was arrested and taken to England where he did his time,
mostly in the draconian Special Secure Units.
Níl spas agamsa inniu a caint faoi uair seo. Shin sceál eile.
During this period he showed a talent for landscape painting. I
think his paintings were very good. But he bowed to Hughie Doc as a
real painter. His was technically good, he said, but Hughie was a
Even in prison he watched events closely and wrote to me very
often. He never complained once. These years were also the years
when Chrissie Keenan shone as an example of a strong woman in dire
economic times facing the rigours of long journeys with children to
a hostile place. This she did for 16 years.
In 1993 Brian was released and returned home to Belfast.
He immediately returned to activism.
By that point the Sinn Fein peace strategy was well developed and
Brian was a vocal advocate of it in all of his conversations.
I know that at times of great turbulence within republicanism he
defended me and Martin McGuinness and others the length and breadth
of this island.
And this wasn't purely though personal loyalty although he was
hugely loyal. It was because when he argued and debated the issues
out within republican forums he always took and defended the line
which those forums agreed upon.
For him it was always about strategy and tactics. The goals
remained the same - a free, independent United Ireland.
Seán Hughes put it well on Thursday, when he said,
'Brian was a student of Tone, Connolly and Mellows. He knew that
for struggle to be successful you have to bring the people with you
and be able to adapt to any changing political situation.
He believed just as Connolly believed in constitutional action in
normal times, in revolutionary action in exceptional times.'
Brian put it another way. He said for those in struggle who want to
succeed: 'revolutionaries have to be pragmatic - wish lists are for
But it will only be when the history of this period is properly
written that the real extent of the key role Brian played can be
For now let me say that he was central to securing the support of
the IRA leadership and rank and file for a whole series of historic
initiatives which made the peace process possible.
And for the sceptics within unionism, let me remind them that the
recent watershed moments in our history, including the election of
Ian Paisley as First Minister would not have been possible without
the work of Brian Keenan and his colleagues.
I was one of those who was privileged to work alongside Brian in
developing responses to the many challenges that faced us in recent
On behalf of that small group let me say we will miss him dreadfully.
In the run in to the Special Ard Fheis on policing I was at
numerous meetings with Brian. At one particularly pivotal
discussion he made a few remarks which turned into a keynote
Brian was like that. When he mustered his thoughts and weighed up
all the possibilities and got the measure of what could be done,
his remarks were inspirational.
On this occasion he started off by saying 'my time in republicanism
is coming to a close.'
It became clear as he spoke with great passion and clarity that he
saw this as one of his last big contributions.
So I wrote down what he said. And I think it's appropriate that the
man who organised his own funeral should also contribute to his own
Brian spoke about the fears and the hopes he had for the future.
About the pitfalls and opportunities that may open up. About our
strengths. About the strength of our opponents.
He always had an ability to deal with realities. That's what marks
out the real visionary from the dreamer; the revolutionary from the
verbaliser; the do-er from the theorist.
Struggle has to be embedded in the daily realities of peoples lives.
He believed that what we had achieved thus far was mighty but he
asked and I quote,
"Was it good enough? No. Why? Because the Brits are still in our country."
He went on.
"But we have made great advances. Strategically we have kept to our
united Ireland objectives. We are working with the best people we
could ever meet.
People who have shown great courage and discipline and honesty. I
am immensely proud of the young people coming up. I believe we will
achieve our goals.
I hear talk from some quarters about war. I will not lightly commit
successive generations to continuous war.
Armed actions were always about advancing and defending our
struggle. Anyone else using violence for any other aim needs to be
There is only one option. Republicans must go forward with the
strength we have into government, onto new ground, building our
political strength, changing our country.
This is not about changing a flag. It is about a socialist
republic. It's about a continuous inexorable drive - a mobilisation
- towards the republic.
That is our responsibility that is our moral duty.
Unity is our strength. We have a moral responsibility not to do
anything that hurts our struggle.
There will be many challenges. The DUP may not come forward. The
Brits may mess about. But we have to keep going at them. We have to
Brian Keenan's dedication to the republican struggle was unswerving.
Brian loved the IRA.
He was passionate about his republicanism.
He was totally unselfish in his commitment.
He personified all that is sound about our struggle.
He was never a war monger, but he had a justifiable sense of pride
in the IRAs ability to take on and fight the British Army to a
His pride wasn't in glorifying or glamorising war in some elitist sense.
It was pride in the ingenuity and talent and ability of the mostly
working class men and women who rose up against a numerically
stronger, much better armed and imperial military power.
But he saw the IRA as a instrument. His commitment was to the
people and to the Republic. The Army was a means to that end.
He believed in the primacy of politics.
And he understood the need to build Sinn Féin as the vehicle of
His working class politics and his republican and socialist
principles were his constant guide through four decades of
That was his hallmark plus an ability to attract and work together
with other highly competent and talented men and women; to motivate
and inspire and encourage.
When we last met a week before he slipped into death Brian was as
ready as ever to give his assessment and to express his view of
what republicans need to do; whether in terms of building the party
in the south; the Lisbon Treaty campaign, or the DUP stalling on
the transfer of powers on policing and justice.
He was a huge influence on us all. He would also be a little
embarrassed by all of the nice things that have been said about him
over recent days. But he would be very pleased.
Occasionally, particularly in stressful times he would say to some
of us 'I love youse to bits' And so he did. So I am confident
that he would not want us feeling sad or sorry for him or for his
loss to our struggle.
That's why as part of his funeral he organised for the Roddy's to
be open for any of you who want to go there and relax before
heading home. There will be musicians. And drink. Brian wanted a
celebration. He also told me to tell you all that Fra Fox is
standing the first round.
Finally a chiarde, Mairtín Ó Direáin in a tribute to Mairtín Ó
Cadhain had a few focail suited to Brian Keenan.
Le fíoch ba minic a d'fhiúchais.
Truabhail do chleacht
A lion doracht gur scaoil
Mura ndeachaigh namhaid ná cara féin slán
Ó aghaidh do chraois
Maitear a lán do rí an fhocail;
Maithfear duitse mar sin -
You often boiled with fury,
Your traditions dereliction
Swelled your heart to bursting.
If neither friend or enemy escaped
Your abrasive tongue,
Much is forgiven the king of the word:
Much will be forgiven you…..
Brian only looked forward; to the future.
And that's what he would want from us.
To look forward. To the future.
Slán Brian a stór. Slán