Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Gerry Adams delivers oration at funeral of Siobhan O'Hanlon

14 April, 2006

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams today delivered the oration at the funeral of Belfast Republican Siobhan O'Hanlon. Mr Adams paid tribute to Siobhan's work over many years and extended condolences to Siobhan's husband, son and extended family.

Oration: April 14th 2006.

I want to begin by extending my sincerest and deepest sympathy to Pat and Cormac, to Siobhan‚s mother Tess, and to the O'Hanlon, Cahill and Sheehan families. I also want to thank all of the nurses and doctors and consultants who were involved in Siobhan‚s treatment over recent years.

This Sunday we celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising.Since that time there has been an almost continuous struggle forthe liberation of our country and freedom of our people.

This struggle has been blessed by having so many brave and courageous people. Siobhan in her time played her role. It‚s little wonder that Irish republicanism is so well known is the history of freedom struggles, not only on these islands but throughout the world.

Siobhan's loss will be felt most by her family. But because she and Pat are republicans the line between family and activism sometimes fades. And I know that Pat knows that many of us who knew Siobhan well are grieving with him.

Particularly that small company, some might say a coven, of Siobhan's women friends who kept faith with her in her long battle against cancer. Even though we knew she was dying we are still trying to absorb the reality that she has died.

Her life was too short.

We could say that she went before she got to do all the things she wanted to do. But, is é sin an saol.

Maybe it isn't the length of our lives - it's what we do with our lives that counts. It's the difference we make to the lives of others that counts. Siobhan packed three or four different lives into one. She made a huge difference in the lives of many, many people. There was her life as a child and a young nationalist from a strong republican family ˆ growing up in north Belfast. There was her life in the IRA. There was her life as a political prisoner. Her life as a Sinn Féin activist. Her life as a mother and a wife.

And for the last four years or so her life in all these dimensions as she fought the cancer.

For the last 17 years or so I am very proud to say that I was part of Siobhan‚s life and she was part of mine. She headed up our office here in West Belfast. When we think back to that time it was a very dangerous and difficult job to work in a Sinn Féin office. State forces in and out of uniform and their surrogates attacked us. All of the offices in this city were hit with bombs, gunfire, and rocket launchers.

Comrades and friends were killed or wounded. And every day we picked ourselves up and worked on. Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the city of Belfast. Many of the older people who lived here since partition, including Siobhan's uncle Joe used to marvel at that. And of course there were hundreds of Siobhan‚s who put together that machine.

She was efficient and she was effective. All of this was done with very little resources. Very little money and on a voluntary basis. Her involvement in west Belfast was pivotal. For example she became a key figure in Féile an Phobail and with others turned the Féile into the largest peoples festival on these islands.

When I was in meetings with John Hume and eventually lines of contact were opened with the Irish and British governments, Siobhan was one of the very small group of people to play a part in that project. She was totally trustworthy. Some have described her as a notetaker. She was more than that. When Martin McGuinness laid the first Sinn Fein delegation into Parliament Buildings to publicly meet British government representatives for the first time in 20 years Siobhan was there.

When we were locked out of the negotiations in June 96 and a small delegation entered Castle Buildings to be told why - Siobhan was there.

When we held our first meeting with Tony Blair in October 97. There was Siobhan.

When we made the first Irish republican visit to Downing Street to meet the British Prime Minister in December 97 Siobhan was there.

And when we spent 8 long months in Castle Buildings negotiating the Good Friday Agreement Siobhan was one of the stalwarts who ran our operation and made it the envy of our political opponents.

It would take too long to tell all of the twists and turns of the process since then but right up until a very short time ago, Siobhan was heavily involved in this work.

She built a huge network of contacts. Over the last few days we have been receiving messages from all over Ireland, from England, the United States, Cuba and South Africa.

She had her own unique way of working. I overheard her once in animated telephone conversation talking about babies and teething and pregnancies and all of that. When I asked her out of curiosity who she was talking to she said that was so and so from Downing Street.

Someone said to me yesterday Siobhan didn't suffer fools gladly. Many of us know that to be true. She was very direct. If she reared up on you, you knew you were reared up on. But it rarely lasted. She was also territorial. She protected me. And managed schedules and itineraries. She also dealt with many individual cases of people who came to us looking for help.

I know that Paula does a huge amount of work and that John and Lorna and others also do great work in our advice centres but I'm minded of the little boy from Ballymurphy who was very seriously ill.

His parents were beside themselves trying to get him treatment.

"Let's send him to Cuba". Siobhan said, and we did. Or families who were bereaved through suicide, victims of child abuse who needed counselling, young people who were self harming.People who feel through the cracks in the health services.

We have a wonderful group of people here in West Belfast, mostly Downes Syndrome adults who perform in a group called 'The Sky's the Limit'.

A few years ago I had no hesitation in asking Siobhan to organise for them to go to New York. They did and they performed off Broadway.

There are numerous other cases, including many from unionist people who contact our office and who know her only as the voice on the telephone who gets things done. And it wasn't just those who feel foul of the system or were disadvantaged. People with grievances against republicans also had their cases championed.

There are children here from Belarus. Siobhan's battle with the British Home Office and the Belarus government to have them stay here with Irish families is the stuff of legend.

She was also responsible for our South African desk. She loved South Africa. In 2001, on the 20th anniversary of the hunger strikes she planned and organised a visit to Robben Island where Mandela and the leaders of the ANC had been imprisoned for decades. It is a world heritage site and no other monuments are supposed to be there.

Siobhan cut through the red tape and Sobhan, Pat and Cormac, Richard McAuley and I travelled to Robben island and I unveiled a memorial to the hunger strikers in the prison yard where Mandela exercised for almost 30 years.

We met President Mandela and presented him with a St Gaul's jersey. Siobhan and I believed that it was from that point that St. Gaul's luck changed. We‚re claiming credit for the club‚s success in recent years.

In October 2002 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And for the next three and a half years she battled it every single day. Siobhan was a very private person but in September of the following year she planned and organised a conference at BIFHE on the Whiterock Road.

October was Breast Cancer awareness month and Siobhan lobbied Action Cancer to bring their mobile screening units into west Belfast. The BIFHE conference was a way of bringing community activists and others together to talk about this issue and raise awareness, as well as draw attention to the mobile screening units.

So focused was Siobhan on this issue that for once she set aside her natural reticence to speak publicly and addressed the audience about her experience.

She told of getting the news that she had cancer and of the approach taken by the hospitals; of having her breast removed, and of discovering that the cancer was aggressive.

It was one of the most moving contributions I have ever hard. I have no shame in saying that I cried at the end of it. It was typical Siobhan. Honest and frank.

I'm afraid even if I wanted to I couldn‚t read all of it to you today. She says when you have cancer there are a number of big days. And she talked of these.

She included the day when she lost her hair. At one point she says, „I was a mess. I had no hair, no eyebrows. No eye lashes, one breast. My nails were all broken. I was tired. I knew I had to get my act together. My hair had stated to grow but it was very slow. It was also terrible grey." She described how there are "three terrible days in relation to your hair". They are, she said: "1. when your hair starts coming out, 2. when you put a wig on for the first time, and 3. when you have to take it off again. That was an awful day. I remember going into the office and this guy was going across the top of the stairs. He said "Ah, Siobhan". "Don't open your mouth" I told him. "I have more hair than you". And I did!"

Pat Sheehan was the best thing to happen to Siobhan. And Cormac was the best thing to happen to both of them.

She said of Cormac. "My son Cormac is 4 ears old and he's a chauvinist. He remains the greatest delight in my life." So all of this and much more was Siobhan. Truth in many ways that women are the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries.

I asked Rita O Hare to get me a piece of poetry or some such thing, which would define Siobhan. Rita said "Siobhan's not really a poetry type of person. She wouldn‚t go for any of that WB stuff."

So yesterday Rita plagued me with all sorts of bits and pieces. None of which were appropriate until eventually late last night she said, "Here's a bit of WB that sums Siobhan up:

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse -

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


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