21 February 2006

Heart of the matter

Mayo News Online

One of Mayo’s forgotten hunger strikers is to be honoured on Sunday in a ceremony removed from party politics

Stephen O’Grady

IN 1992 the National Graves Association took the decision to form a private limited company, registered worldwide, in an attempt to prevent its name being used as ‘a flag of convenience’ by any political group.

It is fitting therefore that next Sunday’s graveside commemoration of the first Mayo man to die on hunger strike should fall under the auspices of this association, which came into being in the wake of the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Even during that period the number one governing rule of its Memorial Committee was that the association would ‘observe a strictly neutral attitude with regard to present day party differences’.

Today, as Fianna Fáil wrestle for the high moral ground in their revitalised endeavours to ‘reclaim’ republicanism, the National Graves Association provides a source of apolitical solace for those seeking to revisit and pay due respects to Republicanism’s heartfelt heritage. And so it will be at Claggan Cemetery, overlooking Clew Bay, this Sunday when Jack McNeela, who died at Arbour Hill Prison in April 1940, is commemorated for the first time in more than half a century.

It was on June 1, 1952 that 5,000 people swarmed into Ballycroy in north Mayo, when an eleven-foot high monument to a Mayo martyr was unveiled at the nearby cemetery. Designed by Peppard of Dublin, and fabricated by Ballyhaunis sculptors, Gilmore, the limestone memorial stone features an inscription, entirely in Gaelic, of Jack McNeela’s name and an account of his death.

“Those that knew him say it symbolises the man: massive and simple,” one observer recalled poignantly in a letter written in the close aftermath of the 1952 commemoration.

Jack McNeela had been operating a radio transmitter at Rathgar in Dublin, and was heavily involved in the publication of War News, a newspaper produced out of Ballsbridge, when he was picked up by the Special Branch of the Garda Síochána. His arrest was part of a Government clampdown on continued IRA activity, which was signalled in the main by the decision of DeValera to PJ Ruttledge from Ballina with Gerry Boland at the Department of Justice in 1939.

By the Spring of 1940, Jack McNeela approached an agonising death, after 55 days on a hunger strike commenced in pursuit of political status.

“Jack, Jack, I’m dying,” a fading voice beckoned to him one night in mid-April, and despite 12 broken ribs and a broken jaw, Jack McNeela crawled to the bedside of fellow hunger striker, Tony Darcy, to ease Darcy’s own passing. Two nights later McNeela died, aged only 25 years.

The tale of Jack McNeela has since been lost somewhat to a forgotten decade, but attitudes towards commemoration are in transition.

Mayo County Council is set to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the H-Block hunger strikes, it emerged last week. The names of the county’s other hunger strike victims, Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg, have been in the news during the past few weeks. It seems the climate is ripe to revisit the case of Jack McNeela.

The author of the aforementioned letter recalled attempts by the authorities to prevent the unveiling of the McNeela monument in 1952, which was also marked with a three-shot volley at the graveside. “They put out the rumour that we were communist but that fizzled out as the people knew us too well. Then they said there was going to be serious trouble. The guards were going to stop the firing party and arms would be used, people would be hurt. All this to frighten the people away, and thereby keep hidden the fact that Jack McNeela died under DeValera.

“All the politicians took a back seat that day. We had no time for them. They just fell in with the general public.”

And so it will be come Sunday afternoon next when Mayo republicans who assemble at Ballycroy Post Office at 1pm, ahead of the commemoration. First, on Saturday afternoon, at 2pm, the National Graves Association will host a special ceremony at the Republican plot at Leigue Cemetery, Ballina, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Frank Stagg, and also to mark the addition of the name of Jack McNeela to the roll of honour there.

The strict neutral stance of the National Graves Association will be maintained resolutely at Claggan Cemetery on Sunday, its rules decreeing that ‘no speech shall be made at any meeting introducing differences among nationalists’, and that ‘graves of deceased patriots should be cared for’.

Its stated objectives are to restore, where necessary, and maintain fittingly the graves and memorials of our patriot dead of every generation; to commemorate those who died in the cause of Irish Freedom; to compile a record of such graves and memorials.

And so Jack McNeela’s name will join that compilation of memorials to the Fenian Maid of Erin, the Stowell brothers, the Amnesty Nolan, the Tallaght Martyrs et al.

And politics will look on.

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