The last time I saw Martin Meehan he was at the funeral of John Kelly. We greeted each other in a bar where we had stopped prior to the journey back to Belfast. The Ardoyne man was in the company of other Sinn Fein members one of whom I had known from jail and with whom I exchanged phone numbers.
On learning that the old warhorse had gone off to graze in Valhalla I experienced one of those quiet sombre moments of reflection. He seemed to have been around forever and most of us took for granted that he always would be. He was there at the rise of the Provisional IRA and present at its decline, the alpha and omega of Provisional armed struggle.
He came on our H4 wing during the blanket protest. The author Tim Pat Coogan at one point visited him in his cell by way of research he was conducting for a book on the H-Blocks. The screws held him in a sort of awe. It was ‘Martin this … Martin that.’ Within a fortnight he had organised a wing choir that performed weekly at the Sunday mass. The more irreverent amongst us ungraciously termed it ‘Martin’s Muppets.’
He didn’t stay on the blanket for long, donning the prison uniform and engaging in a lengthy hunger strike in a failed bid to prove his innocence of the charges for which he was serving time. Many of us resented his leaving the protest. He was a leader and in our view should have been amongst his men. We didn’t stop to consider then that given his pressing family problems effective exile to the protest blocks was not an option he could afford to consider. The freedom from responsibility that accompanied our youth made it easy to be judgemental. We came to forgive him his transgressions, as he on many future occasions forgave us ours.
Martin Meehan had a deep compassionate side to his character. He never forgot comrades nor ignored them even when it was the done thing to do. Shortly after the death of Joe O’Connor, a time when the Provisional leadership was proving extremely hostile to myself and my partner, Martin stopped his car in the centre of town, held up traffic and shook hands with us. If he had any identification with our political perspective he did not reveal it, merely telling us to keep the spirit up. It was a humane gesture so in keeping with the character.
On another occasion I was leaving the Royal Victoria Hospital at its Grosvenor Road exit having just visited two former leaders of the IRA in Belfast who were in separate wards. On the way in on foot was Martin. Immaculately kitted out – he looked as if he just left some important business to attend what for him was something of equal if not greater import - he asked if I knew what wards both men were on. It was neither the first nor the last time that he made the journey to see old comrades in hospital.
Martin Meehan operated at the personal level. Some may dismiss what he did as gesture politics such as televised meetings with erstwhile British soldiers or engaging in public arm wrestling contests with former loyalist prisoners. But this would be ungenerous to a man who, whatever his penchant for grand politics, never lost his interest in ordinary people. The broad sweeps of the peace process meant little to ‘Mick’ if they denied him the freedom to lock horns or arms with those individuals who aroused his natural curiosity.
Although he and I took opposite sides in a dispute in Rathenraw in Antrim, it did little to lessen the personal warmth between us. When I got the chance to discuss the matter with him face to face in Castle Street he was irate over his critics in Rathenraw but advised me to proceed cautiously, making his point forcefully that one of his leading antagonists was an informer. Events in recent days would suggest that he is hardly alone in that opinion.
There are so many stories about ‘Mick’ that it would be impossible to even begin recounting them. In prison he was a solid soul always at the heart of mixing and winding. More often than not it was turned around on him but that was part of the game and he revelled in it. His little celebration dance, solely for the purpose of annoying the other team, when he scored a goal on the football park still causes a smile to cross my face. While he acted the fool for the purposes of entertaining others Martin Meehan was not a stupid man. His knowledge of world events and the thought he put into his plays staged in H-Block canteens highlighted a dimension of his character often nudged into the wings by his more emotional side.
He was tough and his reputation for being so preceded him. In 1983 shortly after the big escape from the H-Blocks, he was locked behind a grill in the canteen when some screws thought they would pick on an older prisoner, Liam Ferguson from Fermanagh. The grills rattled, to a lion-like roar. The screws were warned not to lay a hand on ‘Fergy.’ It worked. When he came back from the boards three days later Liam told us that not a hair on his head had been ruffled.
Martin Meehan’s republican odyssey was not a journey from rags to riches. The only huge republican profile from the 1970s still languishing in the jails in the 1990s, republicanism to him was a struggle not a career. An activist who embraced the concept on the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, former docker and life long trade unionist, I could never understand why he persisted with the politics of the peace process. Afterall it had swapped Pearse for Paisley and marched incessantly to the right. Like many others imbued with the military ethic I suspect he possessed as Hunter S Thompson once phrased it, ‘a blind faith in some higher and wiser “authority” …’
With the passing of both John Kelly and Martin Meehan I paused to consider that here were two men who had been present at the birth of the Provisional IRA yet who died believing completely different things about the organisation. Yet there is no Manichean divide that permits us who knew them to view one man as better than the other.
Despite his best efforts the Ardoyne IRA leader was not to see the united Ireland that he once thought could be achieved by literally driving the British into the sea. In that sense he is no different from every other volunteer who fought in the IRA. And none can dispute it, Martin Meehan fought.
Read more of Anthony McIntyre at his new blog.
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