is always a touch schmaltzy when, all too frequently,
eulogies of the dead fail to match their subjects
who seem to have lived lives considerably far removed
from those described by the eulogisers. For the
recently deceased Newry writer and republican activist,
Brian Campbell, it worked the opposite way. The
obituaries penned about him seemed far too small
in which to fit the spirit and vitality of the man.
Campbell was born in Coleraine but moved to Newry
with his family while a child. Whether he would
have described himself as someone who grew up in
the then border town, or in the H-Blocks where he
served a lengthy sentence for IRA activity is a
moot point. While much has been said about his gentle
side, he was a hard man but in the best possible
way. For those of us who had the dubious pleasure
of finding him on the opposite team on the long
since abandoned H-Block football parks, we were
pitched against a demon. He played with unbridled
vigour. It mattered little whose legs shielded the
ball, Brian behaved as if limbs were things to be
pushed or crushed in his quest to get the leather.
Nor did it much matter to him if his opponent was
half the size and repaid him in kind. He took it
in the same tough spirit in which he handed it out.
Although he had the physical strength to subdue
the opposition, there was nothing of the bully about
the former editor of Fortnight rang to tell
me that Brian had been buried the day previous,
to say I experienced a sense of shock would be an
understatement. My first words were 'are you sure?'
Vitality like that which gushed through the body
and spirit of Brian Campbell could not simply have
evaporated. So many nights since have seen my sleep
disturbed by dreams of him. Nothing in particular
stands out from them other than a sense of coming
awake and having this awareness that Brian is dead.
Few deaths have that impact.
had no fear of the different idea. University educated
by the time he arrived in prison, he soon put his
knowledge to good use in promoting the jail journal,
the Captive Voice. When he heard that a book of
alternative poetry existed that was not exactly
flattering of the jail leadership he unsuccessfully
sought it out so that he could publish the material.
There was only one occasion that comes to mind when
he suppressed a contribution to the magazine. An
article had been written by one of the few openly
gay republican prisoners. Immediately, a letter
of protest was sent to Brian arguing that no such
article should ever be allowed to see the light
of day in a republican publication. While I thought
the letter should have been carried, even though
I disagreed strongly with its contents, Brian Campbell
refused to publish it on the grounds that the whole
camp knew about the anti-gay sentiment that existed
within its midst. He would not be reinforcing it.
Agree or not with his action, Brian was instinctively
taking up the admirable position of defending the
was he slow to rattle the cage of those who failed
to write in language that the bulk of people could
understand. Having composed a review for the Captive
Voice of Children of The Arbat, I found myself on
the receiving end of Brian's sardonic critique.
His complaint - because the book was about Russians
written by a Russian, I didn't have to review it
in Russian. He carried it all the same.
afternoon in Dublin shortly after I had interviewed
Bernadette McKevitt in the wake of the Real IRA's
slaughter of the innocent in Omagh, I bumped into
Brian outside the office of An Phoblacht/Republican
News, the Sinn Fein paper he now edited. I discussed
the interview with him. At a time when it was popular
for many republicans to pretend that they would
never have approved the type of operation that was
carried out at Omagh, and who thought suppressing
people like the sister of Bobby Sands was a good
idea, Brian was calm and reflective. 'Let them speak
but at the same time where are they going?' was
his attitude. When Laurence McKeown, who worked
closely with Brian on a number of projects, said
after his death, 'he had manners and a great civic
spirit', it was easy to see why.
the time of his death Brian Campbell was a well-established
writer and playwright. I attended a showing of his
first play Des about one of the few great
Irish priests, Des Wilson. Although it was favourably
reviewed, I came away thinking that the Des I knew
was a much more laid back personality than the passion
driven character that Brian had produced. I felt
that he had taken his own passion and put it into
the character he had created. There was so much
energy in the play that at times I was left pondering
if I was watching Brian or Des.
plays that he produced in collaboration with Laurence
McKeown were The Laughter of Our Children
and A Cold House. In addition to plays he
wrote the script for the film H3, again accompanied
edited An Phoblacht/Republican News for three
years. A short history of the paper claimed that
he left in 1999 to pursue his own writing interests.
I never quite could reconcile the creativity of
Brian Campbell with the stodgy conformity of that
particular party paper. Earlier this year he helped
found Daily Ireland. Whatever intellectual
freedom exists in that enterprise will be challenged
with the passing of Brian Campbell.
by his wife Grainne and children Niall and Mairead,
Brian Campbell lived a life much too short, yet
long enough to make a lasting positive mark on those
of us who had the joy of knowing him.
Campbell, writer and republican, born January 4
1960; died October 8 2005.